Secrets of the City

CHAPTER 57: MEL’S TECHNICOLORED GIFT COAT

By Anne Roiphe

Published January 03, 2003, issue of January 03, 2003.
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In Chapter 56, Neil took his own life by the side of the road.

Moe Alter was staring at his computer. On the screen was an e-mail from the polling firm he had hired with funds from the Mayor’s last campaign. The Mayor’s radio speech was corny. But then the Mayor was corny, and the people of the city loved corn. It had worked. The poll numbers were fantastic, incredible, very, very good. Moe Alter was not a man to believe in miracles. But looking at the figures, even across the neighborhoods, his Mayor — who recently had been a long shot for re-election — had become a first-class commodity, a real celebrity.

The president of a small African country had sent a magnificent multicolored coat made of wool to help keep the Mayor warm. The Mayor wanted to wear the coat: river blue, mud brown, grass green, red as blood, a stripe of black, like the night sky. In one of the coat’s orange pockets the Mayor had found a good-luck charm, a tooth from a lion or a panther hanging from a gold rope, or course it might have been the president’s own canine, too!

Ruth laughed when he tried on the coat for her. “You look like an ancient hippie, a cast member of a ‘Hair’ revival.” she said. “I do not,” Mel said, glaring. “I look like Joseph.” Ruth sighed. “You could get arrested in that coat,” she said. “For what?” Mel asked, trying to see his back in the full-length mirror that hung on their closet door. “For possession,” said Ruth, “or for walking around under the influence of hubris.” She closed her eyes.

The next morning when Mel wore the coat to the office Harold gasped and clapped his hands. He, at least, thought his boss looked splendid. Moe said the coat could hang on a hook on the coat rack in the outer office but must never leave the building. He had an intern compose a long thank-you letter to the African president. Mel slipped the tooth into the top drawer of his desk.

* * *

Leonid had sent Brooke a bouquet of orchids he had gotten from a friend who worked in the flower district with the truckers who brought the day’s posies — flown in from Venezuela or Ghana or places where the sun burns hot and seeds burst into flame year round — to the stores where they would sit in green buckets of water, wrapped in cellophane, guarded by workers who were not as legally imported as their fragile charges.

Leonid had tried to explain why he had stood her up without going into all the gory details, like his actual incarceration. Fortunately, all charges had been dropped, and he was back on top of his game. Brooke hung up on

him, twice. But the third time she listened to his story, which had something to do with a friend who was run over and the need to stay by the friend’s side during the ambulance ride and the loss of his cell phone in the process and the friend’s out-of-body experience in the emergency room. As he spun his tale, Leonid’s accent grew thicker and Brooke missed some of his words. In the end she heard only his intense desire to have her forgive him, and so she did.

She was taking Kim to her therapy appointment. The doctor’s office was near Kim’s school. She would have about 45 minutes to meet Leonid while Kim and the doctor did whatever they did. Leonid was waiting for Brooke a few doors down from the doctor’s building. He was smoking as usual. His skin was yellow from smoke. His teeth were not what they had been when he was younger. His eyes, however, still had that dark, troubled look that spoke of suffering and battle and long nights in bad places that made Brooke’s heart beat fast.

Leonid, however, was not the denizen of the night he pretended to be. He was not as tough and leathery as he looked. What he wanted was a way to make a legitimate living. What he wanted was to have a fine profession in the world like his brother Sergei.

He wanted to know the names of the painters whose work hung in the museum, and he wanted a beach house, a dacha of his own. He wanted to wake up each morning and know that whatever he did that day it would not be illegal. He envied everyone he saw on the subway who had a briefcase, who was carrying a copy of The Financial News. He wanted it to matter to him too whether the economy was in good shape or bad. He had made it to America with Sergei, but he had not yet made it in America, and he was getting older and more alarmed. When he looked at himself in the mirror he got the shakes. It really was time he pulled himself together.

Brooke saw none of this. She saw the swagger and the Russian hint of hard drink and rough times.

They sat in a hamburger place, a very upscale hamburger place with glass tables and hanging plants. They sat in the back. Leonid tapped the tabletop with his fingers. Brooke made conversation.

“Were you in the army?” she asked. Leonid looked at her as though she were crazy. “You take me for a fool,” he said. Brooke paused. Her father had been in the Army in the Korean War. He was very proud of it.

“I did nearly join the Navy,” Leonid said. “Why didn’t you?” asked Brooke. The truth was that he had been down at the docks, hanging around thinking there might be something worthy of being pinched, when a battleship came in. At the dock he saw a cluster of what seemed like hundreds of pretty girls waving and babies in strollers and women in their best finery, and when the men came down the plank the women surged forward, and he heard little cries and sounds of kissing and the buzzing of words and the pressing of bodies. As he watched from the side of the dock, he felt a desire to join the Navy. The sailors had uniforms that seemed to him to enhance their appeal, to explain why the women had been so patient while the men rode the waves around the globe.

Leonid suddenly laughed. “You would look so fine in a Russian sailor’s Beskozyrka,” he said. “It has a pompom on the top. It is made of soft blue wool. You would be so beautiful in that hat,” he said. As he leaned across the table to touch Brooke’s fingers he realized he meant what he said. A Russian sailor’s hat would look wonderful on an American girl. “I will make you this hat, and you will see,” he said. Perhaps he thought to himself, I can make a dozen and sell them to the stores. He was restless and said good-bye even before Brooke had to pick up Kim.

An Imp of Misfortune fell into Brooke’s Diet Coke and drowned.

Next week, a snowy coverup fails to hide a crime.






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