Sweet Mystery Of Life

Short Story 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 and unseeing.

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 despair, bodies giving off the smell of decay and death.
In the visitor’s lounge he found Dan’s wife, Juliana: a small, bony, African-born woman whom he hadn’t 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 angry and pinched.
“What do you mean what happened to him?” she shot back at Neil. “Dan got old and sick, that’s what happened!”
“I realize that. What I don’t understand is how he ended up in a dump like this. Couldn’t you have done any better by him?”
“It wasn’t possible.”
“The reason is very simple. This is the only clinic on Long Island that takes Medicare.”
“Medicare? How come Dan needs Medicare? What happened to all of his money?”
“Just what money are we talking about?”
“C’mon, the man made millions.”
“And lost millions.”
“He can’t have blown it all, dammit!”
“You’re welcome to your opinion, but the bottom line is: we’re broke. This clinic 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 that’ll care for him properly?”
“Look, not even the Mayo Clinic can help Dan. The cancer’s too far gone. He’s going to die. Get used to the idea, dammit!”
* * *

When Joey DeStefano heard all this, he reacted by shouting, “That’s Juliana for you! Dan’s problems began the minute he hooked up with that bitch. She wrecked his life, goddammit!”
“Just what makes you say that?”
“She put some kind of African witch-doctor hex on him!”
“You’re just prejudiced against her because she’s black.”
“Correction. Because she’s African.”
“What have you got against Africans?”
“Nothing–-until I met her. There was something about her that bothered me. Something hidden and suspicious.”
“That’s nonsense. She was bright and animated, a real live wire.”
“She put on a show so that Dan would fall in love with her,” Joey insisted. “Once they married, she discarded her mask, became a different person. A person who put a spell on Dan, some kind of voodoo 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. I’m sure as hell of that!”
* * *

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, 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 a bunch of 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: tough, rambunctious guys with an assortment of mental disorders ranging from shell-shock to paranoia to alcoholism.
With a ratio of 150 men to 500 women, the Adelphi campus soon began to resemble a den of iniquity, a bacchanal. The amount of bizarre, beer-swilling, lecherous 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 many of those stories was Dan Levin, the street-smart, ballsy kid from Brownsville, Brooklyn who was such a phenom on the basketball court, darting this way and that as he searched for a screen behind which he could launch one of his high-arching two-handed set shots, shots that almost always found net.

Dan’s 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 master’s 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 turned that retail business 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 nation as well. He knew how to bid on those jobs, make the numbers so attractive that the developers couldn’t turn him down. He also knew how to maintain the pools, make them work cleanly and efficiently.
Soon Dan was taking home an annual income in the high six figures, the owner of a seven-room house in Plainview, and the father of two bright, impish girls. He also drove a Cadillac El Dorado, played golf and tennis on weekends, enjoyed ski holidays in Canada and Europe; he had it all, was living out the American Dream. So how could he have ended up in a state nursing home with its over-crowded wards, Salvation Army furniture, black and white, rabbit-eared tv set?
“How did it happen, dammit?” Neil repeated as he and Joey continued to inch their way east. “Just what in hell went wrong is what I’d like to know!”

* * *
Rhonda, Dan’s ex-wife, was still occupying the house Dan had purchased when they first got married; he had ceded it to her in the divorce settlement. Rhonda 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 family snapshots, photos of herself, her children, and her current boyfriend–-but nary a likeness of Dan. She had cut him out of her life, in a cold and vengeful way.
“Dan was a son of a bitch!” she suddenly shouted. “And he was a liar and a cheat. You knew that about him, didn’t you?”
They made no answer, just stared down at their shoe-tips.
“You knew about his other women, didn’t 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. I’m still on anti-depressants to this day, still seeing a shrink, so don’t expect me to feel sorry because he’s dying a miserable pauper!”
She took a gulp of coffee, then began ranting again. “Don’t expect me to provide you with the key to his downfall. I’m not interested in even talking about him. And I’m not sad, either, that he’s dying, because for me he died a long time ago, when I discovered he was having an affair with my best friend. I didn’t mourn him at the time, so why should I mourn him now? He can go straight to hell, that lying, sneaky son of a bitch!”
* * *

Fortunately, Rolfe Passer gave them a bit of a warmer reception when they visited him at work.
He 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 droned overhead the whole time.
Rolfe’s office was on the second floor, a comfortable suite reeking of cigar smoke. He poured them some shots of slivovitz. “This is the real stuff, imported from the old country,” he said in his still-thick 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 company’s jobs.
Now Rolfe sat in his high-backed leather chair, puffing on a two-dollar stogie, sipping slivovitz and grinning at them, secure in the knowledge that he was lord of the manor around here.
“What happened to Dan?”

Rolfe blew a long stream of smoke up at the ceiling. Then he shrugged and said, “Several things happened. One, he got tired of the swimming-pool business. I’m 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 sniff 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. She stuck it to him good, but Dan was still left with a bundle, he didn’t have to worry where his next meal was coming from. That’s when, I think, he really started to change, to look for new, challenging things to do with his life.
“He started to try his hand at different kinds of investments. Some of them were risky deals no bank would touch, but he went ahead anyway. He lost a bundle 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 didn’t 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 do well if you knew what to buy, spot the good from the crappy stuff. You were buying cheap and selling dear. That’s the best way to go isn’t it, it’s what the American capitalist system is based on, no? Buying cheap and selling dear!”

Rolfe chuckled at his own witticism, then poured more drinks all around. “With this new-found knowledge of diamonds, Dan decided to go to Africa and buy rough-cut stones directly from local miners. Don’t ask me how he managed to get around the South African cartel that controls the international diamond trade; they’ve 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 into the jungle 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 and took those stones 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 flying high, making big money, but then something went wrong and he came crashing down to earth. I have no idea why it happened, we were no longer in touch by then. Only one thing is for sure: Africa had something to do with it.”
“Didn’t I tell you?” Joey suddenly shouted. “Dan’s African wife is to blame! She messed him up, she put some kind of hex on him! It’s all her fault, goddammit”
* * *
Neil and Joey returned to the rehab clinic the next day and put the question to Juliana: “What exactly went happened to Dan in Africa?”
She gave them a narrow, suspicious look. “What’s Africa got to do with anything?”
“C’mon, Juliana. That’s where Dan lost all his money, isn’t it?”
She made no 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 went wrong? You must know.”

“I have no idea–“
“Stop playing dumb, Juliana! You were with Dan in Africa. In fact, that’s where the two of you first met, right?”
She fell silent. Then, finally: “Okay. It’s 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.”
“What were you doing there at the time?”
“I was working for an organization that was trying to ban the practice of FGM.”
“Female genital mutilation. The barbaric butchering of innocent girl children. I’m a victim of it myself, you know.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Neil said, adding, “Was Dan involved in the organization as well?”
“Only informally.”
“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 once told him, about a meeting he’d had in Sierra Leone with your brother. What was that all about?”
“It was just a social thing.”
“Really? Then how come you weren’t invited?”
“I was busy with FGM activities.”
“Did Dan tell you what they talked about?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Don’t think? What kind of answer is that?”

“Look, I can’t remember things like that right now. My head’s 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?”
“I told you. I don’t know.”
“You’re 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 Dan’s 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 don’t know the details, I swear it!”
“I think you do know. Come on, Juliana–-talk!”
Juliana was weeping now, tears were streaming 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, wasn’t 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.”
“How did he manage to do that?”
Juliana’s mouth tightened; she struggled to find her voice. Then:
“He 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, but Joey kept after her, “Come on, what happened next?”
“The drug-dealer was killed in a battle with the police. My brother and one other person at the bank were the only ones who knew about the secret account.”
“Wait a minute,” Neil said. “Are you going to tell me what I think you’re going to tell me?”
Juliana made no answer. Neil continued, “Your brother made a pitch, didn’t he? He told Dan that if he put up front money he and his associate would transfer the entire account to his name. Isn’t that right? Isn’t that how the scam went?”
Juliana gave a sigh and said, “If I’d known what my brother was up to I would’ve put a stop to it. I was married to Dan!” she cried. “I loved him!”

“You’re a liar!” Joey snarled. “You helped your brother to fleece him and now the two of you are sitting on Dan’s money! You’ve 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!”
* * *
Neil and Joey went out drinking that night, tossing down beers and shots 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 facial swelling.
Neil meanwhile had woken up with an awful hangover. To work it off, he walked the three miles to Dan’s nursing home. By the time he reached it he discovered that Dan’s 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 already been donated to a teaching hospital, as per his specific instructions.
Juliana was gone as well. After having collected Dan’s meager belongings, she had taken off for places unknown.
Later that day, Neil drove to Juliana’s furnished room and got permission from the landlady to enter it. He went through all of the room’s closets and shelves, searching for something of Dan’s that he could claim as a keepsake. But all he found was a small mimeographed book of Juliana’s poems. One of them was titled “Dead Woman Walking” and 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,
food and dancing.

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
loud music, 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.