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Authors: Robert Grossbach

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BOOK: Going in Style
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Al lowered his paper and watched Willie dispense a chunk of bread to two scrawny birds. “How come you’re always feedin’ them,
Willie?”

Willie shrugged. “They remind me a little of me. They’re always here in the damn park. They toddle around without goin’ anywhere.
An’ they’re always hungry.”

Al lifted his heavy eyebrows. “You know they say that they’re supposed to bring disease.”

“What disease? Cancer?”

“No, no, I don’t know. I heard it somewhere.”

“They never brought me no disease,” said Willie.

Al nodded. “Look, don’t get me wrong. I ain’t one of those guys who got it in for pigeons. I—”

“You sound like it.”

“No, no, I like the little buggers. It’s nice havin’ a little nature around here.” Al paused. “I just heard they cause disease.”

Willie broke off several chunks of bread in quick succession and scattered them around.

Al turned to Joe and elbowed him gently in the side. Joe nodded to indicate he understood: Al was not serious; Al was only
teasing Willie to try to get a rise. It was an old story. Suddenly a fat three-year-old boy came running toward them, waving
his pudgy arms and screaming. He thundered directly into the flock of pigeons that Willie had collected, and sent them flapping
away violently in all directions. The men covered their faces as the cloud of crazed birds rose in the air, leaving a gradually
settling residue of dust, dung, and feathers. The fat kid stood in front of the bench. It was as if he’d
jumped into a pool and all the water had splashed over the sides. He had a round, florid face and close-cropped hair. There
was not a single aspect of his appearance that could be considered cute or endearing. He stared relentlessly at the three
old men.

“What the hell’s the matter with this kid?” said Joe.

The boy kept up his steady gaze. It was apparent, from the way his thick lips pinched together, that he found the men repellent.
Al tried smiling gently, but the boy failed to respond. Food stains covered his fleshy face, and spilled onto his neck and
shirt. The colors were red, yellow, and brown.

“If he eats any more jelly doughnuts,” said Joe, “they’re gonna have to take him to kindergarten in a moving van.”

The boy continued to watch them curiously.

“They’ll call him ‘Tiny’ when he grows up,” said Al. “Hey Tiny, what’s your name?”

The boy raised a buttery forearm and slapped at the air.

“Look at that mug,” said Joe. “He’s got one of them heads they make pisspots out of.”

The boy’s eyes narrowed.

“Do you believe the nerve this kid got?” Joe asked. He stood up. “Get the hell outta here!” he roared angrily.

With surprising fat man’s speed, the boy scuttled hastily away. Joe shook his head and sat down. “Bugger!”

Al smiled. “Maybe he’s going to get his father.”

“From the looks of the kid, he’d need a building permit just to enter the park,” said Joe.

“A little hard on the boy, weren’t you?” said Willie.

“I don’t enjoy bein’ stared at like I’m some kind of exhibit,” said Joe. “He wants to stare, let him go to a freak show or
museum. There’s such a thing as manners, you know.”

Willie shrugged, and began again to distribute bread. The pigeons were returning.

“Too much excitement for one day,” said Al, going back to his newspaper.

“I’m tellin’ you,” said Joe. He watched his two friends drift off into their own worlds. After a while he felt the muscles
tighten in his jaw and a tension begin to build over his eyebrows. Why, exactly, was he feeling so angry? he wondered. And
why so sad? Was it just an old man’s summer melancholy, a wistful longing for more of life? Joe turned his face into the sun.
He tried closing his eyes, thought maybe he’d doze off, but ten minutes passed and he was still awake. He stood up.

“I’m sick of this shit,” he announced.

“What shit?” said Al, head still in the paper.

Joe swept his arm in front of him. “This. All of it.”

Al looked up. “Beats getting hit in the head with a dull axe.”

“Yeah?” said Joe. “I wonder about that.” He looked over at Willie, who’d run out of bread. The pigeons, whose loyalty was
minimal, had drifted away.

“Let’s go home,” said Joe.

“What time is it?” asked Willie.

“Time to go home,” said Joe. “Checks are probably in by now.”

They walked the four blocks back to their house, climbed the stoop, and entered the small
lobby. The remains of a broken lounge chair were heaped in one corner. Great hunks of ceramic tiles were missing from the
floor. A torn, sun-browned curtain lay lankly against the glass portion of the door. Halfway up the right-hand wall was a
row of rusting mailboxes. Joe fumbled with a tiny key, then inserted it in one of the locks. The metal panel squealed open,
and he reached inside. Out came five envelopes. Joe kept three, handed one to Willie, another to Al.

“They’re here,” said Willie.

“What’s your other two?” asked Al.

Joe opened the largest of his three envelopes. It contained a brochure advertising sexually oriented products. He thumbed
through the pages while the others watched. Magazines with internal views of genitalia; sixteen-millimeter films featuring
two women, women and beasts, two beasts; condoms with hundreds of spines, ridges, and tracks “to increase your partner’s pleasure”;
plug-in vibrators, battery-operated vibrators, vibrators that glowed in the dark, that had built-in FM radios; creams that
got you hard, lotions that kept you hard, herbs that increased your staying power; devices for the kinky—electric wet suits,
ben-wa balls, matching chain-whip-high-heel sets, stainless steel dildos; and finally, the books—
How to Make Slaves of Beautiful Women, Getting Girls Through Hypnosis, Thirty Things You Can Say That Will Drive a Woman Wild.

“I like the last one,” said Al. “Let’s order it.”

“I never said nothin’ that drove a woman wild,” said Willie.

“Who
wants
to drive a woman wild?” said Joe. “I jus’ want ‘em to lay down, that’s all.” He replaced
the brochure in the mailbox. “Nice of ‘em to send us this stuff, though. I guess they figured we’d be good customers.”

The other men chuckled. “What’s the last envelope?” asked Al.

Joe held it up. “Electric bill.”

They headed for the bank. On the street, Joe ripped open the envelope. “You wanna see
real
pornography?” he said. “Here’s real pornography.”

Al glanced over his shoulder. “Jesus Christ.”

“Forty-nine dollars!” said Joe. “For what? Who’s using all the lights?”

“Don’t look at me,” said Willie.

The sun beat down steadily on the concrete. “Al?” said Joe.

“What?”

“Don’t ‘what’ me. You know.”

“I know what?”

“Every time you get up to take a leak at night, you forget to shut off the light in the bathroom.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You heard me,” said Joe. “I know. I’m up all hours.”

“If you’re up all hours,” said Al, “you should know I don’t even turn the light
on.”

“No wonder the seat’s all wet in the morning,” said Willie.

“Yeah?” coutered Al. “Well, at least I don’t forget to flush.”

Willie stopped. “Wait a minute. What are you trying to say here?”

“I’m not
trying
anything. I said it. You don’t flush.”

“That’s ridiculous,” said Willie. “I never forget that.”

“You do.”

“Don’t.” Willie hesitated. “Prove it.”

Al guffawed. “You want evidence? You want me to save a sample and give it to the police crime lab?” He was rolling now. “Maybe
you think it’s like a bullet, that they can match it up to your particular rear end.”

“All right,” said Joe, coming between the two. “I’m sorry I brought it up already.”

“He insulted me,” pouted Willie.

“He had it coming,” said Al.

“Let’s forget about it, okay?” said Joe, and he resumed walking. “Nothing to start fighting about,” he added. “It’s only a
couple of dollars.”

“Couple here, couple there,” said Willie. “Before long, you’re broke.”

At the bank they waited patiently on a long line. The air conditioning provided a relief from the outside heat. Joe’s attention
was caught by an armored truck that pulled up to the curb. As he watched, the rear of the truck opened, and two guards climbed
out. A third guard began handing down canvas bags. An officer from the bank wheeled over a dolly, which was quickly filled
to capacity. The officer and one guard pushed the dolly over to a special entrance adjacent to the front door and disappeared
inside. A moment later, Joe saw them emerge behind the counter.

The line had moved up. Willie was already cashing his check. Joe nudged Al. “Get a load of all that dough.”

“Yeah.”

A male teller removed stack after stack of bills from one of the bags and placed the money in a large metal tray near his
cage.

“I sure could put a dent in some of that,” mused Al.

“You’re telling me,” said Joe.

“Next!” came a voice from behind the counter. Willie was standing off to one side. “Sir?” repeated the teller.

Al wrenched his gaze from the money.

“Sir, you’re next.”

Al’s eyes remained glazed. “Al, wake up!” said Willie.

Al moved forward toward the counter, but Joe was still staring at the money.

For dinner they divided two-thirds of a chicken, and added some boiled potatoes. Dessert was Jell-O. The food was unsalted,
in deference to Willie’s high blood pressure. Afterward, Willie sat at the table reading someone’s discarded
Post,
while Joe stared into his coffee and Al washed the dishes, singing loudly. First he sang “Sweet Adeline,” and then, even
louder, “That Old Gang of Mine.”

Willie turned a page. “I see where Con Edison is asking for another increase,” he said. “I think I’ll learn to live in the
dark.”

There was a sharp knock at the door.

“Police,” said Joe. “You know you ain’t allowed to criticize the electric company.”

Al stopped singing. “I’m all wet,” he said, his hands immersed in soapsuds. “Can somebody get that?”

Willie folded his paper, shuffled to the door,
and undid the two locks. Before him stood Mrs. Flaum, the landlady. She was fifty-six years old, had her hair up in papered
curlers, wore a raggedy smock, and stockings rolled down to the knees. There was a huge, hair-sprouting mole adjacent to her
left nostril.

“Why, as I live and breathe,” called Al from the sink. “ ‘Tis a vision of pure loveliness I see. I believe I died and went
straight to heaven.”

Willie stood sheepishly smiling, embarrassed by Al’s mock praise.

“I… hello,” he said awkwardly.

“What the hell do you think this is?” said Mrs. Flaum.

“I’m sorry, I—”

“You runnin’ a cabaret up here?”

“No, no, uh—”

“I’m trying to live a life downstairs.”

Al nodded and smiled. “I’m very sorry, Mrs. Flaum,” he said. “I didn’t realize how loud I was. Sometimes I get carried away.”
He bobbed his head. “It won’t happen again.”

“It
better
not happen again,” said Mrs. Flaum. She peered over Willlie’s shoulder into the kitchen. Something caught her attention,
and she brushed past him into the apartment. It was not the first such visitation.

“Can we help you, Mrs. Flaum?” said Al sweetly.

The landlady ran her fingers over the stove top and came away with a thin coating of grease. “What is this?” she rasped. “Look
at this.”

“Just a little oil, Mrs. Flaum,” said Al.

“Disgusting,” she said. “This is really disgusting.”

“We were just cooking on it,” said Al. “We’ll—”

“Don’t you men ever clean up in here?” The landlady bent sightly to sniff her fingers and grimaced at the odor.

“Stove’s been giving us fits,” said Al. “Pilot light keeps goin’ out.”

Mrs. Flaum scowled. “By looking at this, you’d think a bunch of slobs live here.” She stared at them. “Well?”

“We’ll clean it right up,” said Al. From the corner of his eye he noticed Joe sitting at the table, watching intently, his
face rigid.

“You’d better,” said Mrs. Flaum. The hairs on her mole stood straight out. “If you don’t scour it all the time it gets so
that you can never remove the filth. What do you think, I’m gonna buy a new stove for each new tenant?”

“Of course not, Mrs. Flaum,” said Al.

“What do I tell the people after you?”

“Tell them there were three slobs used to live in the apartment,” said Al, “but aren’t there no more.”

“You
won’t
be there,” said the landlady. “You read your lease. I got clauses coverin’ things like this. The law is on my side.”

“Of course it is,” said Al. “We’ll clean it right up.”

“That’s right, you will.”

“We will.”

Mrs. Flaum started for the door, which Willie hastened to hold open. She spun around. “And no more of that singing!”

“No more singing,” said Al.

Mrs. Flaum stepped halfway out the door. “Okay, then.”

“Good night, Mrs. Flaum,” said Willie.

The landlady placed her hands on her hips and glared. “What are you trying, to rush me off my own property?”

BOOK: Going in Style
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