Perry found the lost cell phone in the gutter outside his West Village loft on a stormy night. Its anxious chime drifted through the drenching rain. He hobbled over on his one good stiletto heel, and stared at the ringing phone, caught in an uncharacteristic moment of indecision. If it were a lost wallet Perry would not have hesitated. A wallet might hold cash, or at least a driver's license, and one or more credit cards that he could scam. But, what would he do with a lost cell phone? The price of calls had dropped so much that it wasn't even sport to run-up air-time. And he had his own cell phone.
Perry glanced through the rain to see if the owner was nearby. If he couldn't use it he might as well get Good Samaritan credit for returning it. On two previous occasions he'd exploited the gratitude of strangers.
West Street was deserted in both directions. His upstairs neighbor's tabby cowered in the rain outside the vestibule. There was no one except for the driver of the yellow taxi, who waited impatiently for Perry to return with his twelve dollar fare.
Perry picked it up on its fourth ring. Its high-pitched tempo triggered his urge to silence it.
There was a long pause on the other end of the line. Perry heard a melancholy Edit Piaf song in the background. Was it Mon legionnaire? Someone snored.
"Hello," Perry repeated.
"Don't hang up on me this time," an older woman said in a whisper, her voice close to the phone.
"Who is this?" Perry asked. He surprised himself with the question. He was treating the cell phone as his own, asking the caller to identify herself as if he, Perry, had some claim on who could, or could not, call the number.
"You know who it is. It's me. What's that noise? You sound like you're in a hurricane. I can hardly hear you....No, Pierre, go back to sleep.
"Listen to me. Did you get the messages that I left. Sorry about Juilliard. I know how much it meant. If it's any consolation, Papa was able to arrange for you to go to business school at Harvard. Isn't that good news!"
"So you'll go?"
It intrigued Perry that he had the power to disappoint this woman. He contemplated that possibility for a moment. But it would prolong the conversation, which was pointless to begin with, and he was getting soaked.
"Of course I'll go."
Perry hung up. Perry started to drop the cell phone onto the street, but stopped himself. He stuffed it in his purse.
Perry opened the dead bolt of his second floor, walk-up loft, and let himself in.
"That you?" his girlfriend Meg called sleepily from the back bedroom.
"Come and cuddle."
Perry cautiously inched to the edge of his living room window, taking no chance that his dark shape would be seen from the street.
The taxi driver was still parked outside. Most drivers left after fifteen minutes when they realized Perry wasn't coming back. Most were rational that way. They understood that it was a lost cause. They knew that the trips they didn't take while waiting for a deadbeat cost them more in lost fares than the twelve bucks they might recover.
"What are you doing?" Meg asked. She stood behind Perry and looked over his shoulder. She wore a pink thong but no bra.
"He'll leave," she said. "Let's sit on the sofa. I'm feeling good towards you."
Perry took a Corona from his refrigerator and threw himself next to Meg on the sofa. She put her head in his lap, even though his dress was wet. He cupped her breast in his left hand. Being with Meg was almost as good as being by himself.
He chugged the beer with deep swallows. With his free hand he slipped off his reptile stilettos, and carelessly tossed them at the waste basket across the room. One was ruined. He'd paid two-hundred-eighty dollars for the pair. It offended him that the loss of one ruined both.
Perry removed his blonde wig and laid it on the coffee table. God, what a mess, he thought. He didn't dare look in the mirror. He was sure this his mascara had run, and his eyelashes detached. He wanted to make a joke about it, but he didn't feel funny, and a joke didn't come to mind.
He took another long draught, saw there was beer left, and killed it. It calmed him, and he put his head back and let Meg caress him. He liked her soft touch, always had, and her body too. It was petit, almost thin, except for the lovely fullness of her breasts, like a nursing mother's. He liked to watch men watch her in the safe theater of topless dance.
His eyes drifted to the Hoboken skyline, which traced a level line from one living room window to the next. Murky, swamp-green clouds obscured the brightly-lit office towers across the river. Sheeting rain misted off the plate glass and swirled in the gusting wind. The hypnotic drama kept Perry's attention. Perry was tired of Manhattan but he would miss this melancholy view.
Something had gone out of the City; its newness, its ability to surprise.
The high cost of everything also bothered him. He had not found a way to earn enough money to pay his living expenses. Twice he had sold blood to pay the rent.
He had a good run breaking into the apartments of elderly women whose obituaries appeared in the Times. That had worked until one expensive diamond brooch attracted the wrong attention from that jeweler on Forty-Seventh Street, what was his name? Abramoff?
Hustling tricks at the Lincoln Tunnel from guys driving home to New Jersey was good money. Their wallets were an easy snatch after he unbuckled their belts, locked eyes, and slid their pants to their ankles. They heaved over like felled trees when they tried to run after Perry. It was good sport, and not too dangerous. That night had been different. He hadn't seen the off-duty cop's ankle holster, and the bullet that whizzed past his head had scared the shit out of him.
Perry pulled the cell phone from his purse.
"What's that?" Meg asked.
"Found it on the street. I lost mine once. I got it back by calling the number. I paid the person who answered twenty bucks to return it. Whoever owns it will call soon enough."
Perry had already made up his mind to ask for a fifty dollar reward. Why not? Better to start high and get negotiated down. It was worth something.
Perry flipped it open and clicked through the directory of stored numbers. He stopped on one, and stared. That was odd, he thought. It was his number. And his name.
"You sure this isn't yours?" he asked.
"I own a Nokia."
He looked at Meg suspiciously. "Did you bring a customer up?"
"Don't be stupid." She leaned closer to the small screen. "What are you doing?"
"Listening to the phone messages."
"It's not your phone."
Perry skipped over the first message. It was from the same woman, telling him the same thing. The second was also from her.
"It's me again. Don't be depressed. We only want you to be happy, Philippe."
Perry looked at Meg, and said abruptly. "I'll be right back."
At the top of the stairs Perry found the wet tabby cat by Apartment 3N's closed door. Its green eyes greeted Perry and it meowed to be let in.
Perry knocked softly once. When there was no answer he rapped hard twice.
"Philippe. It's your downstairs neighbor. Are you there? I have your phone."
Perry felt the hungry cat brush up against his bare leg.
Perry was surprised to find that the door knob turned when he tried it, so he pushed the door open. The tabby darted in. The room was dark, and it had a stale odor of snuffed cigarettes.
Perry listened for a sound but heard none; no television dialogue, radio music, not even the peaceful sound of a sleeping man. He heard only the driving rain. A tremor passed through him; it was an eerie feeling that he didn't like.
Perry turned and listened in the stairwell. Down at the landing, at the building's front door, he heard the taxi driver yelling. Perry skipped lightly in his bare-feet past his neighbor's Steinway baby grand, and peered out the third floor window.
Yes, it was the taxi driver. He had retreated from the front door, and he paced in the middle of West Street. The man trembled with a crazy, dangerous fury. His rained-soaked face wrinkled in rage. He punched a clenched fist at the second floor, and unleashed obscenities in staccato bursts.
Perry had never seen this extreme reaction to a lost twelve dollar fare. He debated if there was anything he should do, and concluded, with a bit of hesitation, that there was nothing to do but wait for the schizo driver to exhaust his temper and leave. It pleased Perry to see this immigrant so worked up.
* * *
Perry walked cautiously into the rear bedroom of Apartment 3N. A hint of sulfur hit his nose.
Flickering candle light lit the room. A feathered boa was draped over a painted antique vanity; an ash tray overflowed with Gauloise butts; shams covered the canopied bed; bottles of cologne were sensibly arranged in front of the art nouveau mirror. Perry saw himself in the reflection and was startled that he still wore his falsies.
An open photo album lay on the bed. Perry stepped forward, drawn to it. It spoke to him, perhaps because it was so out of place. Open. On the bed. It waited for someone to find it.
Perry held up the candle, and looked at the large color photo. He didn't know what to think. His first impression was that it was the oddest, strangest, most troubling thing that he'd ever seen. The picture was of him. It was a fish-eye blow-up of Perry applying make-up. From the angle he could tell that it was taken from above through a hole in the ceiling.
He flipped to the next page where there was another photo, from a different angle. Perry tried to imagine where it had been taken. Where was the camera? He flipped another page, and another, and another. The photos were of him undressed, asleep, eating, having sex. He stared. He couldn't think of anything to say as he looked at the unrelenting progression of images. The whole project was one numbing obsession, one sustained act of voyeurism. Perry was repelled by the notion that his life had been systematically observed. It frightened him to think that he'd been watched so intrusively, over such a long period of time. He felt unclean, violated. His skin began to itch.
Again, Perry felt the tabby rub against his bare leg, and when he tried to pet it, the wet cat darted to the bathroom. Bright light streamed through the slice of door cracked open.
Perry found Philippe in the bathtub. His lanky, naked body fit into the narrow porcelain basin like a packed fish. Water rose to his chin. His knees were bent, his small hands lay peacefully by his side, and his drawn face was chalky white. His eyes were open. They stared straight ahead. Glassy.
Perry crouched down and looked for a sign of life. He was afraid to touch him, afraid to feel for a pulse. No breath came from his set jaw. Lividity had set in. Perry thought him a weird performance piece who he could poke if he wanted to.
The instruments of overdose were carefully arranged on a nearby bathroom stool: needle, rubber strap, matches, a metal cooking dish.
Perry looked up to find Meg standing in the doorway, her head cocked in judgment.
"I guess he's dead...He looks like you, don't you think?"
"Why do you say that?"
"His jaw juts out like yours. He's got more hair on his chest than you have."
Perry thought her comment odd, which troubled him. He thought he knew everything there was to know about Meg. They had no secrets.
"He loved you," she said. "Did you know that? Come here. Let me show you."
Perry followed Meg back to the bedroom, and watched Meg lift a diary that she'd found. Perry followed her lips as she read Philippe's words. She read with feeling as if she wished she had written the adoring expressions of unrequited love. She read as if she wanted the smart words to be her own, the clever phrasing to be something that she invented to describe Perry. Perry wiped a tear away from Meg's cheek.
"How could he love you that much? He didn't know you. Did he?"
"I'm glad he's dead."
Meg slipped Perry's straps off his shoulders and let the sequin dress drop in a heap on the Persian rug.
"Let's make love."
Perry undid his bra, releasing the front-heavy cups, and tossed the padded contraption onto the bed. Meg followed with her thong. Her nibbles were hard. When Perry positioned himself to do it doggy style Meg turned around and indicated that they should do it in the missionary position. She wanted to look in his eyes when he came.
* * *
Perry was awakened by a loud, distant banging. At first it reminded him of rolling thunder. He thought the storm had worsened. Then he realized that it was too close for thunder. He sat up. He and Meg had fallen asleep naked in each others arms in Philippe's bed. He looked at his watch. They had been asleep a few minutes.
"It's him," Meg said. She rubbed her eyes and yawned. "I saw him take a bat from the trunk."
Perry was irritated that she knew something that he didn't.
Meg defended herself. "I came looking for you. I saw him from the window."
Perry pondered the image of the madman taxi driver wielding a bat. "I know what I'm going to do," he said.
Perry tried to lift Philippe out of the bathtub, but the arms were limp, and the body hardly moved. It lay there, resisting Perry's strength, as if it were magnetized to the porcelain. Perry drained the water so its weight wouldn't work against him. By pulling the bent knees, Perry was able to get Philippe's hips and chest to the tub's rim, and then he carefully let the body down onto a terry cloth bath towel that he'd spread to receive the body. He didn't want any blood on the floor. He rolled Philippe into the towel and hefted the dead weight onto his shoulder. It was heavier than he expected, and he groaned.
Perry kept a tight grip on the rolled body as he cautiously held onto the stairway's hand rail. He gently kicked open his apartment door, and when he got to the middle of the room, he hesitated. Did he want him on the sofa, where he might be more comfortable? Was the floor better? He tried for the sofa, but the angle was wrong, and when he felt the body shifting awkwardly, he dropped Philippe onto the floor.
"He's going to break in," Meg said. Her head was cocked toward the sound in the stairwell.
"Don't worry. I'm almost done." Perry flicked the wall switch, sending the lamp's yellow glow into the night.
Perry returned from his bedroom with a complete ensemble, and his aluminum Louisville slugger. He lifted Philippe's legs one at a time to accept his strapless sequin dress, and then worked it up to the waist. He folded Philippe upright, forgetting about his flopping head, and managed to strap on a padded bra. His feet were smaller than Perry's so the leather heels slipped on easily. He pulled a coiffed blonde wig snugly over Philippe's short hair. With skill that came from practice, he applied lipstick, eye shadow, and mascara.
Perry stood back from his make-up job, and evaluated his work. It wasn't beautiful, but it was good enough, and yes, they did look alike. It would do. Perry thought unkind thoughts about this young man who had loved him. He lifted the aluminum bat. He was sorry Philippe wouldn't feel anything.
Meg, who stood behind Perry, winced visibly when she saw him land the first blow. The bat came down on Philippe's nose, and shattered it. It knocked out his two front teeth. The next hit cracked open the skull. With several more blows the face was bloody, unrecognizable, a mass of torn flesh and shattered bone.
* * *
The two policemen who took Perry's statement were veterans of the force, and they didn't express surprise or disgust when they walked in on the gruesome scene. Perry, who had put on tan shirt and bell bottom jeans that he found in Philippe's dresser, gave a vague description of the driver.
Perry said that he didn't know his downstairs neighbor well; he couldn't imagine what he could have done to offend the driver that would bring on such an act of rage.
He told the police that the dead man was Perry Ward. He'd moved in six months before. They'd talked two or three times, small talk, chit chat, but he knew that he had a father in Woodbourne Correctional Facility in Ellenville. His mother was dead. No other relatives. He did drugs.
"Did you get the license?" the fatter cop asked.
"No," Perry lied. It was enough that the driver fled in fear after entering the apartment. The schizo driver tumbled down the stairs in his rush out. Perry got a kick out of that.
"How can we reach you?" the cop asked.
"I live upstairs. You can always get me on my cell phone." Perry helpfully wrote down Philippe's number.
* * *
The next morning Perry woke late and had a large farmer's breakfast of eggs, ham, bacon, toast and coffee at the Greek diner on Seventh Avenue. Meg had left early for her part-time topless dancer job. Perry should have felt good about himself, but he didn't. He thought that the big breakfast might brighten his mood, but it didn't. As he thought about what bothered him, he decided that he was troubled by the fact that there was something left undone, an opportunity not taken. He was pleased by how clever he had been with the police. He was also happy to have the upstairs apartment. It was better furnished. But it wasn't good enough.
When he dialed the overseas number on the cell phone he stood by the jukebox. He paid a quarter for Mon Legionnaire. The phone on the other end rang three times before a voice answered.
It was her.
"Who is this?"
"It's me Philippe."
"I can hardly hear you. It sounds like you're in a bar."
"I'm going to business school. I've decided that it's the best thing. Anyway, my fingers are too short for the piano. I'll never be good enough."
Perry said that with a straight face.
"Business school....yes, we're so pleased."
"Speak up. I can't hear you."
"Are you happy?"
"Oh, yes. It's wonderful. I'm so happy. I gave your father the news."
"I'll need some money. I'll send details in an email. Fifty thousand should do."
He thought of asking for less, but this was the time to push. She was happy and that would encourage their generosity. The amount would test their capacity.
"Graduate school is expensive, isn't it?"
"Horribly," he said. "Do you have my new email? I've ditched the old one. Do you have a pen?"
Perry felt good about the conversation when it was done. There were more details to work out, but he was confident about his game. He ordered another cup of coffee. He couldn't wait to tell Meg they would be moving to Boston with the cat.
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