Stirring: A Literary Collection 11.1
Upper East Side #44, Weston Magazine Group, 2011
One April evening in 1979, about four months after her husband Clark snapped his neck tumbling down an icy Vermont ski slope, Marge Connelly decided to pull a heist. When she made this decision, she was sitting on the floor of the living room of her Park Avenue apartment in her slip, very drunk, and worrying about money. Running out of money had become a frequent drinking obsession with Marge, ranking right up there with the threat of breast cancer and the potential ascendancy of the Asian nations, particularly the Chinese. In her darkest moments these terrors would merge, and Marge would see herself, destitute and cancerous, in a city hospital ward surrounded by Asian doctors and nurses with unpronounceable names, none of whom spoke English.
Marge was not really in financial trouble. Her apartment and her daughter Kate's college had been paid in full by Clark's insurance, and his investments provided her with a more than adequate income. But she did not understand or trust her financial advisors, and she missed Clark terribly — for twenty-five years he had directed their lives, handled all financial matters, and also served as an effective check on her drinking. Within two months of Clark's death, white wine tippling had given way to straight vodka on the rocks starting at noon, and Marge had become a daily drunk.
And as she drank, her vague fears would take on weight and substance. She would page through the financial statements that came in the mail and try to make sense of them, hopelessly confused about the movement of funds, what securities had been bought or sold on her behalf, and when. She strongly suspected that the brokerage house and the bank were taking advantage of her inexperience in these matters and stealing from her, but she did not want to call Clark's broker or banker and ask questions for fear that they would then realize the full extent of her financial incompetence and proceed to exploit her even more ruthlessly.
Marge was just a little bit angry with Clark for not leaving her better prepared in this respect, which created a bitter inner conflict because she revered his memory. She was also a little bit angry with her daughter Kate, who could have changed schools after Clark's accident, and returned to New York, and kept her company, and helped her with some of these problems. Kate had gently but firmly declined the offer. And when Marge called her in the evenings seeking comfort and support, she sensed Kate's growing impatience, as if she thought the problems Marge had to face, alone and without Clark, were not really that significant when they were, in truth, overwhelming. Marge's audiences with her priest and with the Monsignor were equally disappointing. Marge found their homilies useless in the world of actual experience — what could these pale men with their soft hands and soothing voices know about her loss — the loss of a real flesh-and-blood man by a real flesh-and-blood woman?
On the evening of her extreme act, Marge's obsessive thoughts finally broke through the usual self-pitying and self-defeating circles, and her paranoia gave way to a liberating surge of pure rage. She was through being a victim. If people and institutions could steal from her, she could take steps to even the score.
She decided to pull a heist — these were the words that formed in her mind. And almost immediately she focused on the deli at 63rd Street and Lexington. It was close at hand, she knew they did a brisk business, and she suspected them of overcharging her when she had had a little too much to drink and couldn't add up her bill properly. As this idea gained momentum, she decided that "heist" was not the right term for what she had in mind, since she associated the word with trucks and cargo and swarthy gangsters. What she was planning, actually, was a daring, skillful, and dignified robbery.
She saw it as an act of defiance, a blow for personal justice against a system fraught with corruption and venality. And who was there to disapprove of her defiance?
Certainly not Clark.
* * *
On the evening Marge decided to rob the 63rd Street deli, her daughter Kate was studying in her dormitory room at St. Agnes College for Women in the Brookline suburb of Boston. Kate was a blond, plump, and pretty sophomore with milkmaid skin and pale blue eyes, a sensible girl with a sweet sensibility who had aspired to be a nun when she was a child. At the moment, she was trying to concentrate on St. Thomas Aquinas and his proofs of God's existence and trying not to think about the recent loss of her virginity or the undeniable fact that her mother was on a rapid downhill slide since her father's death. Clark had always been pleasantly remote and diffident with Kate, and she found she did not miss him that much, which bothered her a little — she felt she should have experienced a longer and more intense period of grief. But Kate did miss the security and stability Clark had represented, and without which Marge seemed so helpless.
Kate spent every other weekend in New York with Marge, and had become increasingly concerned about her drinking. She had not heard from Marge in three days which she considered both a welcome respite and a potentially dangerous sign. Marge had taken to calling late at night when she was obviously drunk to discuss whether Kate thought she should end her lonely struggle and join Clark again by jumping out the living room window. Kate would tell Marge that she had much to live for, assure her that 56 was not old, suggest therapy, and urge her to stop drinking, but sometimes these conversations became exhausting and she almost wished Marge would go ahead and get it over with, a thought she invariably paid for during her Sunday session on her knees in the confessional.
* * *
To ensure the success of her robbery, Marge recognized the need for careful planning, both tactical and strategic planning as Clark used to say. She felt a rising excitement. She reasoned that she could certainly do it, since thousands of successful robberies were committed every year by individuals whose intelligence was demonstrably inferior to hers. As she struggled to her feet to begin preparations, she caught her image in the living room mirror — red rimmed eyes, graying hair sticking out in tangles, a slender, almost emaciated body partially visible through her slip. But Marge paid little notice to her appearance, preoccupied as she was with the requirements for the robbery. A gun was needed, that was clear. She wandered into Clark's study and lifted a pistol from its wall bracket, a huge, 19th century German cavalry revolver Clark had found on one of his trips abroad. The weight of the gun dragged her hand down, pulling her body to the right. She stood for a moment considering the next step. Something was needed for the money. She spotted a Bloomingdale's shopping bag, dropped the pistol in, and carried the bag to the hall, where she picked up her fur lined boots. She sat down heavily, yanked the boots on from a sitting position, rose unsteadily to her feet, and snatched up the shopping bag.
Marge was fueled, burning and resolute. A disguise, she thought. She opened the hall closet and selected a Persian lamb hat with a black veil.
For the first time since Clark's death, Marge was feeling fully in control of her life. "A person can take just so much," she muttered, as she jammed her arms into her full length mink coat. "Fuck the bastards," she hissed, as she swept out the front door.
* * *
About the time Marge was leaving for the robbery, Kate was finding it impossible to concentrate on St. Thomas and at last she gave up on him and headed down the hall for a long shower, alternating hot and cold.
Kate was restless. In addition to her concerns about Marge, her thoughts kept returning to the prior weekend when she had lost her virginity in the Harvard dorm room of a childhood friend whom she didn't love. She had told him she just wanted to get it over with, to complete the rite of passage and be rid of the stigma of inexperience. And having finally acquired a sexual history — what she termed her Harvard education — she was desperate to discuss the details with her best friend, Edwina, one of the few verifiably "bad" girls she knew at college. But Edwina was visiting her father in London, and this was not the sort of thing Kate wanted to share over transatlantic lines. At loose ends, she dressed and walked to the student center where she spoke with two girls she knew slightly, had an espresso, and watched a couple of desultory hours of TV. It seemed to her that this change, this womanly knowledge she now possessed, must be obvious to others, but no one seemed to notice.
When she returned to her room, shortly before midnight, her answering machine light was flashing.
* * *
Marge had lost the belt to her mink coat some weeks before in a boozy cab ride home, so she was obliged to walk holding the coat closed over her slip with one hand while carrying the gun laden shopping bag with the other. With the weight of the gun dragging her to the right, her gait became erratic as she persevered down Park Avenue, lurched left on 63rd Street, and closed rapidly on the target deli. She drove her shoulder into the swinging door without breaking stride. It gave easily, and her momentum carried her down the short central aisle to the counter.
The deli counterman had grown accustomed to Marge moving unsteadily around the store in recent weeks, selecting seemingly random items (chutney, anchovies, Rice-A-Roni, M&Ms, vitamins), smelling of alcohol and breath spray, and always questioning the charges at checkout. "Good evening, Ma'am," he said, as she careened to a stop before him. "Can I help you?" He noticed the hat with the little net hanging from it — that was a new touch.
Marge rested the shopping bag on the counter and looked around. The deli was empty. She withdrew the massive pistol, holding it in front of her with both hands, arms extended, a posture that caused her mink coat to gape open. The counterman's eyes dropped involuntarily for a split second from the pistol to Marge's emaciated body in the light slip.
"Give me all your money," Marge commanded with icy disdain, pronouncing each word very slowly as if she were under water or some distance away. "Put it in the shopping bag, please. Do it now or I'll shoot you. I mean it."
The counterman was a second generation Greek New Yorker who loved life and never argued with guns, no matter what the vintage. Still, the remarkable sight before him gave him momentary pause — was this a bad joke of some kind?
"DO IT!" Marge screamed.
"Of course, of course, immediately," he said soothingly as he rang up NO SALE on the register and started to scoop up the bills.
"How much is it?" Marge asked.
The counterman was holding two handfuls of bills. He paused, and counted.
"Three hundred seventy-eight dollars."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, Ma'am. Would you like to count it?"
"That...won't be necessary."
"Do you want the change as well?"
Marge brought the pistol up a notch. "Do I look to you like the kind of person who wants the change?"
"Of course not, sorry, no, not at all." The counterman dropped the bills in the shopping bag and pushed it gently in her direction.
Marge was thrilled with her performance so far — things were going so well! But the adrenal rush accompanying her easy triumph had rapidly depleted her blood sugar, and she felt a sudden, fierce hunger. She grabbed a bag of potato chips and stuffed it in the shopping bag with the money. "Do you have those green Spanish olives?" she asked.
"I have these," he said, pointing to a shelf on her left.
Marge squinted, following his finger. "No," she said, "those are Greek. I mean the green, Spanish olives."
The counterman brightened. "I could look downstairs," he suggested.
"Don't bother," said Marge, "but thank you." She waved the pistol as a sort of farewell gesture and turned toward the door. She snagged a tin of French paté on the way out, and a chocolate bar, dropping them in the shopping bag as she maneuvered through the door and into the street.
The counterman gave Marge a ten second lead, then walked out the door and spotted her laboring west on 63rd Street. He locked the door and followed along at a discreet distance, noting the building she entered. The police arrived within five minutes. He directed them to the building, where they asked the doorman about a drunk woman in a mink coat with a shopping bag, obtained Marge's name and apartment number, and took the elevator up. Marge depended on the doormen to screen visitors. She rarely locked the front door anymore since she kept losing her keys. When no one responded to their knock, the police entered and found her sitting on the floor in the front hall, still in her slip but without the mink coat. She was drinking warm vodka from a water tumbler, eating potato chips and chocolate, and trying to count the small pile of bills in front of her.
Although she insisted it was all a misunderstanding, Marge finally agreed to put on her mink and accompany the officers to the 19th Precinct Station to discuss the matter further. They were actually quite polite, Marge thought, and it felt good to have two big strapping men make a fuss over her.
It was a slow night for the press boys at the 19th. They figured they could make something out of Marge's story. And one of the TV networks shot local news footage of Marge during what she insisted on calling her "booking ceremony."
* * *
Kate pushed the play button on her answering machine and the voice of her New York schoolgirl friend Sissy MacDonald came on the line. "Kate...I saw the clip about your mother on the 11:00 News...how awful, how embarrassing...call me when you get in..."
Kate's first thought was that Marge had finally made good on her promise to jump out the window, a thought accompanied by a visceral slug of fear and guilt so strong it momentarily paralyzed her. But Sissy had used the term embarrassing, and that must mean Marge was alive.
She dialed Marge's number and hung up when the answering service picked up.
Sissy was a terrible gossip — the last person she wanted to get bad news from or discuss it with.
The 11:00 News! Terrified, Kate dialed Sissy's number.
Sissy laid out the story in breathy bursts, her feigned sympathy unable to mask the irresistible excitement of scandal. When Kate finally understood what had happened she tried to take a breezy line with Sissy, as if the whole thing was a merry, tipsy prank, and isn't Mom zany, but she was actually flooded with relief that Marge was safe and also ready to tear Marge's eyes out — she could not remember ever feeling this angry toward her mother. She called the 19th Precinct in New York, and spoke to one Officer Mulrooney who informed her that Marge's lawyer, Newton Kravits, had posted bail and got her released from the holding pen, and that Marge was really considered more of a psychiatric than a criminal case. He reported this distinction cheerfully, as if he expected Kate to appreciate the presumed elevation in the status of Marge's case (my Mom's not a crook, thought Kate, she's just nuts and acts like a crook). Officer Mulrooney said further that Marge was a fine lady with an unfortunate weakness for the liquor, and he could confidentially report a similar problem in his own family. Kate thanked Officer Mulrooney and hung up before he was inspired to share further intimacies. She was trying to puzzle out God's intention in all this. Was she being punished for overlooking her sexual transgression in her last confession? But why would God choose to work through Marge, when He could get to Kate directly any way He wanted? That didn't make sense... unless God was telling her or warning her to return to New York to live with and take care of her mother.
That was a terrible thought. That was a thought she would think about some other time, some time in the future. For the moment, the best she could do was to try to limit the collateral damage.
Kate unplugged her phone and set her alarm for 6:30 AM. By 7:00, she was standing in front of the student bookstore with her empty duffel bag, shivering in the cool morning air. The store did not open till 7:30, but she knew the bales of New York newspapers were delivered earlier.
As soon as the truck dropped off the papers, Kate pulled out copies of the New York Times and the POST. Marge's story made page three of the POST and the second page of the Metropolitan section in the Times. The Times piece, noting that Marge was a recent widow, emphasized the strains of city life on older people living alone. The POST headline read "SOCIETY MATRON AMOK IN POSH STICKUP". Both papers carried photos that caught Marge looking like a cornered animal.
As she was finishing the Times story, a woman arrived to open the store and Kate told her she would take all the copies of the Times and the POST.
"All the copies?" The woman asked.
"All of them," said Kate. "I'm actually going to give them away to everyone as gifts this morning," she added, and tried to smile winningly. "It's a penance I'm doing."
The woman eyed her with deep suspicion. "I'd have to keep a POST out for Sister Teresa, and one for Mrs. Martinson," she said. "And also..."
"I'll take care of Sister Teresa and Mrs. Martinson! I'll take care of everyone!" said Kate with considerable intensity.
The woman took half a step back and looked at Kate appraisingly.
"Of course you will, dear. Of course." She spoke with much the same deference the counter man had when he addressed Marge during the robbery — both seemed to recognize that their patrons were driven by something urgent and undeniable.
Kate paid for the papers with a check and began stuffing them into her duffel bag. She found she was just able to fit them all in, which appealed to her sense of order. She considered it a good omen.
* * *
Kate was on the shuttle from Boston to New York, looking out her window at a bank of heavy gray clouds that seemed to accurately reflect her mood. Newton Kravits had called to report that Marge was scheduled to begin three weeks of observation and psychiatric evaluation at the Elmhurst Psychiatric Prison the following morning, and Kate felt she should be there for Marge on this last evening before her mother went to jail.
Marge was in pretty good shape when Kate arrived at the apartment. She had had her hair done at her salon and was wearing one of her nicest silk prints. Two large suitcases stood in the hall packed with clothes for various occasions, because Marge really couldn't anticipate what she would need in prison and she wanted to be prepared. And although she had packed two quart bottles of vodka for "emergencies," she had only consumed two Valiums and four beers during the day to steady her nerves because she wanted to be calm and relaxed for Kate's visit.
Kate kissed Marge on the cheek and began without preamble.
"Mother," she said, "I think it's time we talked about your drinking."
"Now Kate," Marge replied, "this has been a terrible embarrassment. I know that. But I'm much more embarrassed than you, dear. Think of how I feel."
Kate felt a spasm of rage she knew she would pay for in her next confession.
"Mother, this simply can't continue..."
Marge smiled. "Kate, darling, don't be negative. I need cheering up. It's just a three week observation thing, you know, and I'm sure I'll come through with flying colors. And the place is really just like a hospital in the country. And I'm sure I can be very helpful to the unfortunate women incarcerated there."
Marge paused. She had a dreamy look in her eyes.
"I'm sure I can help," she said. "Just like that nice lady who killed that diet doctor in Scarsdale. What was her name, dear? Do you remember? Jean something, wasn't it? She had a very positive impact as I recall."