To say that time stopped for Howard at that moment would be an understatement. His knees turned to jelly, he felt nauseas and things started spinning. Finally, he regained his composure.
He sputtered, “Steph… Stephanie.”
Stephanie smiled—her warm, you’re the only one in the world smile.
But Stephanie wasn’t all that cool either. After all, it had been so many years…
She said in a small voice, “It’s been a lot of years Howard, hasn’t it?”
Ok. You should already be able to figure out how the rest of that first conversation went; You look great!
No, no kids (that’s from Stephanie).
Two girls (you know who).
And while it wasn’t exactly Tony and Maria at the dance, the world around them did fade away a little, and they were left looking through the tunnel of time, watching the past together when they were young and happy and everything was possible.
When they did finally come to their senses, they decided to get a cup of coffee and shoot the shit about old times. (Actually, no one said “shoot the shit,” but I thought it might take some pressure off the drama of the last scene).
At the Coffee Shop
In the twenty- five plus years that Howard had owned Joe’s Book Mart, he’d never taken a seat in Sammy’s on the Run ‘restaurant.’ Early on, Howard used to run in shouting “A bagel and a shmear1” or “BLT on Toast!” The latter would always elicit a sarcastic, “Howie, tell me, have you converted?” from Joe, the owner.
Now they both waited for the server to bring them to a table or booth.
“Table or booth?” asked the very young attendant.
“Booth,” they both said at once, then looked at each other and laughed.
Joe made a double take when they walked past him. He leaned over to the cook and murmured, “Thirty years and he’s never once sat down. Never once.”
After the ice water came, the menus distributed, the coffee asked for and poured, Stephanie began to talk.
“I know you have questions, Howard.”
“Me, nah. Why? Just because you disappeared from the face of the earth the day we were supposed to get married?”
“Yes, about that…”
She moved to touch his hand, then thought better of it. She looked directly at him.
God, he thought, she’s beautiful, she looks the same.”
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think about it.”
“Somehow that’s hard to believe.”
Another awkward silence.
“But it’s true.” She continued,
“What you didn’t know was that my father had just been arrested for wire Fraud.”
“Wire fraud? I thought your father was a surgeon. What would he have to do with wire fraud?”
He took a sip of his coffee, which was too hot and burned his lip.
“Shit!” He touched his lip, “I’m not even sure I know what that is?”
“My father was a surgeon. My father was also a gambler. In fact, I think that was the avocation he was most passionate about.
“Same old story, he got in over his head. Over all of our heads actually—all our family’s assets, including the house, had loans on them. He needed money, and since he couldn’t get a loan from a bank; well, you fill in the blank.”
“You mean, the mob?
“Call it anything you want.”
“How much of a loan was it?”
“It was more than that. The money was the least of it.”
Howard’s eyebrows went up.
“My father’s practice was a business, in fact there were seven surgeons in the
practice. Their billing over a million. A perfect laundromat for the bad guys.”
By the time the waitress, came to take their order
“What’ll it be sweetheart?”
Howard had been struck speechless.
Stephanie made the save, “Two eggs, over easy, toast and home fries. He’ll take the same thing.”
For the next 45 minutes, Stephanie described her family’s trauma.
“My mother was hysterical. A week later she was in the hospital having a heart episode.” She put up her hands.
“No, it wasn’t a heart attack, just a panic attack. Then my brother quit college.
“I didn’t even know you had a brother.”
“Another embarrassment, I guess I should have told you. He was going to be your brother-in-law after all.
Howard cringed at this. He’d always thought the non-wedding had been some sort of cruel joke.
“He had enlisted in the Marine Corps and changed his last name. We didn’t see him for more than four years. He finally came back home in a body bag.”
“I’m so sorry. The rumor was that you were pregnant. But I didn’t, wouldn’t, believe that.
Stephanie looked shocked, “Another man’s baby?”
Howard smiled, “Well it wasn’t mine; I knew that for sure…”
Stephanie touched Howard’s face, “Poor Howard. I’m so sorry.”
“Then you disappeared.”
“I went to live with a cousin in San Francisco—and this is really the first time I’ve been in New York, since the sixties.”
“Why are you here? Do you have business here?”
“Yes,” this time she took his hand, “You.”
Meanwhile, in our Jersey Suburb
It was 11am and Holly wasn’t dressed. She’d showered, dried her hair, opened her walk-in closet, then just as quickly shut the door. Instead, she picked up her Japanese kimono like robe from the bed. For some reason she was irked at Howard for staying in Brooklyn the night before. It wasn’t Brooklyn that got under her skin, but what was in Brooklyn.
“That fucking Co-ed whore,” she said out loud. She couldn’t believe that Howard thought he was getting with away with this—but she wasn’t going to blow it up in his face.
I’m not that much of a schmock, she thought. It was far too valuable leverage to use casually. She’d wait until… the divorce?
Not until the girls are out of college.
Her bare feet made imprints in the thick green carpet out of the bedroom and down the stairs. Howard hated the color, she remembered. It made her smile.
She opened the door of the refrigerator. She wasn’t hungry, although as she started to close the door, she spotted the bottle of champaign that had been so expensive that when they hadn’t finished it, Howard made Holly re-cork it.
“It’ll be vinegar by Wednesday,” she protested.
“Good,” Howard said, “Then we can throw it out.”
She pulled the bottle out, popped the cork and smelled the bottle.
Not bad, she though.
A half hour later Holly had finished the bottle and acquired a subtle glow.
She was dancing to her favorite Bee Gees album when the front doorbell rang.
She opened the door part way. A young Spanish man stood on the steps holding a wrapped-up bouquet.
“Flowers for Mrs. Bloom.”
Holly then pulled the door wide open. From the man’s gaze, she realized how little she was wearing. She felt a rush that finished as a blush. She liked the feeling.
“Thank you,” she said, then asked, “Can you come in for a second while I get my wallet.”
“Oh no, ma’am , it’s paid for, “I do need your signature though.”
“Sure,” she said, “but I’m giving you a tip whether you like it or not.”
A short, shocking play in ½ an ACT.
INT: An upper middle class colonial house in an upper middle class New Jersey neighborhood. The bedroom is in disarray. A night table light is turned on its side, the duvet cover is on the floor. A half empty wine bottle is lying on the bed. Between the bed the night table and the floor two people are engaged in intercourse. Holly, an attractive woman in her mid-fifties is on top of a young man in his early twenties. He has jet black hair and brown skin.
Miquel: Oh, mama, you’re amazing, but you’re killing me!
Holly: One more time, my beautiful Mexican! One more time!
Miguel: I can’t. Three times is too much! Also, I’m from Venezuela!!!
Holly is on top of Miguel pumping up and down, screaming with pleasure.
Holly: Listen you! (She keeps going) I’m lucky if my husband can keep it up for more than a minute!
sound effect of Holly having an orgasm.
Holly was having the time of her life, even if Miguel was slightly bummed at her screaming “Fuck him! Fuck Him,” while she was thrashing on top of him (not to mention the Mexican thing). But when the telephone kept ringing and ringing, he’d had enough.
“Please, Mrs. Bloom, could you answer the fucking phone?”
Holly came out of her trancelike state and looked down at Miguel as if she’d never set eyes on him.
“The phone. It’s been ringing on and off for the last ten minutes.”
Holly came back to reality, pulled herself off the poor man, and picked up the phone. She didn’t speak but held it to her ear.
“Mrs. Bloom?” the voice asked.
“This is Captain Joseph Delaney, I’m with the security force at the Short Hills Mall.”
Meanwhile, Miguel was getting dressed as fast as he possibly could.
“Are your daughters Nina and Naomi Bloom?”
“Yes, what’s this about?”
“I’m afraid they’ve been shoplifting at Bloomingdales.”
“About $500 of merchandise.”
Holly was clearly flummoxed.
“What kind of merchandise?”
“A pair of Louis Vuitton boots.”
At least they have good taste, thought Holly.
“Ok. What do I do? Where do I go?”
By now Miguel had dressed and was moving backwards toward the door. He slipped out and ran down the stairs.
“We’re located in the mall security office. Third floor. Would you like to speak to your daughters?”
“Absolutely not! I’ll be there in 30 minutes. Have they been arrested? Do I need to pay for the shoes?”
“No, on both counts, since they’re underage and they didn’t wear the shoes, we’ll give them a ticket ($200 penalty) and they won’t be able to shop in the store for 90 days.”
One hour later, Holly walked into the drab security office on the third floor of a space far from the majesty of brand name stores. The walls painted a “police station blue,” the paint was chipped, and the chairs were dented. On the last two dented chairs sat two red faced (from crying) scared teenagers. Upon Holly opening the door, they both bolted upright and ran over to their mom.
“Mom! We’re sooo sorry,” said Naomi.
Nina pitched in, “We’ll never do it again, we prom…” She suddenly looked down at the two large Bloomingdale bags Holly was carrying, “why do you have those shopping bags? ”
The girls looked at Holly.
“Did you… go shopping?” stuttered Naomi.
Holly shrugged. “No. Just some returns, I figured since I was here…”
“Jesus mom,” complained Nina, “couldn’t you, like, get us first?”
Holly starred at them both.
“Are you kidding me? I was in the middle of important business when I get this phone call from this man who informs me that my two daughters have just been arrested for shoplifting! My own daughters. Is this how I raised you??? Don’t I buy you whatever you want?”
Nina pressed on, “No. Last year you wouldn’t let be buy that beautiful swimsuit for our vacation in St Luke’s.”
“Swimsuit? It was a THONG. I don’t even think it had a top.”
The conversation was interrupted by Captain Delaney. He extended his hand to Holly.
“Mrs. Bloom. Sorry to meet under these circumstances.” He gave the evil eye to the two kids.
“Me too, Captain…”
“Delaney, Joe Delaney.”
“Well, I’m sure you’ve heard they’ve never done this before, more times than you can count,” said Holly, then looked over at her progeny.
“And I’m not even sure now if I could make that statement at this moment.”
“But I can guarantee that they will never do it again.”
Delaney smiled for the first time. He was perfectly cast in the role of handsome authority. Thick black hair with traces of grey. About 6’1”, solid body. Holly noticed.
What the hell is wrong with me? Am I turning into a nympho?
Delaney motioned to his desk.
“If you can just sign the affidavit, you can take custody of your kids.”
That’s a funny word, she thought.
The two girls slinked back to their chairs while Holly sat opposite Delaney.
“Just sign on the bottom of the two pages and you’ll be off.”
As she was signing, she sighed, “This is very embarrassing. It’s not the way we raised them.”
“I wouldn’t be too hard on them. You’d be surprised how many kids that age try to take something without paying. It’s almost a rite of passage.”
“Something?” Holly’s eyebrows went up, “Is a $500 pair of Louis Vuitton shoes the usual booty?”
Delaney smiled, “You’d be surprised, Mrs. Bloom.”
“Call me Holly.”
“You’d be surprised, Holly. This is the Short Hills Mall after all.”
She handed Delaney the papers back.
“Can we go now?”
Holly offered her hand. They shook. She couldn’t help notice his firm, dry
handshake. Howard’s handshake was always feeble and slightly moist.
When the three finally got in the car, Holly looked at them in the rearview and said very quietly, “Unbelievable, unfucking believable!”
The two cried in unison, “Do you have to tell Daddy?”
“Are you kidding? He’d send you both off to boarding school immediately! And I’m not dishing out a hundred grand a year because you can’t keep your hands to
Yourselves! But this is not the end of it. I’ll be thinking long and hard about your punishment.”
And so, poor Nina and Naomi, cried softly in each other’s arms in the backseat of tas the Blooms slipped out of the exit of the mall at Short Hills, with Holly murmuring, “unfucking believable.”
Meanwhile back at Joe’s
Manny Rodriguez waited for Howard to leave the shop before he walked to the very back of the stockroom, and lit up a half smoked joint. He held it in his hand and blew on the burning ash.
“Jesús, he trabajado para ese judío durante 14 años y ¿qué obtengo por ello? Nada!”
One lightbulb had been the source of illumination in the stockroom for as long as he could remember. He looked up at the dim light.
His marijuana cigarette was burning unevenly, so Manny flicked at the tip with his finger. The ember flew up in the air then landed on the floor exactly where an old, cracked from age, Hustler Magazine lay next to the power-cord.
The sound came first, a firecracker snap, then the small flame.
Manny stood up.
He grabbed at the fire extinguisher on the wall, pointed it at the small fire.
At a loss for a quick remedy, Manny opened his fly and started to pee on the tiny flame, which then seemed to act like gasoline. The flame followed the yellow stream and in less than two seconds seared his penis. Suddenly, the whole stockroom seemed to catch of fire. The smoke was unbearable. Manny ran out of the stockroom screaming “Fire!” Betsy, the cashier, another veteran of years in the store, starting crying, “Should I call 911?”
“Fuck yeah,” said Manny.
At just about the same moment, Howard and Stephanie were holding hands inside a horse drawn carriage in Central Park. They were snuggled inside a wool blanket.
Stephanie smiled and snuggled a little closer.
She looks so young, almost like she’s hasn’t aged, Howard thought again.
“You know, you hardly look a day older.”
Stephanie kissed his cheek.
“That’s not true, but if that’s how you see me Howard, I couldn’t be happier.”
By the time the carriage ride came to a conclusion, both Howard and Stephanie had also come to a decision; they both agreed the stillborn wedding was a giant mistake and that, they won’t make the same mistake again.
“We’re not spring chickens, we have to think about ourselves,” explained Howard.
Stephanie squeezed Howard’s arm, “But…”
Howard cut her off, “No buts. I’m not wasting another day of my life.” They both got down from the carriage. Howard paid the driver, who was so wrapped up with scarf and hat that all Howard could see was the man’s startling blue eyes.
“Darling, I have to leave you here,” said Stephanie, “I’ve got to get home and start sorting things out. She pulled out a torn piece of paper and fished for a pen.
“Damn, I can never find a pen when I need one. She finally found one and wrote down the number. In the Taxi downtown Howard couldn’t contain himself. Had he dreamt this all up? He pinched himself so hard he grimaced, then laughed. The ride down was pretty fast until…
“Looks like some kind of fire on that block, Mac. See all those firetrucks? I’ll have to leave you here.” But Howard had already left a twenty-dollar bill in the cup and was running down Park Row. He was stopped by a policeman.
“Whoa! Can’t go down there bud.”
Howard, shaking, yelled, “That’s my store!” The cop hustled him between the gawkers and the police. The fire was blazing, flames shooting out of the first two floors.
Four hours later the police had left the scene and the firemen were packing up.
The first floor of the store was in complete ruins. Howard had called Holly but she hadn’t picked up. Betsy, Manny and Murry were all standing on the curb with Howard. Manny had already made up a story about the fire.
“Musta been an electrical fire. That light and cord were really old.” He couldn’t have looked more guilty.
Howard looked at the three. “Please go home now. I’ll call you all tomorrow. Thanks for being here.”
Betsy asked, “Are you sure, Mr. Bloom?”
“Yes.” She gave Howard a hug and they all left.
Howard just stared at the destruction. Then something caught his eye down the block. A man was leaning against the building two stores down. He looked directly at Howard. Howard started walking to him. The man looked up, unsurprised.
“Have you picked your day?” said the man. He looked at the destruction two doors down, “Today?”
Howard was about to say something, the stopped. Looked at his hands, thought about the events of the day.
“No. I want to relive the day I was supposed to marry Stephanie.”
The man’s blue eyes twinkled.
“Are you sure?”
And so, as quickly as if turning a channel on a remote, Howard was back at Temple Emanuel in Richmond Hill in 1963. The clock read 10am. One hour before the ceremony.
His brother, Lloyd, was helping him ties his bowtie.
“Stop! I’ve got to speak to Stephanie!”
“What are you crazy? She’s upstairs getting ready. You’ll see her when she walks down the aisle! Whaddya getting cold feet?”
Howard just stared at his brother, found the stairs, took them two at a time and burst in to Stephanie’s room. Her mother crying. So was Stephanie.
Howard looked at Stephanie, the said, “Mariam, I need to speak to Stephanie privately. Mariam stood frozen.
“Now!” Mariam bustled out.
Howard grabbed Stephanie’s hands and led her to a chair.
“Shh. I need to say something.
“Me too Howard.”
“I know darling.”
Stephanie looked at Howard.
Howard gently smiled.
“That’s not important. Maybe I’ll tell you how one day but for now.”
“Howard, I’m so sorry”
“Why should you be sorry? You’re not responsible for your father”
“I know what really happened. I know what he did”
Now Stephanie turned white.
“Howard! What are you talking about?”
“Darling, I know that that your father was involved with the mob and that your brother killed himself.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Darling, it’s okay. I’ll get a good lawyer. I won’t abandon you?”
Stephanie stood up, her hands covering her face.
“Sweetheart, no need to cry,” cooed Howard.
Stephanie let her hands down, she was red-faced.
“Crying? Howard, I’m laughing!”
Howard only stared.
“I don’t know who told you that cockamamie story, but my father couldn’t steal a pencil!”
“Then… then…what are you sorry for?”
“Poor Howard. I can’t marry you, because in five months I’m going to give birth to someone else’s baby!”
“But…but…you told me…”
“That I loved you? I did Howard, I did…well I thought I would come to love you. That’s why I let it go this far. I shouldn’t have, I know…but my parents were so ashamed. They thought in time, you’d understand. But now I know that was a cruel thing to do.”
She touched his face and said, “I know life will work out for you. I’m going away to San Francisco to live with my brother and his wife until I have the baby. Goodbye Howard.”
He stood in the middle of the room. Stunned. In a whisper he uttered, “wait.”
Date: November 9th 1985
Place: Suburbs of New Jersey
Joe Delaney sat comfortably in his leather easy chair, finishing the last of the apple pie that Holly had made two days before. He was reading a novel by R. A Dick when the phone rang. He picked up the phone.
“Hi Baby, everything okay?”
“Oh yeah, just wanted to remind you to pick us up at 10:30”
“Of course! The girls Okay?”
“Are you kidding? They’re so excited about the movie they’re not even embarrassed about being with their mom. Emily called it a “girls night out!”
“Ha! They’re growing fast. A few years more and…”
“I know, off to college!”
“It will be so quiet in the house.”
“Except for my squeals of delight when we make love”
“Make that a promise.”
“Love you, have a good time, see you soon,” and with that he hung up and got back to his reading.
At just about the same time, Howard Bloom, was getting out of the F train at the Jamaica Queens station. He trudged up the stairs with two heavy bags full of used books. It began to rain, so by the time Howard got to his 1-bedroom apartment on 179th street, he as well as the books, were damp. His apartment was down on its heels but well kept; the furniture was the same that Howard had grown up with, inherited when his Mother, Sadie, died, soon after the wedding that was not to be. Howard placed the bags on the white Formica kitchen table, then went to the fridge and took out a frozen dinner.
A few minutes later the phone rang.
“Yes, Mr. Perry, I’ll be in early tomorrow to do inventory. No worries! Yes, you too. Bye.”
By 10pm the bags that read “Perry’s Books and things” were all empty. Holding a sharp pencil Howard opened the last of the books to the cover page and neatly wrote $7.95 in the upper right-hand corner. Then he put all the books back into the bags, walked over to the kitchen closet, took a key from his back pocket, and opened the door. He placed the two bags on the top of the four shelves that were filled to the brim with “Perry’s Books and things.” Then he closed and locked the door.
You may change your path, you may re-invent yourself, you can always do more, do better, but…you can never, ever