To These Guys

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They’d run off to get married just a couple of weeks since I’d last seen her. “Nine months ago last Thursday,” Monica said, even more rapidly than usual. “First we lived with Ray’s mom in a trailer park in San Jose. We’re staying at Dudley Apartments now. What a dive! an old wino drowned in the bathtub down the hall. In the bathtub! Yesterday they found a body in the next room; well not the next room, the one next to it. Cops all over the place. Not just cops off the street — detectives!”

As Monica gabbed her husband stared straight on at me. He had the hungry, scrutinizing street look, but his face was pretty: where the skin was taut — high cheekbones, long, slightly pointed chin — it had a sheen like fine glove leather. His eyes were dotted by peaking brows, but whenever I returned his gaze he dropped his head a fraction of an inch and all I could see beneath that hat was a trim pointed mustache and a secretive grin leaned up against it.

At Monica’s prodding Ray gave a brief recitation, in unaccented, almost uninflected voice, about his bad leg, heroin addiction, prison history. His picky, methodical enunciation and the even gaps between his words left me with the impression that he was dull. So far as I could determine, he had never killed anyone. Monica expanded on his answers as I felt his stare upon me again.

I said, finally, edgily, that it sounded like we might make out a good disability case for him. Ray would have to sign this application, and I’d fill it out and get him appointments with a shrink — it’s routine, I lied — and an orthopedist.

“An orthopedist!” Monica loved anything to do with the medical world; she’d been a nurse in the early 60’s, before getting caught in the morphine closet. “That’s a specialist, Ray, a bone doc — ”

“I know what the fuck an orthopedist is,” he said in his slow voice. It seemed the first time I’d ever heard him speak.

Disability cases involved masses of paper, examinations and reports by Social Security’s doctors and our own. It was usually six to twelve months between application and decision. Ray’s case took four. Everyone who read his prison history — 22 knifepoint robberies! — evidently wanted him off the streets as soon as possible.

While the case was filtering through the administrative strata, we met briefly every few weeks, and Ray made it plain both that he didn’t trust me and that it was nothing personal. Monica wrote me a letter: Ray didn’t believe in doctors and she had to drag him to each appointment; he didn’t open up easily but was so sweet and gentle, both words getting double-underlines. Ray was shy. I should see him with her guinea pig.

I visited them only once, bringing a small whipped-cream cake for their first anniversary. They were blitzed on some horrendous combination of drugs; Monica denied it vehemently and at length, but Ray winked and put two fingers behind her head, the “rabbit” sign, as she nodded off in mid-sentence. He was like a good-natured kid that night, joking and kissing Monica and insisting I punch him in the shoulder after he dropped a piece of cake on my shoe. They hadn’t known what day it was until I’d told them; when they came in for their next office visit only a week later they didn’t remember my visit at all. I felt I’d been robbed of Ray’s friendship.

Except for their anniversary, Monica and I saw each other now exclusively at my office. The only sign of thaw on Ray’s part was his habit of giving me a small gift — two English Oval cigarettes, a lucky quarter — at the close of each meeting. But even that was disconcerting; he did it, he said, “because you never know if you’ll wake up tomorrow morning.”




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