Jerome Turken


As I entered the detention room after regular classes, Conrad, the most famous kid in the school, jumped out of his seat and went to the back of the room. He was tall and skinny as a rail, except he kind of spread out at the hips. The old brown pants he was wearing had holes at both knees and looked grown out of by at least four inches. He had enormout feet, or else was wearing shoes five sizes too big. His shirt looked as though he lumped it up for a pillow and slept on it the night before. Propped loposided on his nose was a little pair of glasses that he must have gotten when he was five years old.

In the back of the room he stood looking at the wall for about ten seconds, then got flat on his back on the floor, raised his legs against the wall, closed his eyes and circled his palms in the air like a psychic conjuring up the spirits. The others in the room showed their amusement with tickled grins; but no one dared laugh out loud or even look at him too long. Mostly they were looking at Mr. Shiner, who was sitting at his desk up front reading a newspaper, to see what he would do.

Mr. Shiner was trying hard to ignore Conrad, but you could almost see him losing concentration on his reading by the second. He began tapping his fingers on the desk and shaking his head, and finally glanced up at Conrad with a face full of pent up exasperation, knowing full well that if he opened his mouth to lay down the law he’d be ignored; and if tried too forcefully he’d have a major conflagration on his hands. He finally did open his mouth, but not to lay down the law. He asked a question:

“What are you doing, Conrad?”

“Recharging my brain,” Conrad said. “Get down next to me and absorb some of the juice.”

Mr. Shiner nodded. “Recharging your brain, eh? Absorb some of the juice. Uh-huh, I see.” That’s as far as he went; he wasn’t going to get sucked into a Conrad situation. He kept nodding for another five seconds, then went back to his newspaper.

It wasn’t Conrad’s appearance or goofiness that made him famous. He got his fame overnight by fighting and beating Lenny Watson, undisputed public enemy number one up to that point, in the most renowned fight in the history of the school.

The idea of Conrad tangling with Lenny Watson, whew! That had me awe‑struck. Because Lenny Watson was not human. He was an authentic savage. He had a short, squat body, a low forehead, a wide nose and the crouched, wide‑legged lope of a caveman. He’d maraud neighborhoods terrorizing everyone in sight, whole gangs even. There was no rhyme or reason to him. He never listened. If anyone opened his mouth he hit.

That fight, I didn’t see it with my own eyes, but twenty kids witnessed it. That was last October. They told how Lenny Watson showed up in front of Nelkin’s candy store during lunch time and got it in his head to confiscate everyone’s lunch money; how he went from kid to kid with his hand out and no one refused. Until he got to Conrad Shapiro, who must have just gotten transferred into the school because no one knew who he was. When Lenny Watson got to him, he said, “Who made you a charity?” Which Lenny Watson answered by charging into him with his head lowered like a buffalo, slamming into him so hard that he actually left the ground and landed on his ass ten feet back. They told us how Conrad got up just in time to see Lenny Watson getting ready to charge again and stood there for an instant with a look on his face like it was no use talking and too late to run, and suddenly, just as if they were connected to a motor, his arms started rotating. One of his fists met Lenny’s Watson’s throat but didn’t slow him down, and Conrad went flying on his ass a second time, with Lenny’s momentum carrying him twenty feet past Conrad until he stopped in the middle of the gutter, bellowing and gagging and grasping his neck with both hands like there was a noose under them strangling him to death, and staggered up the block, never to be seen again. Some said it was a lucky punch; but whether it was lucky or not, it sure established the fact that Conrad didn’t take crap, and that he would stand up and fight.

We thought he would lay low for a while, but the next day he

showed up in school. That was the first time I laid eyes on him. He was wearing a black patch over his right eye and carrying a bamboo cane. He didn’t look anywhere near the picture of him I had worked up in my mind. But he stood up to Lenny Watson, that’s a fact. He stood up to Lenny Watson and overcame him.

The rest of the week we saw him walking through the halls wearing the eye patch, which gave him the benefit of the doubt for, and the cane, which we didn’t, since he had no noticeable limp; although Mr. Gerber, the principal must have noticed something, since he didn’t confiscate it. One of the kids wisecracked that he knew what both were for. They told you the same thing the skull and crossbones on a bottle of poison told you: Don’t forget to be careful with me.

He kept to himself. He had no friends and didn’t seem to want any. We let him alone, just as we let Lenny Watson alone. If anyone tried to talk to him he swept them aside with his bamboo cane and walked right past him. Right after the winter term started he took off his eye patch. A week later he stopped using his bamboo cane. He must have figured that by this time his reputation was so firmly established that he could get along without them.

Once, recklessly running down the stairs two at a time to get to my next class, I crashed into him on a landing as he was coming up. “Excuse me!” I gasped, expecting some kind of violent reaction. He didn’t even look at me. He just kept going up as if I didn’t exist.

But now, at the end of the detention period he startled me by grabbing my arm as I came out of the room.

“I’m going to need you for something,” he said.

“You’re going to need me?” I said. “What do you mean, you’re going to

need me? For what?”

“You’ll find out when the time comes,” he said. “In the mean time, stay available.” Then he did a military about face and marched down the corridor to

the stairway.

There was something about the way he walked, a lack of coordination, a

certain jerkiness, that gave you the impression he was being worked by remote control. He looked too skinny to bear his height right; his shoulders, unbelievably narrow, consisted of two knobs the size of ordinary rubber balls, giving the impression that his arms started higher than normal. Although he was widened out around the hips his body looked small; what gave him his height were his stilt-like legs, which must have accounted for two‑thirds of it. Looking at him you’d think the only reputation he could possibly have was for harmlessness. As I watched him walk down the hall I couldn’t get over the discrepancy between his appearance and the fact that he beat Lenny Watson in a fist fight.

He’s going to need me. That worried me. What the hell for? But in some crazy way it excited me too. In fact I found myself looking forward to not only finding out what he was going to need me for, but also to fulfilling it.





On my way home from school two days later Conrad came walking toward me. He was wearing an old pin‑striped vest that looked a couple of sizes too big. Strung across it was an ordinary pull string ending in a fob pocket. His eyes were focused so intently on my body that I was on the verge dodging out of his way and hurrying by him. He stepped right in front of me and put his books on the floor and his hands across my hips, then backed away and studied the distance between them.

“What are you doing?” I said.

“I think you’ll do,” he said.

“Do for what?”

“You’ll find out in due time,” he said, and picked up his books and walked by me.

The next day, again on my way home from school, he turned a corner and stood there with his thumbs in the pockets of that same vest like a politician and waited for me to reach him. Tucked in his pants belt was a flashlight. He pulled a watch that was completely mutilated out of his fob, took a look at it and put it back.

“Take a walk with me,” he said.

“Where to?”

“You’ll see when we get there.”

“I can’t,” I said. “I have to pick up something for my mother at the grocery.”

“That can wait.”

He started walking. I stood still.

He turned and gave me a look that sent a vibration through my body, his mouth open and almost overflowing with saliva. “Well?” he said, “What are you waiting for? We don’t have much time.” And he continued walking.

Watching him recede I got the strange sensation of something pulling me toward him, and the farther from me he got the stronger the pull, as if we were tied together with a huge rubber band. I got the feeling that if I let myself go I’d be entering the unknown, or something. Suddenly something in me clicked and I almost catapulted to his side. It felt just as if I had passed through a screen into another world. I felt an urge to say something casual, like we were old friends or something.

“How come you have no books?” I said.

“What are you worried about my books for?” he said. “Jesus, you worry about everything, don’t you? What’s your name anyway?”


“Mark what?”

“Mark Ellenbogen.”

He pulled the mutilated watch out again and began winding it around his finger. “I think I’m going to re‑name you.” He went into thought. “From now on you’re James the Second.”

He was serious. “Why James the Second?” I said.

“Because I like the sound of it. You ask too many questions.”

We passed a little girl about four peddling a tricycle in circles in front of a dry goods store. She was wearing a little pink and white dress and Mary Janes and her fine light brown hair was braided and pinned up in curlicues. Conrad stopped suddenly, turned and walked back to her.

“You know, your hat’s on crooked.” he said.

She stopped peddling and looked up at him with big dark eyes and a pinchy little smile and put her hand to her head.

“I don’t have a hat,” she said.

“What do you mean you don’t have a hat?” he said. “What am I, seeing things? You have a hat right on your head. Doesn’t she have a hat on her head, James?”

I looked at him.

“Well?” he said. “Don’t tell me you don’t see it either.”

“Sure I see it,” I said.

“See that?” Conrad said. “Even James the Second sees it. That proves it. You definitely have a hat on your head.”

She put her hand to her head again and felt around. “No I don’t.”

“What do you mean, you don’t? Boy, are you stubborn. Here, look into this mirror and see for yourself.” He held an imaginary mirror in front of her face.

She kept staring at him with a wide smile on her little face, her mouth wide open and her tongue playing around the insides of her little teeth.

“Well?” he said. “Why aren’t you looking in the mirror?”

“You’re not holding a mirror.”

“What do you mean, I’m not holding a mirror? You mean to say you don’t see it?”

She shook her head.

“She don’t see the mirror. This is serious, James. You see the mirror, don’t you?”

“Of course I see it,” I said, starting to get uncomfortable.

“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” Conrad said. “How can I be so dumb?

You know what I forgot to tell you? This is a make‑believe mirror. You

have to make believe it’s there. Did you make believe it’s there?”

On the little girl’s face was almost the same expression as Conrad’s. Her mouth was hung open, a little puddle inside just on the point of running

over her pouting lip. She shook her head.

“Then you better take another look. And this time don’t forget to make

believe.” He held the imaginary mirror in front of her face again. “Well? You see the mirror now?”

She looked at his hand for about five seconds, her tongue flicking in her wet, open mouth, her eyes now agape to see better.

“Well? Do you see the mirror yet?”

She looked up at him and nodded.

“You do? Well it’s about time. What kind of mirror is it? What does it look like?”

She shrugged. “It’s just a mirror.”

“I mean is it round or something?”

“It’s a mirror like on my mommy’s table next to her bed.” She leaned into it. “I got little teeth.”

“What do you mean you got little teeth,” Conrad said. “Let’s see.”

She clenched her teeth and widened her mouth.

“Yeah, you do have little teeth,” he said. “But they look pretty in you. Anyway, what are you going to do about your hat that’s on crooked?”

“I’ll fix it.” She looked into the imaginary mirror again and went through some motions straightening her make‑believe hat.

“What are you wearing a hat for anyway?” Conrad said. “It’s too warm

out for a hat.” They looked at each other with their identical expressions, their mouths open and glazed wet.

“I’m making believe it’s cold.” She started to peddle her tricycle again.

“If it’s so cold how come you’re not wearing a coat?”

“I am wearing a coat. It’s a make‑believe one.”

“Boy, am I dumb,” Conrad said. “I forgot to make believe myself.” He closed his eyes. “All right, I’m making believe now,” he said, and opened them again. “Sure, now I see your coat.”

“My grandma bought it for me,” The little girl got off the tricycle. “I have to see if my mommy’s finished and then I have to go home and eat a egg.” She went inside.

Bon Appétit,” Conrad said and started walking again.

On Graham Avenue I followed him into Beckman Jewelers. Beckman was talking to a customer, a lady wearing a huge hat made of tan felt with a fluffy blue feather. A pair of glasses in an oversized brassy frame was hanging on her chest attached to gold colored braid.

“Madam,” Beckman was saying, “I can’t do it for a dollar. Impossible. Standing here talking to you already cost me more than a dollar in time. My price is two‑fifty.”

“That’s highway robbery,” the woman said. “Lutsky does it for two dollars.”

“You want some advice?” Beckman said. “Take it to Lutsky.”

“All right,” the woman said. “Do it.”

Beckman wrote out a claim ticket and gave the stub to the woman, who

put it into her handbag still muttering something about highway robbery.

“Where did you get that hat?” Conrad said as she passed him on her way out. “I want to buy one like that for my great grandmother.” She sprang forward as if the words coming out of his mouth were going to contaminate her or something. Conrad walked up to Beckman and took the mutilated watch out of the fob and put it on the counter. “I’d like to get this watch repaired,” he said.

Beckman took a look at it then stared into space for five seconds. “Repaired is the wrong word,” he said. “You should have said reconstructed.”

“Can you do it?”

Beckman closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “What do you take me for, a putz? Why don’t you put this piece of garbage back in your pocket and take a walk?”

“Will you calm down?” Conrad said. “Just tell me if you can repair this watch.”

“Sure I can repair that watch,” Beckman said. “It’ll cost you two thousand dollars. For four ninety‑five I can sell you a better watch than this piece of shit when it was brand new.”

“This watch was my great grandfather’s,” Conrad said, “who was a general in the Czar’s army, who gave it to my grandfather who kept it for sentimental reasons then gave it to my father who kept it for sentimental reasons then gave it to me. I’m keeping it for sentimental reasons.”

“So why don’t you take it to a sentimental jeweler?” Beckman said.

“Wait a minute,” Conrad said. “You said you can repair this watch for

two thousand dollars. Can I pay it on installments?”

Beckman looked up at the ceiling. “I got a lunatic here.” He glared at Conrad. “Get out of my store, will you please? I got work to do.” He went to his work bench and put his loop into his eye and bent over a watch.

Conrad detached the string from his vest and dropped it on the watch. “I’ll leave it here. I’ll be back tomorrow with the first installment.”

“Take this garbage off the counter!” Beckman yelled.

“What’s the matter, you don’t want to do business with me?” Conrad said.

Beckman took the loop out of his eye. “What kind of pleasure do you get wasting my time?”

“I’m not wasting your time,” Conrad said. “You are wasting your time. I’ll just leave the watch here. You don’t have to give me a claim ticket, I trust you. Now I expect you to put this watch in first class working condition. I’ll be back tomorrow with the first installment. By the way, replace the string while you’re at it.” He turned and walked out. On his face was an expression of dead seriousness. I followed, trying to put on the same expression.

“Come back!” Beckman yelled. He had come from behind the counter and stuck his head out the door. “Come back and take this piece of shit with you!”

We crossed Broadway and walked down Lee Avenue to Hewes Street.

Conrad suddenly stopped short.

“Jesus, I almost forgot. We have to visit Manny,” he said.

“Who’s Manny?” I said.

“A close friend of mine,” he said. “An important landlord. He owned eighteen apartment houses in Williamsburg.” He shook his head. “He was only sixty-two.”

“He’s your friend!” I said. “And what do you mean was?”

“Poor Manny’s dead,” he said. “I can’t believe it. A heart attack. Died instantly, poor guy. Don’t talk the rest of the way. We’ll walk in silence in his memory.”

At the Lichtenstein Chapels on Seigel Street a slight elderly man wearing a yarmulke and a black suit a few sizes too big was standing behind the glass entrance looking out. Conrad walked up the steps.

“Aren’t you coming in, James?” he said.

“I’d rather wait outside.”

“I’d rather you come in with me,” Conrad said.

The man came out and stood in front of the doors. The collar of his shirt was wrinkled by a glazed black tie tightened to his scraggy neck. When Conrad approached the doors he didn’t move.

“Don’t fall asleep there on me,” Conrad said. .

“Which funeral?” the man said.

“Manny Feingold.”

The man looked him over. “Who are you?” he said.

“Who am I? Who are YOU?”

“I mean are you related, or something?”

“We were companions,” Conrad said.

“Companions,” the man said. He gave us each a long look then stepped

aside. “Room five. Take the elevator to the second floor.”

The room was over‑sweet with flowers and perfume and was packed with people chatting in clusters. When we walked in three men and three women huddled near the door turned to look at us. Then everyone in the room was looking at us. Conrad stood just beyond the threshold a moment scanning the room, smiling and nodding as if to acknowledge all the attention we were getting, then went directly to the casket, which was on a low platform in an alcove toward the rear surrounded with so many flowers it was almost hidden. I followed and one of the women followed me. Two solemn‑faced men who had been viewing the deceased moved aside to make room as we came up. Conrad looked into the casket and shook his head. After a while his nose wrinkled and he started to sniffle.

“Does he know him?” the woman who followed me said.

“They were good companions,” I said.

“Good companions? Who is he?”

“He’s—” I looked at the floor solemnly. “His name is Felix,” I said. “Felix Mendelssohn.”

“He never looked so good,” Conrad said. Tears welled up in his eyes. “Poor Manny.”

The woman went up to him. “I’m a daughter,” she said. “Who … you

knew my father?”

“Knew him?” Conrad’s voice was quivering; he almost sobbed that out. From his back pocket he took snot‑stiff handkerchief and blew his nose. “Yes, I knew him. I admired him. He was such a generous man.”

“Generous?” the woman said, as if she had trouble connecting that word to her father.

“Yes, generous,” Conrad said. “That’s what I admired most about him. He was the most generous man I ever knew. One in a million. Did you know he set up a college fund for me? He wanted me to go to Harvard and get a degree in business.” He glanced into the casket then looked at the woman, who glared back at him. “Doesn’t he look good dead?” he said.

The woman let out a little yelp, as if she were just goosed. The whole room was watching us now, buzzing.

“Did you hear the words that came out of that schmuck’s mouth? What a thing to come out with.”

“Where did he come from?”

“ Who is he ? Do you know him?”

“Look at him, he’s crying yet.”

A loose semi‑circle of people gaping in disbelief had formed around us. A short, stocky man with a mustache took the woman’s arm. “Who is he?” he asked her.

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” she said. “What is he trying to do? Get him away from there.”

The man didn’t approach Conrad. He just stood there with a highly

indignant expression watching him.

“Such a nice‑looking man,” Conrad said. Come over here, James, you always said you wanted to meet him. I’ll introduce you.”

I was standing there half paralyzed. It looked like that semi‑circle of people were going to attack us any second. I was just on the verge of walking out when Conrad took hold of my arm and pulled me up the platform to the casket. “Manny, this is James the Second.” he said. “James the Second, this is Manny. Look at that face, James. Doesn’t it look important?

What I saw was a big head topped with a white yarmulke above a putty‑colored, pock‑marked old face with a long nose and thin lips set in a frown.

Conrad leaned back to get another perspective. “He looks better dead than alive. Yes, I think so.” His eyes glazed over. “Jesus, Manny, I can hardly wait to see you again up there in heaven. We’ll have good times like in the old days, eh, Manny? We’ll show them what’s what up there, won’t we? We’ll buy up the place.” His voice kept getting louder. “Up there everyone, including rabbis, prophets and sages, gets landlord’s leases. Six months security,. No exemptions. No paint jobs, no exterminators! Pay yourself for gas ranges and refrigerators. Rent promptly on the first of the month or a dispossess, right Manny! No special privileges, even for the Main Guy, He’s treated like everyone else!   We know how to do things, right Manny? When we’re in charge cash goes only one way, straight into our pockets, right Manny!”

“He’s crazy! He’s crazy!” the same daughter screamed.

That got the others going again:

“This is a disgrace!”

“My God! My God!”

“Unbelievable! I never saw such a thing! Throw him out!”

“Gutinyu! You schmuck!”

A tall guy in a dark suit and rimless glasses came stomping up to us. “Get out of here! Right now.” He grabbed Conrad’s arm and gave it a yank. Conrad dug his heels into the floor and leaned back like a stubborn goat and emitted a hair‑raising shriek.

The guy released him in recoil and stepped back and just stood there gawking at him. Conrad clasped his hands like praying and started to wail and moan.

Four men in black suits and yarmulkes came stomping into the room and converged on him.

“Take it easy, fella,” one said in a voice vibrating with crisis. “Just take it easy!” He suddenly leaped and grabbed him in a bear hug. Then all four were holding some part of him. Suddenly his eyeballs rolled to completely white and he went limp, his mouth hung open, his tongue lolled to one side.

The men looked at each other like they didn’t know what to do with him now.

“What did he, faint?” one said.

“Let’s take him to the elevator,” another said. “Go push the button,


I ran down to the lobby. When the elevator doors opened the four men dragged Conrad, who was still limp, outside.

“What do we do now?” said one.

I squeezed past them and stood in front of the building watching.

“Should we call an ambulance, or something?” another said.

“I think we’re better off calling the police,” said a third. “They’ll know what to do with him.”

Suddenly Conrad opened his eyes. “What the hell’s going on here?” he said. “Where am I? Get your hands off me!”

Which they did, and stood there gaping at him.

Conrad went down three steps then turned. “Listen,” he said. “I’m doing a sculpture, Shape Number 14 in a coffin. I just finished the shape but I

don’t have a coffin. You happen to have one with a small damage you

want to get rid of?”

“You better get out of here,” one guy said.

“Jesus, no one give a shit about poor artists nowadays.” Conrad said. “Come on, James, let’s go. We have a lot more important business to attend to than to stand here wasting our time with these donkeys.” And he started walking.

Whatever this important business was that we had to attend to, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be part of it. That last performance of his left me exhausted. But when he started walking I almost felt myself being pulled along with him.

“Where are we going now?” I said.

“You’ll see when we get there,” he said.





We continued on to South 4th Street and turned right on Casper Street and went up Casper Street until we came to a block of old run down two story frame houses, half of which were abandoned, and a couple of small apartment houses that were either left half demolished or had caved in on their own. I followed Conrad to the rear of one of the abandoned frame houses that had its windows boarded up. On either side were empty lots overgrown with weeds and brush and littered with broken bricks and other junk.

Conrad was staring at a basement transom window with two sashes, one of which had a pane missing. He kept glancing back and forth from the sash to me like he was judging something about us. Then it dawned on me why he’d been so interested in my width.

“You want me to climb in there?” I said. “What for?”

“To unlock that window so I can get in,” Conrad said.

“Why don’t you just reach in and unlock it yourself?”

He jumped up and came down stamping his feet. “I can’t stand your

questions! It doesn’t have an ordinary damn hook or latch. There’s something else rigged up in there that I can’t reach the end of. And I don’t want to bust it open altogether because it’ll make too much noise, and I don’t want it to look like a burglary.”

“No dice.” I said. “I’m not climbing in there.”

“But no one lives in this damn house.”

“So what? It’s someone’s property, isn’t it?”

Conrad rolled his eyes and did a few lip rotations. “Boy, you are stubborn,” he said. “Why did I have to pick someone who’s stubborn!”

“Look, Conrad, I don’t steal,” I said.

Conrad turned and walked a few feet then turned back. “I knew it,” he

said. “I knew choosing you was a mistake, dammit. You don’t know right

from wrong.”

“Right from wrong?” I said. “Are you telling me stealing is right?”

He gripped his head with both hands. “Why do you keep calling it stealing, godammit!” He walked around in a circle. “We won’t be stealing!”

“All right, if it’s not stealing it’s breaking and entering at least,” I said. “I don’t break and enter either.” But the truth was, that was only half of me talking. The other half almost couldn’t wait to get in there to be part of whatever Conrad was up to, and I felt that .half getting stronger by the second.

“If you don’t help me get in there I’m going to drop down dead right now,” he said. “Well?” And he actually keeled over flat on his back.

“I’m thinking,” I said.

“Thinking! Thinking! Goddamit, what’s there to think about!”

“Okay,” I said. It was like I had just taken a pledge to join a dangerous mission.

I put my head through the broken pane to take a look. The drop to the floor was about five or six feet. There was a pipe running vertically right beside the window. I took hold of it and pushed myself forward. When I got in up to my hips it felt as though I’d have to use too much force to get them through.

“It’s too tight,” I said. “I might tear my pants.

“Jesus,” he said. “What are you worried about your pants for?”

“What am I worried about my pants for!” I said. “I don’t like the idea of ruining them. Second of all I don’t think my mother would appreciate it either.”

“Your mother!” Conrad said. “What are you so worried about your mother for? She’s only your mother.” He walked around in a circle rotating

his lips. “Jesus, if I knew you were concerned about your pants—Jesus. Take them off, for crissake

“I’m not taking no pants off.” I said. “Wait a minute.” I pushed myself out and pulled my pants up on one side and down on the other so that the bunched up parts wouldn’t go through the sash at the same time. I reached in again and again using the pipe for purchase, I was able to wiggle myself in and swung down to the floor.

“It’s about time,” Conrad said. He handed me his flashlight. “See what’s keeping that damn bar from moving.”

It was a bar that ran horizontally along the wall for about three feet

through two iron brackets. At the far end a large nail went through it and into a hole in the wall. I took the nail out and slid the bar free of the transom. Conrad swung it open.

“Okay, I’m coming in,” he said. He went in head first, easily getting through the frame, but when he grabbed the pipe and tried to swing down to the floor he lost control and started sliding down head first. I grabbed his shoulders and struggled to hold him as he walked down the wall to get himself upright.

He took the flashlight from me and shined it around the basement. It was full of stuff scattered all over the place: old doors, bed frames, an old refrigerator, a few empty soda boxes, wooden boards, empty paint cans, an old wooden ladder.   Against the back wall were three storage bins. Two looked empty, their old, gray boards coming apart; the door of one was swung open, the other had no door at all. But the third bin was solidly built, its wood, although full of dust, still had its original color. Its door was closed and locked with a large padlock. Conrad approached it and stared at the padlock.

“We have to break this damn lock open,” he said.

“I thought you said there was no stealing,” I said.

“There’ll be is no stealing dammit!” he said. “I just want to be able to get in there.”

“Why do you want to get in there?” I said.

“Questions! Questions! That’s all I get from you is questions!”

“Well you’ll never break that lock,” I said. “It’s too big.”

“Dammit, James!” Conrad said. “I’ve been searching for a good place

for three damn months, and now that I finally found it, are you trying to tell me I can’t get in there!” He cupped his head in his hands. “I can’t stand this!”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Sometimes people hide a key someplace

around the door.”

I was looking at the reinforcing two by fours on the front and both side of the bin, about three inches below the ceiling. Conrad followed my eyes.

“Well what are you waiting for?” he said. “Feel around up there.”

“I can’t fly,” I said.

He wagged his head and closed his eyes. “Jesus Christ you’re turning into a big problem, James.” He cupped his hands. “Just put your foot in here.” I stepped into his hands. They strained for a few seconds to lift me, then strained just to hold me, then dropped almost to the floor.

“Can’t you weigh a few pounds less, dammit?” he said.

I stepped out of his hands and pulled over the ladder and, starting at one side of the bin where it met the wall, I kept stepping up on it and feeling the top of the two by four as Conrad moved it around the bin. When we were almost at the end of the two by four on the other side, I felt a key, right against the back wall.

“I got it!” I said, and got down and gave it to Conrad.

He opened the lock and let out a relieved “Whew!”

All the bin had were a few shelves on one of the sides full of various dusty, brownish metal items: a few lamps without shades, some statues, busts, plaque and other stuff. In one of the corners was a small pile of what looked like plumbing fixtures: faucets, valves, small lengths of pipe, door knobs and handles and things I couldn’t make out. On the floor under the shelves was a neat stack of about ten large, empty burlap bags.

Conrad picked up one of the busts and examined it. He had to hold it with two hands. “Who’s Johan Sebastion Bach”?

“A composer,” I said.

“This is heavy, Conrad said. “What’s it made of?”

“It looks like brass.”

“Brass?” Conrad said. He put Johan Sebastion Bach back and walked along the shelves examining the other items. “It looks like they’re all brass,” he said. “Whoever had this bin must have been a brass col—” He stopped talking and his eyes narrowed and went inward, like some thought suddenly took over. He looked at the burlap bags on the floor and his face took on a smile at whatever his mind was occupied with now. After about a minute of that he said, “How expensive is brass?”

“I don’t know, but it must be a lot more expensive than iron,” I said. “It doesn’t rust, you know. Are you thinking of stealing them?”

“Aah keep quiet,” he said. “What time is it?”

I looked at my watch. “Ten after six.”

“All right, lets get out of here,” He picked Bach off the shelf again. Here, carry Bach,” he said. He locked the bin and went to the transom and just stood there looking at it.

“Use that ladder,” I said. I dragged it to the transom.

He climbed it and put one foot through the transom frame, then it looked like he was going to step right through the wall above it. He tried to correct himself and lost his balance and almost fell on his head for the second time. I quickly put Bach on the floor and grabbed him again and somehow struggled him upright as he fell.

“You better go out head first,” I said.

When he got half way out he got stuck. Then I had to climb half way up the ladder and grab him around the thighs and practically ram him out. I closed and locked the window, handed him Bach through the broken pane then scaled up the pipe and wiggled out through the sash feet first with Conrad pulling my legs and me using the pipe to push.

When we were both outside he said: “Come on. Take Bach with you.”


“Will you stop asking questions! You’re eating supper at my house.”

“I can’t. My mother—”

“Your mother! Your mother! Your mother!” He stamped about twenty feet away from me and back. “Right now eating supper at my house is more important than your mother! Don’t you realize that!”

“All right, all right,” I said. “Calm down. I’ll call my MOTHER!”

“We have a telephone,” Conrad said and started walking.





Conrad’s house was on Walton Street, in of a row of old attached two story frame houses with old shingles, all the same shade of dreary gray. I followed him into a dark outer vestibule that had three bent mail boxes without names. The narrow inner hall with its rickety‑looking staircase was even darker.

The door to his apartment on the second floor was locked. He stood there a moment looking at it like it was his worst enemy, breathing exasperation through clenched teeth.

“Don’t you have a key?” I said.

He gave me a look of contempt then turned back to the door. “You sonofabitch!” he yelled, and gave it a terrific backward kick with his heel. “I can’t stand this!” He looked at me again. “Come on.”

I followed him to the back yard. He looked up at the fire escapes and pointed one out. “The window on that side isn’t locked,” he said. “Well? What the fuck are you waiting for!”

The ladder that extended from the bottom fire escape looked way too high for me to reach. “I can’t fly,” I said.

He closed his eyes and wagged his head. “Jesus Christ you’re turning into a big problem, James.”

The ledge of a ground floor window under the fire escapes was about four feet high. “If I get up there then stand on your shoulders,” I said, “I might be able to reach the ladder. Who lives there?”

“What are you so worried about who lives there? Jesus, you’re weird.”

I put Bach on the ground. “Hold me to keep me from falling back. Don’t try to lift me, or anything.” I put a foot on the window ledge. “All right, now come closer.” I stepped on his shoulders, and I felt him wobbling but I grabbed the bottom rung before he caved in. “Push my feet!” I yelled. I managed to get hold of the next rung and got a knee on the first one. I climbed up and went to the window he pointed out. “This one?”

“Yes, that one!” he said as if he was talking to a moron.

I opened the window and climbed into a small room that smelled like a beauty parlor. A large mirror was mounted on the wall above a chest of drawers, the top of which was crammed with bottles of cologne, perfume and nail polish, different color jars and combs and brushes and a lot of other stuff.   Against the wall opposite the window was an unmade beds with a rumple of pink panties on the pillow. I held it up and looked at it in the light of the window, then rumpled them back on the pillow. The next room had a caved‑in couch and two old stuffed chairs. One corner was partitioned off with a shower curtain, one side of which extended from the end of a narrow passageway leading to what looked like the kitchen. As I started through the flush of a toilet startled me. A door in the passageway opened and out walked Conrad’s mother pulling her dress down. We scared the shit out of each other.

She put a hand on her heaving chest. “Gutinyu, you almost gave me a heart attack. “Who are you?”

“Conrad’s friend.”

How did you get in?”

“Through the window. The door was locked.”

“Was that Conrad clopping the door down before like an elephant?”

“He thought you weren’t home.”

“So he sends his delegate through the window. I’m going to call up the lunatic asylum.”

There was loud banging on the door.

“That’s him,” I said.

“He ain’t normal,” Conrad’s mother said. She went to the door and unlocked it.

Conrad, holding Bach, walked right by her. “Come on,” he said. I followed him back through the passageway to the living room..

“I didn’t know I was invisible,” Conrad’s mother called after him. “Take a glass of milk first.”

Conrad put Bach under a cot inside the partitioned space, then went into the bathroom and took a leak without closing the door. When he finished I walked in and closed the door, but there was no latch; it kept opening by itself about four inches, and the toilet bowl was too far away for me to hold it closed. There was a large brick on the floor behind the door. I slid it over to bear on the door but it still kept opening about two inches, so there was nothing to do but rush through my leak. Then I went to the living room. Conrad, sitting on the cot, which took up almost the entire space of the partitioned area, was fooling around with a length of clothesline rope.

“What are you going to do with Bach?” I said.

“You’ll find out when the time comes,” he said.

“I’ll find out when the time comes!” I said. “Can’t you tell me things?”

“Will you go make yout phone call?” he said. “The phone is in the room on the other side of the kitchen.”

His mother was pouring something into a colander in the sink. She looked at me.

“Can I make a phone call?” I said.

“The telephone’s in there,” she said, motioning with her head to the back room.

I gave my mother a cock and bull story about me and Angelo Cangelosi doing our geometry homework together and his mother inviting me to stay for supper. “They’re having veal parmagiana and spaghetti my, favorite Italian dish.”

“Why didn’t you let me know earlier?” my mother said.

“When, before Angelo’s mother invited me?”

“All right, wise guy. Just be home before ten.”

Conrad was still busy with the length of clothesline rope.

“Close the curtain,” he said.

I closed the curtain and sat down next to him and watched him make knots, try them out, then untie them in disgust. “What are you trying to do with the rope?” I said

He gave me a look. “Please don’t talk to me when I’m concentrating.”

I heard footsteps rushing up the stairs. Whoever it was missed a step and stumbled, then continued up and stumbled again; then there was rapid clicking of high heels and the front door opened and slammed shut and the heels clicked into the passageway and the brick slid.

A few minutes later there were again footsteps on the stairs, slow and plodding this time. The front door opened and softly closed.

“Sam, wait!” Conrad’s mother said. “Estelle is in there!”

“Why is there always someone in there when I have to go?” Sam, who I assumed was Conrad’s father, said. Ten seconds later he called out: ‘Hey Rose, where’s my hanger?”

“If you open your eyes you’ll see it,” Conrad’s mother said.

“My eyes are open and I still don’t see it,”

“That’s because it’s right under your nose. “Here! You see it now?

After a while there was the brick sliding again, then heels receding to the kitchen.

“Where are the plums, ma?” Estelle said.

“On the bottom shelf where they always are,” Conrad’s mother said. “Wash it first.”

“We’re eating out, ma,” Estelle said, her voice squishing through the plum.”

“Again?” Conrad’s mother said. “You and Ralph are better off eating here. I have pot roast. There’s plenty.”

“Ma, please.”

Conrad’s father said: “I tell her I can’t stand the smell of camphor and she uses double,”

“If you want to take charge of the house the mop and brooms are behind the door in the toilet,” Conrad’s mother said.

“She won’t be satisfied until she kills every moth on the block,” Conrad’s father said.

“When you came home you said you had to go,” Conrad’s mother said. “The toilet’s empty now.”

There was the clicking of heels coming up the passageway. The curtain opened and standing there looking at us was a flashy girl about twenty with frizzy blonde hair and a lot of makeup, wearing a tight blue skirt that came two inches above her knees. She came in and sat on Conrad’s lap, with Conrad just barely tolerating it. She pinched his cheek and shook it. Her nose was a little too long and had a noticeable bump, but she was nice looking. Her lips were overloaded with lipstick, and although thick with mascara and eye shadow her eyes were friendly. She took hold of Conrad’s chin and turned his face toward her. “I want to ask a favor. I want you to be nice to Ralph. He says you keep making snotty remarks.”

“Look, I’m sorry about Saturday,” Conrad said. “I don’t know what got into me. I’ll apologize to Ralph tonight, all right?”

“You will?” Estelle said, jogging her head and widening her eyes in surprise. “Really? That would be very nice of you. Now don’t forget. I’m depending on it.” She got up and went to the room that I came into through the window.

Conrad went back to his business with the rope. “Close the damn curtain,” he said.

As I started to close it Conrad’s father appeared and held it open. He was a small bald man with a bushy red mustache. He was looking at me through a pair of droopy eyes with huge bags under them. Then he looked at Conrad.

“A friend of yours?” he said. “What’s his name?”

“James,” Conrad said.

“James what?”

“The second.”

“Thusekin? That’s a funny one. What is he, Rumanian or something? He looks intelligent.”

He gave me another look and went back to the kitchen. “That kid in there with Conrad looks intelligent,” he said.

“I didn’t notice anything,” Conrad’s mother said, then yelled out: “Eat’s ready!” Conrad went through a few more unsatisfactory loops with the rope then suddenly snapped it taut in front of him and looped it around his neck and pulled both ends like he meant to strangle himself, gagging and gasping like he was in the throes of death. Estelle, in a bathrobe, looked in on her way to the bathroom and stood staring at him. She had a towel draped over her head and both hands full of bottles and tubes.

“What is he doing?” she said.

“It looks like he’s strangling himself,” I said.

She continued on to the bathroom. “Sometimes I wonder if he’s my brother.”

Conrad’s mother came into the passageway. “Who’m I talking to, the paint on the wall? Eat’s ready!” She appeared at the curtain. “Well?” Her jaw dropped and her eyes widened and she stepped over to Conrad and gave him a slap on the head and grabbed the rope. He yanked it out of her hand and held it behind his back. “Is he a meshugener,” she said. “Go sit down at the table, eat’s ready.”

On her way back to the kitchen she yelled into the bathroom: “Estelle, you sure you’re not eating here? You’ll be better off.”

“Ma, I grew up!” Estelle yelled back. The brick scraped the floor.   “Look! See what a big girl I am ma!”

“Since when does ptomaine poisoning care how big you are?” Conrad’s mother said. “Ralph can eat here too. There’s plenty. Close the door.” She appeared at the curtain again. “Are you hungry?” she said to me. “Come.” She went back to the kitchen. “Phil, if you don’t turn that radio off you can eat it for supper. I spend three hours cooking and no one sits down to eat.”

Conrad whipped the wall with the rope then stood up and threw it up to the ceiling. I followed him to the kitchen.

Conrad’s mother yelled, “Phil, you’re going to find your radion in the garbage pail tomorrow smashed in a million pieces.”

Conrad’s father came in from the room on the other side of the kitchen. “She could give Stalin a run for his money.”

There were already plates on the kitchen table loaded with pot roast, potatoes and vegetables. Conrad’s mother looked at me. “What are you waiting for, a bell to ring? Sit next to Conrad.”

My plate was piled with twice as much food as I could eat when I was starving. I couldn’t believe how fast Conrad and his father were eating. They seemed to be getting pleasure just from the feel of the food going down their

throats, because it was going down so fast they couldn’t possibly be tasting it.

The bell rang in a series of long and short rings.

“Western Union’s here,” Conrad’s father said. He rings the bell in Morse code. “Before it meant Estelle come down. Now it means Estelle I’m coming up.”

Estelle came out of the bathroom in a robe. “That’s I’ll Be Loving You Always, if you listen carefully,” she said. She looked at Conrad, raised her eyebrows, narrowed her eyes and pointed an index finger, meaning: Don’t forget to do what you promised.

“Look Estelle,” Conrad said, “when I promise to do something I do it.”

“Just don’t forget,” Estelle said and went to her room.

There was the sound of steps trotting up the stairs, then a knock on the door in the same rhythm as that of the bell.

Conrad’s mother looked at Conrad. “Don’t start anything. Be nice.” She opened the door and Ralph’s head popped in with a smile full of teeth. “Hello, people,” he said and walked in. “Where’s Miss America?” He had neatly trimmed jet black hair and a neat jet black mustache and was clean shaven. He looked familiar. He was holding something behind his back, smiling a tooth smile like he was going to get his picture taken. I was wondering where I saw him before.

“You forgot to close the door,” Conrad’s mother said.

Ralph closed the door and held out what he had been hiding, a bouquet of flowers wrapped in silver paper. A sweet smell took over the kitchen, but it wasn’t the flowers. It was the smell of barber shop. He wasn’t exactly what you’d call stout but he looked a little too heavy and was panting a little to much for the way he jaunted up those stairs. He had on a neatly pressed gray plaid suit and a sky blue shirt with one of those long collars. His tie was like fireworks. He was from around the neighborhood somewhere but I couldn’t exactly place him. All in all he looked like one of these guys who get dressed up on Sundays and hang around Miller’s candy store or Maxie’s poolroom all day, trying to look suave talking about baseball and the track.

Hello, sweetie,” Ralph said to Conrad. He was trying to sound friendly but there was something in that toothy smile of his that had the quality of someone who thought he was talking to a dummy. Now I was sure I saw him somewhere before. His eyes flitted between Conrad and me and a dopey smile broke out in his face and he snickered. “Does this guy belong to your doozydoo club?”

And me thinking: This is the guy Conrad is going to apologize to? To me it looked like he deserved more than just snotty remarks. What an asshfole. Where did I see him before?

Conrad was sitting there still as a mouse. What was going on? He should have blown his cork by now. This guy is handing out his moronic brand of ridicule and he takes it? He’s up to something—what?

“I think he’s finally getting more comfortable with me,” Ralph said.

“Give me the flowers, I’ll put them in something,” Conrad’s mother said.

“Hold it, mom,” Ralph said. “Hold it. I have to present them first. Is Miss America ready for me?”

“She’s in her room,” Conrad’s mother said.

Ralph called into the passageway: “I’m here, gorgeous. Are you decent?”

“Not yet,” Estelle called back.

“I’ll be waiting, gorgeous,” Ralph said. He took a small gift wrapped package from his jacket pocket and gave to Conrad. “Here’s a little something for you, guy.”

“Gee, thanks,” Conrad said.

“Aah, don’t mention it, guy,” Ralph said. He turned to Conrad’s mother. “See? I told you he’d get comfortable with me sooner or later. It pays to be patient.” He approached Conrad and rubbed his head. “You’re finally wising up, eh guy?” He gave him a few taps on the cheek then, still holding the flowers, went into the passageway and called out in a little falsetto singsong voice you’d use on little kids: “Here I come, beautiful, ready or not.”

Conrad’s face began to transform as he watched Ralph recede. His eyes narrowed and he smiled that same strange smile as before in the basement when he asked about the cost of brass. He got up and I followed him back to his cubicle.

“You’ve got something cooked up for him, haven’t you?” I said. “What?”

“Keep listening,” he said.

The door to Estelle’s room was half open. “I’m not dressed yet because you’re early,” She was saying. “Why did you come so early anyway?”

“I figured we could spend a little more time eating,” Ralph said.

“I’m going to take a shower,” Estelle said. “Why don’t you go talk to Conrad? I think he has something to say.” She came out of her room followed by Ralph. He stopped at the cubicle, she continued to the bathroom.

“Hi, guys,” he said. “Can I join the nut brotherhood? Estelle says you have something to say to me.”

“Yeah, I do.” Conrad said. “I’m glad you came today because I can’t wait to get it off my chest. I owe you an apology for the way I acted Saturday. I know I acted pretty shitty and you certainly deserve an explanation, being as, you know, you and Estelle and all.” He looked down and blew out a breath, shaking his head as if what he was going to say wasn’t easy for him, then finally looked up at Ralph. “I don’t want to give excuses or anything but …” He did another head shake and blew out another breath. “See, I have a condition where I get these ,,, I don’t know what to call them … anger attacks. They just come on me out of nowhere. It’s like, I don’t know, like I sort of get an urge to get angry. James can tell you.”

“Yeah, he gets these urges,” I said “It’s awful,” thinking: What a performance. He’s setting him up for something. You could almost hear the machinery running in his head. Apologizing. Urges. My belly started to hum. I didn’t like this guy.

“Urges, eh?” Ralph said. “What do you mean by urges?”

“You don’t know what an urge is?” Conrad said.

“Certainly I know what an urge is,” Ralph said. “What I meant was, I never heard of anyone getting an urge to get angry, that’s all. When I get angry I just get angry and that’s it. It’s natural. In other words, I don’t need no urges to get angry with.”

“Well, it just so happens I’m the type of person who needs an urge to get angry with.” Conrad said. “Because I’m normally a very unangry person.”

“All right, all right, everyone is different.” Ralph said. “So you get an urge to get angry. Then what?”

“Then I feel myself getting angrier and angrier until some name pops into my head that I can’t stand being there, and I get the urge to get it out at any person I happen to be looking at. Did I call you anything last Saturday?”

“You don’t remember?” Ralph said.

“No,” Conrad said. “It’s like I black out.”

“You called me a shmuck,”

“Jesus, is that what I called you? A schmuck?”

“That’s exactly what you called me. And to tell you the truth it sounded very nasty the way you called me it.”

Conrad shook his head. “Whew! You must of thought I was crazy, or something.”

“Crazy?” Ralph said. “I thought you were absolutely buggo, calling me something like that. I mean, I can’t understand what’s going on with you. What am I, your enemy? I’m not your enemy. I mean, what did I ever do to make you act like that? Nothing. I’m trying very hard to be your friend. I always make it a point to try to have a few words with you every time I come, am I right? And all I get from you is these looks of yours. For no good reason. Is that nice? Is that respect?” He looked at Conrad for a long moment as if trying to drill a hole in his head with his eyes. Let me tell you, it’s a good thing you’re Estelle’s brother, or else you would of been in the hospital right now instead of sitting here talking to me. But all right, I’m willing to forget it being as you’re Estelle’s brother.”

“That’s awful good of you, Ralph,” Conrad said. “I don’t know how to thank you”

“Aah, think nothing of it,” Ralph said.

“All I can say is, I have to do something to get control of myself or I’m going to get my ass kicked in one of these days.”

“Now you’re thinking,” Ralph said. “If you was someone else besides Estelle’s brother, boy, you wouldn’t of only got your ass kicked in,” Ralph said, “you would’ve got your head broke too.”

“I know,” Conrad said. “Why do you think I explained this condition to you? It’s a terrible condition. And I didn’t even tell you the worst part of it.”

“What’s the worst part of it?”

Again Conrad looked down and shook his head for a few seconds. “This condition I have could even be deadly.”

“Deadly? What are you talking about, deadly?”

“When I’m in this angry thing, there are times, not often, but there are times that I get the urge to kill.”

“Kill? You talking about murder?”

“Exactly,” Conrad said.

Ralph sniggered. “That’s very interesting, Conrad. Very interesting. So in other words, with this condition of yours we’ll all have to be on our guard at all times.” He broke out laughing. He thought that was real funny.

“You see humor in that?” Conrad said.

“I don’t know,” Ralph said. “I just can’t see you killing anybody, that’s all.”

“I see you don’t believe me,” Conrad said. “All right, so don’t believe me. Let it go at that. But if it happens again I hope you’ll understand. Anyway, I just wanted to apologize for the way I’ve been acting lately. Like I said, I don’t remember any of it, but James said I acted real disrespectful.”

“You sure did,” Ralph said. “Boy, you had me going there. I was just an inch away from taking a swing at you, which I had to hold myself back with all my willpower. But aah, don’t give it another thought. I’m not the type who holds grudges. I don’t believe in grudges. I’m just glad we’re finally beginning to talk to each other like two human beings. Because harmony with your girlfriend’s family is a must. There’s no use using force or holding grudges. Am I right?”

“Sure you’re right,” Conrad said. “I feel the same way. Grudges don’t pay.”

A silly little grin slanted in Ralph’s face. “Let me give you a little good advice,” he said out of the side of his mouth, his lips going as if he were already relishing the taste of what he was going to say next. “Buy yourself a beebee gun and whenever you feel those urges coming on, or even get nervous in any way, just go out and shoot a few cats. It’ll calm you down like nothing else. It’s the best thing in the world when you’re nervous.” His eyes went from gray phlegm to flaming sparks. “That’s what I used to do, shoot cats. I got good with cats. I knew just what attracts them. Cat food. I used to buy a few cans and put it on the ground behind the shop and wait for the little bastards to show up and I’d shoot them. That’s the only thing that worked when I was nervous, and I tried everything, all kinds of pills and everything. Nothing else worked. I must of shot at least two hundred cats with that beebee gun.” He stood there shaking his head with a dopey smile.

“I have to remember that,” Conrad said. “It sounds good. Listen, Ralph, since we’re on a new footing, maybe I can ask you for your advice on something.”

“Sure, anything,” Ralph said. “What kind of advice are we talking about?”

“Well, me and James like to go around exploring in different neighborhoods,” Conrad said. “In the basement of an abandoned house in one of the neighborhoods we found a load of stuff we think are all made of brass. Brass is pretty valuable, isn’t it?”

“Well, it depends,” Ralph said. “Is it clean or dirty?”

“Everything looked pretty clean,” Conrad said. “Right, James?”

“Very clean,” I said, “considering that it must have been laying in that basement for years.”

Conrad reached under his cot and picked up Bach. “Most of them are like this.”

Ralph took it from Conrad and felt its weight.

“Since you’re in the business, maybe you can take a look at the whole thing,” Conrad said. “And if it’s worth anything, maybe even sell it for us.”

“How much of the stuff are we talking about?” Ralph said.

“Eight big burlap sacks full,” Conrad said.

My stomach shifted. Eight sacks full? It didn’t look like the whole thing could fill even one of those sacks. I shot him a glance. He was smiling.

“Eight sacks!” Ralph said. And then you could tell by a shift in the look n his face that some scheme occurred to him. “If there’s that much it would take time to get rid of. I’ll tell you what. Maybe I could do you a favor and buy it myself. That way you could get your money quick. Then I’ll get rid of it little by little, you know what I mean?”

And me thinking: Sure, I know what you mean, with that innocent look of yours trying to hide greed.. Giving us a few bucks for it and then selling it for a fortune.

Estelle came out of her room. “Okay, Ralph, I’m ready,” she said. “What are you going to sell little by little?”

“Nothing, honey, nothing,” Ralph said. He put Bach on the cot and, as he stepped through the shower curtain, winked at Conrad. He nudged Estelle up the passageway and waited until she got to the kitchen, then came back and stuck his head back in. “We’ll talk about this further. All right, honey, let’s get going. Bye‑bye everyone.”

Conrad was watching Ralph’s back recede like you’d watch a big slug slink into a crack in the sidewalk. Then he smiled that same strange smile again.

“You have something in mind for him, don’t you? I said. “You’re going to lure him down that basement and give him some grief, aren’t you?”

Conrad gave me a long serious look that shaded back into that same strange smile again, but he didn’t answer me. He followed me into the kitchen.

On my way out I thanked Conrad’s mother for supper.

“You eat like a fly,” Mrs. Shapiro said.

“Well, I wasn’t very hungry.”

“Goodnight, James Thusekin,” Conrad’s father said.

“I’ll see you soon,” Conrad said. “We have some work to do.”

I went downstairs with that smile still in my mind, wondering about the eight sacks full, wondering what Conrad meant by work to do, wondering all the time what’s coming next and what’s going to happen after that.

Trying to place Ralph walking home, his face, his body, his voice and especially that dumb snigger of his came together with his first name and my memory got past his trimmed hair and his new suit and his barber shop smell, and everything clicked into place. He was Ralph Ackerman. He worked with his father, who owned The Ackerman Junk Yard on Lorimer Street. He carried a gun strapped to his ankle that he said he got a permit for to protect him when he carried a few thousand dollars in cash to the bank every two hours. Next to his junk yard was an open lot that we used to play baseball on. Sometimes he’d sit on a old broken stuffed chair outside the shop, and whenever girls from JHS 108 came to watch and flirt around with us, he would take off his shirt and come lumbering onto the field and show off the muscles he thought he developed throwing junk around. And he’d give himself an extra dose of manhood by hiking his pants up every two minutes to show the gun. He’d go over to whoever was up and grab the bat out of his hands and yell to the pitcher, “Come on, Sandy Koufax, throw me a couple. Come on, let’s go, throw the fuckin ball in.” He’d stay up at the plate until after five or ten misses he’d finally connect and slam the ball all the way over Tompkins Avenue. Then he’d start flirting around with the girls. He’d make remarks like: ‘Where did you get such a gorgeous face, cutie? Why don’t you come around when you start wearing nylons.’ He’d flash that smile full of teeth and throw her this sugary little pucker‑lipped kiss and lift his pants daintily like a girl lifting her skirt as he puffed back to his junk yard, making sure to flash the gun one more time. His idea of fun was to grab one of us around the chest from behind and squeeze the living daylights out of him. One time he almost choked Tony Scabitsky unconscious just for answering him back, then actually pulled his gun from its leg holster and stuck it in Tony’s ear. One day when we got to the lot there were cardboard signs laying on the field exactly where home plate, all the bases and shortstop would be and in all three outfields that said: KEEP OUT. NO TRESPASSING (NO PLAYING BASEBALL EITHER). Ralph let us stand there and bleed a while, then came gloating out of the shop with that overweight swagger of his. “Too bad, too bad. You kids are not allowed to play here anymore. This is our property now. Too bad, too bad,” and he made like he was crying. “I’m so sorry for you but you’ll have to go find yourself somewhere else. Maybe you could get up a collection and rent out Yankee Stadium,” and he busted out laughing. Ha ha ha. Right then if he was tied to a pole and blindfolded not one of us would have hesitated to punch him right square in the face. And I still wouldn’t, because he hasn’t changed, with those dumb kindergarten remarks of his. Doozydoo club, nut brotherhood. I couldn’t understand those giggly junior high school girls kept falling all over him like he was another Rock Hudson or something. Jesus. Whatever Conrad had in mind for him down that basement, I wanted to be a full‑fledged participating partner. Because he sure did pick his enemies right. Just thinking about it made my belly hum.





I hardly slept all that night. I kept imagining Ralph walking into that bin and not seeing eight full sacks. He wouldn’t just stand there like a dummy and watch Conrad walk out, then wait for me to close the door and lock him in. He’d immediately sense something funny and react. And then what?

The next day Conrad was waiting for me after school. I faced him with my fears.

“What do you think you’re going to do,” I said, “through him on his ass and walk out?”

“What did your brains, take a trip?” Conrad said. “He’s not going to react because he’s not going to think something is wrong.”


Because he’s going to see eight full sacks.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Aah, close your mouth,” Conrad said. “You’re getting me nervous. Come on, we have a job to do.”

At the abandoned house he gave me the key to the bin. “Climb in there and get eight of those sacks laying on the floor.”

Then I realized what he had in mind. When I got half way in I said “Wait a minute.” I pushed myself out again.

“What are you doing!” Conrad yelled.

“Just take it easy,” I said. “What are you going to do with the sacks?”

“Think!” Conrad said.

“I am thinking,” I said.

He looked at me goggle-eyed.

“After you get those sacks three-quarters filled with those old bricks,” I said, “who are you going to find strong enough to lift them and carry them to that window? And even if you do find someone stone enough, what are you going to do, break the wall to get them in?”

He looked at me again for a few moments, though not goggle-eyed this time. “About time your brains started working again,” he said. He sat down on the ground and went into thought with his nose snubbing and lip squeezing. After a few minutes he got up. “All right,” he said. “Come on.”

We walked to a block full of brownstones on Penn Street. There was construction work going on at two of the houses. At one of them Conrad paused and eyed the equipment placed in front of it. He apparently didn’t see what he was looking for and went to the other one. Among the construction equipment in front of it were two wheelbarrows. He nonchalantly walked through the open gate and wheeled one of them out and started walking back to our abandoned house. My conscience kicked up a fuss but I kept quiet. I couldn’t find it in me to start anything during a theft in which I was an accomplice.

We spent the next five hours breaking our backs filling the wheelbarrow half way with bricks (we filled the first load all the way and then couldn’t even lift it), wheeling them to the window and throwing them in—we made twenty seven trips—then throwing them to and then into the bin and filling the eight sacks three-quarters of the way with them; then stuffing the sacks the rest of the way with the brass.





When I came home from school the next day Conrad was playing Chinese handball against the front of my building with a kid who lives next door.

“All right, game’s over,” he said to the kid.

“What are you doing here?” I said. “Didn’t you go to school?”

“Never mind school,” he said. “We’re going into the basement tonight.”

“Tonight?” I said. “What time?”

“Eleven-thirty,” he said.

“Eleven-thirty! What are you, kidding? I can’t stay out that late.”

He sat down on the stoop and put his palm to his forehead like he was suffering with a headache, then sprang up again. “What’s the matter with you? You can’t stay out that late? Why not, for crissake?”

“Why not? Because my mother won’t let me, that’s why not.”

“What’s the matter with her, for crissake? Why?”

“Because that’s how my mother is, that’s why. Besides, there’s school tomorrow.”

He lowered his head and rotated it and took a deep breath and whooshed it out again. “You and your mother and school!. You want me to go up and talk to her?”


He looked up at the sky. “This guy keeps working against me.”

“Working against you?”

“Look, just be there eleven-thirty, you hear me!” He walked away.

“Wait a minute.”

He kept walking. What was the matter with him? Eleven-thirty on a Thursday. But the more I thought about it the less nutty and the more exciting it became, until by the time I finished my milk and crackers upstairs I knew I was going to do it. In fact I found myself looking forward to it. So I lied to mom again. I told her the deadline for submitting our science project was tomorrow and DiDonna and I had a lot of loose ends to get right and it was an important complicated project and it would be a sure winner and I how excited I was about it and in order to finish it we’d have to work till late tonight on it and DiDonna suggested that I could have supper there and sleep over and—

“Slow down,” mom said. “Your school friends seem to have generous mothers. I’m a little—”

“If we get disqualified it’ll be your fault.”

“All right, all right,” mom said finally. “Just stop that whining. How about your homework?”

“I’ll do it there.”

I went to the Rutledge Street playground and played some handball there. For supper I bought a hamburger and french frys at the T-Bone diner, , then went to Miller’s candy store and hung around a while. I called mom from there at nine‑thirty to tell her I’m okay then took a walk to Bridge Plaza and watched them playing chess for the rest of the time. When I got to the back of the house the beam of a flashlight blinded me. Holding it was Conrad, sitting on the ground beside the transom window smoking a cigar.

“Lower that, you’re blinding me,” I said. “What are you doing smoking a cigar?”

“This occasion calls for it.”

“Doesn’t it get you sick?”

He patted the ground next to him. “Sit down, James.”

“What do you have in mind to do that’s so important?” I said

“You’ll soon see. Just be patient.”

After a while I heard someone coming through one of the lots adjacent to the house and my adrenaline shot up. A figure came out of the shadows holding a flashlight. It was Ralph! He was wearing his junk shop clothes.

‘What’s going on?” I said. Conrad didn’t answer me. He didn’t have to. “Tonight’s the night we’re —”

“This is the house, eh?” Ralph said, approaching us.

Conrad looked at me. “Well?”

“Well what?” I said.

“What’s the matter with you?” Conrad said. “You said you’d think about it.”

“Think about what?”

“Jesus, your head must of taken a trip to the moon or something,” Conrad said. “You said you’d think about splitting the money this yoyo gets for the stuff three ways. You don’t remember?”

“Oh yeah,” I said. “I agree.”

“Don’t call me a yoyo,” Ralph said.

“Boy, are you touchy,” Conrad said.

“Calling me a yoyo ain’t necessary, so don’t do it again.”

“All right, I won’t do it again.”

Ralph was looking at the broken pane of the transom window. “How do you get in there?” he said.

“Through there,” Conrad said, nodding toward the transom.

“You expect me to fit through that?” Ralph said.

Conrad looked at me. “All right, go in.”

I squeezed through and opened the transom.

“Go ahead in,” Conrad said to Ralph. “What are you waiting for?”

Ralph swung himself in, then I helped Conrad get in.

Conrad took out his keys and flashed his light on the lock and opened it.

“How come you have a key to that lock?” Ralph said.

“Hey, what do you think, we’re dumb?” Conrad said. “We broke the lock that was on there and put on another one so no one else can get in.” He went in and opened one of the sacks. “Here it is, eight sacks full.”

Ralph went over, his eyes gleaming and that look of secret greed on his face. He picked a heavy lamp base out, flashed his light on it, then gave it a few joggles to test its heft.

“That’s brass, isn’t it?” Conrad said.

“Yeah, it’s brass all right,” Ralph said. “But it looks like an inferior type.” He put the lamp base on the floor and picked out a statue of a Greek discus thrower and examined it, with Conrad sticking his nose close by like an interested observer.

And I’m standing there right outside the bin with the lock in my hand, ready to swing the door closed and put it through the hasp as soon as Conrad steps out; thinking, What are you standing there for? Come on out, dammit,

“How heave do you think that is?” Conrad said.

“It has to weigh six, seven pounds,” Ralph said. “At least.”

“What’s the price of scrap brass nowadays?” Conrad said.

“I don’t know,” Ralph said. “It varies on the quality and how clean it is. Like I said, this don’t look like top quality. I don’t think it’s worth much. But since you’re Estelle’s brother I’ll take it off your hands and get ride of it.” He looked into the second bag and started to rake beneath the surface, with Conrad still standing there watching him like a statue of a spectator, and me going crazy, ready to run to the transom and climb the hell out of there while I can. But I jumped into the bin and grabbed Conrad’s arm and gave it a yank, but he resisted until Ralph reached the bricks, then finally gave way and I pulled him out and swung the door closed and locked it a half second before Ralph reached it and started banging on it.

“You dirty sonofabitches!” he screamed. “Open up! You’re going to be sorry for this! I guarantee you’re going to pay for this. Come on, open the door!”

We stood there listening to Ralph banging the door and yelling for half a minute, then a thought occurred to me: how the fuck are we going to let this guy loose? It would be like letting a tiger out of a cage. I looked at Conrad,.” Would you mind telling me how we’re going to free this guy? We can’t just leave him there forever.”

“Let me worry about that,” Conrad said.

“You can worry about it all you want,” I said, “but I’d still like to know how we’re going to free him.”

“You know, you got a problem,” Conrad said. “You have no fuckin dedication. Can’t you do things without asking questions once in a while”?

“All right, all right,” I said. “But you better have a way thought up to free him.”

“I have it all figured out, dammit!” Conrad said.

“Don’t get crazy, Conrad,” Ralph yelled. “Let me out.”

“Just relax,” Conrad said. “Make yourself comfortable.”

“Boy, are you funny,” Ralph said. “Come on, be nice and unlock the door.” Then he exploded again.  “You sonofabitches!” he bellowed. “Wait till I get hold of you! I’m going to tear you limb from limb! Just wait!”

“You wait,” Conrad said. “I’m too sleepy. I’m going home to bed.

Then Ralph talked to me. “Hey kid, you got brains. Come on, unlock the door.”

“Look, don’t talk to me,” I said. “Talk to him. He makes the decisions.”

“Come on Conrad,” Ralph said. “You mean to say you’re really going to keep me locked up liked this? Be sensible. Unlock the door.”

“This guy is having trouble believing what’s happening to him,” Conrad said.

“Conrad, you’re getting me nervous,” Ralph said. “You’re getting me very nervous. All right, you had your fun. It went far enough. Now let me out.”

“Far enough? From whose standpoint?”

“You little prick,” Ralph yelled. “You goddam little prick! I don’t think you know what you’re doing,””

“Oh, really?” Conrad said. “So maybe you can tell me. What am I


“Tell you what you’re doing!” Ralph yelled. “I’ll tell you what you’re doing!”

There was a short silence then two gunshots rang out, sending me and Conrad on our asses in recoil. Then four more shots followed by a rapid succession of clicks. There was a short silence, then more door banging. I got up and looked at the door. The metal around the knob was all mangled with a small splintered hole in the wood under it. But the lock was intact.

“Look, stop this shitting around and unlock me.” Ralph’s yelling had a kind of sob in it now. “I’m telling you, I’m getting very angry. Come on, be sensible. Unlock me, I won’t do nothing. Come on. I’m saying please.” He banged the door. “Unlock me godammit!” He kept banging the door.

Ralph was getting to me with his suffering. All those sounds that were coming out of him, grunting and groaning; and now he started squeaking, or something. I kept thinking about waking up tomorrow morning when this whole thing would be over and done with.

“I don’t like this,” I said. “Didn’t he already get enough punishment? Listen to him. He’s going crazy in there. Use your method of freeing him and let’s get out of here.”

“Godammit!” Conrad said. “You’re trying to tell me how to run things now? You’re trying to tell me how to run things?”

“There’s going to be consequences.” Ralph almost cried that.

“Let me tell you something about consequences,” Conrad said. “If you leave consequences alone they always take care of themselves.”

Ralph began to bellow in whining falsetto. He ran out of breath and started to cough.

“I knew we should have brought along some cough syrup,” Conrad said.

“This can’t be happening to me,” Ralph said through his coughing. “This can’t be happening to me.”

“Of course it can’t,” Conrad said. “Maybe you’re dreaming.

“Hey Conrad, please,” Ralph whined. “This is getting serious now,” Ralph whined.

“You know something, Ralph?” Conrad said. “You sound better when you’re begging than when you’re cursing. “You ought to beg more often.”

And me thinking: He may not sound so bad when he’s begging but when he’s free he won’t be begging anymore. He’s going to look for me and find me and beat the living shit out of me.

“All right, call it begging,” Ralph said. “I’m begging. Come on, let me out of here. Please. You want me to get down on my knees? “Please, let me out. I got work tomorrow. Come on, think of Estelle.”

“That’s funny,” Conrad said. “That’s exactly who I was thinking of. What about her?”

“She’ll be —” And then Ralph went into a high‑pitched falsetto wail.

“Jesus, he’s crying,” I said. My heart was thumping against my chest. The closest I ever came to hearing a grown man cry was in the movies.

“Hey Ralph, you got anything more to say to me?” Conrad said. “You better say it right now, before we leave.”

“My God, my God,” Ralph whimpered. “He’s absolutely insane. He’s going to do it. He’s going to leave me closed in. Please, please.”

“Listen to him,” I said. “He’s getting hysterical in there. He thinks he’s going to die of starvation or something in there.”

“So what do you want me to do?” Conrad said.

“I want you to use your freeing method,” I said. “Start your freeing method, that’s what I want you to do, and let’s get the hell out of here.”

“I’ll free him when the time comes,” Conrad said.

“When the time comes!” I said. “Look, enough is enough. I’ll see you.” I went to the transom window.

“What are you going to do, desert me? You’re going to desert me?”

“If you’re going to keep him closed in there forever I don’t want to be part of it.”

“Is that what you’re worried about for crissake?”

“Yes, that’s what I’m worried about. Aren’t you?”

“Of course not. Didn’t I say I got it all figured out.”

“Then let me in on it. How is he going to get out of there?”

“Godammit!” Conrad said. “What’s the matter with you? What do you think, I’m lying?” He kept looking at me in a certain way, a certain flickering power beaming out of his eyes through his little glasses. Suddenly I felt a nice calmness, as though my brain got numbed down all of a sudden and a bad headache went away and everything was all right now. I could almost feel my mind take a shift. I wanted to see it done, I wanted to see this performance of his executed. And now I felt just as sure that he did have it all figured out as I was unsure of it just a minute ago. Ralph’s moaning and whining behind that door didn’t matter any more because it was right that he should moan and whine. That was part of it, part of the whole performance. The reason for the performance.

“Well?” Conrad said. “Answer me. Do you think I’m lying?”

“No. I don’t think you’re lying.”

“That’s better,” Conrad said

Ralph began to whine again “Conrad, please, come on, give me a break. Get me out.” He started to cry, all‑out, like a baby cries. “Don’t leave me locked in here, please don’t leave me locked in here.”

Something started happening to Conrad. He was just standing there with his mouth open and wet and his eyes blank, seeing nothing. Then he seemed to intensify. His face began twitching and his eyes blinking. Then his body went through a commotion of bucking and chugging like some mechanism gone wrong. He abruptly stopped and gave a little shiver and came to rest like a car engine when it goes dead. With the heel of his hand he hit his head a few times; then, with goggled eyes, stared at the door, listening to Ralph babbling away inside.

“Hey James,” he said. “Is that Ralph still in there?”

I looked at him, stunned. “Is that Ralph in there!” I said. “What just happened to you?”

“What are you talking about?” Conrad said. “Nothing just happened to me. How long has he been in there?”

I couldn’t get my mouth going.

“Well? How long?”

“About a half hour,” I said. “What just happened to you?

“What do you mean, what just happened to me? Nothing happened to me.”

“Something did just happened to you.”

“You must be imagining things,” Conrad said. “Look James, I think we ought to let him out already.”

“What’s the matter with you?” I said. “He’ll wipe the floor with us if we let him out.”

“Let me handle that,” Conrad said. “Just unlock the door. You have the key, don’t you?”

“No, you have the key.”

“Didn’t I give it to you?”

No, you didn’t give it to me.”

“Boy, you are weird,” Conrad said. “I’ll never understand you.”

My voice wouldn’t get going. All I could do was look at him.

His eyes narrowed and his chin protruded and his face took a switch into another kind of thought. Then it took another switch. “Let’s go to sleep,” he said finally. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll figure something out. Come on, let’s get out of here and go home to bed. I’m dead tired.”

After we climbed out Conrad said: “Good night.” And he turned and walked in the direction of his house without another word. I stood there with my mind full of questions, watching him recede.

It was already twenty to three; almost three hours we spent in that damn basement. And for the first time that evening I thought about where I was going to sleep, although I wasn’t even sleepy; I felt exhausted but not sleepy. I started walking, not even knowing where I’d end up, watching out for cops and patrol cars like a fugitive from justice, trying to think up something to say if one stopped me to ask what I was doing out so late. I walked up Division Avenue to a little lot with high grass where it ended at the river, where the Zephyrs go to play blackjack, and sometimes bring girls who put out. I laid back in the grass and shut my eyes and tried to sleep, but I was too nervous thinking about Ralph trapped in that bin. How the hell was Conrad going to get him out of there? He’s got it all figured out. What has he got figured out? What’s in that head of his? And that business at the end, Jesus, maybe he is insane. Everything felt unreal, like in a dream. Jesus, the idea of Ralph dying in there of suffocation or starvation. I lay there and took my head in my hands and pressed, like I could squeeze the whole thing out.

I sat up and gazed at the river and the three bridges and the Manhattan skyline. There was a late spring breeze coming in off the river that settled me down a little. I walked to Broadway and found a phone booth and dialed 911.

“I’d like to report a man closed into a basement storage bin in an abandoned house,” I said to the cop who answered.

“Closed into a what in an abandoned house?”

“A storage bin,” I said.

“A storage bin, eh?” the cop said. “I see. A storage bin in an abandoned house. Where?”

“On Casper Street between Bedford and Driggs,” I said. “You can’t miss it. It’s the only house on the block with an empty lot on each side.”

“Your name?”

“Oliver Wendell Holmes.”


“Oliver Wendell Holmes.”

“Wait a minute,” the cop said. “You’re going too fast. Spell it.”

“H-O-L-M-E-S, Holmes,” I said. “And you better take this seriously or in a few weeks you’ll have a dead man on your hands.” And I hung up. Then I went home. When I opened the door mom was already standing in front of it.

“What happened?” she said.

“DiDonna’s father came home drunk and kicked me out.”

“He kicked you out?” She said and gave me one of her long looks. “At four in the morning? Why?”

“What do you want, an explanation?”

“Aah, go to sleep,” she said





It made the papers the next day. The story was on page 6 of The Daily News under the headline MAN ENTOMBED IN BROOKLYN BASEMENT. When Ralph was finally freed by the police he was taken to the Mercy Hospital emergency room in shock and totally incoherent. When the police questioned him the next day he gave them this hooey about being abducted by three men in ski masks, maybe hired by one of his competitors, who took him to this basement and closed him into a bin, and his shooting through the door trying to break the lock. Why didn’t tell them the truth? That puzzled me until I realized that if he did he would be charged with breaking and entering. And that’s exactly what Conrad figured on, that he’d lie. And there was probably another good reason for him to lie: He knew that if it ever got out that two skinny adolescent kids made a donkey out of him by trapping and locking him into a tomb, his cronies at Maxie’s pool room and everyone else he knew would shrink him down to nothing with laughter.

And then the other thing hit me. After almost scaring him to death Conrad did have a way figured out to free Ralph. Because he was sure that I couldn’t tolerate leaving him locked in that bin for too long. He knew that sooner or later I’d call the police to free him.

And that little performance he put on at the end, going through this fit then accusing me of being the one who was keeping Ralph locked in. What was that all about? Who knows. Maybe it was just to round out the act.

I never saw Conrad again. In the fall I started Eastern District High School. Half way into the term I received a letter from Creedmoor State Hospital, Glen Oaks, New York, with his name and a number written below it. The addressee was Mark Ellenbogen. But salutation said, Dear James. It had just two sentences:


I have to figure out a way to get out of this hole. Get me a copy of Juvenile Law by Robert Kreiger and send it to me.


No please, no thank you in advance. No asking how I was doing. I looked up law books in the yellow pages. A store on West 59th Street in Manhattan had it. It cost me $40. It was as if Conrad knew beforehand that the fifty dollar bill my grandfather gave me for my birthday would be enough. It took me four days to decide to do it. With tax it cost me $41.80, and I spent another $2.40 for postage. With the $5.80 I had left I bought myself a pair of bumper sneakers, three packs of juicy fruit and 3 cents worth of Indian nuts. I just wanted to get rid of the whole fifty dollars.

Walking home I got a funny feeling of exhilaration, like I was glad to be alive. Things felt good. What was my experience with Conrad like? Sometimes I think it was as if some wild animal took my hand and led me

around its habitat and made me part of its existence. Other times I get the sensation of having taken a ride on the Cyclone, my body still vibrating, feeling a little sad that it’s over, thinking I’m surely going to take another ride the next time I’m in Coney Island. Except with the Cyclone you know just what’s going to happen after climbing up the rails for that first drop. With Conrad there are no rails and no climbing. Anything can happen next. He may be crazy but I’ll tell you something. He’s the only person I ever knew who didn’t do what everyone else does, and he’s also the only person I ever knew who kept me interested one hundred percent of the time. And if Creedmoor State Hospital thinks they’re going to get him to do what they want him to do they have another think coming.





A little later on in the spring term I read Poe’s A Cask of Amontillado for English. Jesus.