Charity

Mercia’s philanthropic eye searched the party for a man in need. She glanced for only a moment at the man at the bar who reminded her of first fiancé, the wide receiver for the 49ers. Jim had been a powerful man and an enthusiastic lover. She had overlooked the lack of depth in a man with three big-screen televisions until she found the short pants of a cheerleader’s uniform under his bed.

She noticed a tall, blond man in the line for food who reminded her of her second fiancé, the beautiful model Sherwin. At first it had been exciting just to watch him shower, but it grew tiresome waiting for him to get ready afterwards. The first time she complained, he shouted and threatened. The second time, he broke her nose.

The man dancing reminded her of Bill, her most recent beau. Bill had been a sensitive and attentive man. It had hurt to find out that he was with her as an experiment between boyfriends.

She stopped her search to smile and wave at her friend. It was WingSoft’s Christmas party and Jennifer invited Mercia so that she could meet product managers who might hire her to design glossy boxes to be filled with software games. The venue was the Exploratorium, San Francisco’s hands-on science museum. It was filled with exhibits lit by flashing party lights, music, drinks, and food. Creative people drank and danced and ate and talked.

“I’m glad you came. You look good,” said Jennifer. Revlon Red lips contrasted sharply with Mercia’s pale, white skin. A silver and turquoise necklace hung against her skin. Her ears were pierced with crescent moons. She smoothed her tight blue skirt and said “Thanks. You, too.”

“Are you here for business or for your charity work?” said Jennifer.

“A bit of both, perhaps.”

“Let’s focus on business. I’ll introduce you to a few folks.”

Jennifer hailed the beautiful Sherwin look-a-like who stopped filling his plate and joined them. He smiled and stood at the perfect angle to see her breasts through the open top buttons of her blouse. Mercia preferred this display to more obvious cleavage; men appreciated the challenge. The Sherwin twin looked interested, but Mercia was edgy. They talked about box design and target markets. Mercia flinched when he touched her hand as they exchanged cards. Jennifer led her away to meet another product manager.

They found the Director of War Games with his stomach pressed against the bar sipping a red drink with an umbrella in it. Frank was short enough and the barstool was high enough that his feet did not reach the ground. His hair was parted low on the left side and combed over his balding pate. When Jennifer introduced Mercia he looked at her and then away and then looked at her again.

Mercia flipped her long black hair and gave Frank her most beneficent smile as she took his hand. She began to feel that warmth that preceded an act of giving. Frank looked shy and lonely and just a little ugly. He was perfect. Mercia hoped that Jennifer would find something else to do, but she stayed. The three of them chatted about Civil War simulation games until a scowling, middle-aged Korean woman joined them. Frank introduced his wife. Mercia and Jennifer moved on as soon as politeness allowed.

Together they mingled and Jennifer introduced. Mercia collected more business cards. The party grew tired of food so they danced as the band began to play. Mercia was asked, but she declined. Jennifer was game and she disappeared into the dance-floor jungle.

Mercia wandered to the comparative quiet of upstairs where dessert was served between the Tactile Light Dome and the Centrifugal Force exhibits. There were six tables in front of a bar with couples seated at three of them. Two tables were empty and one was occupied by a man, sitting alone, sipping a glass of whiskey. She watched him as she ordered wine from the bar.

It was hard to judge his height, but she guessed that he was not tall. His remaining hair, arranged in a tonsure, was cut short. All of his clothes were black. He had a mustache and a goatee and his features were unremarkable except for a nose that was larger than average. Her guess was that he was a few years older than she, perhaps thirty-five. Baldness was in his favor, but she did not necessarily find him ugly. He was a borderline case. Only an interview could determine if he was qualified for her generosity. She stepped forward and introduced herself. He reciprocated and now she knew his name was Sam.

“Do you work for WingSoft?” she said.

“My sister works there. I came with her. She left to dance when the music started.”

A man who comes to a party with his sister is lonely. A man who is lonely and short and bald would be appreciative and was worthy of her benevolence. Mercia asked to sit at his table.

“What do you do?” she said.

“Last year I was a Deloitte and Touche partner. I guess I’m unemployed now,” he said smiling.

Unemployed. He was perfect. In the past, when Mercia was still interested in attractive and successful men, she would insist they pursue her. Charity cases required a direct approach. Men needing her help would never approach a beautiful woman on their own. “A friend invited me to pass out business cards, but that’s done. Do you want to get out of here?”

Sam looked at her face for a long moment. Finally, he said, “Manna from heaven. Do you have a car?”

He found his sister and said goodbye. They passed Jennifer on their way out.

“Charity?” she said quietly, looking at Sam. “He’s a lucky man, but be careful; you might stumble on one with feelings.”

“I’m always very sensitive,” said Mercia defensively.

“Good-night, Mother Teresa.”

In her new Volkswagen Beetle, they drove towards his house in South Beach, near the Embarcadero. She talked about her business while he listened.

His house was a converted warehouse of red brick with newly painted white trim. They walked upstairs to a large, open living room and kitchen. Wood floors were partially covered by antique Persian rugs. He picked up a remote, pressed a button, and Natalie Merchant began to sing the first number from the MTV Unplugged album. Mercia sat on a leather couch facing large industrial windows that looked out at Pier 26 and the Bay Bridge. Sam puttered in the kitchen. She stood up and faced a painting of a young woman on the opposite wall.

“This is beautiful,” she said. “Who is the artist?”

“That would be me,” he said.

“You? I thought you were an accountant.”

“I was. It paid for the house. Now I guess I’m an artist. I left Deloite when I found an agent. Nothing’s been sold yet, but he’s arranged a showing for some of my pieces.”

“And the woman in the paintings?”

“She’s someone I knew,” he said.

Sam came out of the kitchen with a small porcelain coffee pot decorated with Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and set it with two cups on the table next to the windows. While he poured, he beckoned for her to join him. Coffee was for talking. Mercia had expected wine. She suddenly felt claustrophobic.

She sat down across the table from him and they started to talk. At first, she was nervous and spilled coffee. He began to tell stories as he wiped up the spill. The first stories involved funny things that happened when he worked at Deloitte and Touche. Then he told her stories from college. She laughed and forgot to be nervous. She forgot why she came.

She told him stories of her own. There were funny things that her clients wanted in their designs. She told him a story about sleepwalking and they both laughed. They talked about art. His painting was influenced by the impressionists, but his taste was broad. She loved the modernists. They talked about travel. She had toured the French canals. He had been everywhere, but mostly on business. Hours passed and they kept telling stories, each one a little more personal, but none involving past relationships. Finally, she looked at him and asked, “Who is the woman in the painting?”

For a moment, he paused and watched himself tap a spoon against his cup. “My wife. She died two years ago. Leukemia.”

He kept tapping, tapping, tapping and she remembered why she had come. Shame filled her eyes with tears. This man was no charity case, he was a real person. He might have enjoyed sharing his bed with her tonight, but he would not have understood when she refused to see him again.

The others understood. They were shy and lonely and ugly. Sex with her was the highlight of their lives. Each of them had made her feel special, and cherished, and loved. She knew that they could never hurt her because she would never see them again after they received her gift, their one special night. But what if the others were real people like Sam? What if they had stories to tell?

“I shouldn’t have told you,” he said touching her arm lightly. “Have you lost someone?”

How could she tell him that she had lost herself?

“I… I have to go,” she said sobbing. Mercia picked up her purse and rushed for the door. Sam stood, but did not try to follow. He watched from the window as she drove away.

Sunday’s dawn struggled with a thick fog when she arrived home. She sat to think in the dichotomy that was her living room; her antique furniture was sharply contrasted by William de Kooning’s “Seated Woman”, Max Ernst’s “The Hat Makes the Man”, and other copies of renowned modern artists. The antiques were her link to her parents and grandparents, all dead now. The art spoke to her in other ways, with color and images. They communicated beauty and power and love and agony. She looked at Picasso’s “Guernica” and knew that things could always be worse.

Pulling a blanket over herself to smother her chills, she finally fell asleep for a few hours. When she awoke, the fog had cleared.

Mercia got up, brushed her teeth, made coffee, and then started to call them. There were not so many that she had forgotten their names nor was it hard to find their numbers. She sat in the Windsor chair her grandfather left her and dialed. The Tall Thin Dentist was the first she reached. He was surprised she called, but not happy. There was a woman in his life now. Mercia told him she was glad. She tried to talk, to let him know that she was sorry, but he was anxious to hang up.

The second call was to the Fat Bank Manager. She asked him about his life. He was lonely and wanted to see her again. She apologized, but said no. The first apology made it easier. She called them all and apologized like an alcoholic in recovery. It shocked her that they seemed to understand why she called, why she asked for forgiveness. One of them told her that he was sorry, too. It takes two to tango, he had said. Yes it does, she thought. They were real people.

In the afternoon, she walked in Golden Gate Park and thought about how it started. She had cried with Jennifer after Bill left her.

“I don’t care that he’s gay, but why did the bastard lie to me?” she said.

“Bill’s a prick. I always though so,” said Jennifer.

“No you didn’t,” Mercia laughed through tears. “You were the first to congratulate me on finding someone different. No more philanderers or abusers. Just gay.”

“Feeling sorry for yourself won’t help,” said Jennifer. “You need to do something. Maybe some charitable work. It will help you stop thinking about yourself.”

Charity had made sense as a way of ending self-absorption, but Mercia’s mind was like a river after a flood with twists where there should have been turns. She had thought about what she had to offer. Anyone could spoon soup, but that was not what men really wanted, especially the lonely and the ugly. She could not be with anyone really creepy, of course, just a man who would be in awe that she had given herself to him. The thought became an idea that she put into action a week later when she met the Tall Thin Dentist. He was so loving, so thoughtful, and so grateful, the idea became a habit.

When Mercia finished her walk and returned to her apartment, she noticed a familiar face sitting in a white Cadillac parked in front of her building. The Fat Bank Manager got out of his car as she passed him.

“Mercia, I want to talk to you,” he said.

“I’ve already told you how sorry I am,” she said.

“Let’s go inside and talk,” he said. He grabbed her arm and pulled her through her foyer and to her door. He already knew the way.

“That hurts,” she said.

“Shut up,” he said.

He pulled her keys from her hand and opened the door. Pushing her inside, he kicked the door, and then pulled her close, trying to kiss her. She pushed him away.

The Fat Bank Manager reached up, grabbed the top of her t-shirt, and pulled downwards. Mercia’s head snapped forward and her shirt ripped, exposing her bra and her breasts. She was too stunned and angry to scream.

“You bastard,” she said, swinging her arm and hitting him with an open palm on the nose.

He grunted and blood oozed from his left nostril. With his left hand he grabbed her by the throat, pushing her against the wall. He reached for her bra with his right hand, pulling at the straps.

“Make me feel the way you did the first time I was here,” he said.

Mercia struggled and knocked over the Tiffany lamp next to the telephone. The Fat Bank Manager squeezed harder at her throat.

“What the fuck is going on!” Sam stood in the doorway holding a bag of Fog Chaser coffee.

The Fat Bank Manager dropped his hands and turned around. “Who are you?” he shouted. “Another charity case come to accept her apology? It’s my turn now. You can wait for yours.” He wiped the blood on his face with his hand.

Sam made fists and stepped forward until he heard Mercia say “Don’t!” She turned to the Fat Bank Manager. “Get out!” He looked at her and then at Sam. It was four steps to the door and he took them, wiping his hand on her couch as he passed it.

“Who was that? Should I call the police?” Sam said as he draped his coat over Mercia’s shoulders.

“No one. No police. He won’t come back.”

He looked at her strangely, hoping for an explanation. “Mercia, it’s none of my business, but what was he talking about?”

Mercia knew that it was his business. Sam’s was the last apology she needed to make. She tried to start, but she could not find words that would explain this, that would explain her behavior. Why should it be harder with Sam than with the others? She sat down and leaned against the arm of the chair, turning her face from him.

“I don’t know why you came, Sam. Just go. Leave me alone.”

Mercia realized after he left that she was still wearing his jacket. She hung it in the closet and then turned on the shower. Standing in the steam and heat, she sterilized her skin until the water began to run cold.

She worked at home so there was no one to call when she decided to stay inside. The phone rang and she ignored it. Jennifer called Monday morning and then twice on Tuesday. She took Sam’s black leather jacket out of the closet. His smell came from this jacket, she decided. He must be different without it. Inside one of the pockets, she found her business card. She forgot giving it to him. There was also a white printed sheet announcing his showing on Friday. She wished that he would call.

On Wednesday morning, her doorbell rang. She looked through the peephole and saw Jennifer. When she opened the door, Jennifer gasped, “Oh, God! What happened?” Mercia did not have to ask how she knew. The mirror had shown her the handprint on her neck.

Jennifer stayed all of that day and night. She made lunch and dinner and brought coffee as Mercia sat in pajamas, reading and staring at a poster of Picasso’s Guernica. Not until Jennifer came again on Thursday night was Mercia was ready to talk. When everything was told, Jennifer said, “What are you going to do?”

Sam saw her sitting on a bench as he walked the last guest to the door at the end of his showing. She was all in black, wearing a thick turtleneck sweater and pants. Her hair was braided. His jacket was draped over her arm.

“There’s still time to see the show,” he said.

“I’d like that,” she said, handing him his jacket. He put it on and she felt he was complete.

The show was nine paintings. There had been ten, but one had been sold and the new owner had taken it home. There was interest in the remaining pieces so the dealer considered the show a success. Mercia admired the bold colors and powerful brush strokes. She stood in front of a pair that featured the young woman from his apartment.

“Are you sure you want to sell these?” she said.

“I’ll keep the one, but for these, it’s time to let them go,” he said.

She looked at the paintings for a long moment. “I need to tell you another story,” she said.

Mercia and Sam sat down for coffee at a diner nearby after the owner locked up the gallery. They told the stories that they had not told yet. She told him about Jim, and Sherwin, and Bill. Then she told him about the others and her charity. The hardest story was last. It was about WingSoft’s party and the Exploratorium and his house. She apologized. He told her the story of his wife, her illness, and the grief that followed.

They had coffee again the next night and the next and finally, after a week, they drank wine together. It was with grace and not charity that she filled his glass that first night and many nights that followed. In time, Sam moved the painting of his wife from the living room to his studio. The first two attempts to paint a replacement failed; his wife’s face kept appearing where Mercia’s should have been. He destroyed his work without telling her why. On the third try, Mercia emerged. Sam hung the painting in the empty space on his wall and it watched him in the years that came as they sat at the table and drank coffee and sometimes wine.

Copyright ©2002, Scott Daniel
All Rights Reserved

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