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The Visitor
By Richard Goldstein
Genre: Fiction Level: Adult
Category: UAA/ADN Creative Writing Contest

Richard Goldstein

Elizabeth Ferragamo quickly climbs the stoop steps-two at a time-up to the Manhattan brownstone's small landing. What's the rush? she thinks. I'm not even sure I want to be here.

At the apartment house's vertical row of mailboxes, she checks the names until she finds Dressler, Martina/Jerome. 4C.

For the past week, the thirty-five-year-old registered nurse has debated whether or not to visit her former teacher. She consulted with family and friends, found their opinions divided. She reminded them of his encouragement-years earlier-and how he so generously praised her work. They countered that his ultimate betrayal of her negates that past support.

When she finally decides a week ago that, yes, she'll come and meet with him-question him, demand to know ‘why?'-she imagines how he'll react upon seeing her. In anticipation of the variety of his possible responses to her visit, she has prepared her own set of questions. She rehearses them, often speaking out loud

"Don't you remember that particular meeting?"

. . . in front of a mirror

"What do you have to say to me now, Jerry?"

. . . and arranging her features to reflect outrage, hurt, puzzlement  

 "What the hell were you thinking?

Elizabeth hates the whole process, feels demeaned by it. She knows herself well, knows that confrontation is not her strong suit.

But here she is.

She pushes the Apartment 4C call button.

After a short wait, a woman's voice echoes tinnily through the intercom's mesh, "Yes, what is it?"

The reluctant visitor leans into the call box. "Hi. Mrs. Dressler? It's Elizabeth Ferragamo. I was a student in one of Jerry's workshops, four years ago. At the Y. The one on Sixty-third Street." Thinking these facts alone will gain her a door-buzzing admittance, Elizabeth pauses. But when there is a lengthening silence from the fourth floor, she rushes on, "I was in the neighborhood and thought I'd drop by. See Jerry. Say ‘hi.'"

4C grants a tentative, "What was the name again?"

Elizabeth puts her mouth as close to the call box as she dares, repeats her name slowly, a syllable at a time.

The woman upstairs comes awake. "Oh, right. I remember your name now. Jerry spoke very highly of you. What is it you want?"

"Nothing much. Just wanted to say ‘hello.' Jerry home?"

"No, he's not. He won't be back for an hour or so."

"Shoot. And I was hoping . . ." Elizabeth leaves it hanging, hoping. After a moment, she is rewarded.

"Well . . . would you like to come up? If you don't mind waiting. I could make some tea, or something."

"Great. That'd be great. Thanks."

A buzz and the visitor pushes open the massive front door and enters a small and dingy, poorly lit lobby. Four water-starved ferns hang in the foyer's glazed glass windows, effectively shutting out most of the light. The floor is a chipped, black and white parquet into which a well-worn path from the front door leads directly to the open elevator.

The lift makes a cranky ascent to the fourth floor and when the door opens, a short, stout woman is waiting in front of Apartment 4C. She has thick, gray-streaked, dark hair that flows loosely around her shoulders and caresses a sweet and smiling round face. She is wearing flip-flops and jeans. A flower print apron covers a bright red blouse, sleeves rolled up to the elbows. Her plump, bare forearms are coated with a white dusting. She sees her visitor's questioning look. "Friday's bread day," she explains, wiping her hands on her apron. "I usually make several loaves for the week. Jerry goes through them pretty fast." She reaches to shake Elizabeth's hand. "Martina Dressler. I'm Jerry's wife. Please," she says, moving aside and inviting Elizabeth to enter.

The apartment is redolent with the aroma of baking bread, and something more-some kind of marinara, Elizabeth suspects.

"I'm making chicken alla puttanesca," Martina says. "It's Jerry's favorite. Kind of a celebration for us." She hesitates, then politely, if not enthusiastically, adds, "You're welcome to stay."

Elizabeth senses her hostess' lack of invitational enthusiasm. "Thanks, but I wouldn't want to presume . . ."

"OK, then. How ‘bout some tea?"

"That would be nice."

"Be right back," Martina says and passes into the kitchen through a swinging door.

The visitor takes a seat at the round table in the center of the living room-there is no separate dining area. Her chair creaks, its green velvet upholstery shiny with age. The table is covered with a bare white cloth. The rest of the room is jammed with furniture that was new in the 1960s. There are a pair of immense and deeply indented armchairs that take up too much space. Three standing lamps-all leaning-guard low end tables. Covering the floor is a frayed, wine-colored carpet whose patterns have long ago been walked away. There is a radiator at each end of the room, and along the walls, crammed bookcases. French doors are open to a narrow balcony.

Martina returns, backing into the room through the swinging door. She carries plates, silverware, and a platter of antipasti-olives, feta, prosciutto, carrot sticks, and celery stalks. "While the tea's steeping, I thought we might have a nosh." She hands the visitor a plate, cream-colored, decorated with roses, and crazed with fine cracks. The edges are fluted and rimmed in gold.

"Lovely china," Elizabeth says.

"My grandmother's," Martina says, "same as the cutlery." She pushes the platter of antipasti towards her guest, gestures for her to take food, then seats herself.

Elizabeth is not hungry, has not come to eat. She has come for an accounting, an explanation, an apology. But to honor her hostess' attempt at hospitality, the guest takes a handful of olives, a small block of feta, and two pieces of the cured meat. "Celebrating?" she asks. "Anniversary? Birthday?"

"Neither," Martina says, her face wreathing into a wide smile. She squeezes her hands together in front of her chest as in prayerful thanks. "Jerry's signed with Random House. That's where he is right now." Martina closes her eyes, and then breathlessly, "They're going to publish a collection of his short stories. I can hardly believe it."

Elizabeth feels as if she's been punched in the stomach, can't catch her breath. She doesn't want to learn of Jerry's success, doesn't want to hear good news about him, yet can't help asking, "Random House? How . . .?" she trails off.

Martina takes her time, pausing for effect between sentences.

"He's been writing for thirty years.

Submitting his stories.

Getting rejected.

An occasional nibble.

An infrequent bite.

All those years I supported him.

Reference desk at the mid-town branch library.

For better or worse, right?"

Martina's tone turns sour. "We decided . . . early on we agreed not to have children. Couldn't afford them. But we lived with it. We lived for each other." She looks around her tiny apartment, laughs, "Thank god for rent control. We found this place twenty-nine years ago. Eight hundred a month then, only thirteen fifty now. The landlord's been trying for years to get us to move. Offered us five thousand dollars. I asked him, ‘Where we gonna move we can afford? And with what crumby five grand are we supposed to buy a place?' But now, all that's changed."

Elizabeth is unnerved, too stunned to comment.

Martina hugs herself with happiness. She glows like a bride. "It all started with a wonderful short story Jerry wrote, Crosstown Buses. He submitted it to ten, twelve different writing competitions. Nothing. Until last year." Here, Martina sits back, triumphant. "Until The Criterion . . . you know the magazine?"

"Yes. I subscribe," Elizabeth is able to answer.

"They named it best short story of 2016. There was a thousand dollar prize. Nice. But then . . . out of the blue, Jerry gets a call from The New Yorker. From Mei Mei Chen, their literary editor. You've heard of her?"

"Yes. I've heard of her." Elizabeth sinks into her seat, lets her head tilt back, closes her eyes.

Martina doesn't register her guest's distressed body language. The author's wife is caught up in the tale of her family's unexpected good fortune. "The New Yorker bought Jerry's story. It'll be out in the November issue."

Elizabeth opens her eyes, looks up. She sees that a tracery of cobwebs has taken over an upper corner where the cracked plaster ceiling meets a cracked plaster wall. She wonders why the arachnids have been allowed to homestead.

"But there's more," Martina gushes.

Elizabeth thinks, Christ! More? Like what? The Pulitzer? The Man Booker? Maybe the fucking Nobel Prize for Literature? She leans forward and puts her elbows on the table, cups her face in her hands, fingers lacing over her forehead.

"Mei Mei Chen took the story to Random House. They go crazy for it." Martina pronounces ‘crazy' as if it has half a dozen ‘a's in it: Craaaaaazy! She pushes her chair back from the table and stands, lifted out of her seat, it appears, by some unseen force of elation.

"Random House asked to see Jerry's other stories. He took a week selecting them and settled on twenty-one. They picked ten. Ten," she repeats, a ‘hooray' in her voice.

Just then, there are key sounds from the front door, then Jerry, yelling, "Marti, I'm home."

Another voice, Elizabeth thinks, dripping with joy. Random House. Jesus Christ Almighty!

Jerry strides in, smiling hugely at his wife. He is a large man, flabby and balding. Elizabeth remembers him as disheveled, almost slovenly. But at this moment, he is jaunty, straight-backed, effervescent. Until he sees Elizabeth . . .

And his smile evaporates.

His mouth opens and closes like a bottom fish brought to the surface, gasping for air.

His back collapses into a slumping hump.

Elizabeth feels strangely discomfited-embarrassed by the reaction she has caused. She can't explain it. I shouldn't have come, she thinks. I should have put the whole damn mess behind me. And instead of one of the carefully barbed accusations she has rehearsed, she can only manage an apologetic, "Sorry for the surprise. I was nearby."

Martina notes her husband's shock at seeing the visitor. She looks at Elizabeth, wonderingly, suspiciously. She thinks perhaps there has been a past sexual liaison between her husband and his former student, but quickly dismisses the idea. She knows Jerry was a virgin when she met him and has hardly been out of her sight for their three decades together. But this scene-the three of them here in her living room, caught in this fraught tableau-bristles with an electric and unknowable danger. She searches for a return to normalcy. Food, she thinks, food is the great normalizer. "Lunch is almost ready, sweetie," she says. "Chicken alla puttanesca."

Jerry remains rooted in place, slowly scans his living room, as though seeking an escape. He looks toward the apartment's French doors.

Elizabeth follows his gaze. She hadn't noticed how detailed the doors are, beautifully latticed. She sees that beyond them, the balcony is a renovation in progress-a stepladder, tools, drop cloths.

"Jerry's building us some shelves and flower boxes," Martina says, too eagerly. "He's a wonderful carpenter."

The handyman shrugs, drags himself to the table, and drops into a seat. He takes a piece of celery from the platter, begins to gnaw on it absentmindedly.

"Jerr, dear. What is it?" Martina asks, deep worry in her voice. She walks to him and places a palm on his forehead, feeling for a fevered brow as an explanation for his sudden and obvious disquiet.

Jerry's lower lip trembles. He begins to whimper, as of someone awaiting a dawn execution who hears the gallows being tested in the adjacent courtyard. Tears pool in his eyes. He looks up at his wife, takes her palm, kisses it lovingly. "Elizabeth wrote Crosstown Buses. She read it to our class at the Y four years ago."

This pronouncement immobilizes Martina. A look of abject terror contorts her face as she realizes the implications of this news. Her shoulders begin to alternately hunch, then sag. They have acquired a life of their own, her body not knowing quite how to react. She stares at Elizabeth in disbelief. Almost inaudibly, "You wrote it?"

The author of Crosstown Buses hears the words and the inflection-not accusatory, but rather pleading, as if it were all a joke and Elizabeth will disavow Jerry's just-spoken confession and restore the luminous future that awaited the Dresslers, a future that Martina realizes has been irretrievably extinguished.

The deed fully exposed, literature's supreme crime laid bare and confessed to-why then, Elizabeth asks herself, does she feel drained, shrunken? Why is there no sense of victory? She looks at Martina, standing there crushed, defeated. The guest wants to comfort her hostess, to soothe her anguish. Perhaps through a recounting of the details:

"It was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. It was snowing like mad. I read the story to Jerry and to . . . Tony somebody. There were only three of us in class that night."

"Tony Carella," Jerry says, a handkerchief to his eyes. "Because of the weather, I didn't suppose . . . I didn't think anybody would show. But you did. And so did Tony. He came only to say goodbye. He had gotten a job abroad and this was his last workshop." Jerry turns to his wife, "Only he and I heard Elizabeth's story. And then he was gone." Jerry looks back at the author. "When I phoned you, several months later, asking whether you had found a publisher and you said you hadn't and had actually stopped looking, I got the idea. But I didn't do anything right away, until last year . . ."

"When you sent it to The Criterion," the author finishes, softly. "Under your own name."

Jerry nods. "Best short story of the year, they said. Sent us a thousand bucks."

Martina is swaying and making small groaning sounds. She has laced her fingers together so tightly her knuckles are white. She hovers over her husband. "What have you done to me?" she whispers, an edge of venom in her voice.

Jerry ignores her, sees that he still holds the celery stalk. He raises it, contemplates a bite, but changes his mind, and lays it down on the tablecloth. He speaks into the air. "Then The New Yorker called. They wanted the story. Three thousand dollars. The New Yorker."

Elizabeth feels sapped of strength. She wants to disappear. She drops her head, focuses on the plate of food in front of her. She picks up her fork, loves the heft of it, so beautifully balanced. She begins pushing around a piece of prosciutto, being careful not to tine-scrape the elegant chinaware.

Martina stops groaning long enough to demand of her guest, "You know where Jerry was right now?" Her voice has an intensity that is mirrored in her rigid body, arms stiff at her sides. "At Random House," she shouts, spittle spraying from her lips. "They're going to publish a collection of my husband's short stories."

Jerry shakes his head. "No, Marti. No, dearest," he says. "They were going to, an hour ago. But not anymore. That's over." He looks around his apartment. "That's over."

Elizabeth sits silently, recalling what she had intended to say to her former teacher-the caustic speeches, the pissed-off accusations of plagiarism, the ‘How could you?' the ‘What were you thinking?' None of that seems to matter anymore.

Jerry straightens in his chair. He places both palms on the table, exhales. "I'll return The Criterion's thousand dollar prize money. I'll call Mei Mei Chen and Random House, and I'll go to the Y, tell them I can't teach the workshops anymore."

Martina covers her mouth to stifle a scream that will not be stifled. It erupts, full-throated, as if she has just discovered that her newly birthed infant has emerged stillborn. She strikes her forehead with a fist. "Bastard." Then again. "Bastard." A third time. "You bastard." She turns and shambles into the kitchen. As soon as the door swings shut, explosive sobs are heard.

Elizabeth stands. "Jerry. Listen to me. It's Friday. Don't do anything today. Let's the three of us take the weekend and think about what we'll do. I'll call you Monday afternoon. Okay?"

He is staring through the French doors. "I guess," he says. "I guess."


Wednesday evening. A torrential rain is pelting Manhattan, making the streets barely passable. Despite the deluge, the auditorium at the 63rd Street YMCA is packed.

Mei Mei Chen, The New Yorker's literary editor, has been speaking about Jerry Dressler, regaling the crowd with anecdotes about one of the city's most beloved and influential creative writing teachers. She singles out in the audience some of the young writers Jerry has helped. She says that besides being a wonderful writing teacher, Jerry had honed his craft so finely that Random House will soon publish Crosstown Buses and Other Stories. And then, with a catch in her throat . . .

 "A hideous accident . . . Jerry slipping from a ladder and falling to his death last Sunday while building shelves on his balcony. A tragic loss," Mei Mei Chen concludes, putting a lovely, finishing touch to the celebration of the author's life.

The author's widow is sitting in the front row and is soon surrounded by well-wishers, showering her with words of consolation, regret, and praise for her husband.

Elizabeth Ferragamo, standing alone in the rear of the hall, turns and quickly leaves the building.

Outside, if possible, it's raining even harder.

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