by Ron Singer
[ fiction - october 07 ]
It is difficult to explain how that confrontation came about, how it was that my cousin - short, plump, pale, freckled and sandy-haired - and myself, very different, but presently his double, faced each other across the large, nearly empty room that Sunday morning and stared in silence for perhaps an entire minute.
"Who are you and what do you want?" he finally asked. The smoke from his interrupted cup of coffee drifted across his face as he spoke. I stood up straight and, aware that the other patrons were watching me, walked slowly over to him.
Leaning on the counter two feet to his left, I smiled into his face and said calmly, "Norman B--."
A deep flush came up out of his shirt collar and climbed his face to the hairline, darkening the freckles as it went. It reminded me of a scarlet velvet theater curtain; the play was "Norman's Anger."
Cousin Norman, the son of my father's brother, had always represented living death for me. When I had last been in contact with him, Norman had been a middle-level civil servant responsible for the allocation of P--'s municipal tax revenues. He had possessed a faculty for total recall of the daily newspaper, pretending to do so in the name of Informed Citizenry, but in fact relishing victory over anyone so foolhardy as to disagree with him about what an article had said. Even as a young man, Norman had aspired to the title of Family Patriarch.
Three years my junior, Norman had fathered two sons who must by now have reached high school. His wife I remembered as much taller and thinner than he. Even to think of Norman was to make me short of breath, but with a great effort of concentration I began to picture his fingers: stubby, with unbitten pink nails. Another detail I immediately remembered was that his breath was so sour you could taste it merely by licking your own lips.
These were the preliminary garnerings from memory, and now I was ready to begin work on the next stage, the creation of an approximate physical double. I do not keep photographs of people I detest, so I relied on my visual memory and a few quick viewings from crowds. Does it seem impossible that I could physically impersonate Norman? Even in the general resemblance that was my preliminary aim? Does the reader immediately think of height and frame as insurmountable barriers? A few commonplaces about appearance should dispel that misconception. "Oh, that color makes you look so fat." "Don't wear those pants, they make your legs look so stubby." Becoming short, fat Norman was not much of a challenge. Who was going to ask us to stand back to back? As to resources, by this stage of my career I was amply stocked with make-up, wigs, wardrobe and other props. Plus my single most remarkable talent, the capacity to mimic mannerism. With an hour's practice I would be able to do Norman's duck walk in my sleep.
In the event, it took less than a week for me to look enough like Norman that his wife, with a puzzled expression on her normally cool face, waved to me as I was disappearing into a crowd. But general appearance was only the start. I tested the impersonation just that one time before moving on to the next stage, research into details. I put the physical disguise away, so as not to "squander" it and so as to concentrate on the inward impersonation.
For this was to be my first three-dimensional performance. Even my most hitherto-demanding role, that of a subway blind man, had been little more than a stereotype, a cartoon. When I tried begging, a bit of self-abasement and a few droll touches were all it took to excite the compassion of my fellow travelers, the role's only object beyond the feeling of humiliation which was mine merely by virtue of donning the costume.
But this level of impersonation could no longer satisfy me, for at some point during my recent misery I had outgrown the flat two-dimensional impersonation. Perhaps I had lost a measure of my former playfulness. Or perhaps I realized even then that an effective way to eliminate someone is totally to become him. Whatever the reason, I could be satisfied only by a Norman that was subtle and deeply accurate.
So the next stage was to find out all I could about him. I began by looking through my files, but all I had were a few letters my father had sent me at college. They mentioned how Norman had been chosen President of This and Secretary of That, at N-- College of the P-- University. I was also annoyed to reread my father's many reminders about how P-- was a free university, an obvious criticism of my own choice of an expensive private university far from the city and, more important, from my unpleasant family. Even a careless reader will see in these letters what I had against Norman, but I leave such clues to the novelist or biographer. To tell the truth, I was glad there were no more written materials, for I did not want to postpone using my main method of research: spy craft.
Before I would be satisfied, I must know a great deal about my plump little cousin. I had specific questions in mind: exactly how did he now look; how did his stomach feel as he gulped down the last of his lunch and headed back to the office; and what was his smile like in response to the stink-eye his doorman gave him for the chintzy Christmas bonus?
Suddenly, the last year felt less futile. My obsessive multiple disguising now proved absolutely essential, for the variety of costumes I used in tracking Norman and his family almost bewildered me, myself. Both the capacity for quick changes and the generalized artistry I had perfected over those difficult months were now called upon to the utmost.
I began, not surprisingly, as the blind bum, this time embellishing the role with a false nose and artificial smell. In this guise I failed to cadge money from Norman on the bus one morning. Of course, the money would only have represented a secondary gain, for I did succeed in observing his every facial expression as he read the editorial page of the P-- Bee, while I pretended to count my change and to transfer it from cup to pocket. Norman's lips looked dry as he read, and I noticed he had developed a minor eye tic, a fluttering of the left lid. Later that morning, I bought the edition of the Bee he had been reading, and when I saw that the main editorial was an impassioned plea for municipal budget cuts I wished I had checked Norman's trousers to see whether he had wet them.
Next, as a thin old lady in a red wig and trench coat, I watched him buying meat in a butcher shop on a Saturday morning. He examined a sirloin steak personally to make sure it was tender and properly marbled, and the way he fingered it gave me the embarrassing sensation of watching his foreplay with his wife. As he mauled the steak, I hoped he would turn it down, for the large, red-faced butcher seemed prepared to blacken his eye, and I would have liked to hear Norman rant about law suits. But he bought the meat, after all.
Watching Norman buy food was sufficiently informative and interesting that I risked a second "chance" encounter that morning, this one in a fruit store. Here he flashed a shark-like smile at me that almost seemed a murderous warning to the elderly to stay out of his way, and I was so discomfited that I fled the store without even making a purchase to cover my tracks.
In this stage of the preparations, I grew more and more thorough, for I had begun to sense that the actual moment of assuming the role was near. In fact, there were times when I ran from disguise to disguise rather too wantonly, risking exposure through excessive virtuosity. To give but a single example, I once found myself trailing Mrs B-- down Y-- Street in a prostitute's slit skirt, make-up and so on, but with the footwear from my previous disguise, that of a municipal garbage man pretending to be drunk on the job in order to see how far Norman would carry his "good citizen" act. He had settled for an unostentatious frown.
In all, I went through fifteen to eighteen of these disguises, and the number would have been much larger had I not used one disguise for spying on two, three, or even all four of the members of Norman's family. Naturally, my researches did not stop with the main subject. I spent a particularly informative Saturday afternoon on a roof across the street from their apartment, dressed as a bird watcher and using a pair of high-powered binoculars to watch Norman's pimply sixteen-year-old (whose straight black hair came from my own gene pool) frolicking on the rug with the family terrier, T--. I had already heard a great deal about this T-- from Norman's cleaning lady, a garrulous Croat whom I once met in my own person at a coffee shop.
All these visual, historical and surveillant operations lasted a total of five weeks, during which I often missed work so as not to disrupt a delicate phase of the process. Now it was time to close in. The last stage before the impersonation proper must be confrontation. To get rolling, I needed mettle and momentum, and to achieve them I would use one last preliminary impersonation.
For weeks now, I had been conducting a mailbox lock-picking and letter-steaming operation, and I had discovered there was to be a large family party in honor of the golden wedding anniversary of the old family patriarch and his wife. Of course, I did not myself receive an invitation, having been struck from the family rolls after five years or more of ignored communications. From a penciled postscript on Norman's invitation, I learned he would be giving an "impromptu" speech. This meant he would probably be Windbag-in-Chief, and thereby vulnerable to public attack. The particular form of the attack I would decide at the site. I relished the poltergeist role and reminded myself of another important reason for attending the party: last minute spying within the crucial milieu of the extended family. I anticipated that Norman would caricature traits I had already identified, providing a checklist for my findings to date.
To anticipate, my plan worked perfectly. By the time I left the party, my desire to impersonate Norman had been brought to the boiling point. In fact, I wound up leaving in the middle, for I could wait no longer.
Three days before the party, I put on one of my "Norman" outfits and left it on. In order not to have to keep changing back and forth, I simply skipped work altogether on those days. When the authorities called, I used his voice, pretending to be a personalized recorded message:
This is Mr B--'s cousin, Norman B--, speaking. Mr B --is ill and is unable at this time to come to the phone. I am staying home from my important position as Assistant City Comptroller in order to care for B--, whose recovery is not expected to be protracted.
As the party approached, I had no doubt of my ability to slip unrecognized into the midst of my family. In the years since any of them had seen me in my own person, I had changed considerably. My hairline had receded, my eyes had sunk, my nose had grown sharp, and my ears, hairy and larger. My voice was now deep and raspy. Where once my lips might have been called sensitive, they now looked pained. Even my clothes hung differently, for I had shed the weight gained during the first difficult months and many pounds more. Midway through my crisis, I had stopped eating, from a conviction that to eat in a starving world was obscene. I had also grown somewhat stoop-shouldered.
Of course, my invisibility was not completely dependent on these physical changes: my costume, make-up and wig would be impeccable. By now my talents for altering manner and personality were fully developed. After the last, intensive period of training, there was little to the art of impersonation that lay beyond my grasp. To name but a single facet, I had achieved outstanding physical dexterity. For instance, I had discovered one recent morning that I was able easily to brush my hair with one hand while simultaneously brushing my teeth with the other.
The night before the party, I slept little. I sat in an armchair in my bedroom dressed as Norman, imagining what he would say and how he would look during each of the several crises I would precipitate.
The only flaw in my costume the next day was that it was too warm. First, instead of showering or bathing, I took off my disguise as Norman, and did a little sponging up. Then, I put on make-up, including face-lifting materials, and a wavy, greasy black wig that fitted tightly to my scalp, already shaved for the wig I wore as Norman. Then, the suit, a shabby sort of pseudo-formal garment, and I was ready to make my appearance at the party as a handsome menial of twenty-three or four whose origins might equally have been Arabian, Caribbean, Mediterranean, or perhaps even Oriental.
As I carried the food trays back and forth through the large living room in which the guests were assembled, I thrilled to the comments: my costume was a complete success. So handsome was my persona that female cousins and even a few hot-blooded old aunts lost the thread of their sentences.
"Parla Italiano?" asked a vaguely familiar blonde, leering at me through glasses with hideous frames as I bent before her at the waist with a tray of little breaded hot dogs and toothpicks.
"No? Then, maybe, he habla's espanol," suggested a hot old aunt whom I remembered as having pampered Norman and me equally when we were little. I remained momentarily silent, out of disgust, for she had spoken with her mouth full, having managed to ingest two hot dogs at once by means of a modified chop-sticking technique.
"Needuh, ladies." I employed a vague accent I knew they would fail to identify.
"Isn't he a doll!" someone else whispered. "Excuse me, young man, but what lang ... "
"Tagolog!" I snapped venomously, and turned on my heel.
"That's a Filipino language, dear," explained a male voice I could not quite place. I hurried to the kitchen for more food.
"Everything okay, kid?" asked the avuncular bartender who served as crew chief. “Hey, you look overheated. Don' strain yourself so much, they're gettin' plenty."
"They pigs, eat too much, get sick." I grabbed a full tray, spun on my heel, and did my quick, short-stepped little walk back toward the living room.
Over two hours passed in this manner. An enormous amount of food and drink was consumed by the thirty-four guests, and by now quite a few toasts had been made, Norman's (unmemorable) included. Then, the moment for action arrived.
I suddenly found myself in the middle of the room holding a sandwich tray, feeling deeply sad and aimless.
"Why did I come?" I wondered. And the old feeling of contemptuous superiority to my family, alternating with self-loathing, began to roll over me. Hopelessly, I felt as if I were sliding backward into adolescence, and the prospect made me panic. The room turned into a loud blur of noise, smells and color. Everything was unbearably oppressive, especially the smells: liquor, perfume, flowers, smoke, sweat, meat. Lacking a plan of any sort and fearing that at any moment I might be unable to move, I rushed straight to the group of which Norman was center. Standing with my tray just outside the circle of their chairs, I studied them closely so as not to be caught off-guard by a sudden movement. They were five, in all, including the patriarch. Small, bald, crinkly-skinned and mottled, the old man sat facing me in an armchair. The rest, including Norman, whose back was directly in front of me, had drawn up a semi-circle of folding chairs around the patriarch.
As expected, Norman was holding forth, and I hesitated, pretending to be looking for a break through which to enter. The senile old man appeared oblivious to my presence as, still in a half-trance, I tried to catch the gist of Norman's droning speech: Baghdad, crying shame, living theater, Buddhist monks, television, Star Wars, circus fire eaters, incendiary devices, anti-fire suits, vehicles. Any fool would have recognized Norman's Platitude of the Day: how the media turn human tragedies to entertainment. The man's mind was so trivial, so predictable. I cleared my throat and began to edge the tray forward over Norman's shoulder. At that moment, the patriarch spotted me, apparently attracted by my movement. Turning red, he gruffly waved me away.
"Go away, boy, go away, don't want you now, can't you tell when a man is saying something important? That's Norman B-- speaking, boy, don't you recognize the man, that's our Deputy City Comptroller, boy! Hush, listen now! You'll learn something worth knowing."
"Very good, sir," I mumbled.
But the old man was overruled by several protesting voices. "No, no," they said. "Let him do his job, Uncle. Here, I'll take one. What are those?"
Edging into the circle, I lowered the tray so that they might see and take the sandwiches. But there were none: the tray was empty. For a second, except for a few exclamations of surprise, they were silent. Then one of them laughed, it caught fire, and in a moment they were all roaring.
I was not about to be bothered. The moment I felt a prickle of embarrassment, I caught myself, fought off the feeling, and became angry, instead. With a perfunctory, sneering "Sorry," I turned on my heel and took a few steps toward the kitchen. But then I heard something that stopped me dead. The laughter had hardly died down when someone who had evidently buttonholed Norman began to talk in a loud, confidential drunkard's voice. I stood stock still, my back to the group.
"How ya' doin' these days, Norm? Back at the old grind yet?"
"Yeah, just about." The affected nonchalance masked obvious fear, as well as obvious reluctance to have this topic broached. How had I missed such an important event in the history of my subject? The omission was flabbergasting. "Yeah, I'm back at work now, but the doc has me on mild exercise and no salt or arguments."
Pursing my lips, I hurried to the kitchen, as the other man laughed at Norman's quip. The revelation was not going to interfere with either my immediate or long-term plans.
I was allowed to serve only food because, I suppose, they were chary of letting new temporaries handle liquor. However, all the kitchen workers were busy as I hurried in, and no one stopped me when I pulled a large carafe of white wine from the refrigerator. I swept a white towel from a large pile and rushed from the kitchen once more, drying the dripping carafe as I went. I had not been in the kitchen more than ten seconds.
Still without hesitating, I crossed the living room rug toward Norman's wife, that tall blonde woman, attractive in what is called a "severe" way. She was sitting beside a similar woman in the corner opposite the circle of men, and the way they were leaning together suggested that they were engaged in intense gossip. I had previously noted that Mrs B-- was wearing a frilly white shirtwaist, and I now observed with satisfaction that both women held empty wine glasses.
"Wine, madam?" I asked loudly. Before she could answer, I thrust the carafe at her, tilting it suddenly as if to pour. Her mouth opened, and she looked up into my eyes with alarm, for by then I had already made myself trip over the runner of a rocking chair. Desperately, she moved to catch in the little glass the wave of wine that descended on her, and I will say for her that she managed to half-fill the glass. The rest, however, made a direct hit, instantly soaking the white shirtwaist. Even in a bra, which I had been almost certain Mrs B-- would be wearing, her interesting little breasts stared up at me like a pair of hungry baby birds. For a full two or three seconds, I stood absolutely still, staring back at the little birds. Then, I licked my lips and smiled a long, lazy, insolent smile. And, finally, far too late for her to suppose the spill had been accidental unless she were absolutely determined to believe this, I sprung into the expected actions, spluttering and extending the towel. Even then, I moved as if to dab her, myself, but she extended her hand and, when she realized the towel was soaked, flung it to the ground.
The events of the next few minutes were predictable. Blouse was plucked from undergarment and skin, and cries of "He did it on purpose" and "Don't be silly" rang round the room. Rushing in, the old bartender saw what I had done and, for the sake of the guests, called me a clumsy fool. Mrs B-- was led by her confidante and another woman to one of the bathrooms, where they soon had her dried off, washed, and decked out in a reasonably suitable substitute garment. All this took four or five minutes. Then, back in the kitchen, my boss and the other workers gave vent to their delight at what had happened. Two or three approached me with congratulations, and one who had watched the whole act even remarked how pleasing the view had been before they got her dried off.
That had been my favorite moment, too, when I had stood there staring at Norman's wife's breasts while her failure to act assured me of her complicity. A close second was my reaction to the crew chief's mandatory rebuke.
"I am, I am, sorry, sir, ma'am," I had spluttered to no one in particular, in a marvelous impersonation of self-abasement. I even managed a blush, which I knew would look rather lovely through my light chocolate make-up.
Ten minutes after Mrs B-- emerged with her entourage, I ducked into the bathroom, just in case there should be some secret message from her. I searched in vain, however. There were a few blonde hairs around the washbasin, but I was not so self-deluded as to suppose they had been left there intentionally.
My plan was to slip out of the party directly from the bathroom, which was off the foyer, but I once again impulsively changed my mind and got a fresh pot of coffee from the kitchen. Having noticed on a previous round that most of the men already had cups, I moved back to the patriarch's circle, which was growling desultorily about money markets and the food they had eaten. When they saw me, they made a few jokes - which I ignored -about the wine spill and whether there was any coffee in the pot.
"Merr cuffee, gintlemin?" I asked, holding the pot in front of me, but not entering the circle.
Pivoting on his fleshy neck with effort, Norman fixed me with his eye. "I'll take some," he said, exaggerating the usual sour, insulting tone. He slowly extended his arm and held the cup out alongside his shoulder. The whole time I was pouring his coffee, Norman kept his eyes riveted to my face. He looked like a detective searching for signs of guilt, or maybe his stare was an admonition not to repeat with the coffee what I had done with the wine.
This was one of the most thrillingly dangerous moments of my entire career as an impersonator. I can say with pride that, as slowly as possible, I filled my cousin's cup to the brim, making him the apprehensive one. Stubbornly, he refused to tell me to stop.
When it was as full as it could be, I said with consummate obsequiousness and without a trace of a tremor in my voice, "I remembir you take it bleck, suh, correct, no?"
In response, Norman said not a word. Instead, he met my forced smile with the fat, sour nod I had noticed before without emotion. Now that nod strengthened a thousand-fold my desire to impersonate him. I vowed to go straight home to practice the sour nod a thousand times before my mirror. It would be my trademark, the mannerism for which posterity remembered B--, the impersonator, just as it remembers Houdini for his locks and shackles.
I made myself pour coffee for the two or three others in the circle who asked for it, bowed my way out of the circle, crossed the room and, setting the pot down on an expensive wooden table, left the party.
Concentrating on what must happen next, not looking at, or saying a word to, anyone on the street, I carried out my intention to forego the easy, but crowded bus, instead walking the two miles home. It had begun to drizzle, by then, but the air was still hot and sticky.
By the time I reached my apartment, little other than the costume remained of the Filipino busboy. Norman's nod was already built into my face. I deftly unlocked my door, flipped on the light, and crossed to the bedroom, tearing off the suit, the wig, and the rest as I went. In my underwear, I sat down at the dressing table.
It was time to say goodbye. I looked into the mirror at the busboy and, with a perfect nod, said slowly and dryly, "That was nice work with the wine, boy, she loved it." I waved him away.
"Thenk you, suh," he said with a smile at once grateful and sad, and then he disappeared forever.
There was no time to lose. I showered, put on Norman's deodorant and after-shave lotion, and dressed in the kind of clothes I knew he would wear the next morning, Sunday. By five o'clock I was once again seated at the mirror, ready to begin practice. I was on schedule.
Just before dawn I awoke at the dressing table. I practiced a few last hours, then ate a doughnut and drank coffee to be certain my breath had the right degree of sourness. With a few deft touches, I freshened my make-up and put my wig to rights. Then, using the full-length mirror on the back of the closet door, I rearranged my pants, hidden suspenders and shirt, until I looked sufficiently stocky. By eight-thirty, I was at the stop, waiting for the bus that would take me to the cafeteria where, for six consecutive Sundays, Norman had drunk three cups of coffee and read his newspaper from start to finish. In what seemed like seconds, the large green and white bus roared up, and I climbed on, careful not to mess my costume. I winked and walked past the driver toward the back.
"Hey, Mac," he called, obviously not knowing who I was, "what about the fare? You know, the two bucks everyone pays to ride the bus?" Frowning severely I returned and, digging in my pocket, dropped all my coins on the tray beside him.
"Will that do? I'll expect an itemized receipt on my desk at nine sharp tomorrow morning. Got that, driver?"
"Sure, sure," he said, somewhat too familiarly. "Wait, here's your change, boss." I took it and moved toward the back, where I found a seat next to an old woman.
"Are you all right, young man?" she asked.
"Fine, thank you! And you? I do feel, Madam, that every consideration should be shown our elderly. The attitudes of the citizens of P-- toward the mature adult are shocking, no, pornographic. Count on me to speak out boldly on your behalf." She nodded, grateful to the point of speechlessness.
As the bus crossed town, I studied the situation while watching for landmarks. We were on the long shopping street that runs through this part of the city, and hordes of people crowded the sidewalks, even though it was still before nine o'clock. Up the side streets, knots of unemployed people were passing bottles around. Some children were already busy writing on walls and scrambling over parked cars and trucks. A few men were breaking into one car, and many people were flagrantly breaking the traffic rules by jaywalking and double-parking. Over everything hung the strong smell of oil. Distant sirens suggested fire.
A few blocks on, the streets began to be boarded up and smashed. Broken glass glittered. Letters, names everywhere, posters half-ripped from the crumbling walls. Between the buildings, empty lots like missing teeth. Everywhere, debris and garbage. Dogs chasing each other yipping across the holes. I spied a bum stretched out asleep in the middle of a vacant lot, a particularly large one. He was on an abandoned mattress. His face was bright red and his pants half down, exposing mealy buttocks and sagging belly. The mattress was coming apart in a way which made it appear that the grayish-white stuff was being excreted by the speaker, as he heavily breathed in and out.
A few minutes later, I glimpsed somewhere to my left the amusement park and boardwalk, but I carefully averted my eyes from the tracks, parachutes, towering cranes and other apparatus, for there must be no distractions or diversions now. Then, I saw the tall green letters on the white backing; it was time to get off. I pulled the cord, waited, climbed down the steps and crossed to the cafeteria. I was very calm, having pushed apprehension to the back of my mind. "One thing at a time," and "do it right before moving on" were my mottoes.
Taking a deep breath, I entered. He was not yet there. I crossed the room to the counter opposite the food line, leaned my forearms against this counter so that my face was partly hidden, and waited. Five minutes later, at nine thirty-one, Norman came in.
My first reaction was elation. I had guessed everything - except the shoes, that is, and this miscalculation was insignificant and one for which I could hardly be blamed. Norman was wearing the blue canvas deck shoes, whereas I had chosen the red joggers. I had been fooled by the changing of the seasons, not realizing how swiftly Spring gives way to Summer. But the rest was perfect. He wore the light blue sport shirt with the little green alligator, and the lightweight peach slacks, which I had pulled from the same pile in the same store as had Norman, whom I was trailing at the time. One other minor detail was off, I confess, but it did not matter: he was hatless. I had judged by the heat, and perhaps he felt it less than I did, or perhaps he had been influenced more by the overcast skies that day. Before he could notice me, I surreptitiously plucked the straw Panama from my head and flipped it into a large trash barrel beside the counter. A direct hit. I could decide later whether it was worth retrieving.
I studied. He had come in with the usual thick newspaper under his arm, grasping it at the bottom with a pudgy fist - with a hand, I mean. (One of these days I'll remember to stop insulting my own flesh and blood.) Any second now, he would look up and see me. I got my face ready: I was not going to cry. I haven't done anything wrong, Norman. But it was dangerous to assume he would realize my innocence. I knew how he would look at me, how hard he would make our reunion.
For the moment, as he walked through the line to the cash register, where they serve the beverages, his sour face was muted, a sort of Sunday-magazine sedation overlaying its tense, angry lines. Never putting the paper down, he ordered, waited, paid, then picked up the steaming white Styrofoam cup and walked halfway down the counter next to the cafeteria line, where he stopped. He carefully put down the paper and cup, first inspecting the counter to make sure it was dry. He stood with his back to the food line now, half-facing me. I was ready. I watched closely for the first reaction. Timing was crucial.
With a brusque movement, he yanked the first section of the paper off the rest. This time, he was not going to look around before he started reading. I breathed out deeply. With precise movements, he opened the first section to the last page, the editorial page, where he would find important source materials for this week's polemics and diatribes. His face an angry cloud, he took a quick sip of coffee and began to read.
By now every movement was familiar. Each time wearing a different disguise, I had seen him do all this on six occasions. Each time, he had read and sipped for two to three minutes, intermittently blowing his nose between thumb and forefinger. Then, with a movement at once abrupt and careful, he had put the folded section of the paper on top of the rest, taken a last gulp of coffee, placed the cup on the counter next to the paper, and yawned and stretched for a full five seconds. Then, he had glanced around the room and, taking the cup, but leaving the paper, returned to the food line, this time through the wrong end (few people were ever on line) for a refill. Norman always brought back the original cup, not tolerating waste even as he took his pleasure.
This morning, he would never get to that second cup. Would he see me as soon as he started to stretch, or not until he scanned the room? I hoped it was the latter: I did not want to startle my poor cousin sooner than necessary. I watched and watched, waited and waited. Naturally, I was impatient.
But I did have to admit that the coffee tasted particularly good this morning, strong and fresh. And did I need it! I had slept poorly, due to the pressure of work. Oh, god, the paper was full of the usual crap about budget cuts. The suggestions seemed pungent, however. Maybe the old duffer had finally made good on his threat to retire and left the rag to that clever nephew I met at the party last month. Or maybe he had died. No, that would have been front page ... . Ah, Sundays! Have to get to those fucked-up reports again tonight. What a hash S-- has made of them. Half the statistical work down the drain, have to do it over, myself. Thousands pissed away! That blockhead S--, and not a goddamned thing I can do to get rid of him.
Finally, the minute has passed. The paper is on the counter, his arms are moving up, up, up. Now! There! His arms are frozen in the air, as if he were a robbery victim. The yawn has been cut off in its prime, as if he were a murder victim. He drops his arms, as if they were heavy sacks, his head goes back into his neck, then protrudes. He is staring at me. I stare back, the impulse to smile having been corralled by means of hours of patient practice. I, too, have developed the public manner, my dear cousin. For a minute, we stand there, frozen in the same sour, but puzzled frown.
"Who are you and what do you want?" A few wisps of smoke from the nearly empty coffee cup drifted across his face. People watched as I walked across to him. Most looked very happy, as I had sensed they would.
I moved to a place two feet to his left, leaned on the counter, played with the edge of the paper, and smiled into his face, braced for the anger he would be feeling by now.
"Norman B--," I said, in his voice. His face was very red, but so was mine.
"What the hell is this, some sort of sick joke? Who are you, and what do you want?"
Now I began to get angry, too. After all, why should I be spoken to like that?
" 'Who am I?' " I repeated indignantly. " 'Who are you?' you mean. And what's the big idea? You some sort of prankster? Seen my picture in the paper or something, Bozo? Haven't you heard about appointments with secretaries, that kind of stuff?"
By now, the poor devil was staring at me with his mouth open. His face was scarlet and covered with sweat.
"Manager, manager, come over here, please!" From behind the cash register came a thin little fellow wearing a gray cafeteria jacket and pencil mustache. He hurried, but when he arrived, he seemed not to know what to say. I took charge of the situation myself.
"Look here, I'm Norman B--. I'm the Deputy City Comptroller. Here." I flashed my official-looking identification card.
"Yes, sir, Mr B--," said the manager. "But then who ... "
"Some sort of prankster, probably one of those pie-throwers." I was referring to a group that throws pies at important people in public. "Call the police, will you. Have your men hold him."
He motioned over a busboy and a short African-American man who had been sweeping. The whole time, Norman's mouth was working. He stopped being red, and began instead to grow pale. When the two employees were holding him by the arms and the manager had left to make the call, I suddenly clasped myself by the throat and made a series of grunts.
"Oh, uhh, uhh." I scanned the room in panic, saw the door marked "Men," and managed only to raise a finger before slumping to the floor. After that, everything was a blur of movement and sound until the sirens started. As soon as I heard them, I picked myself up, said I felt better and, on the pretense of going to the men's room, hurried from the cafeteria. (I want no publicity from this incident, for obvious reasons.) My cousin was still being held, silent now, having long since stopped trying to explain. When I slipped out the door, he was waiting for the police.
I have been busy, since then, but I have nevertheless taken the time to record these events scrupulously. Anticipating the question of why I have done so, let me call your attention to the similarity in spatial configuration between someone working at a dressing table and someone composing at the keyboard. To further explain why the art of writing begins to appeal to me, I have prepared the following statement for issue to the press.
November 18, 20--
Of all the ways in which we try to control our own destinies by controlling our world, two of the least objectionable are impersonation and writing. The impersonator controls the world by becoming it. The writer tries to capture it, as one might try to capture a mad bird in a net.