Jilly Rudolph was out on the deck when I woke up. It was three in the afternoon and she was out there flipping through the local newspaper. She was a woman from my office, midthirties, lanky, charming, a close friend who had stuck with me when I was dismissed from the design shop in Houston where we both worked. And she liked me, which made her a special favorite of mine. She’d had a short and lousy marriage in her twenties and hadn’t gone back to the altar. I was nearly two decades older, twice married, and a partner at Point Blank Design, at least until the other partners decided I was past my “use by” date and sent me into early retirement with a silver plate engraved with fine sentiments and thanks for almost thirty years of service. To say I was shocked would understate it. You do something that long and you figure you’ve probably made the cut. But the young people will have their way.
I had been living in Kemah, halfway between Houston and Galveston, and working from home a lot, so upon my sacking I repaired to the condo to lick my wounds and figure out what might be the next move, assuming there was one. I’d lived there since the last years of my second marriage, so it was comfortable enough, even if I wasn’t. I didn’t fish or hunt, I didn’t collect stamps or books or baseball cards, I didn’t cook, garden, or build model airplanes, so when they let me go I was, to say the least, at a loss. I suppose I could have looked for work at another shop, but I felt a little long in the tooth for that, and I had a decent safety net, financially. So I did nothing, and doing nothing I was very pleased that Jilly made a habit, after my embarrassing fall from grace, of visiting more often than I’d imagined she might. She was a quiet woman, kind of stoical, wry, what people call older than her years, and we had been close at the office and were closer now. I was grateful. That, too, understates the thing.
I went out onto the deck of the condo, gave Jilly a hug, and settled into the chair next to hers. Even with the sun surrounded by clouds it was way too bright.
“Visiting the halt and the lame?” I said.
“I am indeed,” she said, closing the paper and sliding it my way. “A genuine act of mercy for which I get rewards in the next life. You, on the other hand, look positively disreputable.”
“I’m fine,” I said, sticking a hand through my hair. “That’s just my hair. It’s waking up. We went to bed at seven.”
“How glamorous,” she said. “You must be refreshed by this hour.”
“I missed you,” I said. “I do every time you go home. Didn’t you just go home a couple days ago? Not to be forward.”
“I did,” she said. “To carry out my responsibilities. To spy on your former employers—my current employers—while living it up with them and all my other friends in the big town. All the while clinging to a paycheck.”
“Well, I missed you while you were gone. Did I say that already?” I said.
“You did. Thanks,” she said. “I found a kid who writes code. He’s sweet and ridiculously young. In the teen area.”
“In the little-brother way, yes,” she said. “What’s news?”
“My neighbor, Forest Ng, died in a car crash,” I said. “His name is spelled ‘Ng’ but pronounced ‘Eng’—I looked it up.”
“Everybody knows that,” she said.
“I liked him. He crashed his car over by one of the marinas. In the early morning hours. A ‘shots rang out’ thing.”
She tapped the paper. “If there’s a picture in here I didn’t see it.”
“It was, apparently, a completely accidental car accident.”
This was March, still bearable out. Jilly was in jeans and a white button-down shirt and wore a scent that made the world around her seem wonderful and mysterious. I couldn’t help feeling lucky. In the waning days of my tenure at the design shop she was what made it worthwhile.
Ng was a guy I talked to from time to time. He’d recently bought the condo next to mine, moved in with a herd of people, so many I couldn’t figure out who went with whom. There were seven adults in the house—three men, four women—all between twenty-five and forty-five. One time Ng said they were relatives; another time he said they were coworkers in his nail salons. He said he had salons in Kemah, Seabrook, Texas City, Beaumont, Sugar Land, and Waikiki.
Waikiki? I said.
Kid you not, he said.
Together they had seven Mercedes-Benzes, all black, and not the cheap ones, either, for which there was insufficient parking, so the cars ended up in the yard, in my driveway, in the carefully tended green space.
“He struck a curb,” I said. “Then he hit a building, flipped the car, busted a hydrant, landed upside down in the culvert. And the whole thing burst into flames,” I said. “It was on TV at five a.m. this morning.”
She picked up her water bottle and shooed a gnat away from her hair. “Get away,” she said. “I remember you whined about the cars.”
“I did not whine. Not once. I asked him to keep them on his property. He was friendly about it. I liked him. He was a Mac person. We were pals.”
“You don’t have so many pals, usually.”
“I’m trying to change my ways,” I said. “It’s your influence. Interacting with other human beings is therapeutic.”
“Duh,” she said.
“He made a fortune in mani-pedi,” I said. “If the cars mean anything.”
She shook her head. “Don’t. They’re probably leased. Besides, you think everybody made a fortune.”
“True,” I said, swatting my hair again, both hands this time. “You look very very pretty today.” Kathy Najimy’s decades-old joke.
She just nodded at that. “Good one,” she said.
I liked Ng because he was straightforward about lying to me. He exaggerated everything. He had places in three cities, he did Bill Clinton’s toes one time, he bought an eighty-inch flat-screen television to watch American football, his yard guy was nine hundred a month and was the brother of a Green Bay Packers running back. Ng was small and wiry and he gestured like a maniac when he complained about the neighborhood. One night he brought me a pork chop he had cooked “Oulipo style.” One of the women was his wife, but I was afraid to ask which one.
My neighbor on the other side talked too much and wasn’t so interesting. He was like a cook on a ship in a fifties navy movie, except unnecessarily cheerful. He’d moved down from Clifton, New Jersey, and he was working on a miniature perpetual-motion engine in his garage. It was “scalable” he assured me. His name was Bruce Spores. Told me he was a Yale grad and he’d tested as the fifth-smartest male in the country back in the eighties. He took an exam, won an award. The thing was, his brother was even smarter, ranked fourth smartest.
“You are a couple of smart cookies,” I said when he told me about it.
He shook his head and grinned. He was always grinning. I wanted to ask him how he scored on modesty.
Roberta Spores was a short, thick woman with lots of ideas about what was needed to make Forgetful Bay Condominiums a more prestigious address. She had eyes on the leadership of our Homeowners’ Association.
“Ng was OK,” I said. “He always talked about money. How much he paid for the new triple-zone heat pump he had installed in his condo. He had a thing.”
“Who doesn’t?” Jilly said. She picked up the paper and opened it. “I’m going to look.”
“I don’t advise it,” I said.
(So it begins . . .)
A fiftyish graphic designer forced into retirement discovers, in spite of a parade of unlikely events, including numerous deaths, suicides, threats, explosions, and similar, that it might still be a bearable day in the neighborhood. A lovely new book from the author The New Yorker calls, “the master of the low-key epiphany.”