by S.A. Traina
The first time nothing. But this time lights and visions and places and faces. Times gone by, maybe times to come. He couldn't even tell that two whole days had passed. It might as well have been two minutes. Which means he'll have to hedge his bets.
Ninety-three years spent so despicably that the indignity of this nursing home and the disintegration of his carcass are the least of what he deserves, and he knows it, and for the first time in his miserable misbegotten life he is afraid, absolutely batshit terrified that the end of it might not actually be the end of it.
So if there should be a judgment day after all, what's he got to stack up against the stack of shame he's been building since he was a boy? What was he, maybe eight or nine when he first went wrong, stealing money from unsuspecting suckers?
His family lived in a hole of an apartment during the Great Depression, where they had to boil water just to take a bath, so asking his father for a nickel wasn't even something that could cross his mind, which was why a light bulb triggered in his head the second he saw a guy almost get hit by a car one day, with the driver bolting out of his Ford and almost falling all over himself to make sure the man was okay, still shaking as he got back into his vehicle.
Little Frederick thought about his new plan all that day, and the next morning he left earlier than usual to walk to school, to which his mother didn't pay much mind, having risen hours earlier to start doing laundry, clothes that would get soaked in the sink, scrubbed on the washboard, wrung out by hand, and then hung with wooden clothespins on the line right outside the kitchen window, just one of the backbreaking chores in addition to the sweatshop seamstress job she held that had combined to make her look much older than her thirty-one years.
He made sure he was a few blocks away from home and looked all around to make certain no one was in sight, and then he crouched down low behind the mailbox, and waited until he saw a car approach just as the light turned red, and then as soon as it turned green, he leapt out and onto the street, directly in front of the car that had only just begun to accelerate and did his best to pretend that he'd been hit, slamming first against the hood with his hands and then bouncing off and fake falling backwards onto the ground, accidentally banging his head a bit on the cobblestones, which only added to the driver's terror, but after slowly getting up and convincing the man he was all right, the poor sap's nerves got settled, and then Freddie unsettled them again, suggesting that maybe he should find a police officer to let him know what had happened, and that's when the money changed hands, as the man slipped a dollar into the boy's grubby fingers, telling him to buy himself some candy and a soda pop, and that 'We don't need to trouble the police, now do we, kid? They got bad guys to catch, isn't that right?' and Fred smiled a conspiratorial smile and told him 'You're right, mister, you're right.' And so now he'd found an easy way to make an easy living, and having once bit the apple, he never looked back.
His parents had been cautious in every possible way because what choice did they have, and their example helped make Fred the most cautious of crooks, never working at one angle for too long, never bringing in a partner, and never showing off the money he stole, and all this caution ensured that he'd never had to do an honest day's work in his very long life.
He left school and the tenement and his mother and father behind a few profitable years later, as he gathered a bit of the cash he'd squirreled away in hiding spots throughout the neighborhood, understanding the need for diversification better than a broker with a memory better than an elephant, and he rented himself a basement apartment in a cushy section of Flatbush, but hit a road bump a few years later when World War Two came calling for him.
Of course he'd joined the lottery for selective service because he'd had no other choice, but he never really expected the knock on the door announcing that his number had been drawn.
As cool as could be, Fred assured the men that of course he'd show up for the physical they'd scheduled for him the very next morning, and he did, but not before picking up a pint of pig's blood at the butcher and bringing it home, mixing some of it with fresh coffee grounds, pouring it into an emptied pill bottle, and then sucking up the mixture and throwing out the bottle just before he entered the medical building, swirling the stuff around with his tongue and trying to get used to having it in his mouth, then grabbing his stomach in pain as the doctor examined him, and delaying as long as he could to make it look real, but finally coughing up the bloody mess and looking as surprised as hell when he saw it as the doctor was.
"Do you have a history of bleeding ulcer, young man?" the startled physician had asked as he called out to his nurse, and Fred told him, 'Flare-ups now and again, Doctor, but Doc Summers just tells me to watch what I eat and not get myself agitated... I guess maybe I'm a little agitated?' And he'd made sure to give the stern-looking physician an embarrassed smile, and instead of investigating further, the otherwise skeptical man 4-F'ed him right out of the home of the brave and back into the land of the free.
That special brand of cowardice was something he'd like to have patented at the time, though he never told a soul, but now as he lay on what was certainly his deathbed, he could feel the stinging rebuke of his own bedsores as they struggled to detach themselves from their most contemptible host.
The war would only last another two years, but what years they were for Frederick Foster III as he crafted a Scottish accent and persona, furiously studied the history and literature of Edinburgh, assembled a wardrobe fit for an aristocrat, moved out of his basement in Flatbush and into a brownstone a block away from Central Park, where he quickly worked his way into the very highest circles telling the most outlandish tales, explaining to any who asked that his family had been wiped out by the Germans early in the war and that his new guardian had seen fit to send him to the States, and so here he was.
He'd not simply grown addicted to acting out parts and fabricating stories and getting people to trust him; rather, he'd done it first out of necessity over and over again until finally this was who he was, and therefore he couldn't put a stop to the act because there was no act. Behind the curtain was just another curtain. And so his show went on.
He was attractive enough and tall enough to get noticed, but between the accent and the mannerisms and later on the singing lessons and the boxing lessons, his presence was such that even the haughtiest of the high society women would get a little woozy, but then he drove some a little batty when he deliberately ignored the lovely to cultivate the ordinary, knowing full well that if he could capture the heart of a truly wealthy plain Jane, there was no limit to what she might do for him.
It was certainly a longer-term scheme than what he was used to, and it set him up if not for life at least for years, though he broke the girl's heart and had to leave not only the city but the state, because the father had both the resources and the fury to hunt him down and have him jailed and maybe killed if he'd stuck around. Certainly contriving to sleep with the sister had gone beyond the bounds of decency into audacity.
A few months into his courtship of the very plain Lady Eddings, whose name actually was Jane, sister Laura cornered him at a soiree and carefully questioned his intentions with her younger sibling, though both were mostly unaware that he'd already prevailed in converting their father's anglophile opportunism to cash, a specialty British antiquities venture Frederick had Eddings first convince himself was his own idea and second to ask the impressive young man to head up the imported contents of said venture he'd proceeded to authenticate as requested and then methodically exchange for vastly less expensive duplicates, thus his only intentions now were to hit the road before he was found out, but not before exploiting the older sister's natural jealousy, and with the help of a fair amount of champagne and a bit of dancing and whispered serenading, he told her the address of the apartment he still maintained and she met him there to continue their illicit tango, and after ringing her bell over and over again before tending to his own needs, he was infinitely delighted when he succeeded in bringing her to her dainty knees and having her rock back and forth with both hands clutching his ass chanting 'I own this cock! I own this cock! I own this cock!' as she suckled and sang and suckled and sang, and he couldn't help chuckling and thinking to himself even at that delectable moment that, Indeed, Miss Eddings, you own it free and clear, for your father has paid for it, and it's as if he's right here.
"So how are you doing today, Frederick?" the doctor asked, shaking him out of his reverie and bringing him back sixty years to the future as she gently removed his glasses and looked into his eyes.
"Wershing ah'd tehken betterrr kehr uhf mah teet," he mumbled, his zero trips to a dentist in nearly a century having long ago caught up to him. Still, it was the least of his distractions.
He'd lost four toes to diabetes, had periodic bouts of kidney stones, his lungs were so black from a lifetime of smoking they didn't even bother taking X-rays of them anymore, and just getting out of bed had become such an arduous affair he rarely bothered.
But at heart he really was a stoic, and took what came in stride. Besides, he was fast approaching the tunnel at the end of the light. Except of course now he couldn't be sure.
"Ah need a fayfer," he asked her, trying hard to get the words out. "Of course, Fred. What can I do for you?"
He reached out his arm and managed to open the top drawer next to his bed without toppling onto the floor, shooing away the physician as she tried to help, and took out a crisp fifty-dollar bill from an envelope labelled Stamps and handed it to her.
"Haff sthumwun buy mme ah cahppy uf Fffowsth buhy Gerrrduh, pleheez. Ehnd tell dem to keep duh ress uf duh muhnee. Ah inssissth," he added as she tucked the bill into her breast pocket.
"Faust by Goethe, is that right?" she repeated, just to make sure.
He nodded, rolling over to indicate that both the chat and the day's examination had been concluded.
He'd never read a book for pleasure or illumination; anything he read was to help prepare and execute a con or a hustle or a scam. Create a fake, a phony, or a fraud. To mislead, misdirect, or misappropriate.
The absurdly crazy thing was that while his material and moral crimes were legion, his genuine vices had been few. An extravagant meal every so often, a high-priced hooker now and then. Unlike most thieves, he'd had little interest in the money other than to survive, and the low-key lifestyle he came to adopt didn't require anything near the money he brought in.
No, it became clear to him early on that what he loved and what he lived for was the game itself. He'd grown addicted to making people do exactly what he wanted when he wanted how he wanted. For the money, sure, so that unlike his poor wretched parents, he'd never have to break his back to make his living and live in squalor doing it, but making puppets of the people with money, well, for him that was his greatest good, or as his dad used to say, his summum bonum.
Yes, his former Latin professor father who somehow managed to get out of Germany with his wife when his paper Marks turned into papier mâché, his pauperism emigrating from the vertiginous hyperinflation of the Weimer Republic only to wind up immigrating to the cavernous depression of the U.S. republic with little lost in translation and nothing to show for all his efforts.
To his credit, though, he refused to accept a dime of his runaway son's filthy lucre when it was offered, and though Frederick could hear his mother pleading with her husband to speak with her child when he'd finally called them long after running away, the phone was slammed down with finality and he never bothered to call them again.
Their loss, he'd always thought. Just one of many. And, besides, he consoled himself as he fought against a stray tear, they're long dead and buried, and if we are destined to meet up once more, I'll explain myself then.
Which was where Faust came in. As things stood, how on earth could he make a proper accounting of himself if indeed there was a reckoning? He'd never pretended to have been on the right path, had never sought to justify his actions or rationalize anything he'd ever done.
His mother and father were virtuous to a fault, yet it had been his father that had given him carte blanche to become a moral blank slate, when early one morning he'd roused Fred from sleep and brought him over to the open window to look at a fallen hatchling quivering on the grating, just big enough not to slip through, its neck twisted at an impossible angle, the helplessness and the agony in its tiny eyes clear as day, and his father had ever so gently picked up the creature and told his son to cup his hands and then passed it to him, telling the boy to snap the bird's neck and put it out of its misery, and when he'd hesitated was reminded that every moment he wasted was another moment that it would suffer, and so he did it, suddenly unable to blink as his eyes locked on to those of this barely living thing and his fingers felt the bones break and the stopping of its tiny beating heart, and then the father took the motionless tuft of feathers back from his boy and they went downstairs to bury it.
The so-called lesson came later as the elder Foster explained to the shaken boy that as it was with the creature so it was with us, and that there was no need to fear death because when it arrived so would oblivion, and that all this life of ours amounted to was a flash of light bracketed by oblivion, so there was nothing to fear, and that he needed to remember that as he made his way from this miracle of light undeserved into the certitude of darkness unreserved, and that was just the way he'd said it, this professorial father unknowingly terrorizing and then inoculating his young child against any possible fear of death or any possible trace of moral qualm, and while it was a most unintended lesson, it was the one most taken to heart of any he'd ever given.
Until, that is, Frederick approached his own ignominious demise and began to have doubts, so now he decided it was time to read the magnum opus of the writer his father most reviled. A ferocious atheist and free thinker, his dad had said if ever there was a book worth burning after every last religious tract had been torched, Goethe's text would be first in line, and so it seemed sensible as his own flame was flaming out that working his way through Faust would be easier than working his way through every last scripture.
He waited till Book Cart Lady knocked on his door, for she was the one who would have the most time to spare as well as the one with the sweetest voice, and before she got there he shambled his way to the closet to sneak out a hundred-dollar bill from the inside lining of one of his jackets and then shuffled his way back into bed, and even though the young Venezuelan volunteer kept saying No No No to accepting money just for reading to him, he kept insisting Yes Yes Yes because he needed her to read for at least an hour or two at a time, and besides, "Wwhahy sshuhd duh shitty get awll mah muhnee?" And however she may have really felt about it, she reluctantly but reliably pocketed the crisp and clean Benjamins each time he cheerfully handed one over.
The tale of the fabled Faustian bargain unfolded predictably and disappointingly as nothing he was hearing truly surprised him, having been just as frustrated as Faust when the delights conferred by Mephistopheles failed to have their desired effect on the man searching for eternal wisdom and his moment of bliss.
He nodded in assent as Fabiana's susurrant narration continued: "Perfect in external senses, inwardly his darkness dense is; and he knows not how to measure true possession of his treasure. Luck and ill become caprices; still he starves in all increases; be it happiness or sorrow, he postpones it till the morrow; to the future only cleaveth, nothing, therefore, he achieveth."
Certainly none of his swindles, none of his conquests, none of his successes had brought Fred bliss. Satisfaction? Absolutely. Freedom from actual labor? Decidedly. A sense of control? Undeniably. But not bliss. And in light of the punishment that might be waiting, definitely not peace of mind.
Still, he felt angry when the Devil got cheated out of Faust's soul, but said nothing as Fabiana drew closer to the book's conclusion: "The noble spirit is now free, and saved from evil scheming; whosoever aspires ceaselessly is not beyond redeeming. And if he feels the grace of Love that from on high is given, the Blessed Hosts, that wait above, shall welcome him to Heaven."
Frederick quietly seethed as he listened to the final lines, disillusioned that even this book's morality was flawed, that even heaven had resorted to loopholes to snatch a prize Lucifer had worked very hard to secure, and oddly enough, though perhaps not so oddly, this gave the dying man a little comfort, and so he took Fabiana's tiny hand and drew it close, tucked two more Benjamins into it, and used his other hand to remove his bedsheet and reveal something not so tiny, and when the nurse found him dead the next day with his open mouth formed into an expression that was hard to read, only the Book Cart Lady knew that the expression was nothing short of bedded bliss.
Copyright 2016. All rights reserved.
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