Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Touch of Evil

It’s ten o’clock in the morning. I’m spread out in the booth by the window perusing the papers sipping espresso. The staff bustles about readying the bistro for business.

This is my favorite part of the day. The busgirls’ soft voices rise and fall, blending with the rough hewn timbre of guys arguing in the kitchen, producing a comforting harmony. A pot crashes. A door slams. Somebody laughs.

Delivery men come and go. Young women jog past the window and wave. The owner of the dress shop next door sweeps her stoop. Sunlight streams through the window, glinting of the tableware, providing gentle warmth. I savor my coffee and remember why I like working here.

The door chimes. I get up and walk over to the entrance. A man is waiting.

He’s in his late forties, tanned and well dressed, with blow-dried hair, manicured nails, and in excellent shape. He smiles winningly. His teeth are perfect.

“Hi. I’m looking for a job.” he says.

“As a waiter sir?” I inquire.

“Waiter, cook, busperson, dishwasher - anything,” he replies.

I find that odd. He doesn’t look like the dishwasher type. “Do you have any experience?” I ask.

“No but I’m a fast learner,” he replies smoothly. He may be smiling but his eyes watch me intently.

I hand the man an application and he gets busy filling it out. We talk some more.

As we chat I get the feeling this guy is dangerous. I have no evidence to support my gut reaction – just a sense honed from years working in psychiatric hospitals and waiting tables. There’s something predatory about him. I can’t put my finger on it but it makes me nervous. I decide in an instant he will never work here.

He hands me back the application. I read it over. I’m surprised to read he attended an Ivy League school. I go through his list of former employers. His work history stops abruptly in 1990. What has he been doing the past fourteen years? I don’t know and I don’t care. I just want him to leave.

“Well to be honest we aren’t looking for anyone right now. I’ll keep your application on file and if a job opens we’ll call you in for an interview,” I say

Mr. Smooth’s face is good natured but his eyes are like a cat’s regarding a mouse.

“When do you think something will open up?” he purrs.

“Can’t ever know sir. “ I reply.

“Ok. Thank you,” he says flashing a smile. He looks around a moment then exits.

I mark the application “NEVER EVER HIRE” and put it in a drawer. Call me crazy but there was something nutty about the guy. I go back to my paper.

A few hours later I discover we’ve run out of Triple Sec. I run to the liquor store to get more. Can’t deprive Yuppies of their goddamn Cosmopolitans.

Walking back to the bistro I see Mr. Smooth standing on the corner talking to a young woman. It’s obvious she likes him.

Before I get close enough to hear their conversation two police cruisers roll up. Four cops jump out. In a flash Mr. Smooth is facedown on the ground being handcuffed.

“This is bullshit guys.” he protests calmly. I’ll bet he’s still smiling.

“Oh yeah we’ll see about that," one cop retorts caustically. They dump Smooth in the squad car and drive off. The young woman he was talking with stands open mouthed on the corner.

I look at her. She looks at me. I shake my head. She walks away – her world a little more diminished.

I know the cops in my neighborhood. A few hours later I have the whole story.

Turns out Mr. Smooth fancied himself a porn producer back in the Eighties. He would talk up strippers and prostitutes with promises to put them in the movies. Under the pretense of getting some “sample pictures” he lured them back into his hotel room. He was convicted for raping one of them.

Smooth just finished a fourteen year prison term. That explains the gap in his work history and his buff physique. He’s now on parole looking for work.

So what does Smooth do when he gets out of jail? He walks around my neighborhood posing as a photographer propositioning young women to pose for him. He becomes infatuated with one girl. He stalks her. She calls the cops. It’s a violation of his parole so the police pick him up.

“We’ve been watching him for weeks.” the cops tell me. I shudder.

Smooth, however, beats the rap. In a few days he’s back on the streets. Everyone in the neighborhood, however, is wise to him now. We watch him warily. Occasionally Smooth talks to a new face on the street. When that happens there is a discrete conversation, his history is made known, and that’s the last time that person talks to him. Smooth has trouble finding work. No one wants to hire a convicted rapist.

Several months pass and it’s another morning at the Bistro. I’m outside putting rock salt on the sidewalk. Delivery men unload their trucks, proprietors open their doors, the young girls still jog by and wave hello.

Mr. Smooth walks around the corner. His tan has faded, his face is haggard, his physique less chiseled. He’s wearing a tired looking overcoat over a suit. His tie is undone and his shoes are dirty. He looks like an unkempt downsized Wall Street trader. He sees me and says hello. I return the greeting. He's still smiling.

I watch him travel down the street. He’s one of the hollow men now. I believe in redemption and wonder if it’s possible for Smooth. Probably not. I wonder what it must be like to be him. I feel stirrings of pity but quickly extinguish them. If Smooth was a simple felon or even a murderer maybe I could muster up some compassion. I can’t. Sexual crimes cut to the bone. God may be merciful but I’m not him. I thank the heavens for the millionth time that I don’t have His job.

Smooth disappears from view. The wind blows cold. I shiver. There’s a touch of evil in the air.

I head back inside where it’s warm.

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