When my friend Sam calls and asks about my trip to Martha’s Vineyard, I say, “I leave tomorrow.”
“I’m off to Providence tomorrow,” he says. “Come with me, would love the company. I’ll drop you at the ferry.”
“But I already have my bus ticket.”
“Maybe they’ll refund it. Be here no later than eleven.”
At eleven the next morning, I am sitting on a chair in Sam’s dining room amid cardboard boxes and stacks of business papers strewn on the table. At least I think it’s the dining room. Because the trail of boxes and papers continue into the living room, it is hard to assign any purpose to any room other than storage. Silver platters, pitchers, ewers, spoons and teapots sit in corners, on shelves, under tables and chairs.
“Are you moving?” I ask. Sam purchased this apartment in Philadelphia ten years ago. Suddenly, I recall my husband telling me he had been in many apartments Sam owned in New York; they all looked as though he had just moved in or was just moving out. Sam still has his New York apartment and the house he purchased in Providence last year, plenty of storage space.
Sam, who has written books on early American silver and is a professor in the Decorative Arts Department of a prestigious university, takes out a long stemmed piece of colonial flatware from a newly opened Fed Ex box. “I can make a few hundred bucks a day buying and selling on eBay,” he says. “By the way, we have to stop off for a quick lunch with friends of mine at one o’clock.”
By noon, we have made our fourth trip up and down on the elevator carrying boxes, shopping bags, and duffle bags, which we stuff into Sam’s Toyota. Thank God for the elevator, as he lives on the eleventh floor.
“I have to run to the post office,” he says, and dashes out the door. I am beginning to wonder about the bus I could have taken.
When he returns, he says, “I have to empty the dishwasher.” Then, “Oh, I forgot my diabetes shot.” He sits down at the cluttered table, pushes the papers out of his way, pulls up the front of his shirt, pulls out the syringe, and injects himself, never skipping a syllable. He has not stopped talking since I arrived, as if someone was filming us and he’s the voiceover. For all I know, he’s shooting up some drug that makes him totally manic. I look away.
“Can I tell you a story? Wait, I have to drink something.” He guzzles from a container of orange juice. “When I first bought this place, I went to the co-op board and asked to see the books. You’d have thought I’d asked them to pay my mortgage. The seventy-year-old president’s white hair stood on end as if she’d stuck her finger in a socket. The treasurer screamed in my face and called me a troublemaker. I didn’t give up until I saw those books. Transparency is one of the first rules of a co-op as you know, Liz.”
Sam and my husband, Neil, renovated a tenement on the Lower East Side in the eighties when the neighborhood was a den of drug addicts and abandoned buildings. I always looked forward to meetings with Sam because he always spoke both intelligently and sparingly about the business of renovation. He had renovated a few other buildings prior to this one. I always respected his pragmatic approach to any and all difficulties that arose. His know-how saved us many headaches and also saved us huge sums of money.
“Recently, after many years away from the sacraments,” Sam continued, “I went to confession to a black priest who is considered a seer by some of his parishioners.”
While he reviewed the Commandments with me, he asked, “Do you covet your neighbors’ goods?”
“No,” I said, “I share both my goods and my talents.” I told him about the shrew of a woman in the co-op who was trying to destroy my reputation.
“He said, “You won’t have to worry about her for long.”
She died three months later.
“Isn’t that scary, Liz?” Sam probably talked the poor old woman to death. “Okay,” Sam says, stretching up to his six foot four inches. “I think we’re ready.”
It’s one o’clock. “Oh, one last thing,” he says as he grabs a folder filled with checks and legal forms, which fall all over the floor. Sam and I crawl on the floor, picking up the scattered documents.
On the tiny elevator where a mousey-haired woman is waiting, I skulk in the corner carrying more packages as Sam holds the door open with his long leg and chats with a neighbor in the hall. She asks for what he owes her. Monies exchange hands, half of which she drops. One leg in the door, the other out, Sam bends over to help her pick up the money. I smile at the waiting woman.
“I know you,” Sam says to her as he places both legs on the elevator. “You’re Gene’s sister; he is so nice. And if Gene is nice, you knooow what that means? You’re nice, too. This is Liz; she’s a famous writer.” The woman stares at him.
“One last thing,” Sam says when we get to the garage, “I have to take this jacket to the cleaners.” On the back of the jacket are three Looney Tunes characters: Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, and Elmer Fudd. “I bought it at a flea market. Gotta be worth five hundred bucks on eBay,” he says. At the cleaners, Sam uses his two words of Vietnamese to ingratiate the clerk to get the twenty percent discount.
“No discount,” she says. “Fifty dollar. Leather, have to send out.”
“Sam,” I say, “You should wear that jacket all the time.”
Since it is long after one, I’m wondering how far away this luncheon is. When we arrive somewhere in suburban Pennsylvania close to two, “You are late,” his friend says in a thick Russian accent.
Sam responds with his two words of Russian, “Rostrovia, Comrade.” According to Sam, his Russian friend is going through a bitter divorce. His new girl has prepared a scrumptious lunch including shrimp salad, fresh mozzarella, and a fine merlot. Sam introduces me, “Liz is a famous writer.”
Sam continues to talk nonstop. I am ecstatic these two people are here to absorb some of the shock. The Russian shows Sam an exquisite Japanese miniature. “The finest detail I’ve ever seen,” he says. Then he shows Sam a filigreed silver spoon once owned by the King of Belgium. Then he places a two-foot high embossed, bronze trophy with wings jutting from its sides on the table. With his two words of German, Sam figures out from the inscription that it is a trophy given to an Austrian pilot in 1933.
“At least 35,” Sam says. “At least 35,000.” I am astonished.
“Where did you find it?” I ask. Nobody answers me. At any moment I expect 007 to kick in the door.
“Get a second estimate; it may be more.” Monies change hands as we hug the delightful Russians goodbye. I ask them if they’d like to come with us. All three stare at me.
I left my home in Delaware at 8 a.m. Now it is 4 p.m. and I still have a six-hour trip ahead of me. Had I taken the bus, I’d already be in Martha’s Vineyard. I could have roller-skated faster.
Revved up even more by lunch and Merlot, Sam continues talking. I am so tired I say nothing. “You’re so quiet, Liz.” I wish I were the kind of person who could drop off to sleep easily. Of course I could pretend. Now he is bragging about his three siblings. “We have thirteen college degrees among us; they are all multi-millionaires. Can I tell you a story, Liz?” Sure, why not, what the hell, feel free. I feel as though I’m trapped in a closet with Woody Allen pouring his New York angst all over me.
“My mother got my genius brother admitted to the Regents scholarship exam even though his principal said he wasn’t eligible because his grades were not up to snuff. She called the Board of Regents. Imagine that in the late 50s. They said anyone could take the test. She went to the principal, listened to his spiel, then accused him of lying. My mother never took no for an answer. When she wanted something, she’d scream until she got it. After she got what she wanted, she’d be’perfectly calm. ‘Sometimes people won’t help you because they’re lazy,’ she’d say, ‘so you have to make them hop to it.’ My father was very quiet,” Sam adds. Gee, what a surprise.
“Thank God somebody was,” I say. I suddenly realize I should be grateful that Sam is not a screamer. I wondered if screaming might get me what I needed right now but I hadn’t the energy even to whimper.
“Because I was fragile from chest reconstruction surgery,” he continues, “My mother didn’t let me out much in those Syracuse winters. Probably why I got diabetes at 19, lack of Vitamin D.” I wanted to say I never knew you were diabetic until today but I knew he’d conjure up the history of diabetes in the known world. “May I tell you a story?” he asks. We are only two hours into the trip. No traffic delays so far, thank Jehovah and Allah. “When I called Neil to borrow the money to cover the foreclosure on the house in Providence, do you know he said yes immediately? No questions asked; he even got a bank check to speed up the process for me.”
“He trusts and respects you, Sam.” At least he did until I tell him about this trip.
“Before I asked your husband, I asked my nephew, an international lawyer. He said he had no cash and his sister, a Johns Hopkins surgeon, also refused. I provided for them in my will but I am changing it as soon as I close this deal.”
Twilight is descending. We are someplace in New Jersey. “How’d you like to hear some tapes Bernardo made for me?” Bernardo, Sam’s partner, hails from Mexico and is an airline pilot. I’m thinking he became one after he met Sam to save his sanity. Who could live with Sam on a full time basis? He slips in the CD. Uber romantic guitar music accompanying four-part singing fills the air of the Toyota as I rest my head on the headrest. “Isn’t it lovely and tranquil?” Sam asks. John Phillip Sousa would be lovely and tranquil right now as long as it drowned out Sam’s nonstop chatter.
Unfortunately, he begins translating the words, “My love is the bird of youth, the life in my soul. My love is the sun, the moon, the stars.”
“I know Spanish,” I say. “But even if I didn’t, I don’t have to understand the words to enjoy the music, Sam.”
“Your face is a sunflower, your eyes are like marigolds.” Blah, blah, blah.
Then he begins to sing, “Mi amor volvera.” Finally at 8 p.m. we arrive in Providence. “Watch for the ferry signs,” he says. I can’t wait to get there. We pull in to the ferry station, which has a huge closed sign hanging on its door. Oh my God, the ferry stopped running at the end of September, which means I am still two hours away from the ferry that is still running. I realize now I am being punished for every unkind word I ever vollied at my pain in the ass kid brother. “No problemo,” Sam says. “You can stay over at the house.”
Sam tells me he purchased this house after his friend hanged himself. I dare not ask where or why he hanged himself lest we be up ‘til midnight. Besides, if he was Sam’s close friend, I fully understand why he hanged himself. Sam bought it for $159,000 a year ago. Now he hopes to sell it for $259.
We pull up to a huge Victorian with a wrap around porch on a dark, deserted street. We unload Sam’s Toyota. I drag my suitcase up narrow steps to a huge bedroom with a bed and a lamp on a plastic Parson’s table. In the dining room, there is a mahogany table and one chair. All the furniture has been auctioned. Obviously, because it is on the market, Sam has controlled his need to fill every nook and cranny with clutter.
“I’ll sleep downstairs on the blow up,” Sam says. “Let’s go for Chinese.” This trip has been a truly international experience. I don’t need food; I need quiet, but no way in hell am I staying in this Bates mansion alone. “First I have to take my insulin,” he says. Once again, Sam pulls up the front of his shirt and shoots up. I look away and wish I hadn’t answered that fucking phone yesterday.
At the restaurant, Sam greets the waitresses, the cooks, and the tattooed patrons, “Nihao, ling ling.” We sit under a neon light at a small wooden table with a wobbly leg. “Did you get a job yet?” he asks the sleek-haired waitress. “She’s an architect,” he says. “Liz is a famous writer.” Over lo mein and garlic eggplant with plain white sauce, he says between mouthfuls, “When I return the money to Neil, I am bringing it directly to him to place it in his hand. I’ll stay over.”
Please no, I think. “That’s a long trip,” I say.
“No, no, I am so grateful to him.” I’m already planning on not being home when Sam arrives.
At 8 a.m., Sam is yelling up the stairs, “Are you coming to the flea market? Bring your luggage. I’ll drop you at the ferry.”
“Sam, I’m sure there’s a bus to the ferry, I don’t want to be a bother,” I yell back. I pray to the sweet Lord there’s a bus to the ferry, to anywhere. For an hour and a half, Sam cruises through the flea market, skimming over silver or other articles of possible value, talking to everyone as though they are family. He reminds me of Elwood P. Dowd, the beneficent drunk in Harvey, whose mother always said, “If you can’t be smart, be nice.”
“I’ve tried smart; nice works better,” Elwood advised.
As we approach the bus station to which a dealer directed us, Sam repeats that if there is no bus, he’d drive me to the ferry. Even though I still have two hours on a bus and another hour on the ferry, then another hour on another bus, I would sooner ride in a rickshaw even if I had to pull it myself rather than spend two more hours with Sam who is just trying to be nice, God damn it.
If I ever get to Martha’s Vineyard, I am supposed to meet friends there; I’m thinking of not contacting them and spending two weeks in total isolation. At the waiting area where I am reveling in the quiet, a young woman sitting on the bench next to me picks up my hat from the ground and says, “Hi, I think we’re taking the same bus.” I grab the hat from her hand without making eye contact and don’t even say thank you.
About the Author
Liz Dolan’s poetry manuscript, A Secret of Long Life, nominated for The Robert McGovern Publication Prize (Ashville University) and The Pushcart Prize, has been published by Cave Moon Press. Her first poetry collection, They Abide, was published by March Street Press. An eight-time Pushcart nominee and winner of Best of the Web, she was a finalist for Best of the Net 2014. She won The Nassau Review Writer Award for creative non-fiction in 2011 and the same prize for fiction in 2015. She has received fellowships from the Delaware Division of the Arts, The Atlantic Center for the Arts and Martha’s Vineyard. Liz serves on the poetry board of Philadelphia Stories. She is most grateful for her ten grandchildren who pepper her life and who live on the next block.