by Willard Manus
There was his best friend Dan Levin, strapped into a hospital cot and
looking like a Buchenwald victim: skeletal, immobile, eyes glazed over
How could he have ended up like this, this man who had been so successful
in life: scrappy basketball player, honors student, educator, then a prosperous
businessman? What could have gone wrong that he should end up in a state
nursing home, one that was filled to overflowing with indigent people,
victims of cancer, car accidents, heart attacks, collapsed lungs and dementia
praecox? Bodies twisted and shriveled, heads lolling, drool dripping out
of their toothless mouths, they looked up at Neil from their wheelchairs
as he walked through the corridor, eyes showing nothing but pain and hopelessness,
bodies giving off the smell of decay and death.
In the visitors lounge he found Dans wife, Juliana: a small,
bony, African-born woman whom he hadnt seen in some fifteen years.
Her short hair was dusted with grey and she had lost her youthful vigor
and sparkle. In its place was something new, something grim and pinched.
What do you mean what happened to him? she shot back at Neil.
Dan got old and sick, thats what happened!
I realize that. What I dont understand is how he ended up
in a dump like this. Couldnt you have done any better by him?
It wasnt possible.
The answer is very simple. This is the only home on Long Island
that takes Medicare.
How come Dan needs Medicare? What happened to all of his money?
Just what money are we talking about?
Cmon, the man made millions.
And lost millions.
He cant have blown it all, dammit!
Youre welcome to your opinion, but the bottom line is: were
broke. This hospice is the only one we can afford.
Suppose some of his friends kicked in. Would that be enough to move
him to a better place, one thatll care for him properly?
Look, not even the Mayo Clinic can help Dan. The cancers too
far gone. Hes going to die. Get used to the idea, dammit!
* * *
When Joey DeStefano was told this, he reacted angrily, shouting, Thats
Juliana for you! Dans problems began the minute he hooked up with
that woman. She wrecked his life, goddammit!
Just how in hell did she do that?
She put some kind of African witch-doctor hex on him!
Youre just prejudiced against her because shes black.
Correction. Because shes African.
What have you got against Africans?
Nothing-until I met her. There was something about her that
bothered me. Something hidden and suspicious.
Thats nonsense. She was bright and animated, a real live wire.
put on a show so that Dan would fall in love with her, Joey said.
Once they married, she discarded her mask, became a different person.
A person who put a spell on Dan, some kind of weird jinx.
Get outa here.
You can scoff all you want, but how else can you account for his
downfall? He lost everything because of her. Im sure as hell of
* * *
They had put JFK Airport behind them and were heading toward Sunrise Highway,
driving in thick, slow-moving traffic. That was okay; it gave them time
to talk, catch up with each others news. They began to reminisce
about the old days, when they had first met Dan back at Adelphi College
in 1948. 1948! Had it really been that long ago? They were still in their
teens, three jocks from New York City high-schools who had somehow ended
up together in a snooty little all-girls college in Garden City,
Long Island. To announce itself as having gone coed, Adelphi had played
the sports card and awarded scholarships to fifty athletes, most of them
football and basketball players. The rest of the hundred-odd males on
campus were veterans newly returned from the battlefields of WW II: a
rough, tough, rambunctious bunch with an assortment of mental disorders
ranging from shell-shock to paranoia to alcoholism.
With a ratio
of 150 men to 500 women, the campus soon took on the trappings of a bacchanalia,
a den of iniquity, a rutting grounds. The amount of lecherous, beer-swilling,
rake-hellish behavior was astonishing, even awe-inspiring. All inhibitions
and restraints were shucked off by both sexes over the course of the next
four years, years filled with drinking, fornication and debauchery. It
was heaven on earth!
Neil and Joey swapped campus stories all during the long drive out to
Plainview. At the center of those stories was Dan Levin, the street-smart,
ballsy kid from Brownsville who was such a phenom on the basketball court,
darting this way and that as he searched for of a screen behind which
he could launch one of his softly-spinning two-handed set shots, shots
that almost always found net.
athletic prowess carried over into his studies: he breezed through just
about every subject he took: higher mathematics, Greek and Roman Classics,
physics and chemistry, even German (which of course was close to the Yiddish
his immigrant parents spoke at home). Dan set the pace for his pals, daring
them to follow. He was the first to get himself a serious girlfriend,
Rhonda, a tall, straight-backed music major from Peekskill, New York;
the first to marry (Rhonda, of course); the first to land a good job,
teaching English at a Manhattan high school; the first to get a masters
degree which qualified him to move up the academic ladder-assistant
principal, then administrator; he could have become a big-shot at the
Board of Education, but by then he had become disillusioned with the whole
system, the political bullshit (as he put it). Consequently, he dropped
out and went into business out on Long Island, supplying and servicing
swimming pools. Within five years he had transformed the company, turned
it into a thriving corporation, one which built massive pools in parks,
housing projects and sports complexes, not only in the NYC area but around
the USA as well. He knew how to bid on those jobs, make the numbers so
attractive that the developers couldnt turn him down. He also knew
how to maintain the pools, make them work cleanly and smoothly.
He was by far the most successful one of them all, taking home an annual
income in the high six figures, owner of a seven-room house in Plainview,
father of two bright, beautiful girls. He also drove a Cadillac El Dorado,
took winter holidays in Europe and England, played golf and tennis in
summer; he had it all, enjoyed it all, was living the American Dream.
So how could he have ended up the way he did, in a state nursing home
with its over-crowded wards, Salvation Army furniture, black and white,
rabbit-eared tv set?
What happened, dammit? Neil repeated as he and Joey drove
east on Sunrise Highway. Just what the hell went wrong is what Id
like to know!
* * *
Rhonda, Dans ex-wife, was still living in the house he had bought
when they first got married; he had ceded it to her in the divorce settlement.
She was as tall and slender as ever, but older and greyer of course. More
beat-up by life.
She made coffee and served it to them in the living room which was filled
with snapshots of herself, her children, and her current boyfriend-but
nary a likeness of Dan. He was just a memory to her, a distant one at
Dan was a son of a bitch, she suddenly blurted. And
he was a liar and a cheat. You knew that about him, didnt you?
They made no answer, just stared down at their shoe-tips.
knew about his other women, didnt you? she continued. Of
course you did, but you never said a word about them when we were together:
the male code of silence, the omerta bullshit, right? You let him play
around, you let him cheat on me and hurt me, hurt me so bad that I had
a nervous breakdown. Im still on anti-depressants to this day, still
seeing a shrink, so dont expect me to feel sorry that he has lost
all his money and is dying a miserable pauper!
She took a sip of coffee, then resumed. Dont expect any compassion
from me, she said. Dont expect me to provide you with
the key to his downfall either. Im not about to psychoanalyze him
for you, either. Im not interested in even talking about him. And
Im not sad that hes dying, because for me he died a long time
ago, when I discovered he was having an affair with my best friend. I
didnt mourn him at the time, so dont expect me to mourn him
now. He can go straight to hell, that sneaky, miserable son of a bitch!
* * *
Fortunately, Rolfe Passer gave them a much friendlier reception when they
visited him in his office.
Rolfe showed them around. The ground floor of his commercial building
was heaped with swimming-pool machinery and supplies; a half a dozen employees
bustled about, some pushing merchandise-laden carts, others checking inventory
against computer printouts. Muzak wafted overhead the whole time.
office was on the second floor, a comfortable suite that reeked of cigar
smoke. He poured them a couple of shots of slivovitz. This is the
real stuff, the good stuff, imported from the old country, he said
in his still-heavy Czech accent.
Dan had given Rolfe his first job when he was a newly-arrived, 16-year-old
emigre who barely spoke a word of English. But Dan saw something that
he liked about the burly, blonde-haired kid and put him to work on one
of his construction teams. Within a span of five years Rolfe had worked
his way up the ranks, becoming a field boss, then a trouble-shooter, then
a designer. Dan had even let him bid on some of the companys jobs.
Now Rolfe sat back in his high-backed leather chair, puffing on a two-dollar
stogie and sipping slivovitz, smiling at them, secure in the knowledge
that he was lord of the manor around here.
What happened to Dan?
Before answering Neils question Rolfe blew a long stream of smoke
at the ceiling. Then he shrugged and said, Several things happened.
One, he got tired of the swimming-pool business. Im not sure why,
we were doing great. But he wanted out all of a sudden. I thought maybe
it was because he wanted to retire; you know, kick back and smell the
flowers. So I gave him a good deal when I bought him out; it was the least
I could do for the man who had done so much for me.
Rolfe sipped his drink again. Then came the divorce with Rhonda,
he said. She stuck it to him good, but Dan was still left with a
bundle, he didnt have to worry where his next meal was coming from.
Thats when, I think, he really started to change, to look for new,
adventurous things to do with his life.
started to dabble in different kinds of investments. Most of them were
risky deals no bank would touch, but he went ahead anyway. He lost a chunk
of dough on some guy down in Virginia who was fixing up old computers
and trying to sell them in Africa. It sounded good on paper but it didnt
work out in life: too much red-tape involved, too many corrupt middle-men
to pay off. The whole thing eventually went bust, but Dan managed to make
up for it when he found a new scheme, buying diamonds and jewelry at auction
sales, goods that had been seized in bankruptcy cases or from smugglers
nailed by U.S. Customs.
You could make a stack of money if you knew what you were doing,
how to spot the good from the crappy stuff. You were buying cheap and
selling dear. Thats the best way to go isnt it, its
what the American capitalist system is based on, no? Buying cheap and
then poured more drinks all around. With this new-found knowledge
of diamonds, Dan decided to put it to even better use by going to Africa
and buying rough-cut diamonds from local miners and dealers. Dont
ask me how he got around the South African cartel that controls the diamond
trade; theyve got their own army, their own spies, those people
are some of the toughest, most ruthless businessmen on the face of the
earth, but Dan managed to do it, he went to Africa on his own, went into
the fucking bush, man, and hondled with the dealers who were working outside
the system. It was a cash-only business, Dan had to walk around with wads
of dough on him like a Bronx bookie, but he did it, he had the balls of
a bull, guys, and he came back to New York loaded down with stones which
he took to the Diamond Exchange on Sixth Avenue where they were cut and
polished and put up for sale. Dan made out like a bandit and began to
go to Africa every year after that.
He was making tons of money, flying high, but then something went
wrong and he came crashing down to earth. I dont know why it happened,
we were no longer in touch by then. Only one thing is for sure: Africa
had something to do with it.
Didnt I tell you? Joey suddenly shouted. Dans
African wife is to blame! She messed him up, she put some kind of hex
on him! Its all that bitchs fault, goddammit
* * *
Neil and Joey returned to the home the next day and put the question to
Juliana: What exactly went happened to Dan in Africa?
She gave them a flat, hostile look. Whats Africa got to do
Cmon, Juliana. Thats where Dan lost all his money, isnt
She didnt reply. Joey kept at her. Did he run afoul of the
diamond cartel? Did those South Africans stick it to him?
Not that I know of.
Then what did go wrong? You must know.
I have no idea
Stop playing dumb, Juliana. You were with Dan in Africa. In fact,
the two of you first met there, isnt that right?
She fell silent. Then, finally: Okay. Its true. Dan and I
did meet in my country, Sierra Leone, and we spent a lot of time there
together. But I was never involved in any of his business dealings.
were you doing at the time?
I was working for an organization that was trying to ban the practice
Female genital mutilation. The barbaric butchering of innocent girl
children. Im a victim of it myself, you know.
Im sorry to hear that, Neil said, adding, Was
Dan involved in the organization as well?
What about your brother?
My brother? How do you know about my brother?
Rolfe Passer called me this morning. He remembered something that
Dan had told him, about a meeting hed had in Sierra Leone with your
brother. What was that all about?
It was just a social thing.
Really? Then how come you werent invited?
I was busy with FGM business.
Did Dan tell you what they talked about?
I dont think so.
Dont think? What kind of answer is that?
Look, I cant remember things like that right now. My heads
all in a whirl.
Joey stared at her, then asked, What does your brother do?
He works for a Nigerian bank.
In Sierra Leone?
No, in Nigeria itself. The pay is better there.
What did he want from Dan?
you. I dont know.
Youre lying! Joey shouted. You know goddamn well
what they talked about! You and your brother were in some kind of cahoots!
You both were out to get your hands on Dans money!
No! Juliana cried out.
Joey grabbed her and shook her, violently. Tell the truth, goddamn
it, or I will beat the living shit out of you!
Juliana recoiled; tears welled up in her eyes. Then she put her face in
her hands and moaned softly, remorsefully. Oh my god, I am so sorry,
so very very sorry!
What kind of number did your brother do on Dan? Tell us!
I dont know the details, I swear it!
I think you do know. Come on, Juliana-talk!
Juliana was crying now, tears were running down her cheeks.
My brother was an investment banker, on a high level, she
said finally, wiping her eyes. He was well-educated, London School
of Economics and all that. And he was handsome and immaculately dressed.
But he was out to swindle Dan, wasnt he?
I had no knowledge of that. I swear it!
Did he ever tell you how he did it?
My brother never said a word to me. It was Dan who told me what
had happened. He broke down one night and blurted it all out, how he had
let himself be conned by my brother.
Tell us just how in hell he managed to do that.
Julianas mouth tightened, became a thin, anguished line. She struggled
to find her voice. Then:
told Dan that a huge sum of money had been deposited in his bank by a
Nigerian drug-dealer. The money was sitting there in a secret account.
Juliana broke off again. Joey kept after her, relentlessly. Come
on, what happened next?
The drug-dealer was killed in a battle with the police. My brother
and another person at the bank were the only ones who knew about the secret
Wait a minute, Neil said. Are you going to tell me what
I think youre going to tell me?
Juliana made no answer. Neil continued, Your brother made a pitch,
didnt he? He told Dan that if he put up front money he and his associate
would transfer the entire account to his name. Isnt that right?
Isnt that how the scam went?
Juliana said with a big sigh, If Id known what my brother
was up to I wouldve put a stop to it. I was married to Dan!
she cried. I loved him!
Youre a liar! Joey snarled. You helped your brother
to fleece him and now the two of you are sitting on Dans money!
Youve hidden it away somewhere and will live off it after he dies,
you fucking black bitch, I am going to break your neck, I am going to
fucking kill you!
* * *
Joey went out drinking that night, tossing down beers the way they used
to back in their college days. They both got bombed and that proved to
be an unfortunate mistake for Joey, whose liver ailment flared up and
caused an allergic reaction. He stayed in bed the next morning, waiting
for the Benadryl to kick in and reduce the swelling in his face and hands.
Neil meanwhile had woken up with a humongous hangover. To work it off,
he walked the three miles to Dans nursing home. By the time he reached
it he discovered that Dans bed was now occupied by another patient,
an elderly woman with an amputated leg.
Dan had died during the night, said the head nurse. His body was gone,
having been donated to a teaching hospital, as per his specific instructions.
Juliana was gone as well. After having collected Dans meager belongings,
she had taken off for places unknown.
Later that day Neil drove to Julianas furnished room and got permission
from the landlady to enter it. He went through all of the rooms
closets and shelves, searching for something of Dans that he could
claim as a keepsake. But all he found was a small mimeographed book of
poems that Juliana had written. One of them was titled Dead Woman
Walking. It went like this:
A ten-year-old girl is asleep
So deep in her sweet dream.
Her aunt wakes her in the middle of
the dark, quiet night.
Silent, the girl gets dressed and
joins nine or ten others.
They are driven, as dawn rises,
to a very remote location and
hear the sounds of music. It is
a celebration, a female-only party,
The music stops and the girls are
sworn to secrecy, never to reveal
the ritual about to take place, or
suffer a curse that will befall them,
their families and their friends.
They are about to join a society
and must keep its secrets forever,
into their graves. One by one each
is blindfolded, arms and legs tied,
and held down by several of the women.
One says, Be brave, do not cry!
The girl screams in excruciating pain
as her clitoris and labia are sliced
from her body. Never will she experience
the joy of sexual pleasure and love.
She faints; her wounds are cleansed with
boiling water and thorns. Disoriented,
numb, dazed and alone, half-conscious
in the dark and wetness, she smells
the stench of blood, urine and feces.
In her pain, grief and tears, she believes
that her death is near. The women bring
her outside and force her to dance; the
the singing and dancing mask
her fear, whirl away the sorrow and shame,
pain and trauma.
At home, a new lappa-suit; still in
shock, she is a woman, and ready to
become a bride.