During the summer of 1970 Fran Kornblauser was renting a fifth-floor walk-up in a building whose buzzer system was partially and perennially incapacitated. When she threw a dinner party--which she did with characteristic frequency--her guests were able to buzz up to Fran's to announce their arrival, but Fran could not, as the system only worked in one direction, buzz back down to open the door. Thus, when the bell rang, Fran would hoist open one of the large front windows that overlooked East Eleventh Street, her jangling necklaces and voluminous breasts dangling over the window box and crushing the petunias planted there by the former tenant, wave hello to her prospective company stranded on the sidewalk, their necks craned upward like gawkers at a rooftop suicide, and toss a spare key out the window to the cement five flights below. "Turn it left and push hard," she'd holler. "It sticks like a motherfucker."
Roz Rosenzweig, who with her crazy ostrich legs and excruciatingly bright and irrevocably short Marimekko minidress looked remarkably like a strawberry lollypop, and Edwin Anderson, seersucker suit rumpled to Kennebunk perfection though he was himself not a Mainer but a Nebraskan, arrived on the stoop outside Fran Kornblauser's simultaneously and became acquainted on their knees as they scrounged in a bed of impatiens for the elusive key which had ricocheted off a third-floor balcony and landed in the little cordoned-off flower patch. A sign hanging from the chain requested that dogs kindly be curbed elsewhere; still, Roz was unsurprised when, instead of the key, her hand brushed what one hasty sniff proved to be a mostly but not completely hardened pile of dog shit.
"Dammit," she said.
"I've got it!" he exclaimed, procuring the key and holding it up so that it glinted in the light. He raised himself to standing and offered her a hand, but she declined and pushed herself to her own feet. His arm was still outstretched. "Edwin," he said, "Edwin Anderson," and he extended his hand further toward her.
"Roz Rosenzweig," she said, "but I think we should wait and shake on that later."
"Oh," he said. "OK."
She shrugged. "Whelp . . . up to Fran's?" she suggested, and when he gestured for her to go ahead she said, "No no, after you," knowing full well all he wanted was a good view from behind for five flights. So then it was he who shrugged, and pushed open the door.
As it turned out, it was neither her ass nor his gallantry that had prompted Edwin's offer to allow Roz ahead of him, but the simple fact that he was a man who walked with a dreadful limp and knew that taking the steps behind him was bound to make for an unbearably slow and frustrating climb.
From the fourth-floor landing, they could see Fran hanging out the open door, a plastic tumbler of drink in hand. "Come on, Gimpy," Fran called, not yet drunk, just naturally crass. She turned and yelled into the apartment: "One more flight and the Gimp'll have made it."
Now doubly horrified. . . by her tainted hand and by Fran's unconscionable ridicule of this poor limping guy. . . Roz watched as Fran herded Edwin through the apartment door, and then she flicked a wrist and whacked Fran on the rather substantial flank of her upper arm. Ice cubes clunked in the jostled tumbler.
"You rat," Roz scolded, her face contorting into an overly dramatized approximation of appalled.
Fran gave Roz a reciprocal whack that nearly sent her sprawling down the stairs she'd just so arduously climbed.
"What's next?" Roz hissed. "You going to start hanging around St. Vincent's poking fun at the bedridden?"
Fran guffawed, flapped her arm toward the apartment door through which Edwin had disappeared, then gave another amused snort. "You mean the Gimp?"
"Roz-Roz," Fran said, wrapping her arm around Roz and guiding her, too, into the apartment, "things are hardly as they appear, my darling."
Edwin Anderson, a newly anointed lawyer fresh from the heartland. . . who wanted, he avowed earnestly, to do work in civil rights. . . cornered Roz in Fran's kitchen, where she'd retreated for a few moments of reprieve under the pretense of replenishing the bean dip. She was in the process of adding another jigger of vodka to her Collins when the door swung open to yield Edwin, carrying the near-empty potato chip bowl like a monk begging for alms.
"Fran sent me for chips," he announced.
"What are you, the lackey?" Roz tossed another jigger into her drink for good measure and pawed around the countertop for the screw cap she'd set down somewhere. "Fran sent you to shame me out of raiding her liquor cabinet, is what you've actually been dispatched to do." Roz waggled the bottle toward him.
"In that case," said Edwin, "she picked the wrong spy." He set his chip bowl on top of the fridge where he'd be sure to forget about it completely, and started opening Fran's cabinets one after another in search of a clean glass. "What're you mixing?" he asked. "Over the sink, on the left," Roz said. "Collins." She paused. "Collinses? Collinsi?" "It could be like lice?" Edwin suggested. "Ice? In the freezer," Roz said. "Do I look like a bartender? You've got arms." "No, I, no, I mean, I meant the plural. Louse, lice. Mouse, mice. It could be like that. Or even like children. You know: child, children." "Edwin," Roz said, facing him dead on, "tonight we're making yours a triple."
"To see the symphony," he said.
Roz was trying to wriggle out of her panty hose, the phone clamped precariously between her shoulder and her jaw. "Is that the bargain deal for people who can't afford to go and hear the symphony?" she asked him.
Edwin didn't laugh. "Actually," he said, "I've only got one ticket. I thought you'd watch while I listen. We could switch at intermission if you'd like."
Roz was utterly unprepared for sarcasm from the mouth of a Nebraska farm boy. And a lawyer too, no less. A legal secretary, Roz spent her days surrounded by lawyers and found them, on the whole, to be a humorless lot.
"What'd you do?" Edwin asked. "Drop the phone?"
"No," she said, grabbing hold of the receiver. She lifted her feet from the floor in front of the couch, panty hose still bunched around her ankles, and scissored her legs apart and together thinking such an exercise might have surprising effects on her butt, which she was sure would be the first thing to go as she sagged her way into middle age.
"I could pick you up," he suggested. "Tomorrow evening, say around seven . . ."
Suddenly it felt like a challenge. "OK, sure," Roz said. He seemed harmless enough. And, honestly, when she thought about it, she could not remember once, ever, having had a man ask her to something so elegant as the symphony.
"So, any mushy stuff?" Loralee sat on the carpet, her back up against Roz's front door as if to block all means of escape.
"Actually, yes," Roz said. She was flopped out on the couch, conducting Brahms in the air with her left foot. "We went for an ice cream."
"Mmmmm. What flavor?" Loralee demanded.
"I had Butter Pecan."
"No, the gentleman," Loralee prodded.
"You said it," Roz concurred.
"Sure," Edwin said, about as suspicious as a ballpoint pen. "Some other time."
"OK, well, actually, I've actually got to get off the phone, Edwin. Thanks for the thought."
"Sure," he said. "No problem."
"Well, bye," she said, taking the receiver from her ear before he had a chance to sign off, though there was no doubt that he would anyway.
Without thinking, Roz yanked on the signal cord, hollered "Getting off!" and plowed her way to the back door. She dashed up the museum steps and grabbed at the sleeve of Edwin's jacket. He turned, calm as only a nonnative New Yorker could be, and faced Roz on a landing halfway up the imposing bank of steps that served to weed out the faint of heart and bar the cardiovascularly unfit from access to the world's great art. Now that Roz was there, panting from her sprint and still clinging to the material at Edwin's elbow, she was at a loss for words. Any excuse would be paltry and disingenuous. And Roz, who took silence to be a sign of nothing less than death, couldn't bear it. "I just . . . I mean . . . I'm. . . ," she stuttered.
Edwin interrupted. "That was rude of me," he said. "Not to mention juvenile. I apologize."
"I said I was sorry for. . . "
She cut him off this time. "You're apologizing to me? You can't apologize to me. You've been nothing but perfectly nice and I lie, and then I get caught like a kid in the cookie jar and now you think you should be. . . "
". . . Apologizing for baking the cookies in the first place?" He chuckled.
"Exactly." Roz couldn't identify her own emotions, but was afraid she sounded annoyed, or self-righteous, as if she'd just said I told you so and was waiting for Edwin to concede his own mistake.
Instead, he said, "Have you seen the Goya exhibit yet?"
"What?" Roz was disarmed.
"Goya," Edwin said. "That's what I came to see."
"Well, I, but . . . You want me to come with you?"
"Sure," he said, and there was nothing left to do but accept. If it was a game, she didn't know the rules. If it wasn't, if he was actually this trusting and forgiving a human being, the man was going to last about another week in New York before he fled on a train back to Nebraska, where the waves of grain were amber, the plains fruited, and the girls as simple and blond as sunflowers.
He was not, in any way, a man Roz would have imagined for herself. He was four years her junior, for god's sake, and he'd never really even known a Jew before Roz, let alone kissed one. He still limped a bit from his injury, and though he wasn't short. . . five eight, the same as Roz. . . he certainly wasn't tall. He had fair and honest good looks but lacked even an ounce of the dark mystery, furtive heart, or swarthy sophistication that Roz had clambered after for most of her adult life. But there was a point at which one tired of clambering, and Roz wondered if maybe she was reaching hers. A point when you stopped looking for Eden and set down your bags right where you were just to have the weight off your back. And maybe you stopped and built yourself a little house then, not because you'd found paradise but because the land was fertile, the view pleasant, the water clear and cold. When Loralee pried Roz for details about the clean-cut and exceedingly polite young man she often encountered late at night in the lobby of their apartment building, he on his way out, she on her way in, panty hose tucked into her purse, all Roz could manage to say on Edwin's behalf was, "I don't know, Loralee. He's not a shit," disbelieving her own words as she spoke them, as though she'd always understood shittiness to be an intrinsic male characteristic, as essential to attraction as musk.
Excerpted from The Good People of New York by Thisbe Nissen. Copyright © 2001 by Thisbe Nissen. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.