Become a Fan
By Ken R Goldstein
Saturday, March 23, 2002
"You need to leave your mind alone."
"Excuse me?" I asked, looking up from the scattered paperwork spread over my desk at the troll-like, elderly man in front of me. I realized that I'd been daydreaming, pushing papers around but not really seeing any of them.
"You need to leave your mind alone," he said to me, again. "A lovely young woman, such as yourself, shouldn't be carrying the burdens of the world on her shoulders like that; it's bad for your posture."
"Thank you, Mr. Greenblatt. I've just got a lot of paperwork here is all: several renter's applications, bids for the roofing repairs to building three, paperwork from the Housing Authority to collect on our Section 8 tenants, plus we're down one maintenance guy." Managing slums is not as easy as you'd think, I could have said.
"No, it's not work," he said very matter-of-factly. Despite the poverty of his clothing - faded Chinos the color of moss-covered earth after the moss has died, worn threadbare at the knees and buttocks, under an untucked, over-sized plaid shirt that may as well have still had the Goodwill price tag hanging from it - his age and personal bearing gave his words a certain authoritative weight. "That much is obvious by the way you look past the papers, you're focused on something far away. It's not a boy either. Excuse me: a man. It's not troubles with your man friend. It's something less personal, something detached, that you're worried about. I can only imagine that you've just read the same news that I've just read."
Greenblatt was just what I needed, a geriatric tenant with clairvoyant powers. And make that one who has nothing better to do all day than hang out in the management office kibitzing. But, the truth was that I had been thinking about something I'd seen on the news the previous night. What had happened was this woman over in Sunnyvale, Susan Watson, had flipped out and taken a baseball bat to her six children. She'd just had enough of them, and who could blame her? she'd asked: Six of them, all needing things she couldn't afford and energy she didn't have. So in the middle of a family ball game at the local park she went after them all with a bat.
The story also had a hero: Charlie Wilson, an unemployed 32 year-old man who lived across the street from the park. "I couldn't believe what I was seeing," Charlie told the reporter. "This crazy woman was beating the heck out of these kids. They'd try to get up and she'd whack 'em right back down. So I came running out into the park and just tackled her from behind. Just put my shoulders to the back of her knees and took her straight down. Then a couple of the kids held her in place while I took the bat away and ran back inside to call the police."
Watson was now facing multiple charges of child endangerment, assault with intent to maim, et cetera, et cetera. The children were staying with their grandmother who, incidentally, defended her daughter and suggested that she may have been under the influence of too much caffeine.
My first thoughts were simply that I was grateful it hadn't happened on one of our properties. I was imagining the paperwork that must be involved in an incident like that. That was a little too cynical, even for me, and I had gone on to wondering what type of mother I would be. I was questioning my ability to take care of even one or two children - forget six - without resorting to a baseball bat when Greenblatt had interrupted.
"Yes, it's terrible," I said.
"Terrible, yes. Still, when it comes, it will be swift. There are worse ways to go than by asteroids."
"Excuse me?" I thought for a minute, did he really say asteroids? "Asteroids? How did we get from baseball bats to asteroids?"
"Ahh, you were only thinking of the bat lady. Such concern for one crazy woman. That's very touching, Miss Miller, but I was talking about this." He held up a copy of the Wide World Weekly, one of those cheap supermarket tabloids. The headline read, "Killer Asteroid Heading for Earth: Experts say will arrive in five years."
Somehow I managed to hold in my laughter; it's always my policy to show respect for my tenants, no matter how screwed up they are. "No, I hadn't seen that yet. Five years, eh? Then we'll all be dead?" He nodded. "Well, then, I guess I'd better start getting my affairs in order."
"Five years may not seem such a long time to live," he said, "but it's plenty of time in which to die. Relax; your affairs will take care of themselves." With that he folded his Wide World Weekly under his arm, excused himself, and left me to my work.
I'm not an altogether unattractive woman. I'm large, but proportional to my height of 5'11", I'm not overweight. I can't say that my face is beautiful, but I'm certainly presentable and keep my hair neatly bobbed at my shoulders. For a man who's secure enough to be with a woman of my size, I could be quite a catch. My problem has always been that the type of men who are attracted to me are the rough and tumble type. They're looking for a woman who can match them drink for drink, hold their own in a fight, and still be willing to fuck them when they come home stinking of another girl.
The real gentlemen, the upwardly mobile types, all go for the petite girls. They like everything in their lives to be neatly wrapped up in tight little packages, including their lovers. It's their loss that they don't know how good a lover a strong woman could be, but it's my loss too. It's my fate to be left to the fat, drunk, and uneducated slobs who have to struggle to hold onto the most basic and menial of jobs.
That, of course, is exactly the type of man I'm surrounded by all day at work. From this office we manage the four buildings on this property, 120 units, but also take care of the maintenance for five similar properties, from East Palo Alto to Evergreen, all owned by the same company, about 800 units in all. We've got six guys on the maintenance crew for all that, and this is their office too.
I'm the property manager here at Strawberry Oaks, in Campbell, but I'm also the dispatcher for all six properties, taking the calls from the tenants and sending the guys out to take care of everything from stopped sinks to broken windows. When I interviewed for the job with Carlson, one of the guys from the corporate office in San Jose, he firmly explained that they usually had a man in this position and asked me if I thought I could handle it. He was this stiff little guy in a starched white shirt, and I was sure he'd be terrified to be with any woman over 90 pounds. His hard little eyes looked me up and down, then his concrete façade cracked. He laughed and said, "Jesus. You're a fucking Amazon. You can handle it."
That was eight months ago, but it already feels like I've been here forever.
"Welcome to Strawberry Oaks, Paul. I'm sure you'll enjoy working here," I stood up and extended my hand to formally welcome him onto the crew after we completed the paperwork sent over from the personnel desk at the home office.
"Thanks, Sharon. So, who do I answer to here? It's not you, is it?" he asked, nervously. It was only 9:30 AM, he hadn't started work yet, but his face and hands were already smudged with grease and his new uniform was already dirty (short sleeved green shirt with the company logo on the back and a spot over the left breast for his stitched name patch, which would come the next week, worn with dark brown Dockers and steel-toed shoes). Earlier, he had said he was late because of car troubles.
"Well, Rick, who you'll meet in a minute, is the maintenance crew chief. He'll be checking your work and doing your performance reviews, but I'm your dispatcher and I'll be reviewing your time sheets before sending them to corporate."
"So, you're the house mother, piling on the work, but Rick's the big daddy whose ass I've got to kiss when I want a raise? Right?" his lopsided smile, showing off all his tobacco stained teeth, was supposed to tell me that he was joking, but I chose to ignore the comment. I just tried to picture how this clown had gotten through the interview process downtown. Or maybe the suits in corporate just didn't care what type of scum they sent us.
Just then, right on cue, Rick walked into the office. "So you're the FuNewGy? Eh?" He said in his booming baritone, forcefully taking Paul's hand into his vice-like grip.
"Funoogee?" Paul asked, the crooked mouth closing halfway, but trying to maintain a smile. He looked like he was trying to decide whether to laugh or fight.
"The Fucking New Guy. The FuNewGy!"
"I used to be the FuNewGy," I offered by way of comradery. They didn't even have the decency to change my nickname to FuNewGirl.
Rick released Paul's hand and gave him a gentle slap to the shoulder. "Relax, today you're just going to observe. I'll take you around the different properties and introduce you to some people you'll need to know. Why don't you go out to my van, right there, see? and I'll be with you in a minute."
Once Paul was out the door, Rick turned his attention to me. His voice half the volume it was a moment ago, but still plenty audible, "So, are we on for Saturday?"
"Depends. Are you off with your wife?"
"She's up in Sacramento at her sister's. I swear she's not coming back this time. I won't let her come back. It's over and done with."
"I suppose. If nothing better comes up," I tried to sound casual, like I couldn't give a shit either way. But I knew there was nothing better coming, or likely to come. He quickly reached behind me, grabbed my ass in his massive hands and squeezed. No kiss. Then he was out the door and bellowing to the FuNewGy waiting in his van.
Out of nowhere Greenblatt appeared in my doorway. "Good morning, Miss Miller," he said brightly while coming in. He picked up the People magazine from the end table and took his usual seat in the waiting area. "I see Rick's got a new fellow to break in. Wonderful. Glad to see it. The more, the merrier. By the way, do you know how Rick's wife is doing these days?"
A few nights later the local news carried images from a mass murder over in Fremont. A recent Irish immigrant named Seamus MacLachlan had slashed the throats of his wife and four daughters as they slept in their beds, then went to his parent's house and shot them each in the back.
Somehow, this didn't seem as shocking a story as that of Susan Watson who had attacked her kids with a baseball bat. Again, I amazed myself with my growing cynicism as I thought, I understand Seamus MacLachlan. Susan Watson, however, still troubled me. Women are supposed to nurture and care for our children, while men will always try to kill the things they can no longer control. It seemed a sad but true fact; the natural order of things.
The roofing contractor I'd hired to fix building three's leaks hadn't shown up yet and it was already eleven o'clock. They'd done about half the work already when they were called off on another job the day before, some kind of emergency, with promises to return that morning. Paul came in while I was on the phone with their dispatcher, trying to figure out when to expect the work to continue.
"What did you expect?" Paul asked when I'd hung up the phone, no closer to an answer than before I'd called. I just stared at him blankly. "That's what happens when you trust an important job to niggers," he offered.
I picked up some work orders from the basket on the corner of my desk and threw them towards him. "Here's your assignments. Now just get the hell out of here, Paul. This isn't your problem."
He picked up the work orders, but not before pausing to laugh at me. On his way out the door he said, to nobody in particular, "And that's what happens you put a woman in charge of an office."
I sat at my desk, stewing in anger and frustration, not sure who I was more upset at: the contractor, who didn't consider our job a priority, the coworker who was obviously a racist and a loose cannon, or myself for not handling either situation better.
I was typing up my monthly report when Greenblatt came in. Skipping his usual greeting, he just quietly fished through the magazines till he pulled an Entertainment Weekly out of the stack and took his seat. It took longer than usual for him to begin the conversation with, "I don't know what those typewriter keys did to you, Miss Miller, but I'm sure you didn't deserve it."
"Sorry," I said, for no particular reason. I continued typing, but moderated the force with which I punched the keys.
"There's stress everywhere, and we all have to deal with it. What makes a difference is how we choose to face it." When he was sure he had my attention, he continued, "We must decide what we can do something about and then do it, and the rest we must throw away."
I'd stopped typing and, feeling a little calmer, nodded my head. "Thank you, Mr. Greenblatt. I'll try to remember that."
"Remember, Miss Miller; five years." He looked into my eyes with a certain amount of sympathy. "Let go of the little things. They simply don't matter. Five years, that's all," he said. It took me a moment to realize he was talking about the doomsday predictions that he'd shown me from the Wide World Weekly. When the recognition hit my eyes he nodded and returned to his magazine.
Rick and I were eating dinner in my apartment. Despite his wife's having supposedly departed for good, he still wasn't taking me out to restaurants. Bars, late at night, dive bars to be precise, he'd take me to, but not restaurants.
"How's the new guy working out for you?" I asked.
"He's doing fine. He needs to be kicked in the ass sometimes, but he does a good job." He kept eating his pork chop throughout this, talking while chewing, not looking up at me once.
"You don't think he's, I don't know, maybe a bit dangerous?"
"What the fuck is this about, Sharon?" He paused mid-chew and gave me a quick glance, then stuck another fork-full in his mouth and said, "He's a little rough around the edges, maybe, but he's a good guy."
"It's just that I've heard him use the 'N' word, and that's no good around our tenants, and I don't think he respects my position at all."
"So that's it? You're not getting your proper respect?" He put down his fork, took a large drink from his beer, then looked back at me and spoke without chewing. "He's just a guy. He shows up, he does his job, he goes home. You give him the work orders, and he completes the repair. What else do you want? As to the language, if you're going to start getting down on my guys because of their vocabulary I won't have any crew left."
"Fine," I said, unsatisfied. "Just promise you'll keep an eye on him, and ask him to watch his language around the tenants, okay?"
He stuffed his mouth with several pieces of steamed carrot and said, "Right, I'll ask Paul to watch it around the tenants. And you'll stay out of my guys' business."
I was working quietly at my desk, Greenblatt sitting off in his corner reading the latest Wide World Weekly ("Half-Baby, Half-Hyena Escapes!"), when Paul blew in through the office door with the force of a hurricane. "What's your problem?" he demanded of me.
"I'm sorry, but I don't know what you're talking about," I said, trying to remain calm.
"Don't play that shit with me, Miller. You were talking to Rick, trying to get me fired." His face was the color of glowing charcoal, and seemed to be just as hot.
"I did not try to get you fired. I only expressed my concerns about some of your behavior in this office." I stood up to look down on him; the one advantage to my size. "As you can see, I have tenants coming in and out of here all day, and we just can't put up with certain language. Keep your mouth civil on the job, and you can work here for as long as you like."
"Don't threaten me. I don't give a shit if you are fucking my boss, you can't do shit to me."
I gestured towards Greenblatt and said, "That's what I'm talking about. Watch your mouth around our tenants and around me. Now get out of here."
He just stood there, staring at me for another minute, glanced over towards Greenblatt, then looked back at me. "Sharon Miller, huh? Are you a Jew, Sharon Miller?"
"My mother's Jewish," I told him, still standing, not blinking.
"I should have known from the size of your huge ass," he said, then finally turned and slowly walked out of the office, leaving the door open.
Greenblatt sat on his chair in the background and waited till Paul was gone before looking up at me, "A very hateful man. You were right to stand up to him, but I do hope you'll be careful of him in the future."
"Thank you, Mr. Greenblatt, but I think I can handle him."
"You heard him, right?"
"What, about the size of my ass?" I snapped, instantly regretting it.
"He asked if you were 'a Jew.'"
"Yeah. So?" I was trying hard to regain my composure.
"Not, 'Are you Jewish?' but 'Are you a Jew?'"
"Okay." I should known to leave well enough alone, not to encourage Greenblatt. But I bit anyway, "So, what's the difference?"
"Jewish is an adjective. Those magic three letters, 'i-s-h,' make it a modifier. It helps describe something bigger. Sure, you practice the Jewish religion, but that's just part of you, part of a greater, more complex whole. But Jew; Jew is a noun. That's it, that's what you are, and to the anti-Semite, that's all you'll ever be. There's nothing there to modify 'Jew,' except, perhaps, when you're not around, when it becomes 'damned Jew.'"
"I doubt he's given the differences between 'Jew' and 'Jewish' nearly as much thought as you have. Now, if you'll excuse me, Mr. Greenblatt, I've got a lot of work to do." I sat back down at my desk and only then realized how my hands were shaking.
"Of course he hasn't given it that much thought." Greenblatt leaned forward in his chair, tipping it onto just the two front legs, looked me squarely in the eye, and said in a lower tone, "It's all subliminal. Hate works best when it's carried just below the surface."
"Are you Jewish, Mr. Greenblatt?" I asked him.
"I believe what I can," he replied, shrugged, then leaned back and returned to his reading.
A few nights later the news had a follow-up story about Susan Watson, the woman who had attacked her kids with a baseball bat. She was out on bail, awaiting her trial and putting together her defense. Various experts on domestic stress were explaining how it wasn't her fault that she had snapped. Then her lawyer came on. Not only was he defending her in the criminal trial, he was also representing Watson in her civil case against Charlie Wilson, the man who'd tackled her.
Watson was suing Wilson for assault and for embarrassing her in front of her children. The lawyer explained that since Wilson had tackled her, the children were now questioning Watson's authority and her ability to be a parent had been undermined. They were seeking damages of $3,250,000.
This was the man who saved her from killing her kids, and she was going to rake him through the coals. I thought about the insanity of suing your rescuer and measured that up against Greenblatt's predictions of Earthly doom. I briefly wondered what would be worse: the demise of civilization or its continuation.
Mrs. Barcena, from building four, was the latest tenant to call me to complain about Paul. While in her apartment to snake the tub drain he'd made rude comments about her cooking and suggested that the drain was stopped up because she'd been shitting in the tub. After I got off the phone with Mrs. Barcena I typed it into my growing list of the accusations against him. I planned on giving Rick a copy at the end of the week, with a second copy going to corporate headquarters.
As I was finishing the report I heard Paul's voice behind me, quieter than I'd ever heard him speak before. "You little bitch," he said. "You'll never get away with it."
My body froze with a tingling sensation starting at the top of my head and slowly making its way down through my legs. With great effort I drew a breath to begin my defrosting, but I didn't turn to look at him. When I was able to get a word out, I said, "I'm just doing my job, Paul. You should try doing the same."
"I do my job, bitch," the calmness of his voice scared me more than when he was loud and belligerent. "You do what you want, but watch out. I'll cut you apart."
"Everything you say is going to go straight to Rick," I said, hoping it would shut him up. Instead he just laughed.
"You're going to tell Rick, huh? You think he's going to come to your rescue like he gives a shit about you? You're just another lousy fuck to him." He paused, but I didn't answer or even move an inch. "Oh yeah, he's told us all about your filthy Jewess cunt, and the sick things you like to do."
He leaned in behind me, close enough for me to smell the stale beer and cigarettes on his breath, and just barely above a whisper said, "He'd never leave his wife for a disgusting whore like you."
I held my breath until I heard the door shut behind him. Slowly, I turned around and picked up the phone, as if any quicker motion would force me to release my tears and screams. If I moved slowly, maybe I could maintain my dignity.
I dialed Paul's home number, expecting nothing but ringing. His wife was in Sacramento; he'd told me she wasn't coming back. Sure, he had his troubles communicating, but I knew he cared for me. These were the thoughts I repeated to myself as I listened to the rings. After the third, as I was about to hang up, I heard the voice of Paul's wife saying "Hello."
Greenblatt came in about an hour later. I'd stopped crying by then, but was obviously still upset.
"Are you all right?" he asked me, before even reaching his magazines.
"I'm fine," I said, not looking up.
"Man trouble this time?" he asked. "You're having trouble in love?"
"I'm through with my man. It turns out he was a piece of shit."
"You're a lovely woman, Miss Miller," Greenblatt said. "If I were forty years younger, or if I were still employed, or if any of us even had anything to live for, I'd ask you to go dancing."
I decided to pick up on a piece of what he'd said to change the subject. "What did you do, Mr. Greenblatt, when you were working?"
"Well, then it wasn't 'Mr. Greenblatt,' it was 'Professor Greenblatt.' I taught Political Science and Rhetoric at San Jose State, until I was dismissed."
"Dismissed? What, did they fire you?"
"It started with the Gulf War. Nineteen-Ninety-One. We'd always understood that the government lied to us, that selective truth telling was a matter of national security, but with the Gulf War it reached a new level. Ad agencies writing scripts for Congressional testimony to be given by actresses who could never have witnessed the atrocities they attested to, doctored videos handed out to a press corp who were sequestered away from the action and the truth, all to defend a monarchy that was somehow 'democratic' without the benefit of free elections. And the press went along with it! They printed and broadcast whatever they were told. With no faith left in traditional sources of information, I began to search out the unorthodox and uncensored, then to use it in my classes. I'd assign the Wide World Weekly along with Howard Zinn, and then ask the class do discuss the implications of the Roswell Incident on American foreign policy during the Korean Conflict."
"So they fired you for assigning the Wide World Weekly?"
"No. They accepted that as one of my little eccentricities; suspected geniuses are allowed a certain academic leeway and they granted that to me. But shortly after that my wife, Mildred, died of a massive stroke. She was only fifty-three years old and we'd had no warning of any trouble before that. She was my junior by eight years, and women are supposed to have longer life spans anyway, right? We'd never planned for her death; I was supposed to go first. She was supposed to be my devoted widow, continuing to sing the praises of my genius for many years after I was gone. My depression grew both deeper and narrower, shifting attention from the world around us to my own personal emptiness."
"Surely they can't fire somebody for depression. What possible excuse could they have had to get rid of you?"
"For failing my students, both figuratively and literally; not a single passing grade the entire year."
"You gave every student an 'F'? Why?"
"How could they have possibly learned anything when I, their professor, knew less and less every day?"
The reaction to my report on Paul came on a Friday, only three days after I submitted it. I covered everything, from his initial comments regarding the contractor, to the episode with Mrs. Barcena and several other similar incidents, including spitting on the floor of another tenant and many complaints about his abusive and racist language, down to his calling me a whore and threatening my life.
It wasn't so much that corporate cared anything about our tenants, that much was obvious from the budget they gave us to maintain this place. What caught the eye of the lawyers was the potential for my filing a sexual harassment suit against Paul and the company.
I received a letter from headquarters apologizing for Paul's language, assuring me that I was a valued member of their management team, and that such behavior was not to be tolerated. The letter also made clear that Paul would be dealt with "severely." A pamphlet entitled "Sexual Harassment Harms Everyone" was enclosed, as well as some hastily photocopied pages from the employee manual clearly stating that sexual harassment had always been against company policy.
Paul was to be suspended, without pay, for two weeks. Since this was his first infraction, and he had not been previously or properly warned of the policy by his official supervisor, Rick, they didn't feel they could fire him. The lawyers were also afraid of wrongful termination suits.
My letter came in the inter-office mail about half-an-hour after Paul and Rick had been called and asked to go downtown. Rick returned alone about an hour after that and wouldn't speak to me for the rest of the day, which, frankly, didn't make it much different than any other day since I'd told him that he could just fuck himself if he couldn't fuck his wife.
I didn't see Paul again until Tuesday morning when he came in looking like he hadn't slept, or eaten, or done anything other than drink, since he was suspended Friday afternoon. Besides a bit of instability to his step he appeared calm, closing the door behind him, then sheepishly looking down at the floor, just standing there for what felt like hours.
I imagined that part of the punishment they had handed to him included making an apology to me. Not wanting to make it any easier on him, but not wanting to waste all day on this either, I finally began the conversation. "What are you doing here, Paul? I thought you were taking some time off?"
He still just stood there, staring at his shoes, not responding. Then he slowly checked the door that he had just shut and turned the lock to secure it. A chill ran through my spine, and I stood up, slowly so as not to upset him, and started to make my way across the floor to the backdoor to the storeroom. In a flash, he lunged across at me and took me down, hard, onto the floor, face first. As we struggled there I suddenly saw a flash of light and realized it was being reflected off of a hunting knife in Paul's hand. At that point, I stopped fighting.
"I warned you, bitch," he said in his terrifyingly quiet voice, sitting squarely on the center of my back. "I said I'd cut you if you fucked with my job. You're gonna die now, Miller, and it's going to be painful." With that he jabbed the knife into the back of my right thigh and pulled it upward, making a slice that almost reached my buttocks.
I let out a cry and began to struggle again when his left elbow came down on my head, stifling the scream and bringing me back into submission. The knife came down a second time, pinning my left hand to the floor right in front of my eyes. The flowing blood raced towards me, mixing with the dirt from the floor, filling my nose and mouth.
As I stared at the knife sticking out of my hand I noticed that his hand was no longer there. That's when I felt him pushing my pants down. He leaned down close to me, his cheek touching mine, and whispered, "I hear you like it in the ass." Before I could find out if he was planning on inserting the knife or himself, we were each startled by the sound of gunfire over our heads and the door being kicked in.
The voice of my rescuer was not the deep, self-assured baritone of an experienced police officer; it was the halting, breathless tenor of Greenblatt saying, "Get off of her, you animal." The voice elicited a laugh from Paul, who pulled the knife out from my hand, and the floor, and finally got off my back as he rose to face the old man.
With my one good hand I pushed myself over to see Paul approaching Greenblatt, who was frozen in the doorway. Paul laughed again, then lunged, plunging his knife deep into Greenblatt's chest at the same time that Greenblatt pulled the trigger and I saw a blast of red splatter from the center of Paul's back. They tumbled together through the door, out of my view.
I laid like that, covered in my own blood, with my pants half off, for several minutes, waiting for either of them to get up, which neither ever did, or for someone to come to help.
Images flashed through my mind of an asteroid crashing into the office and Greenblatt rising to take the full shock of it himself. He had no faith left in his fellow man, his community, or in himself, and gave us five years in which to annihilate ourselves. Then he gave up his own life to save mine.
How do you reconcile the abundance of cruelty and evil in the world with the ability of the most unassuming among us to make such a sacrifice? How do such saints coexist with such devils? In the last few months I've seen evil enough to crush your soul and goodness enough to break your heart. Five years? I wondered, an ending or a fresh start?
Finally, I heard the sound of sirens approaching as I passed out.
From Aaron's Intifada and Other Short Stories by Ken Goldstein
Site: Ken Goldstein: Fiction & Nonfiction
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|Reviewed by Sara Penrod
|Amazing story. What wonderful characters. And the way all of the events tied together was amazing--not contrived, simply a mirror of life.|