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KARMA 101 - MARK CROCE


Finally leaving his parents’ suburban Philadelphia house at age thirty-four, Jerry wasn’t about to choose just any apartment. He wanted his new home—his “bachelor pad”—to be special. Many he viewed seemed fine at first, with their high ceilings, white walls, and waxy hardwood floors that moaned softly beneath him, but the longer he lingered in these, the more he sensed that something was missing. What that something was, he couldn’t quite define. He would know it when he found it.

About to toss apartment 101 atop the rejection pile and head to a bar for a burger and beer to console himself, he noticed the man from the agency, Ivan, sneaking glances out the window.

Jerry saw only the back yard of the gray house next door, a fenced-in plot of grass devoid of landscaping or outdoor furniture. He was turning away, disappointed that yet another decent but bland apartment had failed to distinguish itself, when he noticed the large, red beach towel draped over the neighbors’ fence. So that was it, eh? Ivan—an Eastern European immigrant in his fifties who twisted the wedding ring on his right hand—was looking for sunbathers next door, most likely students at nearby University of Pennsylvania.

Jerry would have confessed to some difficulty with the ladies at that point in his life, and the promise of young, attractive, single neighbors was just the type of sign he couldn’t resist. He turned to Ivan, who now had beads of sweat on his forehead.

“So...girls next door?” Jerry asked, moving his hands in the traditional hourglass gesture.

“Oh, many, many girls, yes,” Ivan said, smiling broadly now, as if relieved to have his indiscretion out in the open.

“Great,” Jerry said. “I’ll take it.”

Jerry rose to birdsong on the first Saturday in his new home, and after some stretching and light weightlifting enjoyed a brisk jog along the Schuylkill River. Crew teams rowed beside him, slicing politely into a gentle current as the rising sun fanned a golden greeting across the water’s sleepy surface. He ran more than he ever had, nodding at other joggers, smiling and waving at the dog walkers and the elderly shuffling around with their canes. The city was alive with him, breathing, heart pulsing.

Back at the apartment, he opted for a tepid shower to keep his energy high. Then he toasted a sesame bagel, ground some Costa Rican coffee beans, and played Miles Davis on low volume. He watered his new Ficus and ferns while the coffee brewed in his French press, walking around barefoot in a towel amid the glorious absence of his mother’s complaints.

While tending to a fern near the window, he thought of the neighbors and angled the mini blinds just enough to see out without being noticed. He wouldn’t want to give them the wrong impression; he was only curious, not a pervert or voyeur. He fully intended to meet these young ladies: greeting them as he returned from work, helping them carry out their trash, talking about the weather. Eventually he’d be invited to socialize with them—to

“party.” It felt good to use party as a verb, the way kids had when he’d been in school, and he was repeating it like a mantra when the neighbors’ door, as if in response to his chant, creaked open.

When no one readily filled the empty doorway, his mind began filling it for him. He saw the girls of his college days: wealthy suburban beauties who had straddled the fence between confidence and arrogance like gymnasts on a balance beam and who had always remained thin, firm, and completely inaccessible to him. Things would be different now. Older, wiser, and bursting with the cash he’d saved while living with his parents, he would surely impress them. He’d offer rides in his Mustang convertible, pay their entrance to the best dance clubs, buy them alcohol. They would be competing for his attention now, perhaps offering more and more for the chance to be the one chosen as his girlfriend.

He was staring into the doorway’s black opening, his hand unconsciously stroking the bulge in his damp towel, when she emerged. She reminded him of his androgynous junior high gym teacher—plus an extra fifty pounds—and that brought him right out of his trance. Next, a row of mentally challenged people (or whatever they were currently calling them) wobbled through the doorway in a single file line, each carrying one item—rake, broom, shovel, trash bag, etc.

Jerry cringed and slapped the blinds shut. It wasn’t that he had anything against such people. Hell, he’d even known some people with Down syndrome over the years. They had been mostly functional, though, living with their families and requiring no more special attention than a ten-year-old or a rather senile grandfather. These people seemed worse, and seeing them all crammed into such a tiny yard reminded him of chickens. He enjoyed a batch of hot wings as much as the next guy, but the sight of hyper fowl clucking around a congested, shit-stained coop would do nothing for his appetite.

What sounded like a rooster’s call caused him to reopen the blinds. Unintelligible stammering was followed by groaning and punctuated with a shriek—and all that was just the caregiver. He turned up the stereo but it was no use. Could he deal with this? He imagined coming home from work and trying to unwind to the clamor. And what about entertaining guests? Romancing the ladies with soft music, candlelight...and screaming? No way.

He hesitated while dialing the agency, considering that he was being shallow. He conceded that point, but when he thought of his one-year lease, it seemed an overly extreme sentence. He did a quick inventory out the window and noticed that indeed, as Ivan had claimed, there were many, many girls.

“Sneaky son of a bitch,” he said, and closed the blinds for the last time. He would leave them hanging there when he moved out a week later.

Because Jerry had signed a one-year lease, his security deposit—one extra month’s rent—would only be refunded if he found someone else to rent the apartment by the end of the month. Jerry knew just the person. Randall Tomlinson, the new guy at the bank, a young kid who’d transferred from New Orleans to fill the Vice President position for which Jerry had lobbied. Passed over again, he was still steaming when Tomlinson started to make his

presence felt, initiating policy changes that altered the way Jerry had been doing his job just fine for years. It was pure crap, and Jerry couldn’t see why the senior staff bought it.

“The world’s changing, ladies and gentlemen, and we need to change with it,” was how Tomlinson had opened his first staff meeting, enticing the women with his political correctness, openness to new suggestions, and garish pink shirt. Jerry had worked there for eight years, and now some kid was micromanaging him? Asking for expenditure records and progress reports and checking his watch when Jerry returned from lunch?

Tomlinson was staying with a former fraternity brother while looking for an apartment, something nearby that would allow him to take his time looking for just the right house. He had mentioned University City, where of course Jerry recommended apartment 101. He didn’t know Jerry had briefly moved in, so Jerry simply told him that it was a great unit, but “a little more than I can handle,” which in a way was true. This worked two ways, by stroking Tomlinson’s ego and getting Jerry in his good graces. He had to give himself credit, he thought one night while drinking beers alone in the bar next to the bank, he’d really turned a negative situation into something memorable. He was Vice Presidential material, no doubt about it.

On the Monday morning after he’d moved into apartment 101, Tomlinson called Jerry into his office. Assuming he’d made the disturbing discovery over the weekend, Jerry took a deep breath before entering the office and squeezed a bottle cap in his hand to avoid smiling.

“It’s perfect, Jerry, just what I was looking for. And it only took me ten minutes to get to work today. Brilliant. So how is your own search going?”

Not brilliant, Jerry thought. Why did he use that word so much? Did he spend a semester in England or something?

“Still looking, but I’m not in a hurry.”

“Really? I would be if I were staying with newlyweds. Sounds rough.”

Jerry squeezed the bottle cap, but not to avoid smiling. Who the hell had told Tomlinson about that? He mumbled some vague assent and slunk back to his desk, where he struggled to focus on his work.

Unwilling to return to his parents, he’d placed his furniture into storage and begun crashing at his friend Dave’s, where his evenings were filled with the sounds of barely restrained passion in the next room.

Tomlinson’s impending surprise was his sole comfort. It was only a matter of time before he found out the apartment wasn’t so “brilliant,” and Jerry’s only regret was that he wouldn’t be there to witness the discovery in person.

His anticipation swelled all week, and on Friday morning Tomlinson invited him to his

apartment for a thank you dinner. Jerry accepted, and as soon as he was out of sight began pumping his fist in the air. He might actually witness the unveiling in person! Brilliant!

Jerry arrived slightly early with a bottle of wine and a fern as a housewarming gift.

“Hi, you must be Jerry,” said the woman who opened the door.

“Uh, yes.”

“Come in,” she said, stepping aside. “I’m Lorraine. Skip is busy in the kitchen.”

Skip? Was that an old family nickname?

“Lovely fern,” she said.

“Oh, yeah...just a little housewarming gift.”

“How nice. Here, let me take that. You sit and make yourself comfortable and I’ll let him know you’re here.”

“Thank you,” Jerry said, watching her set the plant on a table near the window. “So, are you his sister or something?”

She let out a short laugh, then composed herself.

“Heavens, no,” she said, and left the room.

Jerry stood before the sofa and continued staring at the air she had filled. Her face, her voice, southern accent, laugh, body, body language, name, presence...it was all wonderful. She was wonderful. She was both innocent and provocative at the same time, like a virgin belle crafted by Tennessee Williams. The day just kept getting better.

Who was she, though? And what did that “heavens, no” mean? Was she relieved that she and “Skip” weren’t siblings, because she didn’t like him? Or was she implying that they were sleeping together? Jerry settled on the first theory, which would allow him to pursue her for himself. Then again, he could pursue her anyway. To hell with Skip. (He couldn’t wait to unleash that name at the bank.)

It was very quiet as he approached the kitchen with the wine, and he soon learned why. He watched from the hallway as Tomlinson and Lorraine kissed. And kissed. And kissed. Good Lord, had they forgotten he was waiting in the next room?

He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, summoning the neighbors to begin their show and drain the color from Tomlinson’s overworked lips. That quelled his anger and he began to relax, so much so that the bottle slipped from his limp hand and shattered on the metal moulding strip, sending wine flowing across the kitchen.

“Jerry!” Tomlinson called, stepping deftly around the clear puddle with outstretched arms. He hugged Jerry, kissed him on the cheek, and slapped his back before bringing his arm to rest over Jerry’s shoulders.

“Damn, I’m sorry about that,” Jerry said, thinking that all the kissing had gone to Tomlinson’s head.

“Shocking sight, eh?” Tomlinson said. “I know. I’m surprised, too, and I owe it all to you.”

Then he grabbed two towels and tossed one at Jerry.

“Good thing you brought white instead of red,” he said.

Jerry kept apologizing about the spill, though he was equally embarrassed about watching them.

“Wow, twice in one week, Skip,” Lorraine said. “What’s with you and wine?”

“You broke another bottle?” Jerry asked.

“Not me,” he said. “My neighbor. That’s how we met.”

Jerry turned to Lorraine. “You?” he said, and despite having just seen her tongue in his boss’ mouth, he thrilled at the thought of having something in common with her; a means of bonding.

“No, it wasn’t me either,” she said. “It was Roger.”

“Roger?” Jerry said, confused.

“One of the folks next door,” Tomlinson explained. “I came home from the grocery store my first night here—had to stock up a little, you know—and he walked over to help me carry my bags in, and boom! Wine all over the driveway.”

“Your kid?” Jerry asked Lorraine. “You live in those new condos next door?”

“No. Actually, I run a group home for the developmentally disabled. It’s the grey house on the other side.”

“Yeah, she’s got about twenty residents over there,” Tomlinson joined in. “She has the patience of a saint, which should help her deal with me.”

With that he stood briefly and kissed Lorraine on the cheek. Jerry kept his head down and continued picking up pieces of glass, careful not to cut his fingers and further embarrass himself.

During dinner, Tomlinson and Lorraine explained their whirlwind week.

“She was so apologetic about the wine, and kept offering to make it up to me. I told her it was no big deal, but if it would make her feel better, I had missed lunch and wouldn’t say no to dinner.”

“I felt just awful,” she said. We try not to let the residents wander off, but it’s so crowded in there.”

“Not for long,” Tomlinson added, winking at Jerry.

“Oh?” Jerry said. “Why is that?”

Lorraine looked to Tomlinson, who said, “Go ahead, dear.” Dear? thought Jerry. Isn’t it a little soon for that?

“Well,” she began, pushing some risotto around her plate, “we got to talking, and before I knew it the home had a loan for a new facility.”

“Really? That’s great,” Jerry said, though he detected foul play. Clearly, Tomlinson had made promises he couldn’t keep in order to seduce this lovely, innocent woman. Jerry felt bad for her, and he was determined to open her eyes. Plan A hadn’t worked, but there was still an opportunity to ruin Tomlinson’s evening. And maybe, he thought, just maybe, he could still get the girl. “So,” he said, turning to his boss, “you pre-approved a loan over dinner?”

Tomlinson stopped grinning. Jerry could see he’d struck a blow.

“No, of course not,” Tomlinson said, waving away Jerry’s comment with a gentle backhand. “Lorraine came to the bank on Monday—you were still out to lunch, I believe—and we ran some numbers and filled out the paperwork. They can afford it with current interest rates so low, and guess what? Remember how the bank took that hit in the press last year after foreclosing on that women’s shelter?”

Of course Jerry remembered. In an attempt to make an impression on the higher-ups, he’d made himself available to the press for comment and had been quoted—clearly out of context—in a way that sounded so insensitive that the woman he’d been dating for two months dumped him. And over the phone at that.

“Anyway,” Tomlinson continued, “in exchange for a reduced fixed rate and the waving of additional loan fees, the new center will include the bank’s name in the signage. A real public relations coup. Brilliant, eh?”

Jerry nodded, drank some wine. It was white flag time.

“You two really seem to be hitting it off,” he offered, trying to suppress his bitterness.

They looked at each other, grinning, and eventually broke into laughter.

“What?” Jerry said. “What’s so funny?”

“Go ahead and show him,” Tomlinson told her. “He’s hopeless.”

Lorraine extended her left arm, revealing a sparkling new diamond on her finger.

“Oh my God,” Jerry said. “But you just met.”

“I know,” Tomlinson said. “It’s amazing. But we talked so much, and we’re totally on the same page.”

“But you’re in finance, and she’s in social services,” Jerry pointed out.

“Hey, I do what I’m naturally good at. I can’t help it if I was born with a head for numbers and business. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about helping people.”

Jerry turned to Lorraine next.

“Don’t you think you’re moving a little fast?” he asked her.

“Oh, don’t worry, we aren’t setting a date yet. We’ll give ourselves plenty of time to get to know each other better, but we figured why not start out committed?”

Tomlinson refilled their wine glasses and leaned toward Jerry.

“You’re acting awfully parental,” he said. “What gives?”

“You’re right,” Jerry said, pulling his mouth into a smile and raising his glass for a toast. “Congratulations. Here’s to being committed.”

Jerry learned that Tomlinson’s brother had Down syndrome, Lorraine had grown up near Baton Rouge, and that while they were going over paperwork at the bank Lorraine had diagnosed Tomlinson’s dyslexia, something nobody else had identified in his twenty-five years. Their plan was to marry and live in the home next door after the new facility was constructed a few blocks away.

Jerry drank so much that he could barely walk to the bathroom, and Tomlinson suggested he spend the night. He almost agreed, too, until he witnessed Tomlinson and Lorraine discover that their mothers were both members of M.A.D.D., or Mothers Against Drunk Driving. He vomited and called a cab.

He spilled into bed as Dave’s guest room spun around him, cursing his boss, his job, himself, and fate in general. The thought of returning to work on Monday made his nausea resurface. He considered—since he was crashing at Dave’s and not paying full rent—that he should just quit and focus on a job search. He was congratulating himself about this idea when he heard a knocking at the door.

He dragged himself up and crossed the room, only to realize that it was Dave’s headboard tapping shamelessly against the wall behind him. He crawled back onto the mattress and pulled the pillow over his head. In the muffled darkness, a forgotten piece of the hazy night came back to him: in his drunken stupor, he’d agreed to be best man at Tomlinson’s wedding.

“This wouldn’t have happened without you, after all,” Tomlinson had said.

“Brilliant,” Jerry mumbled, pulling the pillow tighter against his head until he passed out.


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