Tuesday, March 29, 2011



The half way point of the century, nineteen fifty, when I have been home from the war nearly five years, seemed like a good time to shut off water, gas, and electricity from our brownstone.

I had already been harassed by some of the petty officials at the companies that supplied me with the so-called necessities of life. I had become niggardly in my payments, not from a lack of funds (Vandemark money never runs out, even under the grossest mismanagement) but from a philosophical principle: from the simple premise that if I was to lose nothing more then no more should go out.

In my zeal I had forgotten that those on the outside would require a unit of money for a unit of labor or product I received, that they too had the integrity of their systems to uphold and maintain. A typical exchange with some officious official would go like this:

Opening the door, my head almost above the jamb, I would stoop to see the intruder or bend over and step into the strong daylight, quickly realizing that dozens of street eyes were watching me.

“Yes,” I said deeply, as if with a bed of gravel in my gullet.

“Mr. Vandemark? Mr. Langley Vandemark?” I nodded. “I’m Mr. Coalpepper from Consolidated Edison. I’m afraid I’m here on some very troubling business. You see…

“How much is the bill?” I asked.

“One hundred and twenty five dollars and sixty cents, sir.”

I bent down and low bridged it back into the house. Fumbling in my desk I could see Coalpepper’s mottled, greasy head scanning the dark interior of my house. Behind him several black people were craning around Coalpepper’s slim form trying to catch a glimpse. Catching the trick latch on the desk I opened the trick drawer and took out a wad of cash. I counted out the money and gathered up the odd assortment of change. When I emerged outside I handed him the wad. He was startled.

“And shut it off.” I said.

“Excuse me, Mr. Vandemark?” he whimpered.

“Shut off the electricity. I won’t be needing it anymore.” He looked up at me with awe, as if I had broken some incest taboo and had the audacity to scream it out loud in the public square. He backed away and melted into the large, still gathering crowd.

When Mr. Wasserman came to collect the water bill I dispatched him in a similar manner. I gave him his proverbial walking papers with the words “Shut the water off I won’t be needing it,” no doubt my phrase was ringing in his ears as he walked away like a secret name of God some fool had the temerity to scream at the top of his lungs on the courthouse steps. He backed away from my long shadow at the base of the steps, pad of cash in hand, and was subsumed into the street sidewalk crowd.

The most troublesome character in this ensemble cast was Mr. Pennyworth, a representative at the bank that held our mortgage. He was a man to be reckoned with. After repeated written inquiries (all strongly worded admonishments) followed by a regular schedule of verbal harassment (visits at odd hours, his minions facing my stubbornly closed door), Pennyworth arrived one stifling summer morning with two police officers and sharply folded foreclosure papers for me to sign unless I could provide the full balance of the mortgage immediately in cash or cashier’s check.

The men stood impassively in the hall. Pennyworth was a worthy opponent; the others had been mere company snivelers, flaccid lackeys, one and all. At least Pennyworth showed up with the law; he knew how to flex a taut muscle. The man knew how to exchange hit for hit. Faced with such papers (documentation has always cowed me) my bluff was called.

“What is the balance, Mr. Pennyworth?”

“Two-thousand four hundred and thirty seven dollars and seventy-two cents,” he related impassively.

I cleared a space from my desk. It was recessed in a nook of the living room so neither Pennyworth nor his charges could see my manipulations. When I emerged I handed Pennyworth the full amount in cash and change. He was momentarily stunned; his poker face showed a glimmer of surprise. He could see how I was living, the state that I was in and how my surroundings were arranged. He gave me a receipt and without further word showed himself out.

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