Page 1

DESCENDING INTO

HEAVEN

A TALE OF MAGICAL OFF-OFF BROADWAY Michael Matheny

PART ONE THE KING

T

he brilliant sunlight glinted off the blade of his upraised sword as he urged his white stallion to a faster gallop toward the distant mountain which concealed the dragon’s cave—the treasureladen lair of his sworn and mortal enemy. “This time,” he vowed as he thundered toward his prey, “I shall truly slay yon dragon and recover his ill-gotten hoard and restore it to my kingdom.” Suddenly, however, the sun began to dim. The blue sky slowly turned to gray. His horse slowed to a walk as, just in front of him, a swirling patch of mist began to loom darker and darker, finally solidifying into the figure of an old man with a long, white beard, dressed in a curious black cloak festooned with stars and crescent moons, and wearing a similarly decorated black pointed hat. Standing in front of the now-halted horse and rider, he raised his wooden staff and said commandingly, “Stay thy hand, Sir Knight, and put up thy sword!” The knight returned his sword to his scabbard and D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1


looked at the old man with amazement. “I know of you and of this dragon that you seek,” he continued. “But beware! The dragon may not be what it seems, and the same may be true of you! Heed my words! Heed my warning!” As he said this last, he began to fade once again into a swirling mist which became fainter and lighter until it disappeared altogether, and the sky was as sunny and blue as before. The knight shook his head in wonder. Then, kicking his steed into a gallop and raising his sword once more above his head, he cried out, “Onward for King and Country! This time I shall truly slay thee, dragon!” As he rode on faster and faster, the mountain loomed closer and closer. Then the alarm clock rang. He rolled over, groaned, and buried his head under the pillow. “Just five more minutes,” he pleaded. “Matthew, it’s seven o’clock. You know you’ve got an important business meeting at nine. So get up and get ready while I go down and start the kids’ breakfast.” “All right, all right!” he growled and sat up, unwillingly pulling on his slippers. He slowly stood up, stretched, yawned, and scratched his head. “Please, Glory, make me some coffee. I’ll be out in a few minutes.” He shuffled slowly into the bathroom, threw off his robe, and confronted himself in the mirror. As he began to shave, he took inventory. Matthew Kingston, just turned forty. He possessed, in no particular order, a wife, two teen-aged kids, a thriving real estate investment business, two cars, a three-bedroom house with a pool in comfortable White Plains, and most of his hair. He ran his fingers through the latter as if to reassure himself. A few minutes later, after having shaved and showered, he went back to his bedroom D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2


and threw open the drapes. What a great day, he thought to himself with more than a touch of irony. It was still nearly dark outside, and it was still snowing, or snowing again, he couldn’t tell which. The calendar said that winter wasn’t due for two weeks yet, but the calendar lied. There were already two feet of snow on the ground in this, the third major snowstorm of the season already. And it wasn’t even the middle of December. Matthew sighed and closed the drapes. It was going to be a long winter. As he slid his still-muscular body into first a blue pinstriped shirt and then a rather conservative gray Saville Row suit with matching vest, Matthew contemplated the weird dream from which he had been so rudely awakened. Knights, wizards, dragons? He felt instinctively that there must be more to it than that. He put no stock in dreams as either foretellers of the future or symbols of the inner workings of the subconscious mind, and hadn’t since he was a kid, but he felt somehow that this dream was different. If he could just remember the whole thing… “Matthew!” his wife yelled from downstairs. “Coffee’s ready! Come and get it! You want breakfast?” “Thanks, Glory!” he yelled back down. “I’ll just have what the kids are having.” He put his feet into his polished oxblood wing tips and laced them up carefully. After slipping a red silk power tie through his button-down shirt collar, he tied it in a precise Windsor knot and went down to breakfast. Glory was at the stove, stirring a large pot of oatmeal. “Hi,” she said as he kissed her lightly on the cheek, “Glad you could make it. Did you have a bad night? I heard you groaning in your sleep. That’s not like you. Is everything okay?” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3


“I feel fine. I just had a weird dream, that’s all.” “Weird? Weird how?” Matthew poured himself a cup of black coffee and sat down at the table. He took a sip. “Some godawful mess about knights and dragons. I guess I was the knight and I was supposed to slay the dragon. Sounds like a cheap ‘B’ movie, doesn’t it?” He grinned sheepishly. “I must admit I would have expected something a teensy bit more contemporary from you. Actually, it sounds more like some video game.” She sat down across from him at the table. He surveyed her with pride. At thirty-six she was still tall and slender with long blonde hair. Even in her dressing gown and without makeup she looked great. Everyone said what a lovely couple they were. And everyone was right. Whether at the opera, the symphony, a Carnegie Hall or Radio City Music Hall event, or a society party, they still drew admiring glances when they made their entrance. Years ago some wag had said, “Look! It’s the King and his Glory!” “A video game, huh? Maybe I ought to run it past Matt Jr. He’s the video game expert. Might be worth a fortune. Still,” he said more seriously, “there was something, I don’t know, something unsettling about it.” “Matthew, since when do you put any faith in dreams? Aren’t you the one who’s always telling me my dreams don’t mean anything?” “You’re right, of course. Still it gave me a weird feeling. Oh, well, I’ll bet I forget all about it by lunchtime.” He finished his coffee and motioned to Glory for a second cup. She got up and poured it, and then set a large bowl of oatmeal in front of him, spooned out one for herself, and D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

4


sat down again. “By the way, where are the kids this morning?” he asked, putting butter, brown sugar and cream on his cereal. “They’ll be down in a minute,” Glory replied. “They’re still fighting over the bathroom.” “But there’s two bathrooms up there! What’s the problem?” “Well, you know how it is. When they were younger, they didn’t care. You could put ‘em in the same bathtub and save time and water. But now that Matt Jr. is sixteen and Steffie’s fourteen it takes them an hour just to do their hair. And God forbid if anyone should see them naked.” “Kids,” said Matthew with a grin. “That’s just the point, Matthew, they’re not kids anymore. In a few years they’ll be all grown up and off to college. Matt Jr. will be a senior next year, and he’s already sending out applications to his favorite schools. Steffie will be doing the same in a couple of years. By that time I’ll be a part-time Mom. Then what’ll I do?” Tears filled her eyes as the kids came down the stairs still arguing. “I do not take half-hour showers!” Steffie screamed. “Do too!” taunted Matt jr. “Use the other bathroom, then!” “You know I want the one with the lighted mirror!” “Oh yeah, to do your precious hair! Just like a girl!” “Knock it off, both of you!” said Glory in a loud voice, applying a tissue to her eyes. “And eat your breakfast before it gets cold!” “Okay, Mom, but he started it!” “Did not!” “Did too!” “Shut up!” thundered Matthew. A shocked silence D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

5


filled the room. “Glory, we’ll finish our conversation later,” he said in a calmer voice. “Kids, hurry up and eat, you’ll be late for school. It’s already seven-thirty. This is the last two weeks before your Christmas vacation. I want both of you to be on your best behavior until then. No being late, no squabbling. Learn to get along with each other. You’re brother and sister. Act like it.” “That’s the problem,” grinned Matt Jr. “We do act like brother and sister.” “And no wisecracks,” snapped his father, glaring at Steffie as well. “Or you can both just kiss that ski trip to Aspen goodbye!” “But Dad,” wailed Matt Jr. “We’ve been looking forward to that trip since school started.” “Then you’d both better straighten up and fly right. Finish your breakfast. And Matt, better get an early start. It’s snowing out there and I want you to be careful driving to school.” “Sure, Dad, don’t worry, I can handle it. With all the snow we’ve had so far, I’m getting pretty used to it.” The kids finished eating without another word, put on their coats, and kissed their mom on the cheek. “Bye, Mom and Dad,” they said in unison and then ran out the kitchen door to the garage, slamming it shut as they left. Matthew and Glory listened without speaking to the sound of the car starting and slowly driving away. “Whew!” breathed Matthew. “I swear to God those kids are going to make me seriously lose my temper one of these days. Remember just a few years ago when they were nice, polite and quiet?” “Yeah,” replied Glory reflectively. “The teen years seem to have turned them into little monsters.” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

6


“And so insolent! Especially Matt Jr. I wonder where he gets it. Don’t start,” he said as Glory opened her mouth to reply. “I know I can be pretty pigheaded some times. But at least I’m housebroken.” “Yes, Matthew.” Glory gave him a patient sigh. “Anyway, remember what I was saying before the kids came down? I meant it. I’ve been a full-time mother, cook, housekeeper, maid and God knows what all for over ten years now, and I haven’t really minded it. I mean it’s all been worthwhile.” She began to clear away the breakfast dishes and put them in the sink. “But when both the kids go away to college and it’s just you and me…Oh, Matthew, what am I going to do?” “Do, Glory? Why, we’ll have the time of our lives. We’ve got money now. You won’t have to cook all the time, we’ll go out to eat at the best restaurants in Manhattan, just the two of us. And without the kids here, you won’t have so much cleaning and laundry to do. Hell, if you want, we’ll even get a Puerto Rican maid to come in and clean once a week. I hear they come really cheap.” He finished his coffee and stood up. “Now, come on, drive me to the station. Metro North is gonna be packed today. Nobody wants to make the drive to the city in weather like this.” He went over and put his arms around her. “Okay, Matthew.” She managed a smile. “It’s late. I’ll go get dressed. But I want to discuss this seriously when you get home tonight. This is our future, you know, not just yours. I don’t care how rich and successful you are, we’re still partners. And we need to make the big decisions together.” “Okay, okay, I promise we’ll talk about it tonight. But why now? You know we’ve still got a few years before the kids are out on their own.” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

7


“You’re right,” she murmured. “I guess I’m just being emotional. That is a woman’s prerogative, you know. But with you just turning forty and all… Well, it’s like you can get locked into a certain way of life. Time passes, but before you really have time to think about it, you wake up and you’re old.” She went upstairs to the bedroom without another word, leaving Matthew staring at the sink full of dirty dishes that seemed to symbolize the whole strange morning’s events. What’s got into her? he wondered. She’s usually so cheerful and upbeat. Probably the weather. We haven’t seen the sun for days. That’s enough to depress anyone. He went to the living room, collected his overcoat and fur hat from the hall closet and his briefcase from the desk in his study. Then he went upstairs and knocked softly at the door. “Glory? Are you ready, hon?” “Coming right out!” She opened the door and smiled at Matthew. She was dressed in a brown wool turtleneck sweater and matching pants with high leather boots. She looked ravishing as usual, he thought. “I’ll get my coat. You go start the car,” she told him. “Can you drive to the station today and I’ll drive back?” “Sure.” They didn’t say much on the way to the Metro North station. As he drove carefully through the snow-packed streets, Matthew felt that for the first time in a dozen years, events were spinning out of his control. He looked at his wife sitting beside him staring pensively at the snow and wondered what their relationship would be like when the kids did go off to college. Was this morning a preview of that? I’ve lived for only two things lately, he thought to himself, my business and my family. Is that going to D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

8


change? Should it change? Might as well ask if I should turn forty. If it changes, it changes, and there’s nothing I can do about it. He smiled at Glory and took her left hand in his right, keeping his other hand firmly on the wheel. She smiled and squeezed his hand tightly. He could feel the warmth of her skin through his leather driving gloves. Somehow he felt better. 2.

A

fter he had gotten out of the car and kissed Glory goodbye, he entered the station and climbed the stairs to the elevated platform. He looked at his watch. Damn, already 8:05. The next train wasn’t until 8:15 and in this weather it would take at least forty-five minutes just to get to Grand Central. Matthew figured he was going to be at least a half hour late by the time he got a cab and made it all the way downtown to his office. Oh well, he thought, at least he’d have time to think about business for a change. That building acquisition in the Bronx, for instance. He was going to make a killing on that piece of property. Just as soon as he got the deed he would resell it to the developers for whom it was the last piece they needed in the property puzzle that was to become a lavish industrial park. The train finally arrived, and he sank gratefully into one of the plush seats in the first class section. And as he turned the events of the morning over in his mind, he realized how long not only he, but also Glory, had been on automatic pilot, so to speak. But he hadn’t always been what he was now: a rich, successful family man who was also the ruthless “king” of New York real estate speculation. He had been born into a D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

9


lower class family in rural southern Illinois, in the area around Cairo which the locals called “Little Egypt�. He was the oldest of four children, two boys and two girls. His father was an alcoholic used car salesman, his mother a rather colorless little housewife who put up with her husband’s drunken rages by consoling herself with the Bible. Matthew soon grew to hate both his parents with a passion, and vowed to get out of their miserable shack as soon as possible. He determined that the first step would be to spend as much of his time at school as he could, both to avoid being at home and to prepare himself for the future. He made good grades and during his senior year he received scholarship offers from a number of major universities. In the end, because of its prestige and because of its distance from his home, he chose the University of California at Berkeley. He began his freshman year in 1964. Naturally a person of his intellect, anger, and limited life experience became completely caught up in the campus politics of the day. Matthew quickly assumed the role of disaffected radical, joining the free speech, civil-rights and anti-war movements. By the spring of 1966 as he was finishing his second year, he became infatuated with an older woman named Judy, and she with him. He soon moved out of his dorm and into her off-campus apartment. To her he lost his virginity and gained a feeling of worldly sophistication he had never known existed, much less possessed. Judy was due to graduate that spring and begin a teaching job in San Francisco that fall. Mistaking sexual ardor for true love, Matthew decided to drop out of college and live with her in San Francisco. If all went well with their relationship and her job, he told himself, they would marry in the spring. Together they moved into a small D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 0


apartment in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. It was the summer before the Summer of Love. Before the summer was over, Matthew received a notice from the Selective Service System. He had been reclassified 1-A. At the rate the Vietnam War was escalating, he knew he was likely to be drafted within six months and most likely be sent to Vietnam as soon as he finished his training. Judy urged him to try to beat the draft somehow, fake a medical condition, do whatever it took. He knew that those tactics would never work for him, and he didn’t relish a life spent hiding in Canada. He told Judy he would give himself up to fate and suffer its dictates. Judy asked him how he could possibly consent to be a tool of the war machine. What of his radical ideals? He answered angrily that he had just become a radical to meet chicks anyway, as radical women were well known to practice the gospel of free love, and thus were easy to entice into bed. They began to have bitter arguments and frequent fights. By the time his induction notice arrived, in February 1967, he and Judy had already split up. He decided to surrender to the inevitable. He found himself in the jungles of Vietnam by fall. Soon after that he found himself slowly going mad. Dutifully he shot at the enemy and was shot at by the enemy. Dutifully he got drunk and took drugs with his fellow draftees to ease his pain. And dutifully he followed the orders of his superior officers. By the time his thirteen-month tour of duty ended, the next fall, he felt thirteen years older. He spent the remaining four months of his military career in an infantry unit in Germany. There he did nothing but go through the motions while he waited for his discharge. He thought about his future. The west coast held D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 1


too many painful memories for him, so why not try the east coast? He applied to several universities and was accepted by Princeton for the fall term. When he was finally discharged in early 1969, he took his separation pay and rented a tiny apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey, to wait for school to begin. He went looking for work, finally landing a job as a clerk in a natural foods store. He found he liked the people there and they liked him. Of course, they were all rabidly anti-war, so he did not mention his military past. He soon discovered that the store was a counter-cultural information center; on its bulletin board were notices of the latest political and cultural events. He began going to events featuring people such as the famous Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and LSD guru Tim Leary, as well as to acid-rock concerts by the leading bands of the day. That spring he got word of a festival to be held out of doors on a farm in upstate New York near a small town called Woodstock. It was billed as “three days of peace and music”. Everyone who hated the war and believed in the counter-culture would be there. He knew he had to go. So mid-August 1969 found him in a hippie van, decked out in psychedelic designs, newly purchased with the last of his military separation pay. He was on the road to Woodstock. The festival itself was everything he had imagined it would be—great music, great dope, free sex, and righteous vibes. The best bands played far into the night, pausing only to begin again early the next morning. On the second day, stoned out of his mind on hash, he stumbled over to the Hog Farm Collective’s tent to stand in line for some free food. It had been raining heavily, and the meadow was now a sea of mud. He found himself standing next to a tall blonde girl in a tie-died peasant dress, D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 2


barefoot, with flowers in her hair. He thought he had never seen anyone so beautiful—and with such gentle vibes! They struck up a conversation. Her name was Gloria Pelletier, she was nineteen, and had just finished her first year at Wellesley where she was majoring in Classical Literature. She said she wrote poetry in the classical romantic style and had invented her own sonnet form. Matthew was both smitten and intrigued; he had never met a girl like this before. He whispered in her ear that he was a Vietnam veteran. She was shocked. He told her he would tell her about his war experiences if she would read him her poetry. She had never met a soldier of her generation before, so she agreed. They slipped out into the open meadow and found Matthew’s tent. There, by the light of a Coleman lantern, she read him poetry and asked him endless questions about the war. He answered each question honestly and, for the first time he could remember, without bitterness. She and her poetry were slowly taming the beast within him, but he felt he had to have more. When they made love it was tenderly, gently. They sensed each other’s rhythms in a way that Matthew had never experienced. His lovemaking with Judy had always been pillage and plunder. With Glory it was like being swallowed by one being comprised equally of them both. When the Woodstock festival came to an end they had been inseparable for a day and a half. Glory (for so he now called her, his Glory) reluctantly went back to begin her fall term at Wellesley. Matthew resigned himself to preparing for the move to Princeton to begin his first year there. They wrote each other long letters, heavily scented D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 3


with perfume and love. Then shortly before Halloween Matthew received a letter containing only one small piece of paper. On it was written: “Matthew. I’m pregnant. It’s yours. If you love me, come to me now.” It was signed “Your Glory”. To Matthew’s credit he didn’t hesitate. He drove all the way to Wellesley non-stop and soon was reassuring a frightened Glory in the parlor of her dormitory. She couldn’t possibly tell her parents, she said. What were they to do? Through the organic food store where he had worked that summer, Matthew had heard of an agricultural commune in upstate New York, run by some guru who reportedly espoused the non-material lifestyle. All that was required to join the commune was a willingness to share all one’s possessions except essential clothing, and the ability to do hard physical labor to care for the crops which were the commune’s only source of survival. Matthew and Glory arrived at the commune at the end of October. He had promised her that he would do all the work while she rested and studied. When she had expressed regrets about leaving school, he had convinced her that since she was studying literature anyway, all she had to do would be to read and discuss. Just like school, only no annoying tests to take or papers to write. He had brought all of her textbooks with them in the van, which he parked a few miles down the road from the commune and concealed in the underbrush to avoid questions of ownership. After they had been accepted into the commune and assigned sleeping quarters in a private tent, he waited until midnight and then went back to the van to rescue what little remained of his military gear. Under cover of D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 4


darkness he brought back to the tent air mattresses, sleeping bags, ponchos to keep them dry, a Coleman stove, a Coleman lantern, and of course, Glory’s books. He used a few dollars of the dwindling savings from his job to buy two five-gallon cans of fuel oil for protection against the coming winter cold. As autumn turned to winter, and rain turned to snow, Matthew slaved in the fields while Glory with her swelling belly stayed in the tent and read or slept. At night by the light of the lantern after they had eaten their Spartan vegetarian meal, they read to each other, made love ardently (for as long as Glory’s condition allowed), discussed their future, and finally slept. By spring Glory had delivered her child. She had been allowed to go to the nearest hospital to have the birth registered, and the child, a boy they named Matt Jr., certified as healthy. Thus life at the commune went on. But as the next year rolled by, its leader began paying less and less attention to his spiritual crusade. Matthew and Glory found life agreeable however. The hard work and rigorous conditions had strengthened his resolve to make Glory a good mate, and he felt a calmness and cheerfulness he had not had since before he was drafted. With the birth of Matt Jr. they found themselves with responsibilities they had never encountered before. However now that Glory was able to help Matthew in the fields, she delighted in strapping the baby to her back and enjoying the warmth of spring and then the heat of summer free from the musty confines of their shared tent. Their lovemaking, too, was more frequent and more passionate as they shed their winter clothing. Matthew’s D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 5


hard, bronzed body was a perfect match for Glory’s pale, slender beauty, and by the fall of 1971 it was obvious that she was pregnant once again. By this time, however, things were not going well for the commune. With their leader’s increasing inattention to their daily life, crops began to fail as the members began to work less and less. The negative vibes seemed to affect nearly everyone except Matthew and Glory, who carried on more or less as usual. As fall became winter and winter turned to early spring, conditions became worse and worse. Finally, in early February 1972, the leader asked to speak to Matthew in private. He was leaving the commune, he said, because he was disillusioned by the hardships of communal life and the decreasing rewards it was giving him. His name, he told Matthew, was not really Sky Spirit as he had told the rest of the commune, but plain old Irving Greenbaum from Brooklyn, New York. He had started the commune at the tender age of nineteen in order to fulfill his lifelong ambition, which was to ball as many chicks as possible. He had purchased the land for the commune, it turned out, with money from his college fund. Now, five years later, having had his share of chicks and ego trips, he wanted to go back to Brooklyn, back to college, back to his comfortable middle-class life. Matthew and Glory, of course, were shocked. They were even more shocked by Greenbaum’s casual suggestion that Matthew buy the commune. They haggled, Matthew and Glory discussed, and finally a decision was reached and a price decided on. Matthew was to raise, any way he could, one thousand dollars within a period of ninety days. Upon payment of this sum, Matthew was to receive the deed to the entire 160 D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 6


acres upon which the commune stood, and full ownership of all structures, crops, etc. that it contained to use for any purpose that he saw fit. By spring Matthew had sold his van for as much as he could get which was only six hundred dollars. He was in despair of raising the rest until Glory showed him her jewel box, a carefully hidden souvenir of her former uppermiddle-class life. Matthew’s eyes lit up when he saw the diamond earrings, cultured pearl necklaces, and emerald and ruby rings it contained. He promptly hitch-hiked the twenty miles to the nearest town with the diamond earrings concealed in the toe of his right boot. Within a few hours he had returned, the earrings replaced by another six hundred dollars. The commune was theirs. But all did not go well that following summer. Glory was heavy with child and could not help Matthew in the fields. The commune had lost its charismatic leader and its membership and resolve dwindled accordingly. By fall, when Glory had given birth to their second child, which they named Stephanie, there were only twelve members left. By the next spring, after a particularly hard winter, the communal band had been reduced to just three couples including Matthew and Glory. So it was that in late March 1973 when Matthew spotted a middle-aged stranger in an immaculate business suit nosing around the property, he went over to the stranger to find out what was going on. The following conversation then ensued: MATTHEW: You lookin’ for somebody, mister? THE SUIT: (Taking in Matthew’s appearance—long hair, ratty full beard, ragged farm clothes, and boots with D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 7


holes in the toes.) Yeah, kid, I’m lookin’ for the owner of this property. M: That would be me. TS: You? (Looking him up and down.) You got anything to prove that, kid? M: (Pulling the deed to the property out of a greasy wallet he kept in the back pocket of his jeans.) Just this piece of paper, mister. TS: (Reading it intently several times.) Well, I’ll be damned! What’s your name, kid? M: Matthew Kingston. TS: (Looking at the deed again.) Can you prove that, kid? M: (Digging a crumpled piece of paper out of the same greasy wallet.) Here’s my New Jersey driver’s license, mister. It doesn’t expire till next year. TS: (Looking at the license, then looking at Matthew, then looking at the deed, then looking at the license again, then looking at Matthew again.) Well, I’ll be double damned! Looks legal, kid. (He returns the deed and driver’s license to Matthew who puts them back in the greasy wallet which he replaces carefully in the back pocket of his jeans.) I got a proposition for you, kid. How old are you? M: Twenty-six. TS: Wife? Kids? M: Yes. Two. A boy two-and-a-half named Matt, Jr., and a girl six months named Stephanie. TS: And you live out here? M: Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. When we came here, about three and a half years ago, it was a thriving commune. We had ideals, we had dignity, we had… D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 8


TS: Spare me the speech, kid. I take it things aren’t going well. (He offers his hand.) Let me introduce myself, kid. I’m G. Harlan Hathaway, vice president of Majestic Properties in New York City. Would you consider selling this place, lock, stock and— (He looks around.)–tumbledown shack? M: Well, I’d certainly have to talk it over with my family and the rest of the commune. Uh, how much would you pay? GHH: Well, kid, ask yourself this: How much is it worth? M: (Looking around at the few shacks still standing.) Um, I’d like to get a thousand. GHH: You’re bustin’ my balls, kid. I’m authorized to offer you five hundred. M: Gee, is that the best you can do? The land itself must be worth more than that. I can’t possibly convince my people to sell out their ideals for a mere… GHH: Okay, okay, kid. I get the idea. Let’s both save some time and breath. You say a thousand and I say five hundred. Then you’re gonna say nine, I’m gonna say six, You’re gonna say eight, get the idea? So let’s just make a long story short and settle on seven-fifty. M: Well, if that’s the best you can do. GHH: Take it from me, kid, I’m doin’ you a favor as it is. But remember, this offer, like they say on TV, is for a limited time only. I’ll be back tomorrow morning at nine sharp. Hope your folks see it our way. (He walks down the road, climbs into a black Cadillac and drives away.) That night Matthew has little trouble convincing the other two couples of the wisdom of this plan, as they were D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 9


about to throw in the towel anyway. He promises to share the money equally, each couple receiving two hundred and fifty dollars. The two couples give Matthew their parents’ addresses and, after much hugging and crying, go back to their tents to pack their few belongings. After they leave, Matthew attempts to convince Glory of the wisdom of his plan. We’re only doing it for the kids, he tells her, so they can have a better life. Finally, Glory agrees. Then they get down to specifics. They decide to take only essential items of clothing. Left behind would be Glory’s books (all read cover-to-cover many times anyway) and their outdoor survival gear. With the two kids strapped to their backs, they should be able to carry one bag each and hitchhike into New York City where, Matthew tells Glory, he intends to get a proper job and start a new life. Glory, having had enough physical hardships for one lifetime, gratefully agrees. The next morning, promptly at nine o’clock, a black Cadillac can be seen driving up the dirt road to the commune entrance. Matthew is there to meet it. G. Harlan Hathaway gets out of the car, and the following conversation then ensues: GHH: Well, kid, what’s your decision? M: It’s not much, but we’ll take it. GHH: Great, kid. I knew you’d see things my way. (He opens his briefcase and pulls out an envelope. He gives it to Matthew. Matthew opens it, looks at the check, and turns as pale as a ghost.) What’s the matter, kid? It’s what we agreed on, isn’t it? Seven hundred and fifty dollars per acre times one hundred and sixty acres makes, according to our accountants—and they’re never wrong— D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 0


a hundred and twenty thousand. This place is gonna make a dynamite industrial park. M: Uh, uh, no problem, sir. Uh, I mean, well, I, uh, don’t have a bank account. Uh, how do I cash this? GHH: Oh, that’s what you’re worried about. Tell you what, kid, I like your style. (He reaches into the breast pocket of his suit coat and takes out a gold ball point pen and a Moroccan leather card case from which he extracts two business cards.) On one of these cards I’m gonna write for you the address of my bank, Irving Trust, on John Street in the Wall Street district of Manhattan. You know where that is, kid? M: Uh, don’t worry, sir. I’m sure I can find it. GHH: On the other card I’m gonna write a note authorizing you to cash this check. If you have any problems, tell the bank officials to call my office. The number’s on the front of the card. M: Thank you very much, sir, on behalf of the entire… GHH: Save it, kid. Now, there’s just one more thing. M: Sir? GHH: The deed, kid, gimme the deed! M: Oh, uh, right away, sir! (He does so.) GHH: (Looking at the deed carefully and placing it in his briefcase.) Thanks, kid, nice doing business with you. (He raises two fingers in a V-sign.) Peace and love, kid. Have a nice life. (He turns and walks away, gets in his black Cadillac, and drives back down the dirt road.) M: Peace and love to you too, man! And that is how Matthew “The King” Kingston made his first real estate killing. ~~~ D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 1


3.

A

fter dropping Matthew off at the train station, Glory immediately drove back home. Parking the Mercedes in the two-car garage next to the space reserved for the Caddy, she then entered the house through the kitchen door. She looked at her watch. 8:30. She had a sudden, wild impulse to go upstairs to her bedroom and just sleep the day away. She shook her head as if to clear it and rid herself of her negative feelings at the same time. Why did she feel so depressed today? That whole scene with Matthew and the kids at breakfast—so unlike her! She went over to the sink and looked at the heap of breakfast dishes. Shaking her head again, she resolutely rolled up her sleeves, tied an apron around her waist, and pulled on her rubber gloves. Matthew’s doing his work, the kids are doing theirs, the least I can do is to do mine, she reasoned. As she so often did when engaged in mindless acts of housework, Glory reminisced. Matthew seemed so distant and preoccupied these days. She needed to remind herself of what it was about him that had really attracted her in the first place. As she thought back to their early years together, she began to smile. She remembered the intense young war veteran she had met at Woodstock, hair still short by the standards of the day, beard just beginning to grow in. She remembered his eyes, how they could go from gentle to fierce and back again in an instant. And most of all she remembered his voice—soft, yet determined. He had had a certain “no bullshit” quality about him with which she was unfamiliar. All the kids she knew from her upper-middle class childhood in East Hampton—as well as most of the adults— D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 2


were so terribly fashion conscious—wear the right clothes, eat the right foods, see the right movies, even profess to have the right religious, political and social beliefs. She also, in her sheltered environment, had never met a Vietnam veteran before. All the boys she had known had made damn sure that they stayed in school and kept their grades up so their student deferments would continue. The only ex-soldiers she knew were men her parents’ age who had fought in World War II and Korea—which was an entirely different situation, as she found out by listening to Matthew. At their first meeting Matthew had told her he had just come back from ‘Nam a few months previously. He had admitted this to her as a kind of a guilty secret, to explain why his hair was so short, and why he knew so little about the new bands that were playing the Woodstock festival. She had been intrigued and wanted to know all about his experiences. He had used the usual modest “I don’t want to talk about it” approach with her at first. But as she persisted, and he saw she would lose interest in him if he didn’t, he began to seriously talk about the war—what it was really like, why he had allowed himself to be drafted, what his politics were. At dawn the next day they were still in his tent, talking. They had spent the night together, interspersing their conversation with sex, drugs, and rock and roll. And she knew from that first night that no matter how much she wanted to deny it, Matthew had won her trust—and her heart. Glory finished loading the dishwasher, switched it on, and went upstairs to make the beds and straighten up the bedrooms. Yes, she remembered, Matthew had been D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 3


devoted to her then. When she had found out she was pregnant and could tell no one else—her family would have killed her!—she had written Matthew and he had come at once, without hesitation. He had accepted the situation and his responsibilities without anger or blame. That was when she knew she would follow him anywhere. She was just nineteen and he only twenty-three and they had known each other for a very few days, but it seemed logical and inevitable that they should be together. She followed him to the commune without question. It had seemed as good a place as any to get to know each other, start their family, and meditate on the future. They were immediately “married” at a hippie ceremony performed by Sky Spirit, the head of the commune known as The Peaceful Earth. Matthew had proved a devoted husband, a tender and considerate partner. His lovemaking, when Glory’s pregnancies permitted, was both tender and arousing. While she was pregnant and recovering, he did both their work in the fields without complaint. Glory went back down to the kitchen to plan the evening meal, but she found her thoughts still in the past. She chuckled out loud when she remembered the scene at the bank. They had hitched to New York City after selling the commune, and she and Matthew had walked into the dignified Irving Trust branch wearing dirty, torn laborer’s clothes and an infant each strapped to their chests. Everyone was looking at them suspiciously, and two security guards had materialized and stood on each side of them in the line to the teller’s window. The line was a long one and, as the minutes went by, Matthew became more and more nervous, and Glory more and more embarrassed. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 4


When their turn finally came, the two security guards stepped up to the window with them. Matthew pulled the check for one hundred twenty thousand dollars out of the greasy wallet he kept in the back pocket of his torn jeans. When he tried to cash it, the bank teller whispered something to one of the security guards and he hurried away. He quickly returned with an officious-looking man, short and bald, but impeccably dressed, who identified himself as the branch’s manager and wanted to know what the problem was. Matthew had to produce all his identification—birth certificate, driver’s license, military ID. He then produced the two cards from Hathaway. The teller, the branch manager, and the two security guards had another whispered conversation. The teller hurried off to make a phone call. He returned about five minutes later and had yet another whispered conversation with the other three men. Then the two security guards went back to their stations near the entrance. The branch manager grinned his broadest and most obsequious grin. He shook hands heartily with Matthew and escorted both of them into his private office. When they left the office about fifteen minutes later, the two kids were chewing on pieces of candy, Glory was smiling, and Matthew was contentedly smoking the biggest cigar either of them had ever seen. In thirty minutes they had gone from dangerous vagabonds to respected Irving Trust Gold Account customers. Glory was startled out of her reverie by the sound of the telephone ringing. When she answered it, she was annoyed to find out it was just another stupid marketing survey prying into her purchasing habits. Let’s see, what for dinner? She wanted Matthew in a receptive mood tonight because she wanted to have a D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 5


serious talk. She couldn’t help the feeling that events were no longer under control, that her life was about to change forever and she had no say in the matter. She felt anxiety, fear, and way deep in the back of her mind something strangely like elation. She was confused. It seemed to her that ever since Matthew had started his real estate investment company back in ’74 that their lives had been more or less on automatic pilot. Year after year they celebrated their birthdays and the kids’, their anniversaries and the holidays, at the same places and in the same ways. She could remember that when the kids were still little, she and Matthew used to occasionally have spontaneous fun. Get a babysitter at the spur of the moment on a hot summer Sunday, go to Coney Island, eat bad food, giggle a lot, and make love in the sand under the boardwalk. But these days, she reflected ruefully, they never even went out to a movie together without one or both of the kids. They hadn’t been to Coney Island in ages. She noticed it was already one o’clock, so she pulled a Weight Watchers frozen entrée (veal parmesan) from the freezer and stuck it in the microwave. I know, she said to herself snapping her fingers, I’ll give Matthew a nice big steak tonight. He won’t be home until around eight, which gives me plenty of time to shop. I’ll pacify the kids by letting them order a pizza. Then I’ll send them up to their rooms and have a nice quiet candlelight dinner for Matthew. Hmm, wonder if we still have any of that good California Cabernet he likes so much. She chuckled again. Matthew had become quite the meat eater since their commune days. She remembered how Matthew had decided to take her out to celebrate after they had opened their bank account. After more than three D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 6


years of the meager vegetarian diet at the commune where they had eaten nothing but rice and beans, root vegetables, and fresh and dried fruit, Matthew had decided to celebrate with an enormous cheeseburger for each of them. Glory had immediately thrown up in the bathroom, and Matthew had had the runs for a week, but in some perverse way it was worth it. Glory smiled as the timer sounded and she took her lunch out of the microwave, then went into the living room to watch her soaps. Somehow she felt better. 4.

H

i! I’m Manny Klein. You haven’t met me yet, have you? King never mentioned me, did he? He never does. I’m like that fat guy, that comic what’s-hisname, you know, “I don’t get no respect.” Anyway, I’m the King’s business partner. It’s nine o’clock in the morning, Monday, December 8, 1986, and here I am in my private office in our spacious suite in the Woolworth Building on Broadway in lower Manhattan. It’s an old building but elegant, and the suite that comprises Kingston & Klein occupies fully half of the 7th floor. When you get off the elevator and enter the door to the left with our name on it, the first thing you’ll see is the outer reception area which is fully carpeted and furnished with comfortable leather couches and armchairs. In the center is the reception desk, the domain of Stacey Wilson, our invaluable secretaryreceptionist. To the left is the King’s spacious corner office, with two windows, a huge antique oak desk, a large conference table that seats eight, plus several leather chairs. Behind his desk is his pride and joy—a fully stocked D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 7


liquor cabinet complete with mini refrigerator. To the right is my office—a much more modest affair with only a medium sized wooden desk, a row of metal filing cabinets, and several comfortable chairs. I’ve been here for over an hour, checking the figures, balancing the books, paying the bills, making profit projections, etc. That’s what I do. I’m not only the King’s partner, I’m his office manager, bookkeeper, and tax accountant, all rolled into one. Have been for over twelve years now. The King? No, he’s not here yet. Supposed to be here by now for a very important meeting. But that’s okay. You can’t expect a guy like the King to follow the rules like the rest of us poor peasants. Besides, I’ve got a system. When I schedule a meeting for the King at ten o’clock, I tell him nine. If he happens to show up before ten, I tell him the clients called to apologize for being late, but that he shouldn’t say anything. Nine times out of ten my system works. I remember that even when I met Matthew Kingston in early 1974 (he wasn’t the king of anything then), he wasn’t the type to punch a time clock. We were both working in Brooklyn at a company which made stainless steel stuff for the kitchen and bathroom. You know, plumbing and cooking fixtures, steam tables, whatever. I was their bookkeeper and he had just gotten a position as shipping and receiving clerk. He was pulling down two-fifty an hour mainly for crating and shipping these fixtures all over the country. He was supposed to be working forty hours a week and making an even hundred dollars a week before taxes. But I noticed that every time I checked the time card for a Matthew Kingston, each week there were fewer hours—thirty-eight, thirty-four, thirty-two, etc. This went on for a couple of months. So one day (he’d only D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 8


logged twenty-nine hours that week), I went to him. “Kingston,” I asked him, “how come you keep missing so much time? They’re gonna can your ass, you know! What’s the matter, you don’t need the money?” “The truth is, Mr. Klein,” he told me, “I don’t need the money, but I need the job.” “That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,” I told him, and it was. “Tell you what, Mr. Klein,” he said to me. “Why don’t you let me buy you a beer after work and I’ll tell you all about it.” So after work we went into this crummy little dive right down the street from the factory—the Loading Dock, I think it was called—and he bought us each a Heineken. Then he proceeded to tell me the whole story of the Great Commune Real Estate Deal. “But Matthew,” I said when he paused in his story to order another round, “you mean to tell me you’ve got one hundred and twenty thousand sitting in a checking account in a bank doing nothing? That’s stupid!” “Well,” he told me seriously, “it’s really only about a hundred and ten thousand. I had to rent a place for my family and have money for clothes and groceries and stuff while I was looking for this shitty job. And of course I had to pay the other couples their two hundred and fifty dollars each which I did as soon as I opened the account.” “But you see,” he said with a hangdog look on that handsome mug of his, “I’ve got a real problem. I promised Glory, my wife, that I’d get a job and be respectable. I really love her, that’s why it’s so hard for me to tear myself away from her in the morning which is why my paycheck isn’t what it should be.” He looked at me in a kind of pleading way, like I was his father or something, even though I’m only about five years older (and a good six inches shorter). D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 9


“But Manny, what should I do? I really hate this stupid job. And the boss, old man Kramer, really gives me the shakes. The way he struts around the factory with that swagger stick reminds me of some of the officers I knew in the army. But I can’t quit, because I promised Glory. What can I do?” I remember pondering this for a minute. “I think I might just have an idea. It’s so crazy, it just might work. I’m not exactly overjoyed by this job myself, you know. What do you think Glory would say if you went into business for yourself? You’ve got the capital, and I’ve got the financial know-how.” “But what kind of business?” `“Real estate investment, you dumb klutz! Your story has given me the idea. You must be born lucky to have pulled off a deal like that. And didn’t you get through Vietnam without a scratch?” He looked at me and the light began to dawn. “Hey, Manny,” he reached over and shook my hand with such enthusiasm I could feel the bones cracking. “That is one fantastic idea! Kingston and Klein, real estate investments. Partners, right?” “Right!” We were both pretty wasted by now. “Let’s have one more round, and then we’ll go home and tell your wife.” “Right! Uh, what time is it?” “Nearly seven.” “Oh shit, I was supposed to be home over an hour ago. Glory’s gonna kill me!” “So? If she’s gonna kill you anyway, have another drink. You’ll feel better.” Matthew ordered two more, and as we clinked bottles D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 0


he exclaimed, “Partner, I like the way you think.” Needless to say, Glory was really pissed when we finally got to Matthew’s apartment in the East Village and told her our plans. But she came around eventually. Oh, look, here comes the King now, and it’s only a quarter to ten. Plenty of time for the meeting. See, I told you my system works. 5.

M

atthew was indeed just getting out of a taxi in front of the Woolworth Building, still feeling a bit disoriented. He had re-lived his entire life on the fortyfive minute train ride from White Plains to the city, then falling asleep just before arrival. He knew he had dreamed again but, maddeningly, he couldn’t recall any of it. He nodded at the security guard at the desk and took the elevator up to the seventh floor. He entered his office and, after greeting his invaluable secretary Stacey with a good morning and a peck on the cheek, he went directly to his office, where he found Manny and two other men already seated at the conference table waiting for him. “Hi, Manny,” he managed a grin. “Gentlemen, sorry I’m late. This wretched snow...” The two gentlemen looked at each other in bewilderment, and then at Manny who only shrugged his shoulders in reply. “Late?” said the taller of the two. “Not a bit of it. We only just got here ourselves.” “Whatever,” said Matthew, sitting down at the conference table beside Manny and directly across from the two other men. He pulled some papers out of his briefcase, spread them in front of him, studied them for a moment, and then looked up expectantly at Manny. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 1


Manny took his cue. “King, may I present Mr. Folger, vice-president in charge of plant management for the Bechtel Corporation?” Matthew stood up and shook his hand. “And this gentleman,” Manny continued, indicating the shorter, heavier man, “is Mr. Gould, the chief of Bechtel’s legal department.” Matthew shook his hand and then nodded to Mr. Folger. “An honor to meet both you gentlemen.” He shuffled some of the papers in front of him. “All right,” said Matthew in an authoritative voice, still standing while the others took their seats. “Let’s get down to business. If I am correct, you are still interested in acquiring ownership of the aforementioned property in the Bronx at the earliest possible date.” “That is correct, sir,” said Mr. Folger. “We talked to the old gentleman that leases the place. He not only wouldn’t tell us who the owners are—apparently they are somewhere out of state and have a close, long-term relationship with the present tenant—but he claims to have a perpetual lease-renewal agreement for the property. So, we have turned to you, sir, knowing your reputation in these matters. We are prepared to pay your company,” he paused and whispered something to his lawyer who whispered something back, “three million dollars if we can acquire the property in the next ninety days.” Matthew looked at Manny and smiled a ferocious smile. “Not a problem, gentlemen, my partner has already managed not only to find the owners of this property, but he has also taken the liberty of purchasing it from them. I’m not free to discuss the details of the transaction, but needless to say, we are willing to honor your offer.” “But Mr. Kingston,” interrupted Mr. Gould. “What about the building’s tenant? It’s illegal to evict in this case, D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 2


and he seems unlikely to vacate voluntarily. I understand he’s been in business there for nearly forty years.” “Again, gentlemen,” Matthew assured them, “not a problem. When we acquired the property we also acquired the right to restructure the terms of the lease. As you may know, Mr. Gould, there is no rent control at this time on commercial properties. Knowing that the present lease expires at the end of the month, we did some research into this old man’s finances. Mr. Klein here assures me that he has already sent a notice of increase beginning February 1, 1987, that the present tenant will not be able to afford. He will therefore decline to renew the lease and will vacate the premises some time next month. So, gentlemen, on completion of the financial arrangements, your corporation should be able to take possession before the end of next month. Or tear it down. Whatever suits.” As Matthew sat down, Folger and Gould jumped up and high-fived each other like schoolboys. They both rushed around the table to where Matthew and Manny were sitting and hands were shaken all around. “Mr. Kingston,” said Mr. Folger when he had caught his breath. “A brilliant maneuver if I may say so. No wonder they call you The King of Real Estate Investment.” “All in a day’s work, gentlemen. And now if there is no further business, might I suggest lunch at my club? Mr. Gould can go over the financial details with my partner, Mr. Klein.” They all thought that was a very good idea indeed. The rest of the day passed uneventfully for Matthew. In fact, after several martinis at lunch, he spent the larger part of the afternoon dozing on the couch in his office, while Manny as usual busied himself in his office. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 3


At last it was five o’clock and time to quit for the day. Matthew got up, stretched, yawned, and knocked on Manny’s office door to tell him he was going home. “Good job, King. You got those guys eating out of your hand.” “Yeah, but you did all the work, Manny. Sometimes I wonder if you need me at all.” “Are you kidding, King? You’re the front man. You’re six feet tall, great body, distinguished touch of gray at the temples. I’m five-foot six, bald, a body like Woody Allen and a face like Wally Shawn. Which guy would you trust? Besides, those corporate types make me nervous. I feel like I’m back in school again in the principal’s office. “Yeah, okay, Manny. See you tomorrow. You coming?” “Soon, soon. Just a few things to go over.” “You’ve always got a few things to go over,” said Matthew with a laugh. “See you, Manny. Don’t work too late.” Matthew went out the door, down the elevator, and out into the street to find a cab. It had stopped snowing that afternoon, but the sky was still an ugly slate gray and a sharp northeastern wind had begun to blow. Matthew shivered as he got into the cab. New York, New York, it’s a hell of a town, he told himself as the driver began to fight the traffic going uptown toward Grand Central. 6.

B

y the time Matthew finally arrived at the White Plains station it was already seven o’clock. Pulling the collar of his overcoat up around his neck to ward off the bitter wind, he looked anxiously around for a D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 4


cab. After fifteen minutes he gave it up and hurried to the corner phone booth to call home. Glory answered on the fourth ring. “Hi, Hon, I’m a little early, but there don’t seem to be any taxis. Come pick me up?” “Oh…Matthew,” came the faint voice over the phone. “I, I didn’t expect you quite so soon. I was just getting ready. Give me half an hour?” “Okay, but hurry, will you? I’ll go to that little diner across the street and wait for you there. I’m freezing my ass off out here.” “I’ll be there as quick as I can.” Matthew sat in the diner, drinking black coffee that tasted like battery acid and staring grimly through the icy window pane at the darkness outside. He thought about his life, his business, his family. Glory was right, of course. The kids were growing up. Soon their world would change completely. And as surely as theirs would change, so would their parents’. He had a hard time remembering Glory before the arrival of the kids. Even in the commune she always had at least one kid on her back and was feeding, cleaning, or cuddling the other. There was no question that she was a good mother. The question was, after sixteen years how would she handle not being a mother? Well, Matthew amended that, she would never cease to be a mother. But when the kids no longer needed her, no longer lived in the big house that he had purchased so proudly ten years ago, then she would become a “retired” mother… He shook his head. This isn’t making any sense, he thought. Like I told her this morning, we’ll have fun, we’ll have plenty to do. You’ll see, he mentally told Glory, you’ll see! D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 5


He heard the sound of a car horn outside, and there she was, rubbing the frost off the passenger’s side window and motioning to him. He got up quickly, left a couple of bucks on the table, and hurried out. “Thanks for coming so fast, I’m sorry to make you come out on a night like this, but there weren’t any taxis at the station. Must be the weather.” They drove home in silence. After putting the car in the garage and locking the door securely, they went into the kitchen. “You go upstairs and wash and change,” Glory kissed him on the cheek. “Dinner will be ready in about twenty minutes. How was your day?” “Pretty good,” he grinned. “In fact, better than I thought it was going to be when I left this morning. You know that Bronx property deal?” “Mm-hmm,” was the automatic response. She always tuned him out when he started talking business. To her it sounded all the same, like a foreign language she had never studied. “Well, we succeeded in buying the property for a lot less than we thought.” He took off his overcoat, draped it around the kitchen chair, unbuttoned his suit jacket and loosened his tie. “Manny found out that the owners live in Florida, so they have no real idea what the property is worth to our clients. So Manny, get this now, this is really good, Manny told them that we were acting on behalf of the present tenant who’s run his business out of there for the last forty years.” Matthew chuckled. “Manny told them that the guy was retiring and wanted out of his long-term lease renewal agreement. So, the owners didn’t want to force the guy to stay. So we made the offer and got the building and the land for only half a mil. What do you think of that?” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 6


“That’s nice, dear,” replied Glory, setting the table. “Now take your clothes and go upstairs and get ready while I put dinner on.” As he started upstairs, he turned and yelled down to her, “But I didn’t tell you the best part. We’re gonna raise the old guy’s rent, drive him out, and sell the property to Bechtel. They’re gonna give us three mil!” “That’s certainly one of your better deals, Matthew, but hurry now. I’m starting your steak, and you know it doesn’t take long to cook it rare, the way you like it.” “Okay, Glory, back in a flash.” He bounded up the stairs. Fifteen minutes later he came down, dressed in a cardigan sweater, comfortable slacks and slippers, to find the table set for two, with candles. The lights had been dimmed and Glory was just taking his steak out of the oven. “Good timing,” she remarked. “Open that bottle of wine while I serve dinner, will you?” Matthew looked around. “A romantic candle light dinner? And where’re the kids, anyway?” “I fed them early and sent them up to their rooms. I think they’re actually studying for once. Your outburst at breakfast must have really put the fear of God into them.” “I’m sorry, Glory, I didn’t mean to yell. I guess I was just really on edge this morning. A number of things, I suppose. Weird weather, ungrateful kids. And that strange dream. I just can’t seem to get it out of my mind. You know I don’t dream that much, or if I do, I don’t remember them. But this one…I don’t know, it just seemed so real.” They were eating dinner now, the mellow wine and the golden glow of the candles the perfect accompaniments to their tender, flavorful steaks. Finally Matthew put down his D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 7


knife and fork, emptied his wine glass, and dabbed at his lips with a white, linen napkin. “That was great,” he told her. “I wish it could be like this more often.” Glory hesitated for a moment, then took the plunge. “Matthew,” she said gently, “we need to talk. Can you spare a few hours away from your briefcase and your study this evening?” “Huh? Sure, I guess so. This deal’s all but closed and there’s nothing urgent on the agenda. In fact, this is the last big one until after the holiday season. But,” he looked earnestly at her, “you know that those are the four words every husband dreads.” “What four words?” asked Glory innocently. Matthew reached across the table between the candles, and cupped her face in his hands. “ ‘We need to talk’, “ he said, looking questioningly into her bright blue eyes. “Oh, come on, Matthew!” She made light of it. “It’s nothing scary. It’s just…well, how often do we get to really talk in the evening? The kids are watching TV, you’re in the study working, I’m cleaning up. I’m always cleaning up. Well tonight you and I are going into the living room all by ourselves and have a quiet evening. I’ll put on the classical station and we can have a nice talk.” “Okay,” shrugged Matthew. “Sounds good to me. But I’m going to open that bottle of Rémy Martin we’ve been saving. Might as well get a little mellow.” As the evening progressed, they got mellower and mellower. The music went from classical to folk to folkrock. At first they sat side by side on the sofa, then they moved to the floor, sharing a large pillow and holding hands as they found themselves singing along to Dylan, the D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 8


Byrds, even the Beatles and the Stones as they had not done in years. “Matthew,” said Glory at one point, “when the kids go away, I want to do something.” “Do something? What do you mean?” “You know, I…I want to make my life, I don’t know, really mean something to me. You know, like yours does.” “Glory, Glory, you know this is just another job to me.” She looked at him seriously and soberly for a moment. “That’s just it, Matthew. You know that’s not true. It may have started out that way, an amusing way to get rich without really working. But it’s become your life. I wanna do something like that.” “Whattaya mean, not really working? I work as hard as anybody.” “Ha! Tell that to the restaurant workers who bust their asses for minimum wage. Tell that to the office support staff who live in fear of their bosses and don’t get much more.” “Glory, Glory, what’s got into you?” He took her hand tenderly. She snatched it away. “Just don’t go telling me how hard you work, okay? You try cleaning this big house, doing all the cooking, shopping, laundry, and being there for the kids whenever they think they’ve got to go somewhere or get something this minute or they’ll just die!” “But I’ve offered many times to get you servants, or at least a housekeeper to come in as often as you need her.” She looked at him with a softer expression and patted his hand. “I know you have, honey.” She got up and began to walk around the living room. “But I don’t know, maybe D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 9


it’s me. Maybe it’s the bitterness I feel because of my stupid, upper-class family. We had servants, we had servants out the ass, but my own parents, it seemed like they were never around.” She stopped and stood over Matthew with her hands on her hips. Her nostrils were flaring slightly. “I just think,” she said in a calmer voice, “that a mother should take care of her own children. Otherwise, what kind of a mother would she be?” She sat down beside Matthew again. “But once you start, you can’t stop. You get sucked in. Being a full-time mother is a fulltime job, and then the years go flying past and suddenly you’re forty and I’m thirty-six, and we’re not kids any more, and I can’t remember any other life than this. And then, just when I get used to it, just when I get adjusted to it, it’s gonna be over in a few years. That’s what I meant this morning.” She looked him in the eye. “Your job can go on forever, for as long as you want anyway. Mine is going to become, as the British say, redundant. In a very few years.” They were silent for a long time. Finally Matthew took her hand again. “You’re right,” he said softly. “I’m sorry. I guess I’m always thinking of me. My job, my wife, my family. I always think about what’s best for my family. Maybe I should start thinking about what’s best for your family. Or better still,” he mused, “what’s best for our family. Look, Glory, I know it hasn’t been easy for you, but I promise we’ll talk more about our future, and whatever we decide to do, we’ll decide together.” They drank more cognac. They listened to more music. As midnight approached, it seemed that the years had fallen away. They were young again, and in love. “So tell me,” Glory said, lighting more candles and incense, “about this dream of yours. You’ve been dwelling D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

4 0


on it all day, haven’t you? That’s not like you.” “I know,” he said, draining the last of his cognac and then refilling his glass. “And that’s what bothers me. I’m beginning to think it must mean something.” “Okay.” Glory sat down cross-legged on the living room carpet and assumed her best mystic meditation posture. She motioned Matthew to sit across from her in the same position. “Okay,” she said again. “Tell me everything you remember. Leave nothing out.” Matthew told her about being a knight on horseback, brandishing his sword, with no thought in his head but to find the dragon and slay it. He told her about the wizard’s curious warning, how he had materialized and then vanished, seemingly into thin air. “So, what do you think it means?” he asked her humbly. “Well, let’s see,” she said. “You’re a knight. That’s wealth and position. You’ve got a sword. That’s power. You want to slay a dragon, that could be succeeding in business. Or it could be defeating your enemies.” “And the wizard?” “That’s harder. Did he threaten you?” “No, not really. Just warned me.” “Hmm,” she said, knitting her brow in concentration. “Maybe it means you’re aiming at the wrong goals. Fighting the wrong enemy.” Matthew thought for a moment. “Thanks,” he said finally. “I’ll think about that.” He stood up and helped Glory to her feet. “You’ve been a big help.” “All us psychics live but to serve,” she said, trying to keep a straight face but failing and breaking into a giggle. “And now,” said Matthew, “I think I know a psychic D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

4 1


who’s had a little too much to drink. Let’s go upstairs and I’ll let you contemplate my navel.” “Ooh,” she giggled again. “Only if you’ll contemplate mine.” They helped each other upstairs, swaying unsteadily as they went. Matthew felt a sudden sense of well-being. It’s good to be the King, he thought, grinning stupidly. After they had played their night games and Glory was snoring heavily, Matthew fell asleep and again began to dream. It was the same dream except for one detail—the wizard’s face was Glory’s.

D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

4 2


PART TWO THE CURSE

A

nton “Big Tony” Horvath was pissed. He was sitting at his desk in his office at Big Tony’s Plumbing & Heating of which he was the sole owner and had been for nearly forty years. It was a Monday morning two weeks before Christmas and he had been going through his mail when he had found this cheery missive: Dear Tenant (it read): This is to inform you of a change in ownership of the property you are currently leasing. We, the undersigned, have acquired this property from the previous owners, Detleff & Schrempf. According to our records, your current lease is due to expire at the end of this calendar year. We look forward to the expected renewal of your lease as, our records indicate, you have renewed it each year for the past thirty-eight years. We have taken the liberty of inspecting the D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

4 3


property, and we have found a number of items which would make this property appear to be of substandard quality in today’s increasingly competitive real estate market. In order to serve you better, we will shortly begin upgrading the property in the following areas: 1) We will be repainting and re-roofing the building’s exterior; 2) We will be completely remodeling the building’s archaic plumbing and heating systems; 3) We will be providing, at no additional charge, not only a janitorial team for the building, but around-the-clock security as well, for your added protection in these troubled times. Security identification badges will be supplied shortly for you and your employees, and it is vital for your safety that these badges be displayed visibly at all times when you and your employees are on the premises; 4) We will be upgrading the surface of the parking lot adjacent to the building to better serve you and your customers. These improvements will all begin simultaneously early in the new year. As you can see by this detailed list of the numerous planned improvements, a considerable amount of time, energy and expense will be invested on your behalf; consequently, a fair but modest rent increase is necessary to bring your property up to the high standards that our management team is known for. Therefore, your lease payments will increase to D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

4 4


five thousand dollars per month effective February 1, 1987. Note: As a holiday gift to you, and because our legal department has determined that it is inadvisable to increase lease payments with a less than thirty day notice, upon your lease renewal, your January 1987 payment will remain at the current rate of one thousand dollars. Cordially hoping to hear from you soon, we extend our best wishes for a happy and healthy holiday season to you and yours. Respectfully, (signed) Matthew Kingston (for) Kingston & Klein Management Big Tony crumpled the offending piece of paper into a tiny ball and fired it into his wastebasket. He got up and paced around his office, growing madder by the minute. How, he wondered, could Detleff & Schrempf do this to him? How could they sell the building out from under him like this without giving him an opportunity to buy or at least to have some say in the matter? They had been on cordial terms for over thirty years, for God’s sake. He had even been godfather to Jakob Schrempf’s first-born son. He sat down at his desk again and consulted a metal box full of ancient three-by-five note cards. When he found the card he was looking for, he picked up the phone and quickly dialed a number. “Detleff & Schrempf, good morning, how may I direct your call?” chirped a cheery voice on the other end. “This is Anton Horvath. Let me speak to Dieter.” “I’m sorry, Mr. Detleff is not available at this time.” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

4 5


“Jakob then. I’ll hold.” “One moment please, I’ll connect you with Mr. Schrempf. Have a nice day, Mr. Horvath.” Big Tony thought the muzak would never stop. Finally there was a series of clicks and a voice said, “Schrempf here. What can I do for you?” “Jakob, it’s me, Tony.” “Tony? Tony Horvath? How good to hear from you!” “Maybe and maybe not. What’s all this I hear about you selling my shop out from under me? I just got a letter this morning telling me about the change in ownership.” There was a hesitant cough on the other end. “Ah, Tony, uh, you know that old Dieter’s been taken ill.” “No, I’m sorry to hear that.” “Yes, he may not pull through, and even if he does he’ll most likely be unable to take an active part in the business again. So I’ve been, ah, restructuring, trying to get rid of unprofitable properties, trying to cut a few corners, you know how it is.” “Yeah, I know how it is, Jakob. But I also know we’ve been doing business with each other since ’48. Why didn’t you tell me what was going on?” “Well, you know, that’s the strangest thing.” Schrempf’s voice was reflective now. “I was going to write you a letter last month to let you know what was happening, but right after Thanksgiving, I guess it was, we got a call from someone who said they represented you. Said you had told them you were thinking of retiring and wanted to know if there was any way you could gracefully get out of renewing your lease.” “What!” “Yeah, a real nice-sounding fellow, seemed to know D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

4 6


you real well. I told him it was kind of awkward because you’d had the place so long. It would have cost us a bundle to clean it up and remodel it. Then this fellow says, well, would you consider letting him out of his lease at the end of the year? I said no, of course not, that’s way too little notice. Then he said that just by way of coincidence he happened to also represent a real estate investment firm. Said he’d take the property off my hands right away, and that would be the best thing for the both of us. It all happened so fast. So we signed the papers about a week ago. Did I do something wrong, Tony?” “No, no, it’s not your fault, Jakob. But someone’s going to pay for this or my name’s not Big Tony Horvath!” He slammed down the receiver and went outside into the snow to cool off. 2.

A

t the age of sixty-five, Anton Horvath was one of the last representatives of a vanishing breed. He was a World War II veteran who had fought with the army infantry first in Europe and then in the South Pacific during the closing days of the war. His wartime experiences as well as his growing up during the Great Depression had chiseled him into what he was today. Big Tony was a giant of a man, standing several inches over six feet tall and weighing more than an eighth of a ton. He had a square jaw, a full head of close-cropped steel-gray hair and eyes that glinted like chips of blue ice. He had returned from the war in the mid-forties and had used his savings from three years of menial laboring jobs to open his plumbing and heating business in the fall of 1948. Shortly thereafter he had married his childhood D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

4 7


sweetheart, Hazel, and over the next ten years she had borne him four sons and two daughters. Each of his children had produced children of their own, so that Anton was now patriarch of a family that numbered fifteen grandchildren and their parents. As patriarch he made many pronouncements at various family gatherings, which were promptly forgotten or simply ignored. Anton didn’t care, though—he knew that love and compromise kept large families together better than patriarchal posturing. He had hoped, however, for better treatment from his sons. He had put each of them through college, secretly hoping that at least one of them would find the ensuing academic rigors beyond their abilities—or at least that one of them would get bored and drop out along the way. More than anything, he wanted at least one of them to succeed him in his plumbing and heating business. For years he had concealed a desire to change the sign which now read “Big Tony’s Plumbing & Heating” to one that instead would proclaim “Tony Horvath & Son Plumbing & Heating”. But his sons had one by one deserted him—the oldest was a doctor, the next a lawyer, the next youngest had become a college professor, while the youngest, at the tender age of twenty-eight, was talking about becoming something called an “investment banker”. Anton shook his head and wondered where he had gone wrong. He had started his business back in the days when owning your own business meant doing most if not all of the work, and at sixty five he still went out on emergency repair calls in his ancient Ford pickup truck, while his only assistant stayed inside the warm office and checked supplies and invoices while waiting for the phone to ring. Anton could not stand being cooped up inside an office all D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

4 8


day. There was something about it that struck him as somehow unmanly. Anton had been raised a devout Catholic, and his wife and all their clan shared his faith. Anton was conservative by creed, but compassionate by nature. He believed that a man should be self-reliant and take responsibility for himself and his own, but he was always quick to help out one of his Bronx neighbors who found himself in trouble. After stomping around in the snow awhile to cool his temper, he went back inside his office and called out to his assistant, who was in the back warehouse inventorying heating supplies. “Fred,” he called out loudly. “Where the hell are you?” “Over here in the corner, counting space heaters,” came the reply, as Fred moved out into the aisle where Anton could see him. Fred was thin and middle-aged with a few strands of gray hair carefully combed over his otherwise shiny dome. Fred had been with Anton for nearly twenty years and knew his moods. “What’s up, Tony? I thought you’d already be out to old Mrs. Greenblatt’s place to unclog her toilet again. I gave you the message last night.” “Yah,” said Anton dismissively. “I’m goin’ out there right now. But I’m goin’ home from there. Somethin’s come up. Can you handle the office by yourself the rest of the day? I’d sure be obliged to ya.” “Sure, no sweat,” replied Fred. “Want me to call ya at home if somethin’ comes up?” “Yah, you do that, Fred. I’ll see ya tomorrow mornin’.” “Sure thing. Have a good day, Tony.” Anton got into the pickup with “Big Tony’s Plumbing & Heating” emblazoned on each door in black letters and D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

4 9


drove the couple of miles to Mrs. Greenblatt’s. It was still snowing and he was still in a foul mood. He had to do something but he didn’t know what. This was a new experience for Big Tony, a problem he couldn’t solve with his hands. He wondered if there was a solution at all. After unclogging Mrs. Greenblatt’s toilet yet again, Anton drove home. He arrived there shortly before ten o’clock, scaring the wits out of his wife Hazel in the process. “What is it, what’s wrong, what are you doing here in the middle of the morning on a Monday?” She fluttered around him anxiously as he came through the front door, taking off his hat and parka and stamping the snow off his boots. “Are you sick, Tony, what’s the matter, let me get you a cup of hot coffee.” Before he could finish saying “I’m okay, dear, nothing’s wrong,” she had bustled off to the kitchen and in an instant had placed a cup of steaming coffee and a plate containing two glazed doughnuts on the kitchen table. He entered the kitchen, sat down at the table, and looked at her tenderly. “I’m okay,” he said with a sigh. “I’ve just got some thinking to do and I can’t do it at the office. Anybody else here?” “Of course not, dear.” “Okay, good. Just go on doing whatever it is you do on a Monday morning and don’t mind me, okay?” “Okay, dear, if you say so, dear.” She tiptoed out of the kitchen with a puzzled look, but vowed not to ask him any questions. After thirty-eight years of marriage she knew how stubborn he was. Better let him tell me in his own way and time, she thought. Pestering him would just get his D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

5 0


back up. She sighed and went into the living room to vacuum the rug. 3.

M

atthew arrived at the office the next morning with a hangover. He went immediately to his private office and shut the door. Taking off his overcoat and suit jacket and loosening his tie, he sat down in the plush leather executive chair behind his massive antique oak desk. Then he picked up the phone and pressed a number. “Stacey?” “Yes, Mr. Kingston?” “Bring me a cup of black coffee and a couple of Excedrins, would you?” “Coming right up, Mr. Kingston.” He hung up the phone and grinned. He considered himself an expert on hangovers, having experienced so many of them. He classified them as good ones—a result of celebrating some momentous achievement far into the night—and bad ones—like when you had a fight with the wife, lost your job, and started drinking to forget. This hangover, he decided, was one of the truly good ones. Stacey entered with Matthew’s coffee and pills. “Rough night, huh, Mr. Kingston?” She was a petite brunette with a baby face that made her look like she should still be in high school, though in reality she was twenty-six. “Yeah, I guess so.” He aimed another grin at Stacey who apparently approved because she grinned back. “I was celebrating with the wife, of all things. And at home, yet. And the weird part of it is, I don’t even know what we were celebrating.” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

5 1


Stacey looked at him thoughtfully. “Maybe those are the best kind,” she finally said. “No expectations, no pressure. Can I get you anything else, Mr. Kingston?” “No thank you, Stacey. I’m just going to sit here for awhile and recover.” “Okay, I’ve got some filing to do anyhow.” She turned and went back to reception. Matthew gratefully swallowed his Excedrins. 4.

B

ig Tony Horvath sat at his dining room table, absently eating doughnuts and drinking coffee. For the first time in his life he didn’t know what to do. He could never afford the rent increase the new management company had imposed on him. Not with the small jobs he did for his friends in the neighborhood being just about his only business these days. He knew he was strictly a small, neighborhood business and he liked it that way. So he would either have to expand his business, find a way to immediately make five times as much money, or retire. And that was not a viable option. Even at sixty-five, Big Tony was not ready for the restless uselessness of retirement. In fact one of his favorite sayings, passed down from father to son for Lord knew how many generations, was that the men in his family didn’t retire, they died. He finished his coffee and doughnuts and went up to his bedroom which he had shared with his wife, Hazel, for over thirty-five years. He took his boots off and lay down on the big double bed without removing the hand-sewn quilt which had been given to them by his grandmother as a wedding present. She herself had been over eighty then, he recalled, and she had lived until 1969, finally dying at D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

5 2


the age of a hundred and two. The old lady had been rumored to have Romany, or Gypsy, blood coursing through her veins. Besides the quilt there had been another wedding present that she had given him in secret. Big Tony hadn’t thought about it in years, but now he wondered if it was still there in the hiding place he had chosen for it so many years ago. He got up and opened the sock drawer of his dresser. There under the thick woolen socks he always wore during the winter was the envelope, now nearly four decades old, beginning to yellow with age. Inside it were two pasteboard squares and a single thin piece of paper. As Big Tony looked at it, he remembered what his grandmother had said to him in private, in this very room, on the day of his wedding. “Anton,” she had addressed him with great gravity. “I see your life for the most part as being long and fruitful and happy. You will have many children and grandchildren, though some of them may be a disappointment to you. But should you ever be in danger of having someone take from you something precious, give that unlucky person this envelope. Remember, it must pass directly from your hand to his.” Try as he might, he had not been able to induce the old woman to explain herself, or even say another word on the subject. He had chalked up the whole incident to her advancing age, but out of respect to her, he had accepted the gift and reverently placed it in his dresser drawer. And there it had stayed, concealed from the world, ever since. Now he folded it once and put it in the back pocket of his work pants. As he lay back down on his grandmother’s quilt, he knew what he had to do. Tomorrow he would go back to his shop and call this new management company, D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

5 3


what was it called, Kingston & Klein. But for now he gratefully closed his eyes and began to drowse. He could not recall ever feeling so tired. 5.

M

atthew was sitting in his office, still in the process of recovery, when his phone rang. “Yes?” he said with some irritation. “Sorry to bother you, Mr. Kingston, but there’s a phone call for you from a Mr. Horvath.” “Horvath? I don’t know any Horvath. Tell him to talk to Manny.” Just then Manny burst into his office. “I’m sorry, King, but tell Stacey you’ll take the call. This guy is Anton Horvath, our new tenant in the Bronx.” Matthew’s eyes lit up. “Stacey,” he spoke quickly and crisply into the phone, “why didn’t you tell me it was Mr. Anton Horvath? Put him through immediately.” He looked questioningly at Manny who made a circle of approval with his thumb and forefinger. “Ah, Mr. Horvath,” said Matthew in a mellow, soothing voice. “So nice to be able to speak to you in person. I trust you received our letter?” “Yah, Mr. Kingston, I did. And that’s what I want to talk to you about. I’d like to come over to your office and discuss some of the details of the new lease.” “Why, certainly, Mr. Horvath. When would be convenient for you?” “Well, that’s sort of a problem. The nature of my business kind of makes it tough for me to get away. But I could come tomorrow night around eight, if it’s okay with you. See, Wednesdays are usually my bowling nights, and D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

5 4


my assistant Fred watches the shop for me.” “Well, Mr. Horvath, that’s considerably past our business hours. But if that time is most convenient for you, then eight o’clock tomorrow evening it is. Anything to serve our tenants better.” He hung up the phone and turned to Manny. “What gives? I thought you said this guy couldn’t afford the rent increase. What if he wants to resign the lease? We’ll be stuck with a half million dollar property we can’t sell.” Manny grinned. “Not to mention the taxes and the property upgrade we promised him in the letter.” A look of horror began to spread across Matthew’s face. “Don’t worry, don’t worry!” Manny reassured him. “I was just kidding around. He probably just wants to come in, meet you in person, you know, find out if you’re the kind of guy he can bargain with. You know. Play on your sympathies, try to talk you down a couple thou. I’ll bet by the time the old guy gets here, he’ll be the sole support of his sick wife, elderly parents, maybe throw in some crippled children just for the hell of it.” Matthew sighed in visible relief. “You had me going for a minute there, Manny. But don’t worry. I’ll be sympathetic, but firm.” Manny clapped him on the shoulder. “I know you will, King. That’s why you’re the front man. In fact, I’m gonna leave you to do it all by yourself tomorrow night. I gotta take Mona out to dinner. It’s our twentieth tomorrow.” “That so?” said Matthew, shaking his head. “Time sure flies, doesn’t it?” “Yep,” said Manny, grinning again. “But what about D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

5 5


you and Glory? You guys must be getting up there.” Matthew looked at the ceiling and made a mental calculation. “Yeah,” he said. “Seventeen years last October.” “Well,” said Manny. “Then I guess we both got something to celebrate.” And with that he walked out of Matthew’s office and closed the door. 6.

M

atthew returned home that evening to a quiet house. He paid the cab driver and went into the kitchen where Glory was still in the process of preparing dinner. “We’re eating late tonight?” he asked, kissing her on the cheek. “No, not really,” she replied. “You go upstairs and wash up. It’ll be less than half an hour.” Matthew looked around. “So where are the kids tonight? Heavy dates?” He grinned as he started up the stairs. Glory came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on a dish towel. “No, they’re still at school. Dress rehearsal, remember? I don’t expect them until after ten. I made a stew. We can go ahead and eat and then I’ll reheat it when they get home.” Matthew looked puzzled. Glory looked at him intently. “Matthew, you do remember, don’t you? Tomorrow, the school Christmas music program. Steffie’s all excited about her ‘Messiah’ solo. And Matt Jr. is first trumpet in the band. The kids have been talking about it for weeks. Where have you been?” “The Christmas program? That’s tomorrow? Uh, what time?” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

5 6


Glory regarded him with a mixture of pity and contempt. “Oh Matthew, you couldn’t have forgotten!” She led him back into the kitchen by the hand and pointed to the large appointment calendar hanging on the wall. “Look,” she said firmly. “Big, block letters: ‘Christmas program, Wednesday, December 10, 8:00 PM’. It’s been on the calendar since the school schedule came out, in September. I even wrote it in your precious leather appointment book. Go on, take a look.” Sheepishly he pulled the book out of the left breast pocket of his suit jacket and slowly turned to the correct page. “God, I’m sorry, Glory. Guess I really blew it this time, huh? I guess I rely too much on Manny and Stacey to keep me showing up at the right place at the right time.” “That’s all very well for your business appointments, Matthew,” she said reprovingly. “But this is personal, this is family. And after last night, too. I did have the vain, fleeting hope that you might start paying more attention to your family. But, no real harm done.” She shook her finger at him. “Just you make sure that you leave the office at least by six tomorrow to give you plenty of time to get there by eight. You don’t even have to come home first. You can meet us there.” She turned and went back to the stove to stir the stew. “Uh, Glory, darling, uh, it seems I have a really important business appointment tomorrow night at eight. I’m really sorry.” He held out his hand to her in a pleading manner. She dropped the spoon and went over and embraced him maternally. “Oh Matthew, Matthew, what am I going to do with you?” she said despairingly. Then she released him quickly and began to dish out the stew. “It’s not for D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

5 7


me, you know. The kids will be so disappointed. They’ve been working on this for weeks.” Matthew thought for a moment. “Look,” he said, “maybe I’ve got an idea. I’ll try to cut the meeting as short as I can. Shouldn’t take more than half an hour if this guy shows up on time, maybe less. If it doesn’t start snowing again I can have a cab waiting for me outside the building to take me straight to the school. I should be able to get there by nine or even earlier. You sit in the back, by the doors. When I find you, we’ll both move up as close as we can and it’ll look like I’ve been there all the time, okay? And I promise,” he said, placing his hand over his heart, “that this will never happen again.” 7.

T

he next day, while Matthew waited alone in his office for the appointed hour, Anton “Big Tony” Horvath was preparing himself as well. He had stopped by a stationery store owned by a friend of his and picked up a few forms. These he threw into a battered briefcase along with the legacy from his grandmother. At about seven o’clock he climbed into his pickup and began the long drive to downtown Manhattan. Matthew waited, each tick of the giant electric wall clock slower than the last. Seven o’clock came, then seven fifteen a lifetime later. Seven forty-five arrived an eternity after that. By seven fifty he was pacing up and down. When the phone finally rang at seven fifty-five, Matthew snatched it up eagerly. “Hi! This Kingston & Klein?” said a bored voice. “Matthew Kingston speaking.” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

5 8


“You expecting anybody this time o’ night?” “Yes, yes,” said Matthew impatiently. “My secretary left the name and time at the desk this morning. Anton Horvath, eight pm.” “Well, I don’t know nothin’ about that. Just came on shift at four. I can look around, try to find it if you want.” “No, never mind about that. Just send him up and be quick about it.” There was a muffled conversation on the other end. “Fellow says he’s Tony Hor—what? Says he’s got an appointment with a Mr.—who—Kingston? Should I let him up, sir?” “Yes, yes, you idiot!” Matthew screamed into the phone. After what seemed an eon later, there was a knock at the outer office door. Matthew immediately flung the door wide open and shook hands vigorously with the man who was standing uncertainly in the doorway. “You must be Mr. Horvath. Very glad to meet you. Please excuse that fool of a security guard. I don’t know where they get these people.” “Fellow was just doin’ his job, I expect,” said Big Tony, looking around. “Uh, you want me to come in or should we talk outside?” “Oh, do forgive me, where are my manners? Come in, come in, we’ll go into my private office where we can talk.” After ushering him in and taking his hat and coat, he motioned Big Tony to sit down in one of the plush leather chairs facing his desk. “Can I get you some refreshment, something to take off the chill? Rough winter we’re having and it’s not even Christmas yet.” Strangely, he couldn’t seem to stop babbling. And he was usually so good in these D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

5 9


situations. That wretched security guard must have gotten me out of my rhythm, he thought. Big Tony was replying, “Maybe later, if I feel I got somethin’ to celebrate. You’re Mr. Kingston?” “That’s right, Mr. Horvath.” “Call me Big Tony, everybody does. So you’re the head honcho here. Mind if I smoke?” he asked casually, pulling out a fat black cigar. “No, not at all, Mr.—er—Big Tony.” Matthew offered him a solid gold desk lighter. He could see why Horvath was called Big Tony. Matthew was not a small man, but Big Tony looked like he could snap him like a twig. He continued speaking a little uneasily, painfully aware that there was probably no one else within shouting distance. “Well, then, I believe you requested this meeting. Was there anything in the lease agreement you didn’t understand?” “Well, Mr. Kingston, it’s this way. That business is all I’ve got. It ain’t much, but it feeds me and my wife and my assistant. It’s an old-fashioned family type of business, and I just don’t see the need for all those fancy improvements. If you could lower the rent from five thousand down to two, I could do without any capital investment on your part and maybe we could make a deal.” Matthew smiled his best I’m-sympathetic-butbusiness-is-business smile. “Oh, come now, Mr. Horvath…” “Big Tony,” he interrupted placidly. “Big Tony,” Matthew began again. “That ‘business’ of yours is nothing but a glorified warehouse. Its walls are corrugated tin and the roof leaks. We could never justify managing a place like that. What would our other clients think? Plus, there are laws, you know, building codes, D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

6 0


sanitation standards. It’s going to cost us a lot of money to remodel, actually rebuild, your place. So naturally you can see that we have to pass our costs along to you. Your other option is to retire. If you don’t mind my asking, how old are you, Big Tony?” “I don’t mind at all. I’m sixty-five, and proud of it.” “Well, see, there you have it. Sixty-five. Normal retirement age.” “Mr. Kingston, you and I come from different worlds. In your world it’s the money and reputation you get from your work that counts, right?” Matthew nodded in agreement. “But in my world,” Big Tony continued, “it’s a man’s work that makes the man what he is. If I retire, I’ll have nothing to do.” “So? Take up golf, bridge, poker. Collect stamps or something. Everyone else does.” “Mr. Kingston, you don’t seem to understand. The men in my family don’t retire, they die.” He stood up suddenly. “And I don’t want to die. At least, not yet” He opened his briefcase and began to take something out of it. Matthew flinched and began to duck behind his desk, fearing the worst. What if he’s got a gun, he thought wildly. He had his hand on the phone, ready to call security, when Big Tony, to his relief, brought out only a legal-size sheet of paper and an old, fragile-looking envelope. He leaned over the desk and offered the envelope to Matthew. “Well,” he said morosely. “I was hopin’ we could get together on this matter, but I can see you’re a man of principle, Mr. Kingston, and I admire that. Just to show there’s no hard feelings, I want to give you something that’s been in the family for generations. A heirloom, you might say.” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

6 1


“That’s awfully generous of you, Big Tony, but I really couldn’t accept.” A cold smile formed on Big Tony’s lips and a strange look came into his eyes. “Oh, but I insist. You’d be doing me a favor. A big favor.” “Well,” said Matthew uncertainly, “if you insist—well, I guess—” As he took the envelope from Big Tony and put it in the inside pocket of his jacket, there was a sudden flash of lightning outside the window, followed by a deafening crash of thunder, the loudest either of them had ever heard. 8.

B

ig Tony collapsed into his chair. Matthew sat numbly behind his desk. Both wore stunned and bewildered looks, and neither spoke for a long moment. Finally Big Tony said in a subdued voice, “I think I could use that drink now, Mr. Kingston.” Matthew blinked his eyes several times like a man coming out of a daze. “Uh, sure, Big Tony, what would you like?” “A man’s drink if you don’t mind, Mr. Kingston. Vodka. Straight. And have one with me.” “Okay, sure, vodka it is.” He took a nearly full bottle of Stolichnaya from his liquor cabinet and filled two highball glasses. “To your health, Mr. Kingston.” Big Tony raised his glass to Matthew and took a large swallow. Matthew did the same. They were both listening for more thunder, but all was eerily quiet. Matthew looked at Big Tony. “I never heard anything like that before, did you? I mean, out of a clear sky in the D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

6 2


middle of winter…” “I know what you mean.” Big Tony was becoming comfortable again, having drunk about half of his glass of vodka. He looked at Matthew pointedly. “Do something for me, would you?” Matthew shrugged his shoulders. “Sure, if I can.” Big Tony placed a single legal-sized sheet of paper on the desk and handed Matthew a pen. “Just write your name. There.” He pointed to a double line at the bottom. “Why?” “I’m agreeing not to renew my lease. I won’t bother you no more, Mr. Kingston.” Matthew had a strange, faraway look in his eyes, like someone lost in a deep reverie. “Okay, sure, Big Tony. Whatever you want.” He absently signed his name where Big Tony had pointed. Big Tony promptly put his signature on the line above Matthew’s and returned the piece of paper to his briefcase. Matthew didn’t seem to notice or care. Big Tony finished his vodka and held out his hand to Matthew. “Well, I got to go now. Nice doin’ business with you. Thanks for the drink.” Matthew shook his hand in a desultory fashion, and then Big Tony put on his coat and left the office without another word. Matthew sat there for a few moments and then got up and looked out the window. It was clear and dark outside, and very quiet. Then, like a sleepwalker, he put on his overcoat and walked out of the office. He took the elevator down to the lobby and went straight out of the building’s entrance, looking neither right nor left and passing no one on the way. Once outside he crossed the street and walked past the D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

6 3


rear of a taxi that, for some reason, was parked in front of the building with its engine idling. He walked a few blocks to the corner of Broadway and Reade, where there was a small Blarney Stone bar. Matthew saw that it was still open, and as he pushed open the door, a strange blackness began to close in on him. He put a hand to his head and rubbed his temples. He realized he had never felt so alone.

D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

6 4


PART THREE LOST

G

lory sat in the hot, stifling high school auditorium absently watching the teenage talent parade. At increasingly shorter intervals of time she glanced at her wristwatch. Ninefifteen, nine-thirty, ten o’clock—the show was almost over, both Stephanie and Matt Jr. had performed their pieces, and there was still no sign of Matthew. Her emotions ran the gamut from anger to worry and back again to anger several times. Finally she settled on making sure he was all right and then strangling him. At last the show was over and the first of the participants came running out into the audience, embracing friends and family and asking for reassurances as to the extent of their talent and the brilliance of their future show business careers. Glory stood up from her seat near the rear door and began to walk slowly down the center aisle toward the stage. As the house lights came up full she saw Steffie and Matt Jr. coming toward her from the stage right steps. “Where’s Dad?” pouted Steffie. “I wanted him to hear D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

6 5


my solo. Wasn’t I great?” Matt Jr. just grinned sarcastically. “Too much to expect Dad to put off one of his business deals just to see our show.” He turned away from his mother, jerked his tie loose and tossed it onto the floor. “Now, Matt, you know perfectly well that it’s your father’s ‘business deals’ that allow you to live the way you do. The way we all do. If he were just some nine-to-five office worker, able to come home at six on the dot every night, we’d probably be living in some filthy hole in the East Village. Or even worse,” she continued, now trying to convince herself more than the kids. “You were just a baby, Steffie, and Matt Jr. wasn’t even in school yet when we left that wretched commune. You don’t remember how we had to live then—barely enough to eat, rags for clothing, a dirty canvas tent for shelter—and now, because of your father’s business, you two have everything you could possibly want. So what have you got to complain about?” She broke off, having noticed that both kids were rolling their eyes. “Anyway, that’s enough talk about your father. I’m sure there’s a perfectly good reason why he couldn’t get here tonight.” As she said this, she fervently hoped it was true. She turned and started for the exit. “Let’s go home. Your father’s probably waiting for us.” But when at last they arrived home, and Glory and the kids had searched the house, there was no sign of Matthew. Trying to conceal her worry, Glory kept up a constant stream of chatter as she herded the kids into the kitchen. She complimented them both on their performances, talked about how great the show was, and feigned astonishment at some of the tricks in the magic act, all the while feeding them ice cream and a Christmas cake she had D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

6 6


baked especially for them that afternoon. By the time she was finally able to send them up to their rooms and start on the dirty dishes it was eleven thirty. By midnight she was pacing the living room floor in her robe and slippers. She had called Matthew’s office—no answer, of course. She had tried Manny’s home number— also no answer. In desperation she had called Matthew’s secretary. A yawning Stacey had answered the phone. Yes, it had been a normal day. No, she knew of no reason why Matthew should be out so late. Glory apologized, hung up the phone, and resumed her pacing. When he finally walks through that door, she muttered, and I find out he’s okay, I swear I’ll kill him. 2.

A

s he sat down at the bar Matthew looked around curiously. Though he had frequented this place for years, he couldn’t recall ever coming in this late before. There were only a few couples in the booths, and three or four men sitting at the bar. They all appeared to be businessmen like him, some with their wives or girlfriends. “Yes sir, what can I get you?” The bartender was unfamiliar to Matthew. He shook his head to clear it. He vaguely remembered being in his office. He had been drinking—what was it now?—a large glass of—of all things, vodka. Matthew had never liked vodka; he claimed it had no taste. When he ordered a martini he always made sure it was made with a good aromatic gin, the way God intended. Other than martinis, he almost always drank scotch or cognac. But tonight he remembered drinking vodka—straight—and quite a large quantity, too. Matthew shuddered. What on D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

6 7


earth had he been celebrating? He vaguely remembered some big, foreign-looking guy, but couldn’t remember the name. Oh well, he thought, sort it out in the morning, it’ll all come back to me then. It always does. Matthew was no stranger to what he thought of as “normal states of inebriation.” But this was somehow different. There seemed to be gaps in his recent memory. Why couldn’t he remember the details of what had happened only a matter of a few hours ago? The strange bartender was still standing in front of him. “May I take your order, sir?” he said, somewhat more firmly. “Oh yes, I’m sorry,” said Matthew. He thought for a moment. “I think that I will have a draft beer,” he said in a voice that, to his horror, seemed absolutely foreign to him. “What kinds do you have?” “We got Rheingold, Strohs, Piels, Rolling Rock…” “I’ll have a large Rheingold, please. By the way,” Matthew said imploringly, “have you ever seen me in here before?” The barman looked at him strangely. “No, sir,” he said in a neutral voice, “I can’t say as I have.” “Where’s the guy that’s usually here?” Matthew persisted. “You know, what’s his name. Little guy. Blond hair.” “Oh, you must mean Jimmy, sir. He’s off shift now. Gets off at nine, just after happy hour.” Matthew looked at his watch. After nine thirty. The word “nine” had almost dredged up something in his mind but he couldn’t think what it was. He took a large swallow of his Rheingold. He couldn’t think why he was drinking beer, either. Usually he hated the stuff. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

6 8


He noticed an old man with a white beard apparently asleep or passed out at the opposite end of the bar. The man was face down on his folded arms, snoring loudly. For some reason his curiosity was piqued. As the bartender turned back toward him he asked, “Who’s that old man?” He pointed in the old guy’s direction. “Poor old sod!” The bartender shook his head in sympathy. He leaned over the bar toward Matthew and spoke confidentially. “Been coming in here for years,” he said in a whisper. “Comes in about nine every night. Always orders the same thing—a small glass of draft beer, what we usually serve with shots. Pays the fifty cents with nickels and dimes. He takes a few sips and then promptly falls asleep. He never causes no trouble so we just let him sleep. At closing time we wake him up. He finishes his beer and leaves quietly. Where he goes after he leaves here, God only knows.” Impulsively Matthew reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of cash. “You shouldn’t be flashing that much money in here this time of night,” said the bartender nervously. Matthew ignored him and extracted a twenty. “Give this to the old guy when you wake him up.” What was happening to him, he wondered. He usually avoided bums and panhandlers like the plague. But here he was, giving money to a guy who hadn’t even hustled him. Matthew sat on his stool and drank his beer. It seemed that with every sip, another memory left his mind. He thought of a long-ago song. A line from its chorus went: “Take it! Take another little piece of my heart, yeah baby.” Only it wasn’t his heart but his mind someone was taking little pieces of. Who was it, he wondered stupidly, the old D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

6 9


guy sleeping on the bar? The strange bartender? The mysterious guy he had drunk all that vodka with? Matthew didn’t know. He called for a straight bourbon. Maybe that would clear his head. But by eleven o’clock Matthew had drunk several straight bourbons and several more beers, and his mind, far from becoming clearer, was becoming hazier by the minute. Every time he took a drink he remembered some personal detail of his life. And every time he remembered it he promptly forgot it. His wife—zip. His children—zip. His partner, his business, where he lived, who he was, even his name—all gone, like dreams that seem real and substantial during the night, but dissolve in the morning sunlight like thin patches of fog. So by the time the bartender gave last call at about eleven-thirty, Matthew was in a state of drunken panic. As he ordered one last straight bourbon, he noticed that he was slurring his words and he could barely sit upright on the barstool. When the bartender brought his drink, Matthew lurched over the bar and grabbed the man by his shirt collar. The bartender quickly and expertly disengaged himself from Matthew and looked at him reprovingly. “I think you’ve had quite enough for one night, sir,” he said in a polite but firm tone, taking Matthew’s fresh bourbon and the remains of his beer and placing them on the counter behind the bar. Matthew looked up at him pleadingly, but the bartender just shook his head. “But I have nowhere to go…” Matthew started. Then he suddenly stopped. It was true. He really had no idea where to go. A look of horror crossed his face as he got up and staggered unsteadily to the men’s D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

7 0


room. Everyone else had already left the bar. Its only inhabitants were himself, the bartender, and the old guy still sleeping on the bar. He went inside, locked the door, and looked at his face in the mirror. I know that face, he thought wildly, I just don’t know what to call it. He reached into his trousers pockets. The left pocket contained a set of some six or seven keys on an elegant gold Mercedes-Benz key ring. His right side pocket contained money. He counted eightyseven dollars in bills and a handful of coins. He reached into his back right pocket and pulled out a soft black calfskin wallet. Now we’re getting somewhere, he thought. He flipped through the plastic windows. There were several credit cards—MasterCharge, BankAmericard, American Express, Diners Club, and a CitiBank ATM card—all embossed with the name Matthew Kingston. “So that’s who I am,” he said aloud. He continued to look through the wallet. There was a New York State Drivers License. He read from it: “Name—Matthew Kingston. Address—547 Maple Lane, White Plains, New York 10701. Height—6’1”. Weight—185 Lb. Hair—Brown. Eyes—Blue. Exp. Date— 12/31/88.” He put the wallet back in his pocket and looked at himself again in the mirror. Yes, the face and the body seemed to fit the description, although the body appeared to be a few pounds heavier, and the hair was beginning to show streaks of gray at the temples. But otherwise the description matched. It seemed he really must be this Matthew Kingston guy. He searched the rest of his pockets. In his jacket he found an appointment book which he decided to read later. Maybe it would give him a clue as to what business he was in. From the look of his suit, he had D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

7 1


guessed that he must be in some kind of business, and hold a good position too. Matthew went to the sink and splashed some cold water on his face, dried it, and unlocked the men’s room door. He felt a little better now; finding clues to his missing identity had helped him to feel more grounded. He briefly wondered about the source of his mysterious amnesia. Could he have received a damaging blow to the head? He thought he recalled reading that such a memory loss could result from severe head trauma. He felt his skull in several places, but everything seemed to be intact. Stress? As he pondered this, he heard voices coming from the area of the bar. He emerged from the men’s room just in time to see the bartender in the process of rousing the sleeping old man. When the barman had finally accomplished this task, the old man sat up, shook his head to clear it, and with dignity donned a battered old baseball cap of a greasy olive-drab color that had been lying beside him on the bar. He picked up his small glass of beer and prepared to down its remaining contents. But before he could do so, he gasped in amazement. There, in the space where his glass had been, was a twenty-dollar bill. The bartender reassured him kindly. “Take it, oldtimer. Compliments of that fellow over there.” He pointed to Matthew who was now standing near the bar. Matthew grinned and gave the old guy a mock salute. The old guy stood up, looked at Matthew and, snapping to attention, gave him a perfect crisp military salute. “At your service, sir. They call me Cap’n Billy, ‘cause I’m a vet. What do they call you, sir?” he asked in a husky voice. “Uh, Matt, my name’s Matt. Glad I could help. Well, I’ve got to be going now,” he said nervously. “You know, got D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

7 2


to get home. Big day tomorrow.” He paid his tab and put a five-dollar tip on the bar. “Sorry if I caused any trouble,” he said quietly to the bartender. “It’s been a hard day and I guess I’ve had a few too many.” “Quite all right, sir,” said the barman, quickly pocketing the five. “My name’s Phil, by the way, sir. You’re welcome here any time. I’ll tell Jimmy you was in.” Matthew turned to leave the bar. “Hey, wait up a minute, Matt!” Cap’n Billy called out. “If’n you’re headed uptown I’ll walk a ways with you.” “Okay,” said Matthew. He checked his pocket and found he still had over seventy dollars left. That should be enough, he thought, to get a cab to White Plains, to the address on the drivers license he had found in his pocket. He wondered what awaited him there—an empty house or a strange family. He vowed to find out as quickly as possible and get some kind of help—either medical or psychiatric. “Want to share a cab?” he asked Cap’n Billy as they left the Blarney Stone together and walked out into the snow. At this time of night in the middle of the week, lower Broadway was almost deserted. Though the snow lay piled in heaps in the gutters, the air was clear and cold. Cap’n Billy shivered. Over his work shirt and pants he wore only an ancient greasy army field jacket. He rubbed his bare hands together vigorously to warm them and thrust them into his jacket pockets. “Sure thing, Matt,” he said, teeth chattering. “I’m a-goin’ up towards the Bowery. I’d be obliged to you for a ride that far.” Matthew suddenly felt absurdly protective of the old man. His lip trembled and tears welled up in his eyes. “You must be cold in that old jacket,” he said rather too brusquely. “Come on, let’s find a cab.” He put his arm D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

7 3


around the old man’s shoulders and the two of them walked slowly up Broadway. 3.

B

y the time Big Tony Horvath arrived back at home that night, it was already ten o’clock and his wife Hazel had gone upstairs to bed. She was a woman of the old world variety who knew that her husband had interests and needs outside of his business and home life. He had always been a good husband and provider for her and a loving father to their children. So Hazel had always cast a tolerant eye on her husband’s late night drinking sessions with his friends at the local tavern, which he went through the motions of claiming were “business meetings”. So she had gone to bed early that night with a light heart, knowing that no matter how late he stayed out she had never always awakened in the morning to see him lying beside her, peacefully snoring in his endearing way. Big Tony parked his truck in the driveway and quietly entered the house by the back door. The downstairs was deserted and silent, completely dark except for the night light in the kitchen that Hazel always left on for him when he came home late. He pulled off his boots before entering, and scraped as much mud and snow from them as he could manage before leaving them just outside the kitchen door. He tiptoed into the kitchen in his thick wool socks, took off his heavy coat and, heaving a sigh, sat down at the kitchen table. He turned on the light. There was a note on the refrigerator door. “Casserole in oven,” it said. “Heat covered at 350 degrees for thirty minutes. Be sure you eat D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

7 4


before you come to bed and don’t stay up too late. Love, your H.” He grinned to himself. He had seen that note, with slight variations, in the same place a couple of times a week for more than thirty years. He opened the oven door, uncovered the casserole, and sniffed. Ah, my favorite, he thought. Sausage, sauerkraut and potatoes in a caraway sour cream sauce. He thought about going upstairs and giving her a little kiss; then he thought better of it. She would only come downstairs, make a big fuss over him, and ask him all kinds of questions. He covered the casserole, shut the oven door, turned the dial to 350, and set the timer for thirty minutes. While he was waiting he went to the cupboard and took out a bottle of good Polish vodka and a glass. Then he poured himself a stiff one. Even at his age, Big Tony had an iron constitution, able to drink a fifth of vodka a day, straight, with no ill effects. He sat down at the table, put his feet up on the chair opposite, and absently sipped his drink while he thought about the odd events of the evening. When he had entered Kingston’s office he hadn’t known what to expect. This was the first time he had had to deal with anyone in the real estate business, besides Detleff & Schrempf, for nearly forty years, and they had been almost life-long friends. But when he saw Kingston sitting there in his plush office, behind his fancy desk, in his expensive suit, he knew he had no reasonable chance for a compromise. Nevertheless he had gone through the motions of appealing to Kingston’s better nature. That the man seemed to have none did not surprise him. It had been his experience that men who devoted their lives to money and power rarely had lives that consisted of solid, satisfying, experiences that one could see the whole of and, D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

7 5


when one got old, remember and reminisce about the contentment and pride of genuine accomplishments. No, Kingston was certainly not that kind of a man. Big Tony recalled that when Kingston had turned down his request for a reasonable reduction in the rent, he had felt an almost uncontrollable sense of rage. How dare this little man try to destroy his business, his livelihood, the thing that made him what he was! Retire, ha! The word rolled over his tongue and tasted like rotten fish! He went to the kitchen sink and spat it out accordingly. It was only when Kingston had mentioned, no recommended, his retirement that he recalled his grandmother’s legacy. He had brought it with him in his briefcase, along with the blank lease form he had picked up from the local printer’s just in case. He had had no idea what would happen when he gave it to Kingston, but he had faith in his grandmother and in her reputed Gypsy blood. More than once he had seen her accurately foretell the future of a family member’s problems, or shrewdly get to the bottom of a domestic crisis. When the thunder and lightning had suddenly appeared, literally out of a clear sky, he had been too stunned and amazed to even think about being frightened. And the effect it had had on Kingston—well, it had seemed to turn him into some kind of zombie. He had gotten Kingston to put his signature on that blank lease as easily as he could have gotten him to tell him the time. Big Tony wondered what was happening to Kingston now. His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the oven timer. He dished out some of the casserole, poured some more vodka, and began to eat. He wondered idly how he would fill out the lease agreement, what terms he would D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

7 6


include. He had no desire to cheat the firm of Kingston & Klein, who were probably an ethical enough business in their way. But he would have to pay far less than the exorbitant increase they were asking. He also wondered about the long-term effects the envelope would have on Kingston. Tomorrow morning, how much would he remember about tonight’s events? Would he even remember signing the lease? Would he protest that his signature had been forged? Big Tony decided that honor required him to trust in his grandmother’s legacy. Besides, if it didn’t work, he would hardly be in a worse position than he had been in earlier today. He had finished eating and had just about finished the contents of the vodka bottle when the downstairs phone rang. He jumped up, startled, and was able to get to the living room and pick up the receiver midway through the second ring. Who the hell could be calling at this time of night, he wondered. “Hello, hello?” a woman’s voice was saying. “Hold on a minute!” he said in a coarse whisper. He went to the foot of the stairs and stood there for a minute, listening intently. He could hear no sounds coming from upstairs. Good, Hazel was still asleep. He went back to the phone, picked it up, and carried it into the kitchen, shutting the door securely behind him. “All right,” he said into the phone in a normal voice. “This is Anton Horvath. What can I do for you?” “Oh, Mr. Horvath,” said the woman. Big Tony thought he could hear her sobbing. “I’m sorry to call you so late, but I didn’t know what else to do. Do you know where my husband is?” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

7 7


“Slow down, lady!” said Big Tony. It was after midnight by the kitchen clock. “Who the hell are you, anyway?” “I’m sorry. Please forgive me if I sound distracted.” He could hear her taking a deep breath as if trying to collect herself. “This is Mrs. Kingston. Gloria Kingston. I’m calling you because my husband’s secretary said you had a business meeting with him tonight. Matthew Kingston, Kingston & Klein.” “Yah,” said Big Tony. “That’s right, Mrs. Kingston. I did have a meeting with your husband tonight.” “What time…what time did he leave?” “Well, let’s see.” Big Tony forced himself to be calm. If the woman’s husband was missing, what could it mean? “I got there about eight o’clock. Right on time. We had a good meeting. I guess I must’ve left about eight-thirty, eightforty-five maybe. He was still in his office when I left.” “How—how did he seem to you?” “I don’t get what you mean.” “You know.” She was becoming agitated again. “Did he seem angry, depressed, anything unusual?” “No, in fact by the end of the meeting he seemed…” Big Tony searched for the right word, “well, calmer than he was at the beginning.” “Oh, Mr. Horvath,” Glory said again. “But he hasn’t come home. I hope nothing’s happened to him!” “I hope not, too,” Big Tony agreed. “Why don’t you give me your number? I promise to call you if I hear anything.” After taking her number and saying a few more words of sympathy, Big Tony hung up the phone and returned it to the living room. As he turned off the downstairs lights D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

7 8


and started up the stairs to his bedroom, he thought about the information he had just received. Matthew Kingston is missing? I wonder what that means. He shook his head and went upstairs to bed. 4.

B

y the time Matthew and Cap’n Billy had walked up Broadway as far as Canal, it had become obvious that they weren’t going to find a cab. A number of yellows had passed them on their way downtown and the two men had waved frantically, trying to flag one down. But the response had been the same—the “off duty” sign had quickly been turned on. “Must be our appearance or something,” muttered Matthew. “We prob’ly only got another mile or so before we get to where I’m goin’.” Remarked Cap’n Billy. “Walked this way many a night I have, and in worse weather than this, too.” “That’s one thing that puzzles me,” said Matthew. “The bartender told me that you come into that bar every night and stay until closing. Why do you drink way down there when you live way up here?” “Ah,” said Cap’n Billy sadly. “There’s a story to that, there is. But I don’t mind tellin’ it to you, if you want.” “Why not?” Matthew was somewhat intrigued. “It’ll help pass the time, anyway.” “Okay, then. I wasn’t always a broken-down old bum, you know. Twenty years ago or so, after my military career, I was a respectable businessman, much like yourself, from the look of you. Had an office in the Woolworth Building, just down the street from the bar. I was a theatrical agent, with a secretary and everything. I had a good wife, a good D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

7 9


life, everything was going my way. Well sir, one of my clients was a strugglin’ young actress, a little slip of a thing, pretty, couldn’t o’ been more than twenty-two, twentythree. She was a good actress, and I sent her out to audition after audition, but she was never able to land a part. I felt sorry for the poor kid, so I started takin’ her out to lunch once a week on Fridays. At the time, this particular Blarney Stone had a steam table and served hot lunches and sandwiches. They had a dollar ninety-eight corned beef and cabbage special on Fridays, so most times I took her there. After lunch if business was slow, and I didn’t have any other appointments, I’d buy her a few drinks and we’d have a few laughs. It was good to see the poor kid havin’ some fun for a change, and God knows I like a few drinks as much as anybody. “As I said, I had a good wife. And sometimes she used to come by my office at the end of the day, and we’d go to the very same bar and have a few drinks before goin’ home. Now at that time, the guy in charge of the food operation at lunch was the same guy who was bartender during happy hour. He worked from about the beginning of the lunch rush, eleven-thirty or so, until the end of happy hour, maybe eight or nine. So anyway, me and my wife, her name was Claire by the way, we kept seein’ the same guy there all the time when we went in for happy hour, which we did maybe twice a week. The guy’s name was Joe and, as he always waited on us, it was only natural that I should introduce him to Claire. The two of ‘em hit it off real good right away, and within a couple o’ weeks, they was carryin’ on like old pals. “So anyway, when I started bringin’ this actress, Mary I think her name was, in for lunch on Fridays, it was Joe D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

8 0


that served it to us. At first he was real nice and polite. Sometimes we’d stay until three or four in the afternoon, just drinkin’ beer and tellin’ show-biz stories, you know? So there was me and Mary comin’ in for lunch and me and Claire, my wife, comin’ in for happy hour. And there was Joe the bartender, a good Irish Catholic by the way, watchin’ the whole thing. And like I said, he’d gotten to be thick as thieves with Claire. So Matty, can you see where this is goin’?” Matthew had been listening to this tale in silence as they plodded up Broadway. By this time they had reached Houston and had turned right, toward the Lower East Side. He thought for a minute. “No,” he said in puzzlement. “I can’t say that I do. Sounds like the best of both worlds to me.” He scratched his head and frowned. There was something vaguely disturbing about the Woolworth Building, he thought. “Hell, man!” Cap’n Billy spat derisively into the snow. “It was only a matter of time before Joe started gettin’ suspicious. Remember I told you he thought the world of Claire. So one rainy Friday afternoon in April, when me and Mary had been there later than usual and had a few more drinks than usual, Joe finally had enough. He went into the back room and called up Claire, told her I was in his bar and carryin’ on with a girl young enough to be my daughter. And she was, too, but I swear to you, Matty, that I never cheated on Claire, not then, not ever. Sure, Mary was a pretty little thing, real easy to talk to, but I just wanted to cheer her up, make her laugh. And I don’t think she had no serious feelings for me, neither. “Anyway, on that Friday afternoon, like I said, it was raining hard and me and Mary had stayed so long it was D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

8 1


just beginnin’ to get dark when Joe made the call. Neither me nor Mary knew at the time what he was up to, though, ‘cause he came outa the back room just as sweet as you please, came straight over to our table with two more drinks and told us these were on the house, that he liked to see people havin’ fun. Well, me and Mary both knew we’d better be gettin’ home, that we’d had at least two or three too many, but when Joe came over, we just looked at each other as if to say ‘why not?’. “Well, just as we was finishin’ up our last two drinks, a taxi came screechin’ to a halt just across from the bar. Me and Mary was sittin’ right near the street window, so it was pretty easy for me to see, even with the rain and the dark and all, that the woman who jumped out of the cab was Claire. The taxi was parked on the other side of the street, and Claire started to run across Broadway toward the bar. But before she could make it all the way across the street, some asshole in a big Eldorado ran right into her, knocked her down, drove over her body, and sped away. Didn’t even look back. Well, me and Mary saw the whole thing. Mary screamed and ran out of the bar. I was in a state of shock. Claire was a goner before the ambulance could even get there. By the time the police arrived, I was too drunk to make any sense. Joe told ‘em what happened, but I guess he left out the part about the phone call, ‘cause the cops were real sympathetic toward me and never asked me once about Mary.” Cap’n Billy paused and turned to look at Matthew, a tear in his eye. “And that’s what happened to me. It only took about six months for me to lose most of my clients, since I wasn’t gettin’ anybody no work. I never saw Mary again. I started drinkin’ full time till I ran out of money. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

8 2


Sold the house in Park Slope and started livin’ in cheap hotels. About ten years ago I guess it was, I ran outa that money too an’ hit bottom. So I started goin’ back to the Blarney Stone every night to relive the past, I guess. But not until I knew Joe was off duty. I didn’t ever want to see that sonofabitch again. But the weirdest thing is that when I close my eyes, and put my head down on the bar, I can see them both so clearly. There they are, sitting at a table in the corner, Claire and Mary, Mary and Claire. Sometimes they’re talkin’ seriously, like old friends, sometimes they’re laughin’ like schoolgirls. And all the time I’m watchin’ ‘em, like I’m just comin’ back from the men’s room or somethin’. But I can never talk to them and they can never talk to me. And I never see ‘em no place else but in that particular Blarney Stone. Still, I guess it’s better than not seein’ ‘em at all. “And now,” Cap’n Billy abruptly changed the subject. “Let me show you where I live. And you can tell me your story. I’m particularly interested to know what a fine, welldressed man such as yourself is doin’ out here in the middle of nowhere at this time o’ night with a broken-down old drunk like me. But then,” he looked at Matthew shrewdly, “maybe, unlike mine, your ghosts have no names.” 5.

I

t was deathly quiet. On this particular stretch of Houston at this time of night only the occasional car or truck could be heard driving by. Matthew looked at his watch. One o’clock in the morning. Cap’n Billy took him by the hand and led him to the opposite side of the road. With his left hand he silently pointed out a deep ditch or D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

8 3


culvert about six or eight feet below ground level and extending back maybe a hundred yards from the street. The steep banks of plowed snow on the near side of the street made this culvert even more difficult to see, and Matthew would have missed it entirely if it were not for the flickering orange flames and thick black smoke just visible at street level. Cap’n Billy led Matthew down the embankment and into the ditch. There the source of the flames and smoke could clearly be seen—a couple of large steel oil drums which had been packed with paper, twigs, wood, debris— anything that would burn and produce a decent amount of heat. As they approached, Matthew could make out a sort of caravan of four or five grocery shopping carts lashed together with rope and covered with torn muddy canvas. Three figures were standing in front of the blazing oil drums, wrapped in greasy shapeless overcoats and blankets, warming their hands at the fire. As Cap’n Billy came close enough for the three derelicts to recognize him, they gave him a cheerful wave. “Hey, Cap’n Billy!” they chorused. He acknowledged their greeting with a wave of his hand. “Brought a friend to meet you guys,” he offered. “Gave me twenty bucks, he did, and walked me all the way home. Says his name’s Matt.” “Hi, Matt!” they called out. One of them dragged a wooden packing crate near the fire. “Have a seat,” he said to Matthew. “You must be cold and tired.” Wordlessly, Matthew sat down and looked expectantly at Cap’n Billy. Cap’n Billy turned to address the three other men. “Introduce yourselves to our guest, boys, while I take a little walk up the street. I got myself some shopping to D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

8 4


do.” With that he removed his greasy field jacket and replaced it with a huge overcoat. Then he climbed back up the embankment and walked slowly east on Houston, whistling merrily to himself. The three men simultaneously stuck out their hands in greeting to Matthew. The skin on their hands and faces was so dirty and sooty it was impossible for him to tell if they were black, white, Asian, Hispanic, or any combination thereof. “Cool Breeze,” said one by way of introduction. “Bayou Joe,” said the second. “Dirty Larry,” mumbled the third. “Um, very glad to meet you all,” said Matthew after a few seconds, realizing that that was all the information he was going to get. “Uh, you all live out here?” “Yeah,” said the one who called himself Cool Breeze. “Got the heaters here, got plenty of old clothes,” he pointed at the filled shopping carts, “and now, thanks to you, we’re gonna have food and drink. Cap’n Billy’s gone to the allnight deli down the street where we get a five-finger discount, if you know what I mean. He’ll take your twenty and buy a coupla bottles o’ Night Train. While the store guy’s busy gettin’ ‘em from off the shelf behind the counter, Cap’n Billy’ll stuff his pockets with deli meat and crackers and cookies and stuff. Then he’ll pay the guy the couple o’ bucks for the wine and leave the store with a feast and nobody the wiser.” He winked at the other two guys who winked back. “But what are you doin’ out here at this time of night?” He had turned back to Matthew and was closely scrutinizing him. “You out spreadin’ charity for Christmas? Maybe preachin’ from the Good Book?” “No, not really,” said Matthew, looking at each man in turn and wondering how much he should tell them. “I was D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

8 5


trying to get a cab. I have to get home to—” he dug his wallet out of his pants and opened it, “to White Plains. I think I live there, in any case.” He sighed and leaned a little closer to the fire. Bayou Joe had been listening to this exchange closely. Now he spoke up. “Hey, mister!” He addressed Matthew. “You’re in some kind of trouble, ain’t you? Maybe we can help you.” He looked at his two friends. “Tell Matt here about my special talent.” Dirty Larry spoke up. “Bayou Joe can read your mind,” he said proudly, though with a slight stutter. “Works all the street fairs.” “He can read cards, palms, even the crystal ball,” remarked Cool Breeze. “Yeah, that’s right,” said Bayou Joe. “And I’m gettin’ some pretty weird vibes from you, mister. Gimme five bucks and I’ll tell your fortune.” Matthew dug in his pocket and produced the required bill which he tentatively offered to Bayou Joe, who snatched it quickly before Matthew could change his mind. Then he took Matthew’s right hand in both of his and closed his eyes. He remained silent for a few moments, the other men including Matthew watching him intently. When he finally opened his eyes there was a look of horror on his face. “You don’t know who you are,” said Bayou Joe slowly and with disbelief, his voice a near whisper. “This is incredible,” said Matthew in amazement. “How did you know? I can’t remember anything since I walked into that bar and met Cap’n Billy. I vaguely remember,” he frowned and put his hand to his forehead, “some sort of meeting. But it seems like a dream. I…I don’t D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

8 6


know what’s wrong with me,” he finished in confusion. Bayou Joe shook his head. “I don’t normally do this,” he said reprovingly. “I don’t like to get involved in other people’s lives, you know what I’m sayin’. But give me another five, and I’ll try and find out what’s happened to you.” Matthew obliged, and Bayou Joe repeated his earlier actions. This time when he opened his eyes it was with a look of disgust. “You been cursed, boy,” he said with displeasure. “Somebody done put the evil eye on you. Somebody done pointed the bone at you. I don’t know who, and I don’t know why, but I do know I don’t want nothin’ to do with this shit!” He began stomping around, pausing only to plunge his hands into the snow as if to cleanse them of Matthew’s evil influence. Matthew was perplexed. “I swear to you,” he said earnestly, “I don’t know what’s going on here. Why would somebody want to curse me?” He looked up at the sky. “Damn, I wish I could remember.” “Well,” said Bayou Joe, calming down a bit. “Maybe you deserves it and maybe you don’t, but that ain’t no concern of mine. Anyway, we all got to live with what we done, ain’t that right, boys?” The other two nodded silently. “Lookee what I got!” A voice called out from some distance away. Cap’n Billy had returned. He set down a paper bag containing three bottles of Night Train, walked toward the light and heat of the fire, and opened his oversized overcoat. The inside lining had at least a dozen large pockets sewed into it, and each one was filled to overflowing with some delicacy or other. Dirty Larry took a slightly less dirty poncho from one D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

8 7


of the shopping carts and spread it carefully on the bare patch of ground in front of the blazing oil drums. “This here’s our table cloth,” he told Matthew with a grin. When Dirty Larry had finished arranging it and smoothing it out, Cap’n Billy began to unburden himself. Out of his pockets came at least a dozen packages of plastic-wrapped deli meats and cheeses, small boxes of crackers and cookies, yogurt, cottage cheese, and even a few buffet-size cans of beans, chili, and vegetables. The other three men waited patiently until he had finished and then, on his signal, began grabbing the packages, ripping them open with their teeth, and stuffing the contents into their mouths. Cap’n Billy grinned tolerantly and twisted the cap off a bottle of Night Train and began passing it around. He had already taken the edge off his hunger on the way back. Matthew was staring openmouthed at this backwoods Bacchanalia when Cap’n Billy passed him the bottle of Night Train. “Don’t be bashful,” he told Matthew. “Better grab some o’ this stuff for yourself before the boys makes it disappear. It don’t generally take ‘em long.” Matthew silently did as he was told, rather gingerly making tiny sandwiches of ham, cheese and saltines. In a very short time most of the food was gone, and the third bottle of Night Train was being passed around. Bayou Joe tapped Cap’n Billy on the shoulder and led him a little way off, out of hearing range of the others. “Where did you find this guy?” he asked Cap’n Billy in a whisper. “We met in the bar downtown. You know, where I always go for a few drinks,” he whispered back. “Well, somethin’ ain’t right about him. This guy’s had D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

8 8


some kind o’ curse laid on him. Seems somebody took away his memories. He don’t remember nothin’ that happened before meetin’ you.” “I thought there was something strange about him,” Cap’n Billy replied. “The way he followed me home and all. Kept sayin’ he had to go home, but he sure as hell didn’t try to do nothin’ about it. Hell, I even told him my life story on the way over here, and he didn’t interrupt me once. The fella seemed to be glad to have somethin’ to take his mind offa himself.” “Well, whatever’s goin’ on with this guy, I don’t wanna take no chances. It ain’t safe bein’ around a man who’s been cursed. We got to get rid of him.” “You really think that’s necessary?” asked Cap’n Billy mildly. “He seems like a nice enough fella to me.” “Yeah, but you seen the way he’s dressed. Expensive suit and shoes. Nice overcoat, too. Even if the curse don’t get us, somebody’s gonna be out lookin’ for this guy real soon. And I don’t wanna be around when they find him. Too many questions.” “All right,” Cap’n Billy sighed. “What you want me to do?” “Since he seems to be a particular friend o’ yours,” Bayou Joe gave him a sharp look. “You can look the other way while me an’ the boys take care o’ business. All you got to do is get him drunk enough so that he’ll pass out, while I tell Breeze and Larry what’s goin’ down. You still got that bottle o’ vodka we keep for emergencies?” “Sure,” Cap’n Billy told him. He pointed at one of the shopping carts. “It’s wrapped up in that red plaid shirt there.” “Okay, you know what to do.” Bayou Joe went back to join the others. Cap’n Billy retrieved the full fifth of vodka D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

8 9


from the shopping cart and went over to Matthew. “Night Train prob’ly ain’t your drink,” he said casually. “I can’t remember ever drinking it before,” said Matthew. “It’s supposed to be some kind of wine, isn’t it? I tried a little because I didn’t want to seem ungrateful. But really, how do you drink that stuff?” “Never you mind about that,” said Cap’n Billy. “What you need is a real drink. Lookee what I got.” “I don’t know,” said Matthew doubtfully. “I think I’ve had enough to drink for one night.” “Yeah, but look at it this way. It’s after two in the morning. You sure as hell ain’t goin’ nowhere tonight. Tomorrow, I’ll help you get to where you want to go, okay? But tonight, well, it gets mighty cold out here once we all go to sleep and them fires burn out. Better go for all the antifreeze you can get. ‘Sides, you’ll sleep better.” He uncapped the bottle of vodka and handed it to Matthew. “Oh, very well,” said Matthew, accepting it and looking at the label. “I don’t want to be ungrateful,” he said again. “I don’t know where I’d be if it weren’t for the kindness of you and your friends.” “Think nothin’ of it,” Cap’n Billy mumbled quickly. Matthew took a tentative sip of vodka. The taste of it seemed to remind him of something, but he couldn’t remember what. It was like this with a lot of things lately, he thought. Oh well, tomorrow was another day. He might as well take Cap’n Billy’s advice. He took another swig of vodka, larger this time, and patted the wallet in his back pocket. Tomorrow he would begin the process of trying to find out who he really was, something beyond just a name and address on a driver’s license. He turned to Cap’n Billy D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

9 0


and offered him the bottle. “You go ahead,” Cap’n Billy said gently. “I got to take a leak.” He turned and walked out to the area behind the shopping carts where the other three men were whispering animatedly to each other. “More for me then,” said Matthew with a foolish grin. Before he had finished half the bottle he was fast asleep. In a little while Cap’n Billy slowly tiptoed over to Matthew. After ascertaining that he was dead to the world, he motioned the other three to join him. “Okay,” said Bayou Joe in a quiet but authoritative voice. “You boys know what to do.” Cap’n Billy gently pried the vodka bottle out of Matthew’s hand, capped it, and replaced it in the shopping cart. Dirty Larry and Cool Breeze quietly but efficiently lifted Matthew onto a large sheet of cardboard they had laid out a few yards away. Then they quickly went through Matthew’s pockets, extracting over sixty dollars in cash, his wallet, his appointment book, and his keys. They took his gold Rolex wristwatch, gold wedding ring, and a gold chain from around his neck. Dirty Larry was about to take an old envelope from Matthew’s pocket when Bayou Joe fixed him with a harsh look and shook his head. Dirty Larry dutifully replaced the envelope and the three men stood up. “I’m goin’ to sleep,” said Cap’n Billy to Bayou Joe. “Do what you hafta do. I don’t have nothin’ against you for it.” Bayou Joe silently put his hand on Cap’n Billy’s shoulder. To the other two he said, “Okay, strap him to the cardboard and pull him as far away as you can. Be sure to keep him as far off the road as possible. I’ll see you both back here before I go to sleep.” The two men silently nodded their assent and did as D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

9 1


they were told. Matthew didn’t even stir as the pair dragged him away. “A pity,” said Bayou Joe to Cap’n Billy who was now lying down and was just beginning to burrow himself into a pile of dirty blankets. “But guys in our position can’t afford to take no chances.” “I s’pose you’re right,” yawned Cap’n Billy. “You usually are.” Then the night was deep and silent once again. Only the occasional car could be heard driving past on Houston Street. The only light came from the fitful glow of the dying embers in the oil drums, and the pale luminescence of a faraway street light. When Cool Breeze and Dirty Larry returned, Bayou Joe looked at them questioningly. They both nodded. Within minutes the four men were buried deep beneath layers of blankets and piles of old clothes, sleeping peacefully. It had been only eight hours since Matthew Kingston’s last business deal.

D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

9 2


PART FOUR FOUND

A

fter Matthew slowly regained consciousness early the next afternoon, he realized that not only was he experiencing the worst hangover of his entire life (he supposed, for he could remember no other), but he was also well on the way to freezing to death. He opened his eyes slowly and cautiously. He found himself looking up into a steel-gray sky from which snowflakes seemed destined to fall at any moment. Very slowly and very carefully he turned his head from side to side. For some reason he appeared to have spent the night on a cardboard mattress in a snow bank. Gingerly he got to his feet, moving as slowly and carefully as he could, while trying some circulation back into his hands and feet. He shivered and buttoned up his overcoat. He looked at his surroundings, searching for some clue that would tell him where he was and what he was doing there. About a hundred yards to his left he could barely make out what appeared to be a major city street with moderate automobile traffic. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

9 3


What on earth could have happened to me last night? He pressed his fingers to his aching temples, shut his eyes tight and tried hard to remember. The last thing he could recall with any certainty was sitting near some insane campfire and sharing food and drink with several other men. Was he crazy? Camping out in the middle of winter with the snow piled thick around him, and in the middle of the city, no less? After taking more careful note of his surroundings, he finally managed to realize that he was in Manhattan, probably the Lower East Side. All right, he thought, you remember the campfire, the eating and drinking. Think back from there. After much difficulty he remembered staggering uptown on a busy street (Broadway?) with a man who had a peculiar name (Captain‌who?). He had been drunk, of course, and for some reason unable to get to where he was going, to where he should have gone. Think hard, he told himself again, more sternly this time. Why were you drunk and where were you going that was so urgent? All he could remember was drinking in some downtown bar, where he had met this character with the odd name who had led him to the campfire where he had undoubtedly passed out from too much to drink. The other men (three or four of them?) must have gone away at some time during the night and left him there. Apparently they were not his friends, then. He thought as hard as he could and realized suddenly that he could remember nothing before entering the bar. And not just about the questionable events of the previous night either—he found that he could remember nothing about his life: not his name, where he lived, if he had a wife or family, where he worked (he judged from his suit and tie that he must be an office worker of some kind) Frantically he D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

9 4


started going through his pockets. Nothing. No money, no identification, no keys. Not even a watch or ring or anything that might help jog his memory. His companions of last night must have picked him clean and left him to freeze to death in the snow. Fortunately the sheer quantity of alcohol in his system must have kept him alive. He felt an intense, blinding rage for his unknown assailants, and he looked around in vain for something to take it out on. But again, nothing. His impotence in this situation angered him even further. He began to walk toward the street he had glimpsed in the distance. In about ten minutes he reached an intersection. One of the street signs read “Houston St.” The other, “Third Ave.” He walked uptown along Third Avenue, with each step willing his memory to return. He was at the moment a man without purpose, without direction. Instinctively he felt that this was not his life—that he had always had a sense of direction and purpose. Matthew felt bitterly alone and confused. It was two weeks before Christmas and snow was again beginning to fall from the leaden sky. He turned up his collar against the elements and walked on. He didn’t know where he was going, but he had nothing else to do. 2.

E

arly that morning an exhausted Glory had stopped her pacing and collapsed on the living room sofa. She had not been able to close her eyes once during the long and terrifying night. In her usually bright eyes was a look of dull misery as she got up and went to the kitchen to make coffee. The kids would be up soon and D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

9 5


getting ready for school. She wondered what she would tell them. She looked at her watch for about the hundredth time in the past few hours. Seven o’clock. Instinctively she took a few steps toward the stairs, thinking, “Time to get Matthew up for work.” She stopped suddenly, choked back a sob, and instead poured herself some coffee and went back into the living room. She picked up the phone and dialed Manny’s number. He would be up by now and getting ready for work. Maybe he knows something, she thought desperately. As the phone rang in the kitchen of Manny Klein’s modest two-bedroom Brooklyn Heights apartment, his wife Mona put down her spatula and picked up the receiver of the wall phone in their breakfast nook. Mona had been frying eggs for her and Manny, and they had been just about done to perfection when she was interrupted by the phone. “Hello?” she said into the phone, irritation evident in her voice. “Can I please speak to Manny?” begged a timid voice. Mona was a plump woman with a soft round angelic face, but her appearance was in complete contrast to the sharpness of her tongue. “Manny’s busy shaving, whaddaya want from him at this hour? Why don’t you people call him at work?” Mona paused in her tirade as she distinctly heard someone crying at the other end of the phone. “I’m terribly sorry to bother you so early, Mona,” the voice managed between sobs, “but something terrible’s happened and I’ve got to talk to Manny.” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

9 6


“Glory, honey, is that you?” Mona answered in a much softer tone. “I didn’t recognize your voice. Of course. I’ll get Manny for you right away.” She put down the phone, strode briskly through the living room and pounded loudly on the bathroom door. “Manny!” she bellowed in a voice a drill sergeant would have been proud of. “Yes?” came a hesitant voice from the bathroom. “What is it, my little cupcake? I’m busy shaving.” The bathroom door opened and a little man with a face full of shaving cream emerged. He was holding a safety razor in his right hand and a towel in his left. His attire consisted of a sleeveless white undershirt and purple boxer shorts adorned with red hearts. “Go pick up the phone in the bedroom. Glory Kingston’s on the line. Says it’s important.” She took the towel and lovingly but efficiently wiped most of the shaving cream off his face. Manny made no protest. When she had finished, and he could safely open his mouth, he said in amazement, “Glory Kingston? I wonder what she wants?” “Go answer the phone and find out, dummy!” she told him affectionately. Manny put down the razor and finished wiping his face. Then he went into the bedroom and picked up the phone. “Yeah, Glory, it’s me, Manny. What’s up, kid?” “Oh, Manny,” she told him breathlessly between sobs. “The most terrible thing’s happened. Matthew didn’t come home last night.” “What?” said Manny, startled. “I don’t believe it! You and the King have a fight or something?” “No, that’s not it at all. In fact just the other night we had the best time we’ve had together in years. But last night, oh, it got all mixed up. He was supposed to go with D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

9 7


me to the kids’ school music program. But he forgot. Said he had some stupid business meeting last night at eight o’clock. But, you know how Matthew is, always trying to compromise, keep everybody happy, he said he’d try to cut the meeting short. Then he’d grab a cab and meet me at the high school at nine or nine-thirty, and we’d pretend to the kids that he’d been there all the time. But Manny, he never showed up!” Manny listened in his careful intense way and then told her seriously, “Yeah, he had a meeting all right. It was supposed to be a piece of cake, make over two million big ones for the company. The guy he was supposed to meet with was…” “I know, Anton Horvath,” she finished for him. “Last night, when he hadn’t called or come home by midnight, I called everywhere I could think of.” She was sounding better now, as she began to relate the facts to herself, as well as to Manny. “I called the office and got no answer. I called you guys, but I guess you weren’t home.” “Me and Mona were at the Four Seasons, celebrating our twentieth,” Manny couldn’t help but interject. “Oh?” said Glory automatically. “Happy Anniversary.” “Thank you,” said Manny in the same way. “Anyway,” Glory resumed. “I finally called Matthew’s secretary, Stacey. I guess I woke her up, but she told me about this guy Horvath and gave me his home number. So I called him and he was nice as anything. Said he and Matthew had had a great meeting and that when he had left the office, Matthew was still there. That was about eightthirty, according to Mr. Horvath.” As Manny listened to this he scratched his head. “Something doesn’t add up here. You say Horvath told you D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

9 8


that he and the King had a good meeting?” “Yeah,” said Glory, puzzled. “I think that’s how he put it. What’s strange about that?” “Well,” said Manny gently. “Ah, you know that in some of our deals, we buy properties just to turn around and sell them to somebody else for a profit as quickly as possible. So sometimes these properties are still occupied and we have to, ah, encourage the tenants to move out. That’s where the King comes in. He’s real good at talking to people in those situations. He’s got the kind of face that people instinctively trust, don’t you think?” “Sure, it’s his best feature. But you still haven’t told me what doesn’t make sense.” “Well, ah, Glory,” Manny began delicately. “You see, Horvath was one of those tenants who, ah, had to be encouraged to vacate the premises. And that’s what his meeting with Matthew was all about.” “Manny, get a move on! Your breakfast’s getting cold!” bellowed a voice from the kitchen. “Coming, dumpling, I’m still on the phone,” Manny yelled back cheerfully. Glory was saying, “So you mean Horvath was getting forced out so you could resell his building and make a profit?” “Sure,” Manny admitted. “That’s the nature of the game. Anyway, what doesn’t add up is that he told you he had a good meeting with the King. If King did what he was supposed to do, the guy should have been pissed as hell. So when you called, he probably would have blown you off. Or at least yelled at you. Look, Glory,” he said, rummaging in his dresser drawers for a shirt and socks, “it’s getting late, and I’ve got to get to the office. Tell you what. Once I get D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

9 9


there, I’ll try to track down your husband. You stay at home as much as you can today and wait for news. If neither of us hears anything by five o’clock, I’ll drive up to White Plains, pick you up, and we’ll go confront this guy Horvath together and see what gives. That sound like a plan?” “Sure, Manny,” Glory replied. “And thanks for your help. It’s good to know I have a friend like you.” “No prob. Keep your chin up, kiddo. We’ll find the King. The big bozo’s probably been out boozing somewhere and was afraid to come home. He’s probably at some cheap motel right now sleeping it off. Has this ever happened before?” he asked more seriously. “He ever stay out all night without telling you?” “No,” she said. “And that’s what worries me. He’s come home late before. He’s come home drunk before. He’s come home late and drunk before. But when I wake up in the morning he’s always there, snoring peacefully. Oh Manny, we’ve got to find him!” She hung up the phone, blew her nose a couple of times, and resolutely marched into the kitchen to make the kids’ breakfast. Manny hung up the phone, finished dressing, and went into the kitchen to eat his breakfast. What the hell’s with the King, he wondered, and what, if anything, did it have to do with Anton Horvath? 3.

A

s Matthew trudged along Third Avenue the snow began to fall more thickly. Although it was only mid-afternoon the sky, which had never been exactly bright to begin with, was beginning to darken perceptibly. Having gone through his pockets and found nothing D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 0 0


useful, Matthew took inventory of his only remaining assets—his clothing. Good thick-lined leather overcoat, he noted. Underneath it was a dark blue three-piece suit. It was woolen and well made, he thought, but definitely not the thing to wear for prolonged periods in the outdoors in this weather. His shoes were Italian, also well-made, but also of little use for trudging through the snow. His feet, already half frozen from the cold, were now getting soggy as well. All right, he thought, first order of business is to try to get decent cold-weather clothing. Second, find food and drink. Matthew had not eaten since the pilfered deli feast of the previous night, and he had been so put off by the entire scene that he had eaten very little. And he literally could not remember the last time he had had anything nonalcoholic to drink. That may be the reason, he thought idly, why my head feels like someone’s driving spikes into it and my throat feels like I’ve been sucking on wool socks. At the corner of 6th Street he passed a store front. Its sign proclaimed it to be “Bernstein the Tailor – Dry Cleaning, Pressing, Alterations While You Wait”. But what interested him more than the permanent sign was a small square of cardboard taped to the window which read “Ask about our Rock Bottom Prices on Unclaimed Garments”. He decided to check out the “unclaimed garments”. What could he lose? As he entered he saw, behind a high counter, a small man in a rumpled white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows who was sitting at a table, stitching a garment with an ancient, pedal-operated Singer sewing machine. He sported a gray rabbinical beard which reached almost to his waist, and a plain black yarmulke sat perched upon his balding head. When he saw Matthew D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 0 1


approaching the counter he stood up. “Yes, hello, I’m Bernstein the Tailor,” he said in a rather rusty voice. “Vot can I have the pleasure of doink for you?” “Mr. Bernstein,” said Matthew politely. “A pleasure to meet you. I’ll get right to the point. I find myself in somewhat, ah, embarrassing circumstances. I’ve just been mugged, I have no money, and I have to find a way to get home. I saw your sign,” he pointed to the piece of cardboard in the window. “And I thought maybe you might have some use for this suit I’m wearing. And the shoes. You could clean them up and resell them. The suit is practically new. In return, you could trade me some old clothes like flannel shirts and work pants. Even jeans, I’m not particular. And if you’ve got any in my size, maybe a pair of work boots. What do you say?” “I don’t know,” said the little man, coming around from behind the counter and tugging on his beard apprehensively. “Let me see.” Matthew opened his overcoat and Bernstein took the lapel of the suit jacket between his thumb and forefinger and rubbed it appreciatively. “Here,” he guided Matthew’s hand to his other lapel. “Feel the material. Good British wool. Hardly used at all. Take off your overcoat, let me look at the cut.” Matthew did as he was told while Bernstein walked around him slowly in a circle, feeling this and tugging on that. Matthew began to feel like a model in a fashion show. After Bernstein was through, he told Matthew to sit in the chair behind the sewing machine. He then disappeared into the back room, returning some minutes later with a pile of plaid flannel shirts, thick wool industrial-style pants, and a pair of hiking boots. These last Matthew tried on D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 0 2


immediately, finding them a little snug but acceptable. When he was suitably attired in his choice of shirt and pants, Matthew put his overcoat back on and handed his suit and shoes to Bernstein. “So,” said Bernstein, nodding happily while fondling the suit. “I got a confession to make. Your suit here I can clean and sell for maybe a hundred bucks. The shoes, maybe a little less. The clothes I’m giving you, they’re basically worthless. Dime a dozen. Lucky for you I’m a God-fearing man.” He went over to an old-fashioned manual cash register, punched No Sale and opened the cash drawer. “But I’m not so rich. This business don’t pay a living wage since the wash-wear schmattes came in. But here, I vant you should have this.” He handed Matthew a twenty-dollar bill. “Take it, it’s all I can afford. Maybe you can get yourself a meal or something. Happy Hanukkah!” He brushed away Matthew’s protests and reseated himself at the sewing machine, where he continued stitching. “Oh, one thing more. I nearly forgot.” He handed Matthew an old yellowed envelope. “I found this ven I vent through your pockets. Maybe it’s something of value, yes?” Matthew took the envelope without comment and carelessly stuffed it in the back pocket of his trousers. Then he put the twenty-dollar bill in the right side pocket. Thanking the old man for his generosity, Matthew left the shop and walked out into the snow. As he reached St. Marks Place, the snow was falling more thickly and it was nearly pitch dark. His stomach and throat were complaining that they could take no more abuse when Matthew spotted a bright neon sign which read “Nick’s Café – Home Style Greek & American Food”. But more importantly—“Breakfast Special Served All Day – 2 D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 0 3


Eggs, Toast, Potatoes & Coffee – Only $.99.” That’s for me, thought Matthew with a sigh, lovingly fondling the twenty in his pocket. He entered the café, took off his overcoat and sat down in a booth. The place was nearly empty, it being the slack period between lunch and dinner. Within a few minutes a bored-looking waitress possessing a huge beehive of flaming red hair ambled slowly over to his booth. She wore a standard pink uniform, complete with frilly white apron, and was chewing a large wad of gum with an enviable rhythmic intensity. In between chews she managed to say to Matthew, “You know what ya want, honey, or do ya need a menu?” “Give me the ninety-nine cent breakfast special, please,” responded Matthew without hesitation. “Comin’ right up, big spender,” she replied, turning Matthew’s coffee cup right side up in its saucer and filling it with coffee from a Pyrex pot. “How ya want them eggs?” “Over easy, please.” “You got it, honey,” she said and sauntered back to the kitchen, cracking her gum as she went. In about ten minutes she returned with the advertised breakfast items which Matthew began devouring immediately between large gulps of coffee. Before the waitress could leave, he caught her by the elbow and pointed to his coffee cup, mumbling unintelligibly as his mouth was full of food. She shrewdly divined his meaning and refilled his coffee cup, then as she had no one to attend to at the moment, sat down in a booth across from Matthew’s and stared at him in openmouthed curiosity. When a scant few minutes later he pushed away his plate with a sigh of contentment, she walked over and D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 0 4


began to clear away his dishes. “Honey,” she said with admiration, “I seen lotsa hungry guys come through here, but you take the cake. Now, what else can I get ya?” “Um, that’ll be all, I guess,” said Matthew regretfully. “I’m on sort of a tight budget. In fact,” he said hopefully, an idea crossing his mind. “I just got into town and I don’t really know anyone here. I don’t suppose you have any idea where I could find a job? My name’s, uh, John, by the way. John, uh, Black,” he finished, looking out the window at the approaching night. “Glad ta meet ya, John.” She stuck out her hand and shook his matter-of-factly. “My name’s Helen. Helen Wheeler. My regulars call me ‘Wheels’. Get it?” She poked him slyly in the ribs. “Wheels? Helen Wheels?” “Oh, right, I get it. That’s pretty funny,” Matthew said, forcing a chuckle. “As far as gettin’ a job goes, I like you, John. You seem like a pretty nice guy. Lemme go check with Nick. He’s in the back. He might be able to do somethin’ for you. There’s always somebody quittin’ around this crummy joint.” She turned and went back toward the kitchen. In a little while she returned, followed by a large man with an enormous belly, dressed in a rumpled black suit and white shirt without necktie. He had a thinning mass of black curly hair piled on top of his head, a huge hooked nose, and a five o’clock shadow which, by the looks of it, had begun establishing itself on his face at about noon. “Hi, mister,” he boomed out in a voice which made Zorba the Greek sound timid. Grasping Matthew firmly by the hand, he began pumping it vigorously up and down as if he meant to separate the arm from its shoulder. “I hear from Helen you lookin’ for job, yes?” he said in a hopeful D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 0 5


manner. Matthew nodded his head yes while trying unobtrusively to extricate his hand from the man’s prodigious grip. “I’m Nick,” he told Matthew, finally letting go. “Nick Skouros. I own the place. And you are…?” “John, John Black. I got sort of, uh, stranded in town. No job, no place to stay, and only twenty dollars to my name.” He proffered the aforementioned bill to Helen who rang up his ninety-nine cent breakfast plus tax at the register and returned with his eighteen dollars and ninetythree cents. “Actually seventeen ninety-three,” he said sadly, placing a dollar bill on the table for Helen. “Hmm, let me think.” Nick scratched his chin thoughtfully, in the process producing a sound somewhat like a belt sander. “I only got one opening, and it probably wouldn’t suit a fella like you.” He scrutinized Matthew carefully. “My dishwasher on the graveyard shift didn’t show up a coupla days ago. Finally saved up enough for a three-day drunk, I guess.” He gave a snort of disgust. “My best guy, Julio, hasta pull double shifts and he don’t like it one bit. I don’t blame him neither. One shift around here is tough enough when it gets busy, right Helen?” Helen looked at Matthew with an affirmative grimace. “Well,” said Matthew. “I can’t remem—I mean, I don’t have any dishwashing experience, but as I’m desperate for work I’ll give it my best shot.” “That’s good enough for me!” Nick grinned, clapping Matthew on the back with the force of a marauding grizzly. “A man can’t ask for more than that!” “But there’s one more thing,” said Matthew, shaking his head. “Since I just got into town, I have no place to sleep.” He looked sadly at his seventeen dollars and ninetyD e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 0 6


three cents again. “And this won’t get me even a flophouse in the Bowery.” “No problem,” said Nick expansively. “Here’s what we do. Julio!” He yelled toward the kitchen. “Si, Señor?” answered a thin tenor voice, and then a small boy who looked to be no more than about sixteen years of age appeared at the kitchen door, wiping his hands on his apron. “Julio,” said Nick, “this is gonna be our new dishwasher.” He indicated Matthew with a sweep of his hand. Julio looked at Matthew doubtfully. “But Señor Nick,” he protested. “He too old and too clean.” “Julio,” said Nick again, this time with a hint of menace in his voice. “How long you want to work double shifts?” Julio thought for a moment. Then his face brightened and he took Matthew by the hand. “Ah, bueno, bueno,” he said in a friendly voice. “Como se llamo, amigo?” “John Black.” “Julio, this is the deal we make with John.” Nick looked at Matthew. “You work midnight to 8am Tuesday through Sunday. You off on Monday. We gotta store room in back with a couch where you can sleep till you get a place. For food, you can eat three meals a day here. You eat at 11 pm, 4 am in middle of shift and any time after 8 am when you get off. Because you working for room and board I give you twenty dollars cash per full shift you work. That sound okay, John?” “It sounds good to me,” said Matthew in a relieved voice. “Okay. Julio here is now your boss. Julio, take him to kitchen and show him equipment. You work couple hours D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 0 7


for free, Okay John? And Julio will tell me if he think you can cut it. If Julio say okay, you get a few hours’ rest and start tonight at midnight. Okay, John?” Matthew agreed. “Okay, Julio?” Julio nodded his assent and led Matthew into the kitchen. “Here’s apron and gloves,” he said. “You start on these.” He pointed to a large stack of food-encrusted pots that reached almost to the ceiling. Matthew looked at the stack of pots and then at Julio. Julio sat down, folded his arms, and gave Matthew an evil grin. Sighing, Matthew tied on an apron, pulled on a pair of thick rubber gloves, and started filling one of the huge sinks with soapy water. He wondered what he had gotten himself into. 4.

A

s soon as I hung up the phone after talking to Glory, I knew there was going to be trouble. I could feel it in my bones the way some guys can tell if a storm’s coming by how much their arthritis hurts. I finished dressing and went into the kitchen where I got my usual five-minute lecture from Mona about letting my food get cold. I guess I wasn’t my usual bantering self, because even my self-absorbed Mona sensed something and shut up for once. Don’t get me wrong—I love Mona as much as a man can love a woman he’s been married to for twenty years. But sometimes she can be a pain in the keister. After we finished our breakfast, she just looked at me and said quietly, “Want to tell me about it, Manny?” “What?” I said as lightly as I could. “Just a phone call, that’s all. A little problem at the office. Nothing serious, I D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 0 8


kid you not! By the way,” I added, a little apologetically I guess, “I’ll probably be home late tonight. Gotta lotta work to do.” She put on her long-suffering face. “So what else is new?” I kissed her lightly on the cheek and went to the office. By the time I arrived, about nine, Stacey was already there. “Any word?” I asked her. She immediately knew what I was talking about and shook her head. “Not even a ransom demand?” I joked. She tried to smile, but her heart wasn’t in it. I went into King’s office, hoping to find some clue to his mysterious disappearance. He must have left in a hurry last night because his briefcase was still on his desk, and he usually takes it with him when he goes home at night. I looked through it, but there was nothing either strange or enlightening in its contents. The only other things on his desk were two empty glasses. This, in itself, was not unusual. King likes to drink, especially to conclude a successful business deal, and he hates paperwork like the plague. So the clean desk and dirty glasses were hopeful signs. I looked around the rest of the office. Everything neat and clean. And like they say on the cop shows, no signs of a struggle. I sniffed at the glasses and detected a faint odor of vodka. This was a little strange. While King kept the basic six liquors—scotch, bourbon, vodka, gin, rum and brandy—in his office liquor cabinet at all times, he almost never drank anything other than scotch and brandy. And he practically hated vodka—claimed it had no taste. Something wasn’t kosher here. I left everything just as I had found it and went to my office to make a phone call to a good friend of mine on the D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 0 9


police force, Lt. Mandelbaum, head of the Missing Persons Unit. Quickly I found the right number and dialed it. “Mandelbaum, Twelfth Precinct,” came a curt voice. “Irv, this is Manny. Manny Klein. Remember me?” “Manny!” the voice replied, more cheerfully now. “You old swindler! Haven’t seen you since my daughter’s bas mitzvah, must be, what, a year, two years ago?” “Yeah, Irv, it’s been a while. Look, I want you should do me a favor.” “Sure, Manny, what’s the problem?” “Well, you remember my partner, Matthew Kingston? You met him a coupla times.” “Yeah, nice guy for a shaygets. Very distinguished.” “Yeah,” I grinned into the phone. “Ain’t he, though. The problem is, he’s missing.” “Missing? You mean like, gone, no word, no nothing, nobody knows where he is?” “I couldn’t have put it better myself, Irv. Here’s what happened, as far as I know. Mr. Kingston had a business meeting with a…ah…client yesterday evening about eight o’clock. This is not so unusual. Mr. Kingston often accommodates people who can’t make it during business hours. But last night he apparently disappeared right after meeting with this guy. His wife said he didn’t come home last night. Now wait a minute, Irv, I know what you’re gonna say. This happens all the time between couples, right? But I just talked to Mrs. Kingston this morning, and she says this never happened before, not in the seventeen years they been together. And they didn’t have a fight or nothing. She’s goin’ out of her mind, Irv. And they got two teenage kids. What can you do for me, Irv?” Mandelbaum had had the good grace not to interrupt D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 1 0


me while I was getting things off my chest. Cautiously he replied, “Well, Manny, I don’t know. You say he just disappeared last night? It’s not even ten in the morning yet. For God’s sake, give the man some time.” Mandelbaum became more thoughtful. “Who’d he have this meeting with, anyway? We can at least check that out for you. Find out if the meeting came off as planned.” “I’m way ahead of you on that one, Irv. You see, Kingston’s wife was so upset that she got Stacey, our secretary, out of bed last night to give her the name of the guy Kingston was meeting with. Then she called this guy, name of Anton Horvath, by the way, lives and works in the Bronx. And she grilled him about the meeting. According to her, he was real sympathetic. Told her her husband was still in his office when he left there around eight-thirty.” “Okay, Manny, tell you what I’ll do. This guy, what’s his name, Horvath? He might be the last guy to see Mr. Kingston before he disappeared. So here’s the deal. If Mr. Kingston don’t show up or call by, oh, say five or six this afternoon, we’ll open a case. We’re not supposed to do it until twenty-four hours after the guy goes missing, but in this case I’ll stretch it a little. In the meantime, I’ll have my people check all the jails and hospitals. That okay by you, Manny?” “I appreciate it, Lieutenant. Oh, by the way, I told his wife if we didn’t hear anything by five, I’d pick her up and drive her to Horvath’s myself. I didn’t know what else to tell the poor kid.” “Okay, Manny, that’ll work out fine. Give me this guy Horvath’s address and tell me what time and I’ll send two of my men, Officers Williams and Johnson, over to his place. That should help make him more forthcoming about D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 1 1


what really happened last night.” “Thanks again, Irv, I owe you one.” “Not at all, Manny. Call me at five.” I hung up the phone and opened my desk drawer, pulled out some bills and tried to work on the accounts. It was no use. After about half an hour I quit pretending. I got the number from Stacey and decided to confront this guy Horvath myself. On the fifth ring a voice answered, “Big Tony’s Plumbing & Heating. What can I do ya for?” “Is this Horvath?” I asked. “No, I’m his assistant, Fred. Big Tony’s out on a service call. Can I take a message?” I was suspicious anyway, and this struck me as odd. “He’s the boss and you’re the assistant, right?” I asked him. “So what’s he doing freezing his ass off on a service call, while you sit on yours in a nice warm office taking messages?” “Ya got me there,” Fred admitted. “But that’s Big Tony all over. Says he can’t stand to be cooped up in an office all day. Can’t say I blame him, neither.” “Well you tell him for me,” I snarled in the best toughguy voice I could muster, “that Manny Klein called. Of Kingston & Klein. Matthew Kingston’s partner. And tell him to call me back when he gets in. Immediately, if he knows what’s good for him.” “Yah, sure, Mr. Klein. Mind tellin’ me what this is all about?” “My partner seems to be missing,” I said menacingly. “And your boss may have something to do with it.” “Ya don’t say!” Fred replied with an audible gasp. “I’ll tell him the minute he comes in, Mr. Klein.” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 1 2


“See that you do!” I told him and abruptly hung up the phone. I debated with myself, work or lunch? Since I knew I wasn’t gonna get any work done, lunch won. It was still only about eleven o’clock, but I thought a corned beef on rye couldn’t hurt. If I didn’t hear from the King, it was gonna be a long afternoon and an even longer evening. Better fortify myself, I thought, and I walked out of the office, taking my appetite with me. 5.

T

hat afternoon was one long, slow agony, waiting for the phone to ring, waiting for five o’clock. I tried to get some bookwork done just to take my mind off things, but without success. There was really nothing to do. No major deals were in the works for Kingston & Klein until after the new year, and normally we liked it that way, the better to enjoy the constant round of holiday parties, office parties, etc. that were the very heart and soul of the season for The King. He was always a party animal, but at this time of year he was even worse. Often he would stroll into the office at about noon, talk business with me and Stacey for about five minutes, then go to his office and shuffle papers and nap for a few hours. Then about four o’clock he would cheerfully announce that that was enough work for one day and depart. So you can see why we kept business to a minimum during the holidays. Occasionally the phone would ring, startling us both out of our reveries. Stacey would answer each call breathless with anticipation, then after a few seconds the discouragement in her voice would tell me that no news was certainly not good news. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 1 3


Around four I finally gave up the pretense of trying to work and told Stacey to go home, that I’d lock up here at five and call her immediately if there was any news. She thanked me and quickly put on her coat, but at the door she hesitated for just a minute. “Uh, Mr. Klein?” she asked tentatively. I thought I knew what she was going to say. King and I had promised her a decent Christmas bonus based on our profitable year. Now, unless the King suddenly reappeared no worse for wear, I would have to reconsider. I was now the de facto head of the company, and the business had to be my main concern. “I just want you to know,” she continued, a little more resolutely now, “that I don’t hold you to any promises under the circumstances. But if worst comes to worst,” she trembled a little and tears filled her eyes. “I just want to know if I’m still going to have a job after the holidays. I just want to know about my Christmas shopping.” I went over and put my arm around her shoulders and with the other hand applied a handkerchief to her face. “Hey, don’t you worry about a thing, kiddo,” I said with a fake grin. “You’re my right arm, you know that. And even if, well, you know, worst-case scenario, I have no intention of closing the office. Why, we’ll have to work even harder next year. So get out there and shop ‘til you drop!” She kissed me lightly on the cheek and ran out of the office. At five I called Glory. Since she had no news either, I told her I’d pick her up in about an hour. Then I called Mandelbaum. He told me his people hadn’t come up with anything from the jails or hospitals. I gave him Horvath’s address in the Bronx and told him I’d appreciate meeting his two officers there at about seven. Then I locked up the D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 1 4


office and went around the corner to the parking garage to ransom the Volvo. It was still snowing. As Mona had said this morning, so what else is new? It was nearly six-thirty when I finally got to White Plains and honked my horn in front of the Kingston residence. In about three seconds Glory was out the door and into the car. Poor kid, she must have been standing by the door in her heavy coat for nearly half an hour. “Sorry about the delay,” I told her as I drove toward the freeway entrance. “The combination of the weather and the holiday season’s pretty lethal for the traffic situation.” I turned my head slightly and caught a glimpse of her stillbeautiful face wreathed by the hood of her fur coat. I realized it had been months since I’d seen her, and I couldn’t ever remember being alone with her for more than a few moments. I forced my eyes back on the road, both for safety and to avoid temptation. “So, no news, huh?” I asked her quickly. “How are you holding up? And how are the kids taking it?” “Me? I don’t know. I guess I’m still in shock,” she told me in a small voice. “The kids—well, Matt Jr. is sure his father embezzled millions from the company and, in his words, ‘took it on the lam’.” I laughed a little at that. “As if he had to. I’m the one should be embezzling, with the miserable pittance I pay myself.” She patted me on the shoulder and gave me a look that made me feel warm all over, despite the Volvo’s malfunctioning heater, and said, “You always did have modest tastes, Manny. Unlike Matthew. I’m sure most of the company profits find their way into his pocket one way or another.” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 1 5


“That used to be the case,” I told her honestly. “But in the last few years we’ve been making more money than even your husband can manage to spend.” “But the worst part,” she said, becoming serious again, “is Steffie. She’s heartbroken over this. She thinks it means her father doesn’t love her any more. Me, I don’t know what to think.” “Well, don’t worry. We’re gonna confront this guy Horvath. I got two cops gonna meet us there. If this guy knows anything, the cops’ll get it out of him.” By the time we reached Horvath’s modest twobedroom house in a rundown section of the Bronx, it was already after seven-thirty and the driveway and street were full of cars. I had called the company lawyer, Goldberg, and his Caddy was parked in the driveway behind a battered old pickup truck, while a police car and a couple of other vehicles I didn’t recognize were parked on either side of the driveway. I had to park across the street. I led Glory up the steps and rang the doorbell. It was answered by a little old lady of about sixty, I guess, with gray hair and a plump, cheerful face. She looked like everybody’s grandmother, or at least what everybody wants their grandmother to look like. After asking our names, she ushered us into a large living room that she called the “parlor”. We must have been the last to arrive, because Grandma (who I later learned was Hazel, Horvath’s wife) had to get two chairs from the kitchen for us to sit on. I looked around the room. There were eight of us altogether, including me and Glory. My lawyer, Goldberg, seated in a stuffed armchair to the right of a large sofa, gave me a nod as we entered. The two cops were uncomfortably sharing a piano bench across the room, watching the action. In a D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 1 6


large chair to the left of the sofa was a nervous-looking little man I found out later was Horvath’s lawyer. On the sofa, directly across from Glory and me, sat Anton Horvath himself, in quiet splendor. His wife Hazel, after bustling about serving coffee and other beverages to everyone, had settled herself at his side. “Welcome to my humble home,” he said in a deep yet soft voice. He stood up and gave a slight bow. “It appears that some of you suspect that I could be of service to you in your time of trouble.” He nodded toward the two policemen. “I am quite willing to cooperate by providing any information that I can. I am completely at your disposal.” I was impressed. This was the first time I had ever seen Horvath in person, though I had spoken with him several times on the phone. I could see why they called him Big Tony. He stood about a foot taller than me and probably outweighed me by a hundred pounds. His closecropped gray hair and his weatherbeaten but still-striking face revealed a person who had done hard physical work in severe outdoor climates for nearly all his life. His hands were big and rough-knuckled, with flat stubby fingers. Looking at those hands I understood why, even after nearly a half-century of hard work, he still went out on service calls and left his assistant in the office. I couldn’t imagine those hands ever doing anything as delicate as paperwork or filing. He was still speaking. “Since I am the host, let us have introductions. Me, I think you know. For those that don’t, I’m Anton Horvath, and this is my wife, Hazel.” She smiled and nodded to the group. Horvath pointed to the chair on his left. “Over there, we have my lawyer, Pinsky.” Pinsky’s D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 1 7


face was expressionless as he nodded almost imperceptibly. Horvath looked to his right. “And you, sir?” “Artie Goldberg, I’m also a lawyer.” He inclined his head in my direction. “I represent the firm of Kingston & Klein.” I grinned at him reassuringly and he grinned back, looking surprisingly boyish in his dark three-piece suit and unruly shock of light brown hair. “And finally, you two.” He pointed across the room to us and we stood up. “I’m Manny Klein, founding partner of Kingston & Klein,” I told the room. “And this is Gloria Kingston, my partner Matthew Kingston’s wife.” As Horvath sat down, apparently satisfied with the introductions, the two policemen stood up, although no one was paying any attention to them. One of the cops spoke in a loud voice, “Mr. Klein, you must be the guy that got us sent over here. What’s this all about, anyway? Somethin’ about some guy gone missin’?” I nodded my head. “Right, my partner Matthew Kingston. He’s been missing since last night. And this guy,” I pointed dramatically at Horvath, “this guy is the last guy to have seen him. I wanna know what you did with my partner, Mr. Horvath!” I hoped I sounded braver than I felt. “Wait a minute, wait a minute, we’ll ask the questions here,” said the cop who had previously spoken. “Let’s do this official. I’m Officer Blake Williams, Missing Persons, and this here is my partner, Milt Johnson.” Johnson nodded. “Milt don’t talk much,” said Williams, “but he’s got a photographic memory, right Milt?” Johnson tapped a finger against his skull and nodded. “Okay, then,” said Williams to the room. “Mrs. Kingston, when did you last see your husband?” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 1 8


“Yesterday morning,” replied Glory promptly. “At about nine o’clock. He went to work as usual.” “Mr. Klein, you say Mr. Kingston got to work okay yesterday, right?” “Right, officer, everything as usual. And that evening he was supposed to have a meeting with Mr. Horvath here at eight o’clock. When I left, a little after six, Mr. Kingston was in his office waiting for Mr. Horvath.” “So Mr. Horvath,” continued Williams, “you met with Mr. Kingston as planned?” “That’s correct, officer. I got there right on time and left a little after eight-thirty. When I left, Mr. Kingston was still in his office.” “He didn’t say anything about where he was going, what his plans were?” “No, we didn’t talk about that. I figured he was going home to his wife. That’s what I did. Got home a little after ten. Isn’t that right, Hazel?” “That’s right, officer,” Hazel supplied. “Well,” said Williams, getting to his feet again. “That seems perfectly straightforward. Unless you can think of something else…?” “Wait a minute!” I cried out. “Officer Williams, can I ask Mr. Horvath some questions?” “Suit yourself, Mr. Klein,” said Williams, sitting back down again with some reluctance. “Mr. Horvath, isn’t it true that you were the one who wanted the meeting with Mr. Kingston?” “Yes, that’s true,” replied Horvath. “Tell Officers Williams and Johnson why you wanted this meeting.” “Well,’ said Horvath slowly, “a few days ago I received D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 1 9


a notice in the mail. It said that my shop had been sold by my old realty company, Detleff & Schrempf, and bought by Kingston & Klein. This notice from Kingston & Klein said that because my lease was up at the end of the year, I was going to have to sign a new one. The notice also said that they were going to make all kinds of improvements to the property and in return, I was going to have to pay five thousand a month instead of one thousand which is what I pay now.” Hazel let out a gasp. “Tony,” she said in a terrified voice, “you never told me. Why, we could never afford that.” “I know,” said Horvath, patting her hand. “That’s why I wanted the meeting with Mr. Kingston. I was hoping I could talk him out of makin’ all those improvements and keep the rent down to somethin’ I could afford.” “So, what happened at the meeting then, Mr. Horvath?” I asked in what I hoped was a nonchalant manner. “I asked Mr. Kingston just what I said. About how he could forget those improvements and maybe keep the rent down. He just laughed at me, said your company had a reputation to uphold, that they couldn’t afford to manage no substandard properties.” “That’s the King I know,” I whispered to Glory. She smiled slightly. Goldberg and I exchanged knowing looks. “But then a funny thing happened,” continued Horvath. “Mr. Kingston went over to the window and looked out at the snow. When he came back to his desk, he looked kinda thoughtful and somehow changed. He said to me, ‘Mr. Horvath, I’ve changed my mind. Since it’s almost Christmas time and you must be getting on in years’ (I’m D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 2 0


sixty-five), ‘I’m gonna make you a compromise. You sign a paper saying we don’t have to do none of those improvements, and I’ll let you lease the property until you want to retire for only fifteen hundred a month. How does that sound?’ he asked me. I told him it sounded pretty good to me and that I was ready to put my name to it. He looked around the office and said he couldn’t find the company lease forms, so he said it was okay, that I could sign a blank one and fill in the terms to suit myself and give it to him in the morning. But then I heard he was missing.” Goldberg and I both leaped to our feet. “May I see that lease, Mr. Horvath?” said Goldberg. “Why sure,” said Horvath. “I figured you gentlemen would like to see it, so I’ve got it right here.” He went to a table and opened a drawer, taking from it a rather crumpled legal-sized white document. Goldberg snatched it from him, and we both stood over in a corner, staring at the signature on the lease. “What do you think, Artie?” I asked him. “I think the King has lost his mind,” replied Goldberg, the horror in his voice increasing as he read the terms over and over. “Any possibility this signature could be forged?” I looked at it closely. I wanted to say, “Yes, yes, it’s a damned forgery, throw this guy in jail.” But I couldn’t. Because there, staring at me like an evil eye, was the mockingly authentic signature of Matthew Kingston.

D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 2 1


PART FIVE TRANSITIONS

M

atthew quickly settled into his job at Nick’s Café. Under the tutelage of Julio, his dishwashing soon became so automatic that his conscious attention ceased to be a requirement. His days became as routine and regulated as a prisoner’s. Every night at about eleven o’clock he would wake up on his cot in the little storeroom, go out into the dining area and eat his breakfast. There were few customers at that time of night, so he attracted little attention. After finishing his breakfast he would go back to the kitchen and relieve Julio, who had the four to midnight shift. There he would mindlessly clean and sterilize the dishes, scrub the pots, restock the counter with clean dishes, and provide any necessary cleanup of spills in the dining area when requested to do so by the night waitress, Ruby. Around 4AM he would take a break to eat his lunch, and when 8AM finally rolled around, he would wait impatiently for his relief, a rather simpleminded giant of a man named Jim who possessed an unpronounceable Polish D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 2 2


last name, and who everyone called Iggy. He would invariably greet Matthew in the same way, saying “Hey, John, how’s it hangin’?” while tying on his apron. Matthew soon learned the correct response. “It’s hangin’ okay, Iggy, how’s yours?” at which rejoinder Iggy would always burst out laughing and say “That’s a good one, John!” as if he had never heard it before. And so the days (or nights rather) slowly passed. He saw little of Nick, for Nick usually arrived in the morning about the time Matthew was getting off shift. On their infrequent meetings, however, Nick would grin broadly at Matthew, clap him on the shoulder with the force of a pile driver, and boom out heartily “Is going okay, John?” and when Matthew would nod in the affirmative, Nick would say “Good, good!” and clap him on the shoulder again. Then Matthew would take his leave, retire to the storeroom, and try to work the kinks out of his aching shoulder. By the time his first night off came around, the following Monday, Matthew had worked four shifts and was the proud possessor of about ninety dollars. He woke that day at about five in the afternoon, and after breakfasting he found himself alone with his thoughts. He immediately realized two things: 1) that he had ninety dollars in his pocket and nothing to do until Tuesday midnight; and 2) he had literally not been outside since he had walked into the café four days earlier. He immediately went to his room and pulled on his overcoat. He had a desire to see the outside world again. Outside it was already dark. Though the sky was clear, there were still banks of snow piled up against the curbs where the streets had been plowed. Matthew stood on the D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 2 3


sidewalk and took a deep breath of the cold sharp evening air. He looked east down St. Marks Place. Holiday lights and decorations were hung from and attached to every possible surface. Crowds of harried holiday shoppers in their heavy winter furs were hurrying from shop to shop, back and forth across the street, heedless of the honkings of the motorists who were trying desperately to make it through the next intersection before the traffic light turned red. Lovers were meeting and embracing at the entrances of warm and inviting pubs and cafés, laughing as they crossed the thresholds. Stolid Salvation Army bell ringers were to be seen here and there, wringing what few coins they could from the preoccupied passersby. It was nearly Christmas 1986, and it seemed to Matthew that the whole world was filled with warmth and purpose. He resolved that he should have a purpose, too, and strode briskly down St. Marks Place. Spotting a discount clothing store, Matthew entered and within a few minutes had bought some essentials— underwear, socks, a few more shirts and a couple of pairs of pants—for he realized that he had been wearing the same clothing the last four days. He then went further down the street to a Walgreen’s and bought some toiletries— toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant and cologne. He felt his face; a full beard was just starting to grow in. He looked in a mirror at the cosmetics counter, found he liked the beard, and decided not to shave for a while. Then he took his purchases back to his room and stashed them under his cot. By seven o’clock he was back out on the street again. He still had over fifty dollars in his pocket and the night was his. He walked east down St. Marks Place once again, passing several bars. The sight of them made him suddenly D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 2 4


realized that he had had nothing alcoholic to drink since he had started work. He decided that he deserved a celebratory tipple to commemorate his new job and the season, and entered a bar called the Holiday Lounge, reasoning that its name was fitting for this time of year. Inside the bar all was colored lights and loud, boisterous conversation. Through the thick haze of cigarette smoke Matthew could see people of every possible age, description and ethnic background crowded around the bar, waving fistfuls of money in the air and yelling out various drink orders to a female bartender in a black leather miniskirt, low-cut frilly blouse, and fishnet stockings and black Doc Martens. She wore a gold nose ring which complemented her spiky orange hair, and every now and then she paused between putting drinks on the bar and collecting the money to tell some particularly loud and persistent customer to “Shut the fuck up! You’ll get yours in a minute!” Matthew attempted to elbow his way to the bar. He had just managed to work his way to within waving and shouting distance when his left hand accidentally struck the forearm of a man who was just turning away from the bar carrying a drink in each hand. With bourbon and soda streaming down his face, the man glared menacingly at Matthew. “Watch where you’re goin’, asshole,” he snarled. “I oughta kick your ass!” “I’m terribly sorry,” said a mortified Matthew. He quickly grabbed some napkins from the bar and began dabbing frantically at the man’s face and jacket. The man waved away Matthew’s attempts to remedy the situation and said in a softer tone, “Hell, that’s okay, buddy. I guess accidents can happen in a crowd like this. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 2 5


And I shouldn’t get pissed off so easy anyway.” He looked ruefully at his two empty glasses. “Damn! Now I gotta order all over again.” He reached a large, hairy-knuckled paw across the bar, stopping the bartender in her tracks. “Honey,” he said apologetically, “I know it ain’t my turn, but we had a little accident here.” Matthew broke in. “At least let me pay for your drinks.” He waved a twenty under the bartender’s nose. The man looked at Matthew. “That’s real good of you, mister.” He turned back to the bartender. She was eyeing him coldly, as his hand was still clamped firmly onto her forearm. “Give me two more bourbon and sodas on the rocks. And whatever this guy is drinking.” He pointed to Matthew with his other hand. “Uh, scotch and water,” replied Matthew. “You got it, ape man,” said the bartender, sullenly snatching Matthew’s twenty. When she had gone, the man stuck out his hand to Matthew. “I’m Lenny,” he said, crushing Matthew’s hand in his own. “Uh, John,” replied Matthew, wincing a bit. “Good ta meetcha, John!” Just then the bartender returned with the three drinks and laid down two fives, two ones, and two quarters change on the bar. Matthew started to collect it, but Lenny put a large paw on his hand. “It’s up to you, buddy, but I’d leave a five on the bar, considerin’ we went outa turn. That is, if you want to get another drink tonight.” Matthew agreed and pocketed the seven-fifty change. He picked up his drink and was about to walk toward the other end of the bar when Lenny stopped him. “Hey, buddy, why don’t you come meet my pal. We got D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 2 6


a table over there by the video games.” He pointed to the rear of the bar, to a small table where a small man was sitting. The small man waved at Lenny, who waved back and then led an unprotesting Matthew back to the table with him. When they reached their destination, Lenny grabbed an empty chair from the next table and motioned Matthew to sit down. Then Lenny said to his small friend, “Joey, this is John. John, Joey.” “Pleased ta meetcha, John,” said Joey, sticking out his hand to Matthew. “Ain’t seen you in here before,” remarked Lenny, swirling the ice in his drink and then taking a tentative sip. “You new in the neighborhood?” “Um, yeah,” said Matthew. “I just started work up the street a few days ago, in fact.” “Terrific!” said Lenny enthusiastically. “What kinda job?” “I’m working at a place called Nick’s Café. Up around Third.” “Hey, that’s a real coincidence,” Lenny beamed. “We eat there all the time. Don’t we, Joey?” Joey nodded. “So whattaya do? Cook? Busboy?” “Uh, I’m afraid I’m just a dishwasher,” answered Matthew, blushing slightly with embarrassment. “Midnight to eight, at that. This is my night off.” Lenny and Joey exchanged knowing looks. Then Joey looked Matthew meaningfully in the eye. “Don’t ever be ashamed of having a decent job,” he said earnestly. “Yeah,” Lenny offered. “I’m an auto mechanic. Work at a garage up on Broadway near Cooper Union. Grease jobs is my specialty. And body work.” He winked at Matthew. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 2 7


“Looks like you don’t need any tools,” said Matthew, looking at Lenny’s massive arms and grinning for the first time. “I like you, pal, you got a sense of humor.” Lenny clapped Matthew on the back. “Guess how Joey here earns his daily bread.” “I don’t know,” said Matthew. “Clerk, salesman?” “Nah!” Joey stood up and flexed his muscles proudly. “I’m a garbage man. Been workin’ for the city for fifteen years. Good job, regular work, great benefits, including a full pension in five years if I want to retire.” He bowed to Lenny’s enthusiastic applause and sat down again. “So, what have we got here?” said Lenny slowly, emphasizing each word. “An auto mechanic, a garbage man, and a dishwasher. Noble professions all.” “Yeah,” put in Joey. “Ask all the rich bankers and stock market guys where they’d be if they didn’t have nobody to fix their cars—” he pointed at Lenny--“pick up their garbage—” he tapped himself on the chest--“or keep their fancy restaurants open—” he pointed to Matthew. “‘Cause a restaurant can’t stay open without clean dishes, can it?” He drained the last of his drink and noticed Lenny looking at him meaningfully. “Oh, yeah,” he said apologetically. “My round, ain’t it? I’ll be right back.” And so it went, far into the night. With every round Matthew became more and more confident and talkative, but less and less coherent. His new friends, however, didn’t seem to notice. They laughed at his jokes, listened to his stories, and bought two out of every three rounds. By the time midnight arrived, they found themselves dancing vigorously with three young punk chicks to the music of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts singing “I Love Rock & Roll”. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 2 8


Three o’clock found them stumbling up St. Marks Place together, nipping from a pint bottle of Jack Daniels that Lenny had miraculously produced from his coat pocket. When they arrived at Nick’s Café, they shook hands all around and wished each other many Merry Christmases and Happy New Years. Matthew let himself in by the back entrance unnoticed and quietly retired to the little storeroom which had become his home. As he pulled off his boots, turned off the light, and lay down on his cot, he noticed that he was very drunk. But for literally the first time that he could remember, he also noticed that he felt good about himself. Is this who I really am, he wondered idly as he fell asleep with a smile on his face. 2.

T

he day after the spectacularly uneventful meeting at Horvath’s house was Friday. Since I didn’t want a repeat of yesterday either for Stacey or myself, I decided to shut up shop for the weekend. I called Stacey and told her not to bother coming in until Monday, emphasizing that I’d let her know first thing if there was any news, and also reassuring her that no, her job was not in danger. Then I hung up the phone and thought to myself, geez, now I gotta tell Mona what’s going on. I tried to steel myself for the task, but I chickened out. So, rather than hang around the house all day, inviting unwanted questions from Mona, I decided to pretend to go to the office as usual. In reality I thought I’d drive into Manhattan, maybe do a little shopping in the morning, have lunch at Katz’s Deli, then go see Mandelbaum in the afternoon. That should fill up the day quite nicely. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 2 9


You see, the reason I’m delaying telling Mona is that, quite frankly, I never saw a situation she didn’t overreact to. Her procedure is to first get very emotional, second ask a series of unanswerable questions, and then finally to hold me personally responsible for whatever went wrong. So I decided to wait until the weekend to tell her about the King’s disappearance on the off-chance that she’d be a little more mellow then. As I drove across the bridge into Manhattan with a sunny blue sky above and the holiday spirit in the air, I reflected that I would be one happy fella if it weren’t for the King and his ill-timed departure. There was also the matter of a blown three-million-dollar business deal which I would have to deal with before the new year. After disposing of the first two items on my agenda, I drove the short distance from Katz’s to the old Twelfth Precinct building on East Fifth in the not-so-trendy part of the East Village to see Lt. Irving Mandelbaum, head of the NYPD Missing Persons Investigative Unit. When I entered the building I found myself walking into a scene straight out of an old Barney Miller television episode. Two plainclothes detectives were sitting at a desk smoking pipes and playing chess. A uniformed sergeant was lounging against a rear wall, messily devouring a large slice of pizza, while two prisoners in ragged clothes who had been locked in the same cell were, I swear to God, arguing about the respective merits of the philosophies of Hegel and Kant. Tempted though I was to hear how the debate was going to come out, I decided to forego that pleasure to try to find out if there was any more news about my missing partner. I identified myself to the desk sergeant (who turned out to be the pizza eater), and he pointed me upstairs with D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 3 0


a bored gesture. I had never been in the building before, much less upstairs, so it took me a few minutes to find Irv’s office. It was a small room tucked away in the back of the third floor, just behind the staircase. I rapped on the door just below the frosted glass window that bore the inscription “Lt. Irving Mandelbaum, Missing Persons Bureau” in small black letters. “Come in!” barked Irv’s voice from inside. I opened the door. There were two small desks facing each other near the entrance, one on either side of the small office. The desks could have been mirror images of each other, so identical were their heaped piles of paper, black telephones, and gray metal waste baskets overflowing with crumpled pieces of paper. At each desk was seated a colorless little man in white shirt sleeves, dark necktie, and closely-shaven face and head. Mandelbaum was seated at a slightly larger desk in the back, talking into his telephone. I didn’t want to interrupt him, so I took a few minutes to survey the scene. In addition to the three desks there were a few straightbacked wooden chairs against the wall near the office door. The floor was mostly covered by cracked linoleum of a nondescript color, but here and there some patches of bare unfinished hardwood showed through. The only other feature of the office besides bad fluorescent lighting was the row of tall four-drawer filing cabinets that completely lined the walls on the other three sides of the room. They were of the old-fashioned steel kind, a hideous olive green in color. They looked like Second World War Army surplus and probably were. As I stood by the door taking in this scene, the two clerks paid me no attention whatsoever. They were each D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 3 1


pushing the piles of paper around on their desks, as if to try to get them into some kind of order that was not apparent to the untrained eye. Every now and then a particular piece of paper would seem to displease one of them, and it would be vigorously crumpled and consigned to the already overflowing trash can at the side of his desk. Occasionally one of the phones would ring and the clerk would pick it up and mutter two or three unintelligible (to me) words into the receiver and then hang up without waiting for a response. As I watched, first one and then the other clerk would jump up from his chair at random intervals and run over to one or another of the filing cabinets clutching a handful of papers. Then there would be a short period of opening and slamming various file drawers after which the clerk, apparently satisfied, would return to his desk with or without the handful of papers. To me it was all quite astonishing and I watched with interest for what must have been about five or ten minutes, after which Irv finally hung up the phone. “Manny!” He called out, recognizing me from across the room. “Come on in! Excuse me for keeping you waiting!” “No problem, Irv.” I pulled one of the straight-backed chairs over to his desk and sat down, still attracting no attention from the frantically busy clerks. “Quite an office you got here. You don’t mean to tell me that this is the whole Missing Persons Unit, do you? Where’s what’s-theirnames? You know, the two cops you sent over to Horvath’s last night?” “Oh, you must mean Williams and Johnson. They’re out working on your missing partner’s case right now. Fact is, that was Williams on the phone just now. It’s sort of a D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 3 2


good news-bad news kinda deal.” “Shoot,” I said, leaning back and crossing my legs. “Okay, let’s review. Stop me if I get anything wrong.” I nodded. “The meeting between Horvath and Kingston was set for 8PM Wednesday. Day before yesterday.” “Right,” I agreed. “I left about 6:45. That’s the last time I saw him.” “Okay, so Horvath’s evidence is that he arrived at your office right about 8PM. They had their meeting, and Horvath left about 8:30, 8:45, at which time he says Kingston was still in the office. We checked with Horvath’s wife. She says she was upstairs in bed when her husband came home, but that she heard him arrive shortly before ten.” Mandelbaum grinned. “Says she knows the sound of that old truck of his anywhere, and I believe her. Plus, his time of arrival at his home in the Bronx checks with the time it would have taken him to get there if he left your office when he said he did.” I cut in impatiently. “Yeah, Irv, we know all that already. What’s the good news and bad news stuff?” “I’m coming to that,” said Mandelbaum a little stiffly. He slowly took a swig from a paper cup of coffee. He was obviously a bit miffed. He put the cup down and decided to continue. “Well, Manny, the good news is that there are no signs of foul play. My two guys checked out your offices and the surrounding area for any kind of clues. Don’t worry,” he said hurriedly as I started to protest, “they didn’t disturb or confiscate nothing. But here’s the bad news. We have a procedure where we check out all available forms of transportation that the missing person could have used. You say Kingston didn’t drive his car into the city, right?” “Right,” I agreed. “The guy hates to drive in the snow. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 3 3


He doesn’t even drive in the rain if he can help it.” “Okay, then. So we checked with all the taxi companies and limo services in the City and we hit pay dirt. The dispatcher at the Yellow Cab Company got a call to pick up a Matthew Kingston at the Woolworth Building on Broadway at eight-thirty that night. The dispatcher said that she received the call about seven and that a guy had called it in.” “Yeah, yeah,” I put in. “That all fits. Glory, Mr. Kingston’s wife, said he was supposed to get over to their kids’ high school as fast as he could that night. So that’s why he would have had the cab waiting for him. At that point he’d rather waste money than time. So what happened to the cab?” “Well, here’s the weird part,” said Irv thoughtfully. “The company sent the cab over as ordered. Williams questioned the driver, an Iranian, doesn’t speak much English. But as far as he could understand him, the driver said he arrived at your building within a few minutes of eight-thirty. He was promised a long trip, so he waited until about nine-thirty with the engine idling for heat. Nobody showed.” “So what do you think it all means, Irv?” I asked him, puzzled by this turn of events. “It’s a little too early to tell,” said Mandelbaum cautiously, “but we do know a few things. One, Kingston left his office between eight-thirty and a quarter of nine. We have the word of the security guard on that. Kingston was alone, and he didn’t say anything to the guard. Two, and this is the suspicious part, he ordered a cab at seven o’clock. Dispatcher asked him his destination and he said White Plains. So at seven o’clock he clearly meant to go join D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 3 4


his wife and kids. But less than two hours later he walks out of the office alone, ignores the cab waiting with its motor running, and goes off to God knows where. And that,” said Mandelbaum with a sigh, “is all we got so far.” “So,” I said, standing up and leaning over the desk to look Mandelbaum in the eye, “between seven and nine something caused Mr. Kingston to completely change his mind about his whole life? I don’t think so. And then there’s the matter of Horvath’s lease. I won’t go into the details, Irv, but Mr. Kingston made a very bad mistake by signing that lease for those terms. A uniquely bad mistake. We been partners for twelve years now, Irv, me and Mr. Kingston, and he’s never screwed up a deal like that. Never!” I was getting worked up now. “Horvath, it all comes back to that guy Horvath. He was the only person to see Mr. Kingston between seven and nine. Something’s not kosher here, Irv, and Horvath’s got to have the answer. I know it! Can’t you bring him in, Irv, question him some more? Can’t you do something?” “Manny, Manny!” Mandelbaum got up, put his hands on my shoulders and pushed me back down into the chair. “This guy Horvath’s got a business and a family. We checked him out. He’s a goddamned pillar of the community, for Christ’s sake! We’ll see what develops. If anything points the finger at Anton Horvath, we’ll bust him quicker than you can say mazel tov. Besides, he ain’t goin’ nowhere. He just signed a new lease, remember?” “Yeah, okay.” I was beginning to calm down. I got up. “Thanks for the info, Irv. Keep in touch,” I said by way of apology. “Sure thing, Manny. I’ll let you know the minute anything turns up.” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 3 5


I walked out of the office, down the stairs, and out of the police station. What on earth could have possessed the King to screw up like that and then just walk away? I had no clues. I felt as helpless as I’m sure Glory did. And I still had to face the prospect of a heart-to-heart with Mona. I was one lucky fella, all right. Yeah, sure I was. 3.

A

ll through the following week Matthew impatiently counted the days remaining before his next day off. As he told Julio, he couldn’t remember having a better time in his life. “That must be some bar!” Julio exclaimed as Matthew excitedly told him about his two new friends, the drinking and dancing, and even the three young punk chicks. “Where is this place, man?” “It’s just right down the street. I think it’s called, er, the Holiday Lounge.” “The Holiday Lounge? This is your great nightspot? Bullshit, man, that place is strictly for losers. I got to educate you, amigo.” “What’s wrong with the Holiday Lounge?” asked Matthew, clearly disappointed. “That place is way too seventies, man. Look, you save up your money and next week I’ll take you to a really happening place I know. I’ll trade shifts with Iggy,” Julio said as Matthew started to protest. “He don’t care when he works as long as he gets paid.” “You know, Julio,” said Matthew tentatively. “I’ve been meaning to ask you. How old are you, anyway? You look too young to be, what did Nick call you again, the D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 3 6


kitchen manager.” “I’m eighteen,” said Julio proudly, drawing himself up to his full height of five foot four. “John, you want to know about me, I’ll tell you my story. Here, let’s sit down.” He dragged two stools up near the dish sterilizer where no one could see them and pulled two cigarettes out of his shirt pocket. He gave one to Matthew and lit it for him with a silver Zippo lighter embossed with a New York Mets emblem, and then lit his own. “John,” he said, taking an extravagant drag off his cigarette. “You’re probably twice as old as me. What are you, thirty, thirty five?” “That, that’s pretty close,” said Matthew in some confusion. “I’m the kitchen manager, you’re the night dishwasher. You’ve probably lived here all your life, right? I mean, in this country. English is your only language, verdad?” He went on without waiting for an answer. “Like I said, I’m eighteen. I been in this country six months. I’ll never talk English like you, John.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “I’m an illegal, man. But look what I got!” He pulled a wallet out of his pants and showed Matthew the contents. “Look, a fake Social Security card. A fake drivers license with my picture, says I’m twenty-two. A BankAmericard.” He replaced the wallet in his pocket. “I also got a Citibank checking account. I am respectable, man. I been workin’ for Nick four months now,” he stood up and pointed his cigarette at Matthew. “And never once have I missed a shift or even been late. And you want to know why, John? Because I want to be somebody. I got six brothers an’ four sisters back in Mexico, man, an’ all of them got food on their table ‘cause of me. This hombre,” he tapped himself on the chest, “is goin’ places, John. So when D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 3 7


I tell you the best way to scrub a pot or mop the floor, you better believe me, man, ‘cause I know. And when I show you where to go to have a good time, you better believe that, too. Comprende?” “Comprende,” said Matthew, visibly impressed. “You’re off next Monday night, John, and that’s the Monday before Christmas. So we go out together. I’ll show you a really swingin’ place an’ you buy the drinks. Deal?” “Deal,” said Matthew. Julio shook his hand, ground out his cigarette butt on the floor, and left the kitchen. Matthew went back to the sink and started washing dishes, already counting down the days until Monday. 4.

T

here was a knock on the storeroom door. “Hey, John, you ready, man?” Matthew quickly opened the door. “Wow! You look great, Julio.” Julio was dressed in a shiny black leather jacket, unzipped to reveal a black silk shirt beneath. Tight black leather pants with a wide, silver-studded belt and high-heeled black boots completed the picture. Julio grinned and made a low bow. “Sorry I can’t say the same thing about you, amigo.” Matthew in contrast was wearing a loose plaid flannel shirt with gray cotton twill work pants and brown construction-worker type boots. “Oh well, maybe you’ll find a chick that digs the lumberjack look.” He winked at Matthew and started toward the rear door of the café. “Vamonos, hombre, let’s get going. The chicks are waiting.” He took out a large pocket comb and ran it through his thick black hair, then replaced the comb and patted his hair D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 3 8


twice. Then they were out the door. In the week since Matthew had been outside the weather had changed. The air was noticeably milder, resulting in the gradual thawing of the once deep piles of snow and ice that covered the city. In the gutters were slushy pools of dirty water, evidence of a drainage system blocked by a variety of debris, both natural and man-made. The thin skins of ice that formed over these pools as the nighttime temperature again dropped below freezing made stepping off the curb treacherous indeed. One false step resulted in one or both legs submerged to the knee in icy cold water. It appeared that the citizens of New York would have, rather than the White Christmas they all hoped for, yet another gray slushy Christmas. Matthew and Julio reached their destination without incident, however, and soon found themselves outside a small, grimy-looking brick building on Avenue A between St. Marks and Ninth. There was a short line in front of the door, consisting mostly of white kids in their early twenties. Julio motioned Matthew to get in line. “What is this place?” Matthew asked him. “Why, man, this is the famous Pyramid Club. They got the best disco and salsa bands in the whole city. And for cheap, too. Cover is only ten bucks.” Julio did a few dance steps, twirled around deftly on the sidewalk, and stuck out his hand to Matthew, palm up. Matthew sighed and gave him a twenty. They were near the head of the line now, and Matthew noticed that ID’s were being checked at the door. “Julio,” he leaned over and whispered anxiously in his ear. “I just remembered. I don’t have any ID. Lost it a couple weeks ago and, uh, haven’t had a chance to replace it. What am I D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 3 9


going to do?” Julio laughed. “That’s rich, John!” He slapped Matthew on the back. “I’m the illegal and you don’t got no ID. But don’t worry, man, I know this guy. You just keep your mouth shut and Julio take care of you.” By this time they had reached the head of the line. Julio pulled out his ID and handed it to the doorman along with Matthew’s twenty. “Hey Pablo, how’s it hangin’, amigo?” He flashed a big grin and put his other hand on Matthew’s arm. “I want you to meet a good friend of mine, Pablo. This is John. John and me work together, man.” Pablo shook Matthew’s hand. “Sure, go on in, you guys,” he said, pocketing the twenty and returning Julio’s ID. “Nice to see you again, amigo,” he said to Julio. Once inside, Matthew looked around. There was a large dance floor over which hung a revolving mirror ball and hundreds of rotating colored lights. Behind the dance floor was a small stage on which a five-piece Latin band in white tuxedos with purple trim and bow ties were playing Deodato’s version of “Thus Sprach Zarathustra” with a salsa beat. The place was about half full and only a handful of couples were on the dance floor, moving languidly to the music. The dance floor was flanked by numerous small nightclub tables at which a number of young couples were drinking and laughing. Between these seating areas, near the entrance to the club, was a large bar where a boredlooking bartender in a white jacket was serving drinks. Julio led Matthew to an empty table and they sat down. “Only about ten o’clock,” he said, checking his watch. “By eleven-thirty this place’ll be packed.” He looked around for a cocktail waitress, but before he could flag one down to order drinks, a small dark woman in a red tightD e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 4 0


fitting minidress and impossibly high stiletto heels came running over to their table and threw her arms around Julio’s neck. “Julio, mi amor! Where you been hiding?” she exclaimed, kissing him several times on the lips and in the process leaving several smudges of bright red lipstick on his face. Julio grinned and gently removed her arms from his neck. She sat down beside him and began doing something with her hands beneath the table. “John, this is Graciela.” Julio reddened slightly and grinned even wider. “Ain’t she a hot little number?” Matthew nodded his assent, rendered speechless by her boldness. “Why don’t you be a good guy, John, and go over to the bar and get us some drinks. What you drinkin’, chiquita?” Graciela disengaged herself and looked demurely at Matthew. “I’ll have a mai-tai,” she said in an exaggerated manner, showing him the tip of her tongue in the process. “Make it two,” said Julio, pulling a cigar out of his jacket pocket and lighting it with his Zippo. “Uh, right, two mai-tais it is, then,” said Matthew nervously. He got up quickly and hurried over to the bar. When he returned with the drinks a few minutes later, he found Julio and Graciela locked in a tight embrace and making a thorough exploration of each other’s oral cavities with their tongues. Neither of them seemed to notice Matthew or the drinks. Matthew wandered back over to the bar and sat down on a stool. He ordered a scotch and soda and sat there for a while, sipping in contemplation. He looked up and caught sight of himself in the mirror behind the bar. Look at me, he mused. His hair had grown a little longer and shaggier D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 4 1


in the nearly two weeks since he had been Matthew Kingston. His beard, he noticed, was growing in nicely, but was flecked with gray. His outdoor-style clothing made him look and feel quite out of place in this temple of youth and fashion. He finished his drink and ordered another. Drinks here, he noted ruefully, were five dollars each. He had already bought four. Add to that the twenty he had paid at the door, and he had already spent forty bucks just to sit alone at a bar and sip cheap scotch. He looked over toward the dance floor. Julio and Graciela were now dancing some frenetic kind of Latin disco. They waved at Matthew, who waved back. He found it made him tired just watching them. He sipped at his drink again and thought longingly of the Holiday Lounge where he had had so much fun a week ago. Even though there had been a highly diverse group of people there, he had not felt out of place the way he did here. He resolved to finish his drink and slip out quietly. The Holiday Lounge was only a few blocks up St. Marks. He could be there before eleven. He was just getting ready to leave when he felt a light tap on his shoulder. “Excuse me, sir,” said a soft voice behind him. “But do you know what time it is?” He turned around and saw to his surprise a tall blonde young woman wearing a form-fitting black vinyl jumpsuit with matching boots. She seemed extraordinarily beautiful to Matthew, and he stared openly at her for a few moments before replying, “I don’t have a watch, but it must be about a quarter to eleven.” “Darn!” exclaimed the woman, visibly upset. “I knew this would happen, I just knew it!” She sat down on an empty stool next to Matthew and continued. “I was supposed to meet my roommate down here at ten o’clock, D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 4 2


but I can’t seem to find her anywhere. I don’t suppose you noticed a short girl with a brown ponytail in a black biker’s jacket, have you?” Matthew shook his head. He desperately wanted to say something clever, but he blurted out, “I suppose the black biker wants his jacket back?” which was all he could think of at the moment. “Ha, ha,” she shook her finger at him. “Very funny. But seriously, I’m in a real jam here, mister. She’s always doing this to me. I never seem to learn. She probably went off with the first guy that noticed her. She begged me to come down here to keep an eye on her, you know, protect her from her worst instincts, even said she’d pay for the evening. So I rush down here, I’m half an hour late, it took like forever to get a cab, and she doesn’t even have the decency to wait. And the worst part is, I spent all my money on the cab down here. I don’t even have enough for one lousy drink!” She said all this in a breathless rush. When Matthew had a chance, he told her, “I’ll buy you a lousy drink. Or even a good drink. What would you like?” “Gee, mister,” she said with a dazzling smile. “That’s awfully nice of you. I’ll have a White Russian, if it’s not too much trouble.” “No trouble for me,” said Matthew with a grin. “But then, I’m not the bartender.” “You are a funny guy,” she said admiringly. Matthew ordered her drink and another scotch and soda for himself. “What should I call you, mister?” she asked as the bartender brought their drinks and collected Matthew’s money. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 4 3


“Uh John, John Black. You know, I hate to use such an old line, but in this case it’s really true. You look awfully familiar to me somehow, but I can’t say why.” “Um, do you go to the theater much?” she asked helpfully. “No, I haven’t been to a movie in ages. At least as far as I know,” he finished, half to himself. “No, no, I mean the real theater, the stage. I’m an actor, the name’s Barbara Mann.” She stuck out her hand and he shook it gently. She looked him up and down. “If you don’t mind my saying so, you really don’t look like the type of guy who hangs around a place like this. What brings you down here, anyway?” Matthew pointed over to Julio’s table. The dance number had stopped, and Julio and Graciela had sat down again. Matthew waved at Julio, who pumped his fist in the air and whistled his approval at seeing Matthew with a chick. “That guy over there brought me. I’ve never been in here before. It’s pretty expensive just for drinks and dancing, seems to me. But Julio’s kind of my boss, you see, and he wanted to show me a good time. So I didn’t want to seem ungrateful.” “Your boss?” said Barbara in astonishment. “That kid? What do you do, flip burgers at McDonalds?” “Almost that bad,” admitted Matthew with a grimace. “I wash dishes at a little café up on Third Avenue called Nick’s. Been there almost two weeks now.” As Matthew was saying this, the band finished their set, and the DJ, as if attempting to show that he could make more noise than they could, put the live version of “London’s Calling” by the Clash on the turntable and cranked up the volume to about nine point five. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 4 4


Barbara put her hands over her ears and shut her eyes tightly. “Whoa!” she yelled in Matthew’s ear. “I can’t even hear myself yell! That’s where I draw the line. Why don’t we get out of this hellhole?” “I was just thinking the same thing when you showed up,” Matthew yelled back. They quickly finished their drinks and hurried out the door onto the sidewalk. The contrasting silence was palpable. “So what do we do now?” asked Matthew after a few moments. He didn’t want to let her go, but he didn’t know what else to do or where to go. The confusion must have shown on his face, for Barbara said, “Thanks for bailing me out, John. As for what we do now, that depends.” She took him by the arm. “I hate to impose, but I’m sort of stranded down here without any money, ‘cause my place is way uptown. How are you fixed for cash?” Matthew checked his pockets. “I’ve still got almost sixty dollars,” he answered honestly, “and nothing particular to spend it on except getting drunk. Which I probably do far too often anyway.” Barbara’s face brightened. “Tell you what, John. It’s not snowing, it’s not too cold, and the sidewalk’s almost safe to walk on. Let’s go up to Second Avenue and catch a cab. I’m gonna take you to a party!” “A party?” asked Matthew. “What kind of people party on Monday night?” “Theater people, silly!” she replied. “Monday is the one night of the week that most theaters are dark.” “Dark?” Matthew was puzzled. “Yeah. You know. There’s no performance that night so the theater’s dark.” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 4 5


“Oh, I get it,” said Matthew, tapping his head. She laughed. “So anyway, this theatrical couple I know is throwing a big Christmas party tonight. I was gonna go, but my roommate begged me to come down here instead.” She rolled her eyes. “Well, so much for that!” She looked at him more seriously. You do know it’s three days before Christmas, don’t you?” “That I do know,” said Matthew. “They’ve got a huge loft in SoHo down on Spring Street. It can’t be much after eleven now, and their parties are famous for going all night. It’s not too far from here. We can get a cab and be there in a few minutes. Are you up for it?” “I’m game,” Matthew shrugged his shoulders, “If you think it’s okay me being dressed like this.” Barbara looked at him again. “Don’t worry,” she reassured him. “Everybody’ll think you’re just another eccentric actor. And if anybody asks,” she winked at him slyly. “Just tell them you’re one of the Village People.” Laughing easily with each other, Matthew and Barbara walked up to Second Avenue to find a cab. 5.

T

he weekend after the King’s disappearance I couldn’t seem to find anything I wanted to do. Regardless of what you might think about me because of my looks, age, profession or religious heritage, on the weekends I like to do “guy” things. Usually I can find a great deal of pleasure in washing and waxing the car, doing the odd handyman type of job around the house, or sometimes driving over to the nearest Sears store to have a D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 4 6


serious talk with the sales guy there about the latest power tools. On big sports weekends I can be happy just sitting for hours in the local sports bar, watching the game on the big-screen TV, drinking bad beer and listening to 250pound guys with names like Billy Bob scream like morons whenever a home run is hit or a touchdown scored. But this weekend I just couldn’t seem to get into it. On Saturday I tried to put up a cheerful front so Mona wouldn’t get suspicious, but I ended up moping around the house so long that she finally cornered me in the living room. “Manny,” she said with that disapproving look she sometimes gets, “if you’re not gonna do anything else today, could you go to the Red Apple for me? Here’s a list. And don’t come back too soon, either,” she warned me. “I’m cleaning the house today and you’re in the way. Unless,” she sat down with me on the sofa and added more softly, “you want to tell me what’s going on with you. You haven’t been yourself since that phone call from Glory Thursday morning. Come on, what is it?” She gave my shoulders a squeeze and looked soulfully into my eyes. Darn! She knows I can’t resist that look. “All right, kiddo,” I answered finally. “I’ll tell you the truth. It’s the King. He’s been missing since Wednesday night. That phone call from Glory was the first I heard of it.” Mona’s eyes widened. “Oh, Manny!” she wailed. “How could you let such a thing happen? And Glory, that poor kid! She must be crying her eyes out!” She stood up and stamped her foot, in the process shaking the whole building. “Manny Klein!” She put her hands on her hips and looked at me as if I’d just tried to eat her firstborn. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 4 7


“What are you going to do about this?” “Now, Mona, don’t make yourself crazy! Whaddaya mean ‘how could I let it happen?’ King’s allegedly an adult. He’s supposed to be able to take care of himself. But I must confess, this is really weird timing. Glory said things were good between them, business has never been better, it’s his favorite season, the holidays, when people buy him a lot of booze and he hardly has to work at all. What’s not to like in his life right now?” I got up and headed for the door, pocketing Mona’s grocery list on the way. “Look, the cops are handling it. You remember Irv Mandelbaum, from temple. Well, he just happens to be in charge of missing persons now for the NYPD. When he knows something, we’ll know something.” I went back and kissed her lightly on the lips. “Don’t worry, kiddo, it ain’t the end of the world. They’ll find the big meshuganah, sober him up, bring him home, and that’ll be that.” I put on my coat, gave Mona what I hoped was my most confident smile, and went out the door. Saturday turned into Sunday which finally became Monday. Stacey and I opened the office at nine as usual, but it was deathly quiet all morning. By lunchtime about all we had been able to get done was the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle. I went out for lunch and fortified myself with a knish and a bowl of mushroom barley. About one-thirty the phone finally rang. I answered it, not wanting to bother Stacey who was busy doing her nails. “Kingston & Klein, Klein speaking,” I said into the mouthpiece. “Mandelbaum here,” said a soft voice on the other end. It hesitated. “Look, Manny,” it finally said, “I got some good news and some bad news.” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 4 8


“About The King, er, Mr. Kingston?” “Yeah, sure, waddaya think I’m callin’ about, the Knicks? Anyway, the good news is, we traced your guy to a local bar, Blarney Stone on the corner of Reade and Broadway. Bartender said he walked in a little after nine that evening by himself, got real drunk, and left there when the bar closed at about midnight with some old guy. Bartender knows this guy only as ‘Cap’n Billy’. We’re tryin’ to locate this Cap’n Billy. But the bad news is, this kinda lets your suspect, what’s his name, Horvath, off the hook.” “Look, Irv, this guy Horvath could still be mixed up in this somehow. What if this Cap’n Billy was working for Horvath, you know?” “Manny, look. I know you want to find out what really happened to your partner. And we’re doin’ all we can. But be realistic. The fact is, in most cases like this, where there’s no clear-cut reason for the victim to disappear, the first seventy-two hours usually tell the story. And it’s been five days. You’re lucky we got this much, Manny.” “Yeah, Irv, and don’t think I don’t appreciate it. But follow my reasoning here for just a second, will ya? Okay, one, Kingston goes missing after meeting with Horvath; two, meeting with Horvath supposed to discourage said Horvath from signing new lease; three, we find out that Horvath not only signs new lease, but for favorable terms, money he can afford. Therefore, four, Horvath must have coerced Kingston into signing the lease and then got rid of him somehow to shut him up.” “Listen, Manny,” Mandelbaum said in a tired voice. “I don’t know anything about this lease agreement bullshit and I don’t want to. Knowing you guys, there’s probably something crooked, if not downright illegal, going on. But D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 4 9


that’s not my department, and therefore it’s none of my business. What I do have is physical evidence. Let me answer your points here. First of all, we got Horvath getting what he wanted out of you guys. You yourself admitted the other night that Kingston’s signature was genuine. Now if Horvath had been the last one to see Kingston, I’d maybe go along with you, this guy’s character and history notwithstanding. But now we’ve discovered concrete evidence,” I could hear Mandelbaum pounding his desk for emphasis, “that Kingston walked out of that building, up the street, into a local bar, drank in that bar for three hours, and then left in the company of someone else. If Horvath had in any way coerced Kingston into signing that lease, there’s no way he’d just let him walk out like that. Don’t you see, Manny?” I considered this for a few seconds. “Yeah, I guess you’re right, Irv. I guess I’m just trying to find excuses for Mr. Kingston. Damn it, he should never have signed that lease!” “Okay, Manny, like I said, I don’t want to know nothin’ about that shit. I’ll call you back when we find this Cap’n Billy guy or if we get any more information.” “Thanks, Irv, I appreciate what you’re doing for us.” “Don’t mention it. All in a day’s work, et cetera. You know. Hey, why don’t you and the missus stop by some time during Hanukkah. It’s been too long.” “We’ll see, Irv. Hopefully this story’ll have a happy ending and we’ll have something to celebrate.” “Hope so, Manny, hope so.” And with that Mandelbaum hung up the phone. Mentally I went over the events of the last few days. The King’s actions seemed curiouser and curiouser. It now appeared plausible that he D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 5 0


had actually signed the lease on purpose and of his own free will. But why, I wondered. Did he have some sort of soft spot for this guy Horvath? Or was Artie Goldberg, our lawyer, right when he had said that the King must be certifiable? Thinking of Artie made me remember that we still owed Bechtel some sort of explanation. We, I, would have to meet with them some time before Christmas to tell them the bad news. It would be my first business meeting without the King’s good looks and smooth, sinceresounding voice. And I was not looking forward to it. 6.

A

fter flagging down a cab, Barbara gave the driver the address of the party and settled into the back seat with Matthew. “I still can’t get over your being a dishwasher,” she told him with a puzzled look. “You seem like an intelligent guy. You speak well, you’re funny, and you’re obviously not a kid any more.” “Thanks a lot,” said Matthew in mock protest, running his fingers through his thinning hair. “You know what I mean,” she replied, punching him playfully on the shoulder. “Seriously though, are you on the run from something? A crime? A wife? Stiff the mob? Come on, give me a clue. None or all of the above?” Matthew thought for a few moments. Then he looked directly at her. “I’ve been debating whether or not to tell you the truth,” he said in a soft earnest voice. “But I think I can trust you. God knows I need to trust someone.” “Golly gosh! Who are you anyway, James Bond?” “Don’t make fun. The fact is I’m not really even John D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 5 1


Black. The truth is, I don’t know who I am. You see, about two weeks ago my memory was totally wiped out. I remember everything that’s happened to me since that time, but nothing from before. However, my general knowledge seems to be intact. I mean I know about history, politics, famous people, like that. I know that this is New York and it feels familiar to me, so maybe I live or used to live around here somewhere. But I don’t know anything about myself—my name, age, occupation, anything. I don’t even know whether I’m married or not. I might have a bunch of kids, for all I know.” “I, I don’t know what to say,” said Barbara in a small voice. She gripped his hand with both of hers. “I’m very sorry for you. What a shock it must be to lose your total identity just like that. What happened, were you in an accident or something?” “That’s the weird part. The first thing I remember is sitting in some bar, getting drunk and feeling really scared. I know that I left the bar and went somewhere with some old guy, someone I don’t think I’d ever seen before. Well, and here’s where it gets really strange, this old guy took me to some kind of place where there was an open fire, kind of like a campfire. It was weird, like going to camp in the middle of winter. I vaguely remember some other guy who was there telling me I was cursed or something. Then I got really drunk, and the next thing I knew it was daytime again. I woke up lying in the snow with no possessions at all except the clothes I was wearing—no money, no ID, nothing. I was wearing a pretty nice suit, so I traded it to a tailor for some old clothes and a little money. Then I lucked into this dishwasher job and I’ve been doing it ever since, just trying to turn my mind off and not be scared to death. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 5 2


You’re the first person I’ve told about this, and you have no idea how good it feels to finally find the courage to admit it.” She gave his arm a little squeeze. “Don’t worry,” she said, “I’ll help you as much as I can. Uh, should I still call you John?” “Good as anything, I guess.” “But John, one thing I don’t understand. Why haven’t you gone to the police or even seen a doctor in all this time? There must be people looking for you. And maybe a doctor could help you get your memory back.” “I thought about that many times,” he replied. “As much as I want to find out who I really am, there’s something at the back of my mind keeping me from it. I don’t know what it is, like maybe I’ll find out some things I don’t want to know and then I’ll be stuck with them forever. I know I’m not making much sense, but this way, not knowing, maybe I can—oh I don’t know—” he put his hands to his head and squeezed tightly, “really do what I want to do. Maybe this could be like a second chance or something.” He ran his fingers through his beard. “I know I’m not a young guy. I must be at least in my mid-thirties, maybe even forties. So I must have been doing whatever I was doing for a long time.” Barbara considered this. Finally she said firmly, “All right, John, I’ve decided. Your secret is safe with me. I won’t say a word about any of this unless you want me to. Actually,” she looked up into his face wistfully, “I think it’s kind of noble. Like, how many people really get a second chance, let alone take advantage of a second chance. I mean, I’m an actor. I get to be different people all the time. But I always have to come back to me, the only me I’ll ever D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 5 3


be, I suppose. But,” she was all business now, “you’ve got to have a cover story and we’ve got to get you some ID. You take care of the first one and I’ll get the second. I know this guy,” she whispered in his ear, “who does a really great job forging documents for illegal aliens. And,” she winked, “he owes me a favor. I’ll go down there tomorrow.” “Wow, could you?” said Matthew with relief. “That would be so great! That’s a big load off my mind. As to the cover story, I’ll just say I used to live somewhere out West. I got divorced, and I don’t want my ex-wife to find me, ‘cause I owe her alimony. How’s that sound?” “Sounds plausible to me. Might not make you the most sympathetic person, though, particularly to women such as myself.” “What do you suggest, then?” She frowned. “I don’t know. Let me think about it, okay? Anyway,” she grabbed his arm again and squeezed it tighter. “Just put yourself in my hands. I’ll take good care of you!” “I bet you will,” Matthew grinned and suddenly noticed that the cab had not moved for several minutes, but the meter was still running. “160 Spring Street,” the driver announced. “You two lovebirds want to get out or make out?” “Uh, we’re getting out,” said Barbara with some embarrassment. She straightened her clothing and ran a hand through her hair. Then she opened the cab door and stepped out, saying briskly, “Pay the man, will you, John? I’ll go make sure the party’s still on.” She went up to the entrance to a newly-remodeled brick building and rang the buzzer. After a moment she yelled at Matthew, “Hurry up! The joint seems to be jumping!” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 5 4


“How much?” Matthew asked the driver. “For you, only five-fifty.” “Here,” said Matthew, handing him a ten. “Give me three back, okay?” “Sure thing, mister. Enjoy your party.” The man gave him a wink, put the cab in gear, and sped off. Matthew joined Barbara at the building’s entrance. Without another word she took his arm and led him inside past the security desk to the elevator. She tossed her head back toward the guard and remarked airily, “We’re invited to the penthouse party. Tony Villanova’s a close personal friend.” “Whatever you say, lady,” said the bored security guard. “I got orders to let ‘em all go up there—drag queens, lezzies, trannies—we even got a coupla midgets tonight.” “Little people,” corrected Barbara haughtily. “Whatever.” “Come on, John.” She looped her arm around his waist as the elevator doors opened. “Let’s make a grand entrance.” When they arrived at the tenth and uppermost floor, they stepped out into a small cubicle with a single door opposite them. Barbara pushed the doorbell which responded by chiming out the first eight notes of “There’s No Business Like Show Business”. The door was opened immediately by a handsome man of about thirty dressed impeccably in a form-fitting black tuxedo. He flashed a smile at Barbara. “Ah, Ms. Mann, how good of you to come. May I take your coats?” As he did so, he continued in the polite clipped tones of a proper English butler. “If you will just step this way, I shall inform Madam that you have arrived.” Barbara put her hand to her mouth and tried D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 5 5


unsuccessfully to repress a giggle. “Come off it, Tony! What are you supposed to be, the butler?” Tony laughed as well and spun around. “You like it?” he said, speaking now in a standard Midwestern accent. “It was Ingrid’s idea. She says if I’m not good she’ll discipline me later.” He offered his hand to Matthew. “Do I know your friend here?” he asked her. “No, Tony, he’s new in town. And straight.” She looked at him warily. “Tony Villanova, meet John Black. John, this is Tony, one of the best pianists and songwriters in town.” “Aw shucks, Miss Kitty,” said Tony, hiding his face with one hand and shaking Matthew’s hand with the other at the same time. “A real pleasure to meet you, John. You two kids come in out of the cold and I’ll get you something to take the chill off.” As they entered the large room that comprised the majority of Tony and Ingrid’s loft, Matthew looked around in frank, open-mouthed astonishment. Memory loss or not, he knew he had never seen anything like this before. The room was gigantic, maybe two thousand square feet of unobstructed space. In its center was a huge traditional Christmas tree that looked to be at least ten feet tall lit with flashing colored lights. Arched above the tree was an impressive A-frame skylight, draped with sheets of colored gauze which presumably served to soften the harsh rays of the midday sun. The skylight provided the room’s only natural lighting as the three walls away from the entrance contained no windows, only a series of doors which perhaps opened onto smaller, private rooms. Tacked onto the doors and walls alike were a variety of theatrical posters, photographs and publicity stills illuminated by D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 5 6


track lighting on a grid suspended from the ceiling. Around the tree, in no discernible pattern, were a number of mismatched but comfortable-looking overstuffed chairs and sofas in a riot of different colors and patterns. These were complemented by dozens of large pillows scattered randomly over the polished hardwood floor. Upon these various pieces of furniture sat or sprawled about fifteen or twenty people of all descriptions, most of them talking animatedly to one another. They all seemed to have glasses or bottles in one hand and cigarettes or small pipes in the other. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely. As Matthew looked around the room more carefully, he noticed that there were three doors set into each wall, or nine in all, leaving only the room’s vast corners available for general use. Each corner had its own theme—one corner held a black Baldwin baby grand piano, behind which were several cabinets containing books and sheet music; another held a large triangular fireplace with three hardwood logs blazing merrily away; in a third was a small but professional-looking wet bar, complete with six barstools, several shelves well-stocked with liquor, and a large refrigerator for ice, beer, and white wine. The final corner held a complete home entertainment system--color television, AM-FM radio, stereo phonograph and dual cassette deck. On either side of it were racks and boxes holding an eclectic collection of records and tapes. A tape of mellow jazz was playing at a muted volume, barely audible above the excited buzz of the party guests. “Merry Christmas, John!” exclaimed Tony with a chuckle. “I see you’re checking out our little loft here. What do you think?” He feigned a yawn. “It’s modest, but Ingrid D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 5 7


seems to like it.” “Modest!” exclaimed Matthew. “I think it’s the most amazing place I’ve ever seen. But if you don’t mind my asking, what’s behind the doors?” “Private rooms mostly, if you know what I mean. A big eat-in kitchen. Oh, and two bathrooms, no waiting. They’re the center doors on opposite sides of the room. But enough about this place, you must be thirsty.” Tony led him over to the bar. “What are you having, John?” He was already mixing up a white russian for Barbara, who had obviously been there before. “Oh, a scotch and soda, I guess.” “Coming right up, sir,” said Tony with exaggerated politeness. He turned to Barbara. “Hey Barb, it’s great to see you here. I thought you mentioned something about not being able to make it on account of your roommate.” Barbara looked at Tony in not-entirely-feigned exasperation. “Yeah, she begged me to meet her at this dive in the East Village. I had trouble getting a cab, I go all the way down there, fifteen dollars on the meter, and you know I’m between shows. Anyway, I show up just the teensiest bit late and guess what? She’s nowhere to be found. If it hadn’t been for John here,” she squeezed his arm affectionately, “I would have been stuck there. I mean, I don’t even have enough for a token.” She smiled to cover her embarrassment. “I’m seriously considering getting a new roommate, hint, hint!” She looked at Matthew meaningfully. Matthew hurriedly took a gulp of his scotch, choking on an ice cube in the process. When he could speak he said, “I think I’ll go wash up. The center doors, you said?” “Sure. Use either one that isn’t locked.” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 5 8


As Matthew walked off, Barbara sighed, “Isn’t he just the cutest thing?” “I see what you mean,” said Tony with a leer, concentrating on Matthew’s posterior. “But why is he dressed like a lumberjack?” “It’s a long story,” said Barbara, “and I’m sort of sworn to secrecy. But apparently, for some reason, this beautiful, intelligent, literate man has been reduced to washing dishes for daily wages at some Greek café in the East Village. He even sleeps and eats there. This is his only night off.” She leaned over and whispered in Tony’s ear. “He goes back to work at midnight tomorrow. I’m afraid I’ll never see him again. We’ve got to do something, Tony, help me, please please please?” “All right, all right, let me think a minute.” He paused and squinted his eyes and stroked his chin, pretending to concentrate deeply. “Hey, I know!” he brightened. “If he was in show biz, you two would be running into each other all the time. You say he’s working for room and board and probably not much money. You know Proud Mary?” “Proud Mary? You mean that large African-American woman to whom the theater is like a religion?” “Yeah, the large woman who’s always looking for volunteers.” “Say, isn’t that her over there by the stereo?” “Yes, the shadow she casts is unmistakable,” admitted Tony. “So, do you introduce them, or do I?” “I’m the host, so I guess it’s my job.” Barbara leaned over and kissed him on each cheek, French style. “Thanks Tony, I owe you one.” “Not at all, sweet cakes. I must admit I wouldn’t mind D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 5 9


seeing more of your friend myself.” “Just remember, I saw him first!” “Hey, a guy can look, can’t he?” They abruptly broke off their conversation, as they saw Matthew approaching. As he sat back down on the bar stool, he noticed that both Tony and Barbara were looking at him appraisingly. “Uh, what’s going on?” he asked. “Oh, nothing, nothing,” replied Tony nonchalantly. “Got some people I want you to meet. Excuse us, Barb?” “Sure thing,” she replied, finishing the remains of her drink and standing up. “I’m going to do some circulating myself.” She gave Tony a conspiratorial wink and started toward the center of the room. Tony put his hand on Matthew’s shoulder and guided him toward a group of people near the piano. “Quite a girl, that Barbara, eh John?” he remarked casually. “Yes,” replied Matthew, “she seems like a very nice person.” “Nice person?” Tony raised his eyebrows. “She’s only one of the best natural actresses I ever saw. Ingrid agrees with me. And so young, too. Poor kid, she could make it to Broadway if she’d ever get her personal life together.” He whispered in Matthew’s ear. “That’s why she’s always ‘between shows’. Needs someone to take her in hand, if you know what I mean.” They had reached a group of about four or five people who were arguing passionately about some obscure bit of theatrical lore. Tony introduced Matthew, who was greeted warmly by all. “Say, Tony,” one of the young men asked, “where’s your better half tonight?” “If you mean Ingrid,” said Tony with a chuckle, “she’s D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 6 0


more like my alter ego.” He looked at his watch. “She’s going to make her grande entree at midnight, less than half an hour from now. And then we might possibly be persuaded to sing a few numbers,” he finished modestly. “That’s terrific!” chorused the group. “Be sure to make an announcement. We don’t want to miss La Wolfschmidt’s grande entrée. Marvelous to meet you, John,” they called out as Matthew and Tony walked over to the edge of the room near the stereo, where a large black woman with a huge afro and dressed in a colorful flowing dashiki was holding court. As they advanced toward her she called out, “Tony! Fantastic party!” and then threw her arms around him in a bone-crushing embrace. Tony gently freed himself and gestured toward Matthew. “Mary, I’d like you to meet John. John, this is Mary Nolan. They call her Proud Mary, both for the woman she is and the work she does.” “I’m so glad to meet you, John,” she replied in a rich alto voice. “I was just explaining to these people here how hard it is to keep a theater company going these days, what with AIDS and the Reagan-inspired cutbacks in funding for the arts. You see, people not fortunate enough to be in the theater themselves,” she was quickly warming to her favorite subject, “have no idea how many people it takes working behind the scenes to put on even the simplest play. Or how little we can afford to pay these people, even people with a staggering amount of knowledge and theatrical experience. All most people think about are the actors, directors, maybe the designers. But the people who really make the production work are the humble technicians, or ‘techies’ as we call them. Even the people who sweep out the theater, paint the scenery, or take tickets are as D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 6 1


important to a production as the director and, unlike in the movies, the vast majority of these people not only volunteer their services, or at the most, get paid very little, but they receive absolutely no credit of any kind in the playbills or theater programs. They are there, truly, because they believe in the theater, in the power of the theater to educate, to entertain, to provide an intelligent, maybe the only intelligent, alternative to the insulting crap that passes for entertainment in Hollywood movies and television these days. And that is why, my friends,” she concluded eloquently with a little bow toward John, “that I am proud to call myself the Volunteer Coordinator for the Third Eye Theater. Have you ever heard of it?” she asked Matthew in a milder tone of voice. Matthew was overwhelmed by this flood of oratory coming from such an imposing-looking woman. “No,” he replied, “but you sure make me wish I had. In fact, if you were running for office, I’d vote for you in a minute.” Mary laughed and shook Matthew’s hand. “I’ll let you know,” she said. During Mary’s speech Tony had slipped away from the group and was now in another area of the room, laughing and talking with a distinguished-looking older couple. “But what do you do, John?” she asked, her full attention now on him. “Most of the people who come to Tony and Ingrid’s parties have at least some show-biz connection. I suppose you’re an actor or singer or something? You surely do look handsome enough. Imaginative outfit, too. Reminds me of ‘Christmas in Vermont’.” Matthew blushed and blurted out, “I’m ashamed to say that these are just about the only clothes I’ve got. I’m D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 6 2


nobody, really. I’ve got a job in the East Village washing dishes and this is my night off. I was drinking alone in a bar when I met an actress and she invited me here. Other than her, I don’t know anyone at this party.” “A dishwasher? At your age?” She looked at him carefully. “Why, you must be at least thirty, thirty-five. You look strong, healthy, and you seem intelligent. What’s your story?” “Well,” said Matthew in a voice scarcely above a whisper. “Let’s just say I had to get away from an unpleasant situation and start over, and leave it at that, okay?” “Okay,” said Mary doubtfully. “But John, if you get tired of washin’ dishes, let me know. How’s the pay?” “The guy who owns the place gives me twenty dollars cash a shift. Which is not too bad, I guess, since he lets me eat and sleep there for free.” Mary shook her head and clucked disapprovingly. “An illegal alien could probably do better than that.” “Yeah,” said Matthew ruefully. “In fact, I know one who is.” Mary laughed again and put her hands on Matthew’s shoulders. Then she looked him squarely in the eye. “Washing dishes can’t be much fun,” she said simply, “nor can living in a restaurant. Why don’t you come to work with me at the theater? I’m pretty sure I know an interesting place where you can live and have your own room and even eat pretty well. And it’s walking distance from the theater. You’ll have plenty of time off to look around for something else to do if you want to, and in the meantime you’ll be learning valuable skills. I’ll even make sure you get some spending money. So, what do you say, John?” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 6 3


Matthew shrugged. “I really don’t know anything about the theater but you’re right, I’m sure it beats washing dishes for a living. So if you’ll accept my lack of experience, I’ll accept your kind offer.” Matthew looked at her questioningly. “So, what do I do now?” Mary grinned at him and shook his hand again. “Welcome to the Third Eye Theater, John. I know you’ll never regret it. As to what you do,” she pulled a card case out of the voluminous folds of her dashiki and handed him a card. “Come to this address anytime after eleven o’clock tomorrow. I’ll be there to show you around. But tonight,” she gave his ribs a little dig with her elbow, “have a good time. You’re theater people now, you got to learn to party like one.” “Sounds good to me,” Matthew grinned and took his leave. “I’ve got to go find Barbara, the girl I came with.” “You do that, John.” Mary watched him leave, a satisfied expression on her face. “You are so good, girl!” she murmured to herself. Just as Matthew had located and rejoined Barbara, all the lights in the room went out. The crowd gave a collective gasp, and then one single pink spot of light illuminated the loft’s entrance. The tape deck, which had been playing soft jazz a moment before, now launched into a lusty version of Piaf’s signature song, “Je ne regrette rien”. In a few seconds the door opened to reveal a small, perfectlyproportioned young woman in a tight fitting, red-sequined chemise, matching heels, and boyishly styled platinum hair. Her vibrant smile gave her a look of supreme selfconfidence, while her sparkling blue eyes radiated a look that was at once warm and defiant. Slowly and gracefully she walked toward the piano, the pink spotlight following D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 6 4


her every movement. As she arrived at the piano, the spotlight was extinguished, and the ceiling track lights came up full on Tony Villanova who was seated rather languidly on the piano bench. The young woman kissed him playfully on the cheek and he immediately began to play—in a flawless piano bar style—vibrant snatches of old standard show tunes which segued from one into another with brilliantly improvised jazz variations. As he played, the woman stood by his side, swaying to the music and beaming at him as if filled with maternal pride. “Who’s that young woman?” Matthew whispered to Barbara. “I’ve never seen anyone like her before, not even in the movies.” “Fascinating, isn’t she?” replied Barbara without a hint of jealousy. “She seems to affect everyone that way except Tony who nothing except music seems to affect one way or the other. That young woman is Ingrid Wolfschmidt, Tony’s roommate, musical partner, and probably one of the best cabaret performers in New York.” By this time Tony appeared to have finished warming up. He flexed his fingers and grinned at the crowd. “Okay,” he said in a loud voice. “Ingrid and I want to thank you all for coming to our Christmas party. As our Christmas gift to you, we will now do requests until Ingrid loses her voice or my fingers fall off. Or both.” As the crowd laughed and applauded, doors began opening all over the room. Couples and groups of people of every description began to emerge from Tony and Ingrid’s “private rooms”. Men with women, men with men, women with women, all took their seats quietly on whatever was available and looked at Tony and Ingrid expectantly. “Now that we have everybody’s attention,” said Tony D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 6 5


in a softer voice, “what’ll it be?” A chant began in the far corners of the room, at first from only a few of the guests, but then more and more joined in loudly. “Dark side, dark side, dark side,” they seemed to be saying. “What does that mean, ‘dark side’?” Matthew asked Barbara. “Stands for The Dark Side of the Night, their Obie Award-winning cabaret musical,” she told him quickly. “It ran for two seasons, and only closed last spring because Ingrid and Tony got tired of doing eight shows a week and wanted to have the time to write and rehearse some new material.” She gave him a look of tolerant pity. “You must be the only person in the room that doesn’t know these songs. Now hush!” She put her fingers to her lips and looked at Tony, who was motioning to the crowd for silence. “What, that old thing?” He asked in mock disgust. “What do you think, Ingrid?” Ingrid, who had not uttered a word until then, giggled impishly. “I guess we can stand it if they can,” she said in a throaty but musical voice that Matthew instantly fell in love with. Suddenly the playful looks vanished from Tony and Ingrid’s faces. The audience became reverently silent. The lighting on the piano area changed from natural white to a deep smoky blue as Tony began to play the first chords of the title and opening song from their show. Matthew knew instinctively he had never heard anything like it. He sat there with Barbara in the dark, entranced, as powerful waves of music washed over him. It reminded him just a bit of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, but much more modern. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 6 6


It seemed to contain rock & roll flourishes played in a style that managed to be both irreverently exuberant and deeply serious. As the introduction ended, the chords became slower and simpler. “When you have no one to hold you,” Tony sang in a soulful baritone, “Then let the night enfold you,” Ingrid answered in her full-bodied mezzo. “And come embrace the dark side of the night,” they sang together in close harmony. They continued in this same manner for perhaps another seven or eight minutes, Tony sometimes singing solo, sometimes in harmony with Ingrid, while she prowled about the stage, singing some solo lines and some in unison with Tony. As she paced she sometimes looked fierce as a lioness, sometimes defenseless as an orphaned waif, while Tony banged out powerful chords with a dramatic flourishes, in complete contrast to his earlier languid manner. At length they came to the final chorus: “And now that you have taken,” sang Tony, almost in a whisper, “What would have been forsaken,” Ingrid continued in the same tone. “You’ve learned about the dark side of the night!” They finished emphatically in unison with the crashing fortissimo piano chords. Then all was silence as Tony stood up, took Ingrid by the hand, and together they bowed formally to the audience. They played for another two hours and more, politely acceding to the loudly-shouted requests of their party guests, Matthew’s and Barbara’s among them. They sang all ten songs from the Dark Side show, many of them two and even three times. Finally Tony stood up again and waved to the audience. “Well,” he said in a tired voice, “I guess it’s about that time. Ingrid’s starting to get hoarse, and there’s blood on the keyboard. So we’re going to close with a nice soft tune to put everyone in the Christmas spirit.” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 6 7


Ingrid sat down beside him on the piano bench and sang sweet harmony as he softly played a traditional version of “Silent Night” which somehow segued into a soft and dreamy “Greensleeves”. When they were finished, Tony and Ingrid blew kisses to the crowd who silently began to file out the door to the elevator. “Quick, John!” said Barbara to Matthew, who was lying peacefully on a large pillow. “Let’s get a room before somebody beats us to it.” “Okay,” said Matthew dreamily, allowing himself to be pulled to his feet. She led him to the door of one of the “private rooms”, tentatively twisted its knob, and then opened it wide and peered in. The room was dark and the bed was vacant. Barbara pulled Matthew quickly into the room, closed and locked the door, and pushed him down on the bed. “And now,” she said, hastily stripping off Matthew’s clothing as well as her own, “You’re mine till morning!” Matthew smiled peacefully and sank gratefully into her embrace.

D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 6 8


PART SIX THE THEATER

M

atthew awoke the next day at a little after noon to find himself naked and lying in the most comfortable bed he had known in a long time. Not surprising, he thought, considering where I’ve been sleeping lately. He tried to move his right arm and discovered that there was a young woman sleeping on it. As far as he could tell, she appeared to be naked as well. He thought for a moment. Yes, it was all coming back to him now: the party, the music, the lovemaking. Had he really done all that? He decided he must have been even drunker than usual. Inwardly he groaned and then gingerly moved his head from side to side. Amazingly there was no pain. He had no hangover at all, and his head and mind seemed to be clear as a bell. Another first, he thought. When was the last time I had this much fun without getting completely blotto? The naked woman, Barbara—who, he recalled, had brought him to the party—began to stir. She yawned lazily and stretched her arms. Then she turned over toward him D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 6 9


and kissed him lightly on the lips. “Good morning, tiger!” she greeted him cheerfully. “What’s for breakfast?” Matthew disentangled himself from her and got out of bed, modestly wrapping a bedsheet around himself. He groped around for his clothes and, when he found them, hurriedly began dressing. Barbara was putting on her clothes as well, but much more slowly, her eyes inviting Matthew to watch her, as if it were a striptease in reverse. Matthew regarded her with frank admiration and then quickly averted his eyes and began fumbling through his pants pockets. “Looks like I’ve still got about twenty-five dollars left. That’s enough for a couple of meals and a cab ride,” he said quickly. “Let’s get a cab and go back to the East Village. I’ve got some unfinished business to attend to.” Barbara shrugged her shoulders and finished dressing. “Lead on, MacDuff,” she said playfully. “I’m sworn to follow any man who’ll buy me a meal.” Quietly they opened the bedroom door and tiptoed into the main room of the loft. All of the artificial lights had been extinguished, and the sun was shining through the skylight, casting its rays on the several still-sleeping people stretched out on couches or pillows, some together and some alone. Silently Matthew and Barbara made their way through the room to the main door that led to the elevator. There was no sign of either Tony or Ingrid, Matthew noticed. He idly wondered if they were still sleeping— alone, together, or each with someone else. Once outside the building, they found a cab and started back toward St. Marks Place. On the way Matthew was as frank and open as he had been on the ride there there. “I don’t think I got a chance to tell you at the party, D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 7 0


Barbara, but I think I’m going to work in the theater for a while.” He related his encounter with Proud Mary and her offer of a job, and even did his impression of her eloquent defense of the theater and its support staff. Barbara laughed appreciatively. “Yeah, that sounds like Mary. She grabs just about everybody she can get her hands on. And all for the sake of—” she put her wrist to her forehead in a dramatic gesture, “the Theatah! But seriously, John, I’m so glad for you.” She hugged him tightly. “I know you can be more than just a dishwasher.” Barbara had the driver drop them off at Veselka’s, a cheap Polish restaurant at the corner of Second and St. Marks. During breakfast Matthew explained to her about his unfinished business. “I’m ashamed to go back to Nick’s Café and tell him I’m quitting,” he confessed. “Especially since he was so nice as to give me a job and all. I wish I didn’t have to go back, but all my clothes and toiletries are there, and I can’t afford to replace them.” “You’re just too good to be true, John,” she told him. “You’d probably have kind words to say about your boss if you worked in a sweatshop. But get real! Dishwashers quit all the time. After all, how’d you get your job?” “Yes, I suppose you’re right,” said Matthew reluctantly. “But I still don’t feel good about it.” She snapped her fingers suddenly. “I know what you do! Just go in there like it’s a normal day. You aren’t supposed to go to work until midnight, right? So just go get your stuff, put it in a shopping bag and split. If it’ll make you feel any better, leave ‘em a note telling them you got a better job or your dad died or whatever. Express your sorrow at leaving, thank them profusely, whatever makes your conscience feel better.” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 7 1


Matthew’s face brightened considerably. “That’s a brilliant idea! Whatever would I do without you?” Barbara took his hand in hers. “Maybe you won’t have to find out,” she said half-seriously. “Let’s just see how it goes. Tell you what, I’ll stay here and have another cup of coffee. You go do what you have to do. From what you tell me, Nick’s is only a little over a block away. Meet me back here as soon as you can. Then we’ll go over to the Third Eye Theater and I’ll introduce you. You can take it from there.” So Matthew did as he was told. Upon entering Nick’s Café, he managed to sneak past Helen, who was gabbing with a customer. Julio wouldn’t be in until four, and Iggy was in the kitchen busily washing the dishes from the lunch rush. Nick was probably in his office. As Matthew retrieved his clothing and toiletries and left a sincere and gratefulsounding note on his cot, he unaccountably felt a great weight fall from his shoulders. For the first time in two weeks he felt in control of his own destiny and optimistic about the future. 2.

B

arbara was waiting for him at Veselka’s when he returned. “Well,” she asked, looking up from her Village Voice, “did you do the deed?” “Yes,” said Matthew simply. “I hope I’m doing the right thing. After all, I don’t know anything about working in the theater.” “Don’t worry about that,” Barbara reassured him. As they left the restaurant and began walking down St. Marks Place toward First Avenue she continued, “You probably didn’t know anything about washing dishes before either. But the theater is a great place to work, especially the Third D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 7 2


Eye. They have a system there that’s almost communal. It’s amazing how they manage to mount such great-looking shows on such a small budget. And Proud Mary, you know, the woman you met last night, she’s probably the best volunteer coordinator in New York. She not only brings in the people, but she knows what to do with them.” “Well, I suppose it’ll be all right as long as they don’t expect too much of me right away.” “That’s the spirit! You’ll find everyone there to be very gentle when it comes to deflowering theater virgins. Besides, for the first week or so they’ll probably just have you doing real simple things like, oh, I don’t know, maybe sweeping out the theater, taking tickets, ushering, that sort of thing.” “That doesn’t sound too hard,” Matthew agreed. They had reached First Avenue now and had turned left. “Also it’ll be great for us. I’ll know where you are, and we’ll even have the same days off. That is,” she said more solemnly, “if I ever get any work.” “Why don’t you work in the theater when you’re not acting?” Matthew asked her. “That way we could be together a lot.” She stopped on the corner of 9th Street and fixed him with a look of disbelief. “You really don’t know anything about the theater, do you, John?” She seemed at a loss for words. “It just doesn’t work that way,” she said finally. “I don’t know why. But an actor can’t be a techie and vice versa. I’m an actor, and a darned good one. No offense, but I couldn’t, well, lower myself that way.” “And yet,” said Matthew coldly, “you think it’s a good idea if I ‘lower’ myself.” She grabbed him by the arm, suddenly alarmed by his D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 7 3


change in tone. “Don’t be silly, tiger!” she said lightly. “It’s different for you. You’re not an actor. But I know I’m gonna be proud of you. In a few weeks you’ll probably be doing something important like sound, or maybe even lights.” “You really think so?” asked Matthew, somewhat mollified. “Of course I do. Now come on. The world famous (at least in the East Village) Third Eye Theater is just up the block.” Several more steps brought them to a peculiarlooking building. It seemed to be a single-story gray-brick structure. With its high alpine-style roof, it could have been mistaken for a Pizza Hut in the suburbs if it hadn’t been for the large wooden entrance door, windowless and painted bright red. Above it an old-fashioned theater marquee was framed by a chaser unit comprised of small multi-colored lights. The marquee consisted of three parts: the center proclaimed “Third Eye Theater – Est. 1968”; the space on the left announced “Dec. 9 – Jan. 4 only. A Christmas Carol”; while the right hand section promised “Coming Jan. 27 – 4 weeks only – Arms and the Man”. “Well, shall we?” asked Barbara. As she pushed open the door, the hinges groaned in protest. In the dimly-lit interior Matthew could see a stairway of about a dozen gray concrete steps leading down into a narrow hall. At the bottom of the stairs on the left was a small ticket booth which resembled an old-time bank teller’s station, with a metal-barred window that could be slid up or down. At present, it being only about two o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon, the window was closed and bore a sign which stated “Box Office opens at 5 PM. Doors at 7:30.” To the D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 7 4


right of the booth a sign on the wall read “General Admission $10 – Subscribers $8 – Equity & Tech $7 – Students and Seniors $5.” Beyond the ticket booth was another long flight of stairs which culminated in a huge iron door bearing a sign which read “Theater Entrance – Unauthorized Persons Strictly Forbidden”. Barbara led Matthew away from the ticket booth and down a long hall. On the way they passed several closed doors on both sides before stopping in front of a door on the right which was marked “Office”. As Barbara knocked loudly on the door, a voice called out, “Who is it?” “Me, Barbara Mann,” she replied boldly. “I bring you cannon fodder.” “Oh, goodie!” exclaimed the same voice and the door was quickly thrown open. A small woman in a nondescript house dress, her gray hair forced into a severe bun, stood in the doorway. She wore thick glasses and a friendly smile. “Hi, Barb,” she offered. “How nice to see you again. Any work lately?” she inquired, a little timidly. “I’m afraid not,” said Barbara with a sigh. “Now don’t you worry, dear, it’ll come.” She turned to Matthew. “And you are…?” “John Black.” Matthew stuck out his hand. The little woman shook it warmly as a voice from inside the office boomed out, “John! You came!” The small woman quickly dragged Matthew into the office, Barbara following. Proud Mary (for the booming voice was hers) stood up and shook Matthew’s hand enthusiastically. “John, how marvelous to see you again. Did you have a good time at the party last night?” “He sure did,” Barbara said quickly, taking him by the other hand. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 7 5


“Darn!” said the small woman, going over and seating herself behind a gray metal desk. “The good ones are always taken.” “Allow me to introduce you,” said Mary politely. “John, this is Agnes Krump, our indispensable office manager. Agnes, this is John Black, our newest theater volunteer.” “Very pleased to make your acquaintance, John,” said Agnes, regarding him closely through her thick-lensed glasses. “I’ll be more than happy to show you around and provide any, ah, guidance you might need.” Mary spoke up quickly. “Not to worry, Agnes. I’ll see that John here gets all the guidance he needs.” Matthew looked helplessly at the two women and then at Barbara. “Well,” said Barbara lightly. “Looks like my work here is done.” She kissed him and pressed a scrap of paper into his hand at the same time. “Here’s my address and phone number,” she whispered. “Don’t be a stranger.” And with that she turned and left the office. “So, what do I do now?” asked Matthew. Mary took charge. “Okay, John, here’s what’s going to happen.” She consulted a large calendar hanging on the office wall. “Today is Tuesday, December twenty-third. Right now we’re in the middle of our annual production of A Christmas Carol. It runs about two more weeks, closing Sunday, January fourth. Between now and then you’ll be doing whatever you can to help the running crew, mostly theater maintenance. You’ll be present at all performances. I’ll give you a schedule later. Tomorrow night is our usual Wednesday night business meeting which starts at 6 PM. You should come and meet everybody and find out D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 7 6


something about our plans for the future. Coincidentally, it’s also Christmas Eve, so we’ll be having our annual Christmas party in the Green Room.” She paused for a moment and then continued. “On a more personal note, John, I understand that you might have a housing problem?” “Um, that’s right. I have no money and I was sleeping at the café where I worked.” “Well, that’s okay. Because you’re on volunteer status right now, it means we can only give you cash for your necessary expenses. But around here, we like to cut out the use of cash as much as possible.” She leaned closer to him. “I think I’ve got the answer to your room and board problem. There’s a man who lives near here, an old retired actor who runs a sort of free boarding house for impoverished actors and theater workers. I was hoping you’d show up today, John, so I took the liberty of calling him to see if he had a vacancy, and I told him a little about your plight. He was intrigued and told me he had one small room left which should suit your needs. Only thing, it’s a sixth-floor walkup. You got a problem with that, John?” “Uh, no, not at all. I’m in pretty good shape, I think.” Mary looked at him and smiled. “I believe I’d agree with that assessment. So go get your things, and I’ll send you over right now to get settled.” Matthew showed her the shopping bag. “This is all I’ve got.” “That’s it? Boy, you sure do travel light. Let me give you the address and who to ask for.” She took a card off the rolodex on the desk and copied the information down for Matthew. “Okay, here you go. The man you want to talk to is Guy Donnally. The address is 610 East 9th Street, D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 7 7


between Avenues B and C. Guy’s apartment is first floor rear. The buzzer will have his name on it. Introduce yourself and tell him Proud Mary sent you. Any questions?” “No, I don’t think so. I’m very grateful to all of you.” “Don’t worry,” said Mary. “You’ll work for what you get. That’s the system around here.” “Well, nice to have met you, Agnes.” “The pleasure is all mine, John,” Agnes replied, vigorously shaking his hand again. Matthew left the office and climbed the steps to the theater entrance. Then, shopping bag and information in hand, he went looking for his new home. 3.

A

couple of days after talking to Mandelbaum I was sitting in my office, morosely going over the year’s P&L statement. My mood wasn’t caused by the healthy profits we’d made over the past year, but by my worries over what would happen in the next. The business the King and I had built over the past twelve years was based on three things, I mused: first, shrewd instincts as to what properties to acquire to turn a quick profit and the capital to snatch them up; second, a sincere, smooth and personable guy to conduct meetings and create an atmosphere of honesty trust in which little half-truths and evasions would go unnoticed; and third, the good business reputation that naturally accrues from the successful execution of the first two. I sighed to myself. The King had been missing now for a solid week, and we were no closer to finding him than we were when I first received the call from Glory. Mandelbaum D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 7 8


had certainly done his part; he had tracked the King to a bar and even located the old guy who witnesses said he had left with. But the old guy’s story seemed to lead straight into a dead end; he had admitted leaving the bar with the King, whom he said he had just met that night and knew only as “Matt”. The old guy, whose name was William Monahan, turned out to be a homeless guy who lived on the street, in doorways, any place he could. He claimed that “Matt” had given him twenty bucks, left the bar with him, and then hailed a cab. He said that “Matt” had said that he was going home, but that he, Monahan, had no idea where that was. Mandelbaum had then checked with all the cab companies in the five boroughs, none of which had a record of picking up anyone at that time and place. And there the story ended. Mandelbaum had sent pictures and descriptions to all the precincts in New York and even surrounding communities, but with no results. The trail, never hot to begin with, had now turned ice cold. I thought ironically about my three-point list for success in the real estate investment game. Item one was no problem, that was my department, as well as the financial management. Item two, however, had always been the King’s department. And without item two, item three was sure to disappear. Unlike in baseball, one for three just didn’t cut it. I walked into The King’s office and looked around. No one had been in here since the cops had searched the place last week. Mandelbaum had been true to his word—nothing had been disturbed or taken. I rarely drink during the day, but for some reason I walked over to The King’s liquor cabinet and poured myself a shot of scotch. Then I settled myself back in the comfortable leather armchair on the D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 7 9


visitor’s side of King’s massive antique oak desk. I had spent many happy hours in that chair with The King sitting opposite me in his, grinning that boyish grin of his over some particularly shrewd deal we had just pulled off. Here’s looking at you, King, I thought wistfully, and raised my glass to his empty chair in a final toast. It was ironic in a way. The King and I had conceived and founded our partnership in a Brooklyn bar over twelve years ago, and now it seemed to have ended in another bar just down the street. Where did you go, King, after you left that bar? How drunk were you this time and where did the cabdriver take you? Or did you ever even get a cab at all, is your frozen body lying in a snowbank somewhere in downtown Manhattan, waiting for the spring thaw? I drained my scotch and set the glass down on King’s desk. Then I slapped myself hard in the face. Get over it, Manny, I told myself sternly. Let it go. You’ve got more important things to do than reminisce about the King and engage in meaningless speculation about what happened to him. I looked at my watch. It was a little after two o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon, a week before Christmas Eve. I decided to call Artie Goldberg, our lawyer. “Goldberg here,” a preoccupied voice answered. “Artie, I’m surprised at you,” I teased him, trying to shake off my mood. “Answering your own phone. Too cheap to hire a secretary, eh? Maybe Kingston & Klein should rethink the outrageous retainer we pay you.” “Oh, hi Manny.” Goldberg sounded a little sheepish. “I, uh, gave Sarah the afternoon off. Christmas shopping, you know how it is.” “Yeah, I know. Stacey’s been in and out so much I D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 8 0


should get a revolving door.” We both laughed at my feeble attempt at humor. “So, Manny, what’s on your mind, or is this just a social call?” “Strictly business, Artie. You know me—work, work, work. Actually, it’s about that Bechtel deal. I want to set up a meeting with them early next week. Let me rephrase that. I don’t want to, but I suppose I got to.” “Sure, Manny. I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop on that deal. No word about the King, I suppose?” “No. His trail’s colder than the weather outside. I’ve been sitting here feeling sorry for myself, but I’m getting over it. I just had a farewell drink to the memory of the King. Be a mensch, Manny, I told myself. If he does happen to turn up I’ll dance naked in the middle of Broadway, but life has to go on.” “I couldn’t have said it better myself, Manny. Now, about this meeting. Let’s try for Monday morning, about ten. I’m clear for that, how about you?” “Fine with me, Artie. I ain’t goin’ nowhere.” “All right then. If I don’t get back to you, we’ll make it for ten o’clock Monday the twenty-third. Your office?” “Sure.” “Uh, by the way, Manny, how do you want to proceed with this? I mean it looks like the King thoroughly screwed the deal for Bechtel as well as for us.” “Yeah, I know. That’s why I’m not looking forward to this at all. Wait a minute!” I had a sudden flash of inspiration. “Do you have a copy of that Intent to Purchase we all signed?” “Why sure, I’ve got it right here.” I could hear a file drawer opening and closing and papers being shuffled D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 8 1


around. “Okay, what’s your question, Manny?” “Well, correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t the agreement say that upon our acquiring ownership of the property, they agree to buy it from us for the sum of three mil, etcetera, etcetera?” “Yes, that’s about the extent of it. It’s a very short and simple agreement for a legal document. What are you getting at, Manny?” “Well, it doesn’t say anything about the condition of the property, does it? Like if it’s occupied or not?” Artie was silent for a moment while he read and reread the document. “No,” he said slowly. “That’s not in the document itself. As you recall, that was in the nature of an oral agreement. But you know as well as I do that the only reason Bechtel wants that property is so that they can tear down Horvath’s buildings. It’s in the way of their strip mall or whatever. They’ll be hopping mad to find out they’ve suddenly acquired a tenant they can’t evict.” “Yeah,” I said thoughtfully. “But I’d rather take a hit to our reputation than get sued for breach of contract. You think there’s any way they can sue?” I heard a slight chuckle over the phone. “Manny, I’m a lawyer,” said Goldberg patiently. “Anybody can sue anybody for any reason if they’ve got enough money. The question is, can they win? Frankly, going over this agreement, I don’t think they’ve got the proverbial leg to stand on.” “That’s just what I wanted to hear, Artie. Okay, here’s what we do. We explain the situation to them real apologetically and give them the option to buy and deal with the situation themselves, or to gracefully back out of the deal, no harm, no foul. We’ll be out half a mil, but we D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 8 2


can absorb that. I’m more worried about our rep in the business. If people think we can’t be trusted to get the job done, we’re looking at a long lean future.” “I hear you, Manny, and I agree. That’s probably the best way to proceed. But maybe we could cover our asses a little more by putting out some story about the King—you know, a problem with alcohol or drugs, maybe the timehonored stress-induced breakdown from overwork. We can say we sent him away for a rest—that he wasn’t himself when he signed that lease, yadda yadda. Something like that.” “Artie, you’re a genius! That just might get us off the hook. And it might not be so far from the truth. I mean there must be some reason he signed that damn lease. Hey, but I’ll go you one better. How about if I bring the grieving wife to the meeting? You know, play on their sympathies? I think Glory would go along with that.” “Sounds good, Manny. Thinking all the time. Well, I’ve got to go. The wife wants me home by four. Some damn cocktail party or something. I’ll call you before the end of the week to confirm the Bechtel meeting so we can get our stories straight. Love to Mona.” “Right, Artie. Give Sylvie a kiss for me.” I hung up the phone. For some unaccountable reason, talking business with Artie and scheming against Bechtel had gotten my juices flowing again. Sure, we were gonna get our asses kicked. But we could minimize the damage. I’ll call Glory, I thought. A few well-timed tears could level the playing field. Whistling, I poured another shot of scotch and toasted the King again. I smiled to myself. Wherever that son of a bitch was, I thought, he couldn’t help but approve. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 8 3


4.

M

atthew checked the address once more: 610 East 9th Street. This was the place. He was standing in front of a rundown six-story apartment building that seemed to have little to recommend it to the casual eye. It was an old gray stone building with a rusted metal fire escape descending from the roof to the street, and its windowless wooden entrance door was tightly locked. On it was a sign in ornate flowing script which read “Guy Donnally’s Home for Wayward Thespians”. Below it was an ancient wooden hotel plaque which warned “No Irish or Theatricals Admitted”. Matthew noticed that a thick black line had been drawn through the word “No”. He quickly found the correct apartment button and pushed it. In a few seconds there was a loud buzzing which he took to be the unlocking of the entrance door. He pushed it open and found himself in a dimly-lit narrow passage way that stretched toward the rear of the building. In the interior gloom he could just make out two doors, one on each side of the hall. As Matthew walked toward the nearest door, the one on the left, he found he had to duck his head to avoid bumping it on the low concrete ceiling. Just as he was about to knock on the left door, he heard noises coming from the door on the right, farther down the hall. As he hesitated, the right-hand door was flung open and a voice called out in a loud stage whisper, “Not that door, you fool! If you wake up Petkovich there’ll be hell to pay!” As Matthew sought to discover the source of this admonition in the half-light, he spied a slender, D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 8 4


distinguished-looking man who appeared to be of late middle age standing in the open doorway. He wore an oldfashioned red silk dressing gown and carpet slippers and possessed a ravaged but aristocratic face adorned with a black van dyke beard and neatly trimmed pencil-thin mustache. His shiny medium length black hair was slicked down and combed straight back from his forehead. He was of less than medium height and clenched between his teeth was a long ebony cigarette holder in which a long brown unfiltered cigarette was still smoldering. “I bid you good day, sir,” the man said to Matthew and made a sweeping theatrical bow. “Guy Donnally, at your service.” “Uh, good afternoon, sir,” Matthew began uncertainly, somewhat taken aback by this apparition which looked and sounded like some faded matinee idol. “I was told you might, uh, have a room for me? Proud Mary of the Third Eye Theater said she had told you about my situation. I’m John, John Black.” Donnally grasped Matthew’s hand and shook it vigorously. “Delighted to make your acquaintance, Mr. Black, but don’t stand on ceremony. Enter quickly, for the love of God, you’ll catch your death out here in this foul, unheated hall. Not that it’s a great deal warmer inside,” he reflected mournfully. He put his hand to the side of his face. “I fear the boiler is malfunctioning once again,” he said to Matthew in another loud stage whisper. He shook his fist at the other door. “Petkovich shall pay for his incompetence!” He led Matthew into the apartment and closed and bolted the door. Then he motioned Matthew to sit beside him on an old-fashioned davenport. “Petkovich is the alleged superintendent of this building,” Donnally D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 8 5


explained. “Though what he does to earn that title is beyond all human comprehension. The man sleeps all day and drinks all night. Straight vodka, out of the bottle, the barbarian! He seems to have only a few sober coherent hours of consciousness in any given twenty-four, and those he has the temerity to waste on his supper! Speaking of which,” he added more kindly, “where are my manners? Let me get you a little something to warm the body and cheer the spirit. Irish whiskey all right with you?” “Whatever you’re drinking is fine with me, sir.” Donnally got up and patted Matthew on the shoulder. “No need for formalities, my boy,” he beamed. “Call me Guy. Everyone does.” He went into a small kitchen just off the living room and quickly returned with a half-empty bottle of Jameson’s and two glasses. After he had poured them each several ounces of whiskey, he sat back down on the davenport and took a large gold watch from the pocket of his dressing gown. “Just five o’clock,” he noted approvingly. “Sun’s over the yardarm and all that.” He raised his glass in Matthew’s direction. “Here’s to the beginning of a long and happy theatrical career for you, my boy,” he intoned dramatically and then drained half the contents of his glass in a single swallow. Matthew clinked Guy’s glass in response to the toast and took a polite sip. “But sir, I mean Guy, Mary said you owned this building. Why do you put up with such an obviously incompetent person as this Petkovich?” “A very astute and penetrating question, my boy, to which I will give a succinct, yet truthful answer: because I can find no one of a better class with which to replace him. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 8 6


I once placed a very alluring advert in the local rags, and the only responses I received were from Puerto Ricans. I became forced to recognize the fact that there seems to be an extreme shortage of qualified building superintendents in this fair city. Lord knows, I would handle the position myself, but my theatrical training did not include trivial matters such as repairing a recalcitrant steam boiler. At any rate, with all his faults, I find Petkovich to be preferable to Puerto Ricans. At least with the Russians, one knows where one stands.” Matthew hurriedly finished his drink and set the glass down upon a small end table. “Well, thank you for the, er, refreshments, Guy, but I must ask you. Do you really have a room for me? And I really don’t have to pay for it?” “Do forgive me, my boy. Once again you have caught me in the act of being remiss in my duties. I fear that advancing age and the lack of intellectual stimulation are beginning to take their toll on me.” He went over to a large roll-top desk in the corner of the room and extracted two keys from one of its drawers. He handed them to Matthew saying, “Go all the way to the top of the stairs. Once on the sixth floor, go all the way to the very end of the hall. This silver key opens the door of apartment 21. You may or may not put your name on the door, the choice is yours. The gold key gains you entrance to the building. I would make the journey with you, but the climb is steep and my lungs are not what they used to be. I don’t believe I’ve been above the third floor,” he mused, “since sometime back in ’78. In your room,” he continued, “you will find a living room with a couch that folds out into a bed, a few chairs and tables, a small kitchen with stove and refrigerator, and a small D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 8 7


bathroom with toilet, sink and tub, but no shower. In your room you will also find a radiator. That and the gas stove are your only sources of heat. When the radiator is working (which is, I regret to say, rarely), you can control the temperature in this manner: if you find it too hot, open a window; if it is too cold, close the window; if it is still too cold, turn on the gas oven and leave its door open. Under no circumstances touch the control knob on the radiator itself. The last person who foolishly tried to adjust the radiator inadvertently twisted the knob off and the ensuing jet of steam scarred him for life, poor fellow. Bed linens and towels are furnished by the establishment and laundered every fortnight. Be so kind as to leave such aforementioned items as you want laundered outside your door the night before laundry day. Items of personal clothing are your responsibility. One meal a day (such as it is) is served in the large downstairs dining room adjacent to my living quarters at six pm every day except Monday. This is to accommodate the working actors and technicians with seven-thirty calls and eight o’clock curtains which constitute the bulk of our clientele. Now, go up and stow your gear. When you return it will be almost dinner time. Take a look around. If you have any questions, I will do my best to answer them to your satisfaction at dinner. And on behalf of the entire theater community, I would like to take the opportunity to welcome you aboard.� Donnally appeared to be quite out of breath as he finished this speech. Matthew thanked him quickly and, clutching the shopping bag which contained all his worldly possessions, he mounted the stairs and climbed to the sixth floor where a room of his own awaited. ~~~ D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 8 8


5.

T

hat Saturday, having nothing better to do, I decided to drive up to White Plains to see Glory. I had been debating for the last few days whether or not to call her and try to persuade her to come to the meeting with Bechtel on Monday. I had decided against it because, despite my assurances to Artie, I was extremely doubtful that Glory would go for it. She had always cast a tolerant but blind eye towards our business deals, even the relatively straightforward ones. Although she knew better than to tamper with the goose that laid the golden eggs, when it came to Kingston & Klein, she operated strictly in the “I don’t want to know” mode. I could remember back to the late seventies, when the King would invite Mona and me to his then-new house in White Plains during the holidays. The King would be lounging on his La-Z-Boy wearing that ridiculous smoking jacket that Glory had bought him when we first started making money, the ever-present glass of scotch in his hand, watching something or other on the TV. The kids would be running through the house, talking excitedly about what they hoped to get for Christmas. And Glory would be in the kitchen, baking some cookies or maybe a cake, and washing dishes at the same time. When Mona and I arrived, Glory would dutifully dry her hands, bring us drinks and munchies, and sit down on the end of the sofa near her husband’s huge recliner. All would be well as long as the talk stayed social, but when the affairs of Kingston & Klein inevitably entered the conversation, Glory would quickly ask Mona some question about wardrobe or décor that made it necessary for them to leave the room together. Of course, the King was oblivious to this ploy of Glory’s and D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 8 9


went right on talking, but I soon learned to say as little about business as possible in her presence. All of which to say that if I wanted Glory’s presence at the meeting on Monday, I’d better drive up there and give it my best shot in person. I arrived at the house in White Plains early that Saturday afternoon. As I parked the Volvo in the driveway, I noticed how quiet the house was. Normally when I went there on weekends there was the bustle and background noise of two teenagers with the latest electronic toys, all of which seem to be designed mainly to produce loud electronic noise. But on this Saturday the usual noises were not to be heard. As I approached the house, the only sound I could hear was the low drone of television voices. I rang the doorbell. “Come in,” a woman’s voice called out. “Door’s open.” I opened the door and went through the entrance hall into the living room. There on the sofa sat Glory, wrapped in a white but stained terry cloth robe, slippered feet on the coffee table. Beside her on the sofa was an open two-pound box of chocolates which looked to be about half full. On the coffee table was a nearly empty bottle of Rémy Martin cognac and a glass. Glory’s eyes looked puffy as if she had been crying, and she seemed to have gained at least five pounds in little over a week. The TV was playing some old black-and-white movie starring Cary Grant. “Manny!” she exclaimed effusively, standing up and brushing candy wrappers off her lap. She held out her hand in greeting. “What a nice surprise! You drove all the way up here to see me?” She was obviously about half drunk, and she leaned over to whisper in my ear, “Matthew’s not home, you know. He’s never home these days.” Her hand D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 9 0


automatically reached for the cognac bottle on the coffee table and sloshed the remaining contents into the glass, spilling some in the process. She drained the contents in a single gulp. “Can I offer you a little drink, Manny?” She picked up the empty bottle again, squinted at it and giggled. “Uh oh, that is one dead soldier.” She tossed it nonchalantly behind the sofa. “Guess I’ll have to get another,” she said regretfully, starting toward the kitchen. “What’s your poison, Manny ol’ boy, scotch or cognac?” I still hadn’t spoken, I was too shocked. Glory had always been wife- and-mother-of-the-year material. I had to think of a way to handle this situation gracefully. “Uh, thanks, Glory,” I finally managed to stammer. “But you know what I could really go for right now?” She looked at me with interest and began to undo the belt on her robe. “No, no, not that!” I exclaimed hastily. “What I’d really like is a nice large mug of strong black coffee!” I said each word slowly with the enthusiasm of a television pitchman. “In fact, why don’t you have one with me? I’ll make them for us now.” I took her by the waist and gently moved her to the kitchen. “Don’t worry, I know where everything is. Why don’t you sit down here at the table?” “Okay,” she said simply and sat down heavily in a kitchen chair. I made a large pot of the strongest coffee I could find in the cupboard and, as soon as it was ready, I poured her out a large mug. “Drink this,” I ordered her. She made no protest, but took the mug in both hands and began to sip. I went back into the living room, turned off the TV, and poured a small cup of coffee for myself. Then I sat down with her at the table and tried to find out what the situation was. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 9 1


In about half an hour she had sobered up sufficiently to make sense. I learned that a week ago Friday, she had sent the kids off on a ski trip to Aspen. She had been relatively okay up to that point, but once the kids had left she’d realized she was alone. Her mind was fuzzy, she told me, but she thought she had spent the better part of the week watching TV and living mostly on booze, candy and the occasional frozen pizza. She had taken to sleeping on the sofa, she said, because she had been too drunk most of the time to climb the stairs to her bedroom. She couldn’t remember the last time she had dressed or gone out of the house. When she was quite herself again, she thanked me over and over for coming. The kids were due back on Tuesday, the day before Christmas Eve. With tears in her eyes she told me she would have just died if the kids had come in and seen her like this. She resolved to snap out of it, having only about three days left to clean the house, shop, and try to get back in shape. “If they suspect anything, I’ll kill myself,” she told me. “They just lost their father. The last thing they need right now is to watch me go to pieces. I can’t thank you enough for rescuing me, Manny. I’ll always be grateful. If there’s ever anything…” I decided this would be the time to push my advantage. “Well, Glory,” I began, “there is one little thing…” I slowly and carefully brought up the subject of the meeting next Monday. To my surprise, she didn’t protest. I gradually told her the whole story, and then all the details of the story. She didn’t say a word until I had finished. At last she said firmly, “Okay, Manny, I’ll do it. With Matthew gone I guess I have to do something to earn my D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 9 2


keep around here. You know, I could never discuss finances with Matthew. He treated it like I was questioning his manhood or something. So I’ll ask you. Exactly what is my status right now?” I put my hand gently on her shoulder. “Glory, Glory, no need to worry,” I told her softly. “You’ll continue to receive the King’s salary every month. That won’t change. And if worst comes to worst and we have to replace him, we’ll give the new guy a small salary to start. After all,” I said with a grin, “there’s not really that much work involved.” “Thanks, Manny,” she said with a sigh of relief. “That really puts my mind at ease. I mean, the kids are going to have college expenses in a few years and…” “Glory,” I broke in, “didn’t Matthew even tell you that? He had trust funds set up for your children that even now contain enough money for each of them to go to the most expensive college for four years. And he was planning to add to them.” We talked a while longer. I filled her in on her financial status, while she told me about her anxieties. I had known the woman for more than twelve years, and this was the most intimate conversation we had ever had. Sitting there, in her warm kitchen, drinking coffee while the snow lay thick on the ground outside and the sky began to darken, gave me a feeling I’d never had before, not even with Mona. I had become a beautiful woman’s protector. 6.

M

atthew found his room to be all that Guy had promised and more. Located on the sixth floor

D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 9 3


at the very top of the stairs and all the way down the hall, it occupied the northwest corner of the building. He opened the door with his key and found himself standing in paradise—his very own room. As he entered he discovered a luxury he had not known for weeks—a private bathroom. It even had a door which separated it from the rest of the apartment. It was furnished with tub, toilet and sink, and Matthew noticed the presence of several fluffy white towels of varying sizes. There was even a bath mat on the floor and soap in the soap dish. To his left, across from the bathroom, was a modest kitchen with sink, gas stove and refrigerator. The interior of the fridge was bare save for the full ice cube trays, but the cupboards held a sparse collection of well-used dishes and pots. Further into the apartment was a nook that served as a dining room, containing only a round wooden dining table and four straight-backed chairs. Farthest away from the entrance door was the main room—a living room-bedroom combination. The furniture consisted of a large couch which folded out into a double bed, two large upholstered arm chairs, a coffee table, and two small end tables. As Matthew entered the living room his attention was drawn to a large window on the north end of the building, overlooking 9th Street. Just outside of it was a small wrought-iron landing with a fire escape of the same material leading down from it to the street below. As he looked around the living room more closely, he noticed a small empty bookcase attached to the wall directly to the left of the window. The right-hand wall was comprised of a large walk-in closet with sliding doors, which he opened to reveal a sufficient number of sheets, blankets, pillows and empty clothes hangers. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 9 4


Putting the shopping bag containing all of his worldly goods into the closet for the time being, Matthew then sat down on his sofa bed and marveled at his good fortune. As he glanced casually around the room—his room—he spied a small electric alarm clock on one of the end tables. Seeing that it was nearly six o’clock, he jumped up and hurried downstairs for dinner. When he arrived, he found that the door to Guy’s apartment was standing wide open, so he entered and followed the low murmur of voices to an alcove just off Guy’s living room. The voices seemed to be coming from behind a wall which, on closer inspection, turned out to be a pair of sliding doors. Matthew parted these doors and found himself in what appeared to be a large formal dining room. There, around a huge solid oak dining table, sat some dozen or more people, most of them quite young, and Guy Donnally in the head chair. He had replaced his dressing gown and slippers with a tweed jacket and conventional shoes. When he saw Matthew at the door, he stood up and beckoned him to come in, saying, “Welcome, John, welcome!” To the others he said, “This is John Black, the newest member of our little community.” The others greeted him with desultory waves and mumbles. As he sat down in an empty chair near the door, Guy immediately filled a bowl with a steaming substance and passed it down to Matthew. After tasting it he recognized it to be a thick stew of root vegetables, plain tasting but hearty. Everyone at the table seemed to be giving the meal their full attention, pausing only to grab another hunk of crusty French bread from large baskets, refill their glasses from the jugs of cheap red wine at both ends of the table, or pile more rather wilted looking salad D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 9 5


onto their plates from a large ceramic bowl in the middle of the table. As Matthew ate his bread and stew, a strange feeling came over him, sort of a sense of déjà vu. Sitting at a long table with strangers, eating plain but nourishing food, all this seemed somehow very familiar to him. As he tried to figure out what this meant, the meal suddenly seemed to be over. In no particular order, people got up from the table in ones and twos, murmuring “Thanks, Guy” and “Good to meet you, John.” They carried their dishes with them and could be heard stacking them on a counter or sink in the next room. In no time at all the table was deserted except for Matthew and Guy. “Uh, where did everybody go?” asked Matthew, looking around. Guy pushed his chair away from the table and leaned back with a sigh of contentment. Before answering Matthew he took his cigarette holder from his pocket, fitted a cigarette into it, and lit it with a large gold lighter. Then he looked at his watch. “It’s almost six-thirty,” he told Matthew. “All these youngsters,” he indicated the empty table with a sweeping gesture of his left hand, “work for one theater or another, in this immediate vicinity or farther away. Most of them are actors or technicians and, this being a Tuesday night, have a show to do. Hence, their rather rapid departure.” He got up from the table, cigarette holder in his mouth, a glass of wine in one hand and the jug in the other. “Come with me,” he said through clenched teeth. Matthew followed, carrying his own wine glass with him. When they were back in Guy’s living room again, he put the jug and glass on the coffee table, went over and D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 9 6


carefully closed and locked his apartment door, and sat down on the davenport. He removed the cigarette holder from his mouth. “Soon, within a few weeks, or even days, you’ll be just like these young dedicated professionals. Dashing out of the house right after dinner, not returning until the wee hours of the morning, sleeping late unless you’re on a work crew or you’ve a matinee to do. In short, leaving me with no companionship in my old age. And ironically, that’s why I bought this place and continue to provide food and lodging for the needy—so I could live in close proximity to thespians like myself.” He downed his wine in a single gulp and refilled his glass. “Ah, mustn’t grumble, Guy,” he muttered to himself absently. “Well,” said Matthew. “At least I’m here. And I don’t even know the story behind this, what do you call it again, ‘home for wayward thespians’.” “My boy,” said Guy, puffing reflectively on his cigarette. “’Tis a long and interesting story. If you will be so kind as to join me in a brandy, just to ward off the winter’s chill, mind you, I’ll relate to you the whole tale. Unless you have something better to do.” He got up and removed the jug and wine glasses and returned with a bottle of Martell VSOP and two brandy snifters. He looked at Matthew expectantly. “No, no,” said Matthew hurriedly. “I’ve got nothing to do really until tomorrow afternoon. It feels strange to be so idle.” “Hmm,” said Guy thoughtfully. “Perhaps I should be the one to hear your story. I understand that you were discovered while performing menial tasks at a nearby greasy spoon. Not a very lucrative or soul-satisfying occupation for a man of your obvious maturity and D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 9 7


talent, I’d say.” “Let’s just say I needed a quick change of scenery.” Matthew looked away evasively. “And frankly, I’m much more interested in hearing your story.” “Splendid, my boy.” He poured a few ounces of brandy into each glass. “But there may come a time,” he looked at Matthew darkly, “when you will find it to be in your interest to divulge the specific nature of your predicament.” Matthew shrugged. “Very well then.” Guy settled back onto the davenport. “I was born nearly sixty years ago in a small town. Five dollars says you can’t discern the state in which this dazzling urbanite was born.” “Gee, that’s a tough one,” acknowledged Matthew. “You certainly sound East Coast to me. But not really New York and not really New England. And certainly not Brooklyn. Uh, Pennsylvania or New Jersey, maybe?” “Incorrect!” pronounced Guy gleefully. “I was born in 1927 in a little town in Iowa called Ottumwa. Ever hear of it?” “No, I don’t think I have.” “Well, that’s irrelevant in any case. The point is, I was brought up as just your average small town hayseed. By the time I had grown into late adolescence, I not only knew everyone in town, but their parents and their children. I knew every house, every shop, every tree, every stone with a completeness that informed my very dreams at night and inflamed my fantasies of blowing up the place. I knew who was sleeping with whom and found I couldn’t care less. I began plotting my escape. Unlike my fellow high school prisoners, I disdained the automatic acceptance of the small and mediocre but inexpensive colleges that dot the D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 9 8


State of Iowa. I had read The New Yorker, and would accept nothing less than to at least live in the most exciting city in the country. Fortunately for my dreams of grandeur, I was accepted at Columbia in the fall of 1947 as an English major.” He paused for a moment to refill both brandy glasses and light another cigarette. “But it was not until 1948, at the start of my sophomore year,” Guy continued, “that the event occurred which was to change my life forever. I had a girl friend at that time, pretty little thing, you’d like her, who was at that time majoring in the dramatic arts. She wanted to be an actress in the worst way, not withstanding the fact that the poor girl had a voice like fingernails down a blackboard. It was her only flaw, you see, but a fatal one. Anyway, the talk of Broadway that fall was a new play by Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman, starring the immortal Lee J. Cobb and Mildred Dunnock. I saved up my money and managed to acquire two orchestra seats for a Wednesday matinee preview. After seeing the play my eyes were opened. Nothing would suffice but that I become an actor of the caliber of the great Lee J. Cobb. Of course, later on I found better idols to worship, but he was my first. I quit school, moved out of the dormitory and, on the strength of the remains of my generous college stipend provided by my loving but hopelessly bourgeois parents, got a weekly room at a small nondescript but cheap midtown hotel. With no acting experience whatsoever I began auditioning for show after show after show. This went on for nearly three years, during which time I had an unbroken string of failures. Soon my money and my selfrespect were nearly gone, and my health was beginning to suffer. But I wouldn’t give up my dream.” He paused to D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

1 9 9


light another cigarette. “But then fortune smiled upon me,” Guy resumed. “An elderly actor, you wouldn’t know the name but he was reasonably famous in his day and about the age that I am now, anyway it seems that this man, old enough to be my father then, noticed me at one of my many unsuccessful auditions. He offered to buy me a sandwich and a beer, at which invitation I fairly jumped. We had a long conversation in the saloon, and he must have taken a fancy to me or been sorry for my circumstances, or possibly both, for he invited me to live with him in his cozy apartment just off Times Square. I, of course, accepted both enthusiastically and gratefully, for by this time I was practically living on the street. So he took me in, fed me, bedded me (for nothing comes without a price), and even bought me clothes in which to audition. I stayed there happily for several months, thinking of myself as a young struggling actor, when in reality I was merely his male mistress. Good things came of this, however, for he must have been amused by my poor attempts at acting and consented to give me lessons. Soon I was armed with both desire and a modicum of technique. I actually began to get callbacks, then finally parts! I was overjoyed. I thought to myself, Guy, if you can ever do this for another aspiring actor, you must.” “This is a fascinating story,” said Matthew. “But how did you come to own this place? It must have cost a small fortune.” “I’m coming to that presently. Well, to make a long story short, as I can see you yawning over there, I soon became a legitimate stage actor with a career that spanned more than two decades, a career that was tragically cut D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 0 0


short ten years ago due to my declining health. You see, as a very young man I had taken summer jobs in the construction business and the doctors tell me that the substances I inhaled are the cause of the chronic shortness of breath I began to experience when I was only in my midforties. As I could no longer act upon the stage, I began to cast about for something else with which to fill my days and pique my interest. I had been making a decent living as an actor, but I had no savings to speak of and no skills other than acting with which to make an honest dollar. But then, just as things seemed darkest, Dame Fortune once again bestowed a favor upon me. I should tell you that for some perverse reason, filial duty I suppose, I had kept in touch with my parents over the years, though I hadn’t been back to Iowa since dropping out of college. I wrote them cheery missives at all the proper holidays and received such news from them as they thought I should know. Well, it was at about the time that I was struggling to come to terms with the fact that I would be an actor no more that I received a fateful letter from our family solicitor. It seems my father had finally died (he was by then in his late seventies) and I had been mentioned prominently in his will. The terms were these, said the letter: I was to receive the sum of half a million dollars, in cash and tax free, on one condition—I was to return immediately to Ottumwa and assume a position as vice-president in the meat packing company which my father had owned since before I was born and which, with the addition of some shrewd investments during the Depression, had made my family’s fortune.” He paused for a moment, stubbed out his cigarette, and immediately lit another. “You see, my boy,” he D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 0 1


continued, “my father had never approved of my stage career, I suppose because he knew there was no money in it, and my father was above all a practical man. So, shrewd old bird that he was, he knew I would eventually reach a point in my life when I would be left with nothing but memories. I thought about this offer (for that is what it amounted to). I couldn’t stay here, unable to work very much and with very little money, but I had an absolute aversion to going back to Iowa with my tail between my legs, so to speak. By this time I was nearly fifty years old; I had never married, for one reason or another, and had become quite set in my ways. So, as I said, I gave this offer much thought, and soon I hit upon a plan. I was going to attempt to have my cake and eat it too.” Guy turned to Matthew and gave him a wink. “You remember my telling you about my experiences as a young man with the older actor who had become my tutor and benefactor. Well, even then, in the early fifties, it was obvious even to me with my lack of experience that the man was a flaming homosexual, as we said in those days. As he tutored me, I copied his mannerisms and speech patterns. I became quite skilled at portraying homosexuals on the stage, although I had no particular proclivities in that direction. In fact,” he said with more than a little satisfaction, “I pride myself on having portrayed some of the most famous homosexual characters in the history of drama.” He stood up and managed to turn a sweeping bow into a mincing curtsey, laughing all the while. He sat back down, coughed several times, and wiped the perspiration from his face with a white silk handkerchief. When he could speak again he said, “But I digress. In short, I decided it would be amusing to go back to Ottumwa, since D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 0 2


no one there had seen me or heard my voice in more than twenty years. I booked a flight to Des Moines, which at that time was the closest major airport. I cabled our solicitor, notifying him of my acceptance of the terms of my father’s will, and giving him the time and place of my arrival. When the plane landed I stepped off it in the faggiest clothes and hairstyle I could manage (Incidentally, it was then that I began to affect the cigarette holder that has become my trademark and constant companion). My solicitor had kindly agreed to meet me at the airport and drive me back to Ottumwa. When he saw me step from the plane, he must have been quite taken aback, though he covered it well. “The next day I went to work in my new position as vice-president of the meat packing plant as agreed. I purposely wore the same clothes and hairstyle as I had on my arrival. I managed to proposition most of the male employees by lunchtime, while making sure to leer and wink at the rest. At about four o’clock that afternoon I was not unexpectedly called into the president’s office. When I arrived, I was greeted not only by the president, but by his chief of security, the company’s chief legal counsel, and my family solicitor as well. The conversation was very congenial: How did I like the place, how was my first day at work, that sort of thing. I told them how delighted I was to be there, that it fulfilled a lifelong dream, and then complimented the president on his rugged good looks. At this point the four of them held a whispered conversation. The president asked me if there was any way I could be persuaded not to take the job. Certainly not, I told them, and besides I was destitute, having used the last of my money for the plane ticket out here, and this fabulous new suit of clothes. I let my lower lip tremble bravely as I told D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 0 3


them in a broken voice that I had nowhere else to go. Another hurried whispered conference ensued. I could just barely make out a few random phrases such as ‘must be some loophole’, ‘provisions of the will very clear’, etcetera. Finally my solicitor took me by the shoulder and led me into a corner of the room. ‘My boy,’ he told me in grave hushed tones, ‘the long and the short of it is that they don’t want you here. They don’t approve of you or your, ahem, lifestyle, and they’ll only make things miserable for you if you stay. However,’ he said a bit more brightly, ‘according to the terms of the will, you are to receive your half-million dollars upon acceptance of the position as vice-president in this company. However, the will makes no mention of the length of your employment. So, on behalf of the company, I have been authorized to give you this cashier’s check for half a million. I have already arranged for your flight back to New York. All we need is your signature on this document attesting to the fact that you were hired at, oh, eight o’clock this morning and resigned at’—he looked at his watch—‘four-thirty. Is this agreeable to you?’ “I thanked him for his kindness, expressed regrets, signed the paper, and left the office. I consider that to be, not only my greatest acting performance, but certainly my highest-paid one as well.” He got up and went to the cupboard, returning shortly with another bottle of cognac to replace the now-empty one on the coffee table. “You can guess the rest. With the proceeds of that check, in 1976 I bought the building in which we are now residing. I received a very good price, as the owners were eager to sell because of the neighborhood’s increasingly lower-class reputation. It turned out to be, however, a very convenient location for an D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 0 4


establishment such as this, because of the proximity of so many off-off Broadway theaters in the area (though many of them subsequently moved to Chelsea on the west side). The remainder of the money I was fortunate to have invested in some hot electronics stocks, the proceeds of which have enabled me not only to run this lunatic asylum, but to live comfortably as I have done for the last ten years.” Matthew was beginning to yawn and stretch. “You certainly seem to have lived a fascinating life. I’d love to hear more about your theatrical career and the history of this building, but I’m afraid this brandy is beginning to go to my head.” He stood up unsteadily and put his half-empty glass on the coffee table. “By all means, dear boy, I don’t wish to keep you from the arms of Morpheus. Tomorrow’s a big day for you, eh, first day at the theater and all?” “Yes, I’m certainly looking forward to it.” So they said their good nights and Matthew stumbled up the stairs to his room. He unlocked the door and turned on the light, still marveling at his good fortune. Guy Donnally, he thought, was an odd old man but his heart was obviously in the right place. He sat down on the sofa bed and took off his boots. His head felt a little swimmy, so he decided to just stretch out on the couch, fully dressed, without taking the trouble to fold it out into a bed. Do it later, he thought. Lying there, he wondered idly why everyone lately seemed to want to tell him their life stories. Before Guy there had been Barbara, Julio, and even that weird old guy he’d met at the bar downtown. It may be, he thought ruefully, because I have no life story of my own. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 0 5


He closed his eyes and began to dream. It seemed to him that all at once he was in a huge house with many rooms. Though he was dressed in a fine suit, he seemed to be expected to perform the duties of servant to the seemingly infinite number of inhabitants of this house. No, no, this isn’t me, this isn’t what I do, he cried out, but no one seemed to pay him any notice. He went from one room to the next, and then the next, his duties becoming more odious with each new scene. There seemed to be an endless procession of rooms, each of them containing more demanding people, most of them women and children, than the one before. Finally, in despair, when he had retreated to the very tiniest room at the very top of the house, he threw open the window. He stuck his head out and the cold wind on his face seemed to whisper to him as if to tell him what to do. In accordance with the logic of such dreams, he leaped out into the wind, heedless of the protestations of his tormentors who had somehow managed to crowd themselves into the little room. He did not fall, however, but found he could fly, traveling not only through space but time as well. First it was cold, then warm. It was night, then day. Curiously he was reminded of the time-traveling sequence in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine as portrayed in the George Pal movie starring Rod Taylor. Finally he began to descend. The closer to the ground he came, the warmer and brighter it became. He seemed to be drawn, with no intent on his part, toward the top-floor window of an old frame house in some small town in the South or Midwest. Magically he passed through the closed window and stood in the center of a small bedroom. He noticed that the room was packed to overflowing with all D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 0 6


manner of things—personal things that he thought had once belonged to him that he could remember but not recognize. I’m home, he said to himself. He caught sight of his reflection in a large mirror and found that he was wearing child’s pajamas, which was not so surprising because he seemed to be child-size and have a child’s face, though he could not recognize it. He went through the things in the room—his room, he knew. Even though he was still a child he knew he hadn’t seen the contents of this room—in fact hadn’t even been there—in decades. This stuff is mine, he said to himself childishly, and I’m never going to go away again. Ah, but you must, said a voice inside his head, but you can return any time because now you have found the way. Matthew woke up and scratched his head. The room was dark, but a half moon could be glimpsed through the window, darting in and out of the clouds racing across the night sky. The faithful alarm clock on the dresser said three o’clock. Christmas Eve morning, thought Matthew, and he smiled broadly for some reason. Then he yawned contentedly and went back to sleep.

D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 0 7


PART SEVEN ASCENTS

I

t is the afternoon of Christmas Eve, 1986. Inside the Third Eye Theater a meeting is taking place between the Administrative and Artistic Director of the theater, Whitey Richardson, and his youthful assistant, Tommy “Tuckey” Tucker. The contrast between these two men couldn’t be greater—Whitey, though barely forty, had been directing in regional theater for many years before taking the managerial position at the Third Eye just over seven years ago. His assistant, barely in his twenties, graduated from the NYU School of Dramatic Arts last spring and has been working for Whitey for only a few months. Tuckey has no legitimate stage experience outside of the university. The two men are also completely different in physical appearance—Whitey is a large man in every conceivable way, standing well over six feet tall and weighing over two hundred fifty pounds, practically none of which is solid muscle. His close-cropped hair is such a light shade of blond that it appears to be almost white—hence his D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 0 8


nickname. Tucky, on the other hand, is small and delicatelooking, with a baby face unblemished by even the hint of a beard. His hair is long, dark and lustrous, flowing down almost to his shoulders. Whitey rules the theater with an iron hand—or at least he pretends he does. Tuckey rules nothing and no one and considers it a good day if he can manage to keep himself in Whitey’s good graces and not be laughed at by anyone. The two men are having their meeting in Whitey’s office on the top floor, which is to say the ground floor, of the theater. Because of its peculiar architectural design, the theater extends much further underground than the single story above it. In the course of their meeting, already in progress, the two men have assumed their normal roles, which is to say that Whitey is talking and Tuckey is listening. “So here we are, Tucker, Christmas time again.” He refills both their cups with mulled red wine which can be seen simmering in a large pot on the office hot plate. “And what do we have to be merry about? I’ll tell you,” he continues in a louder voice, not waiting for an answer. “Nothing! That’s right, nothing. We’re halfway through the season already and it looks like we’re going to lose money for the third straight year. Even our sure-fire crowd pleaser A Christmas Carol isn’t putting fannies in the seats like it used to. Why, we’re only getting half houses on the weekends.” “If I might point out, sir,” Tuckey ventures timidly, “it is, after all, the fifth consecutive year you’ve staged it. And with the same actors. All very well for the adults, but the boy playing Tiny Tim is nearly fourteen now. Cratchit’s complaining about having to carry him around. Says he D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 0 9


has to wear a back brace under his coat. I saw the show last night, and even the back rows could hear him grunting and groaning. Breaks the mood a bit, don’t you think?” “Bah!” Whitey gulps down his wine and refills his glass. “Don’t tell me it’s the kid’s fault! That kid’s been brilliant for five years. And he works cheap, too. You tell what’s his name, the guy who plays Cratchit, he’d better shape up if he wants to audition at this theater again. Tell him to quit bitching and hit the gym. He must be getting soft in his old age. Anyway, the point is you’ve been here, what, going on four months now and the box office hasn’t picked up yet. I thought you said you learned some surefire publicity techniques from that fancy drama school of yours. That’s the only reason I hired you, you know. I need an assistant director like I need a hole in the head. I do everything myself, always have, always will. It’s the only way to stay in control of this madhouse.” “If I might say so, sir, publicity is only as good as its product. Look at the play you opened with this season. Any decent marketing person will tell you that your first show sets the tone for your whole season. And what did you open with? A dog called In My Mother’s House by that insufferable Filipino woman, what was her name, Eunice Masa— Masa—” he falters. “Masamapangarap, you idiot,” offers Whitey. “Yeah, whatever,” shrugs Tuckey. “I mean, what could you have been thinking? It’s a play where one woman walks around a living room set and tells the audience stories about everything she touches. Not to mention the fact that it was just a little long for a one act—nearly two and a half hours. The audience was walking out in droves. We had to D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 1 0


resort to giving them free wine just to keep them in their seats.” “Listen, Tucker, hindsight is always twenty-twenty. You know how hot these ‘ethnic’ plays are right now. Who could predict it would be such a bomb?” “At least we recovered a little with your second production, a revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? starring that husband-and-wife acting team, Larry Stevens and Goldie Edison.” “We would have done even better if they hadn’t lost it half way through the run.” “Yeah, who could have predicted that rehearsing all those angry scenes with each other would destroy their marriage and have them both hitting the bottle?” “I swear, by the middle of the run, at least one of them was drunk every night, sometimes both of them. Towards the end what audience we were getting was coming only to witness their drunken brawls on stage.” Tucker clears his throat. “And that brings us up to date, A Christmas Carol being your third show of the season. And your fourth one is…?” Whitey gets up and rubs his hands together. “This one can’t possibly miss. A revival of that G. B. Shaw classic Arms and the Man. I’m directing it myself, so what can possibly go wrong? Besides, we pulled off a brilliant casting coup. We’re extremely fortunate to get that grand old man of the theater, Albert Brent, to recreate his Obie-nominated performance as Bluntschli. He hasn’t done it since his big Off-Broadway hit, must be, let’s see now, at least ten years ago.” “Well, I hope for all our sakes that this one does the trick. When does it open?” “A Christmas Carol closes January fourth. Then we D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 1 1


have our usual three weeks of down time, and Arms opens on January twenty-seventh.” Tucker takes a notebook from his pocket and makes a few notations. “I suppose you’ll need your usual week of tech and dress rehearsals?” “Yeah, shouldn’t take more than that.” “Then that gives us only two weeks to build the set. I’m going to have to check with Mary about the volunteer status. We’re going to need just about as many bodies as we can get.” “Oh, that reminds me,” says Whitey, sitting back down and lighting a cigarette. “I just talked to Mary this morning. She says she’s got a new volunteer for us.” He takes a scrap of paper from his pocket and unfolds it. “Big fella, apparently, and a little older than most of them.” “That’s great! We can get him doing set construction and painting. Anybody that’s reasonably strong can do that.” Whitey rubs his chin. “Where would we be without people like Mary? I shudder to think.” He points an accusing finger at Tucker. “That stays in this room, Tucker, that’s an order! If these people knew how valuable they were, the next thing you know they’d all be demanding decent pay!” Tucker agrees, and together he and Whitey make a private Christmas toast to selfless idealism everywhere. 2.

M

atthew arrived at the theater about an hour early for the Wednesday night meeting. He had awakened at about noon, feeling somewhat at a loss for D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 1 2


something to do, but since the weather was dry and only seasonably cold, he had decided to go for a walk around the East Village to familiarize himself with the immediate neighborhood. He found that he recognized certain places as if he had known them at some time in the past—Kossar’s Bialys on 14th Street, for instance, or the St. Mark’s movie theater on Second Avenue—but they were superficial recollections only; he still could remember nothing about his life “pre-Blarney Stone” as he liked to put it. Taking a deep breath, he pushed open the red entrance door and stepped boldly into the theater. No one seemed to be around, so he proceeded down the hall and knocked on the office door. “Who is it?” responded a high musical voice that Matthew recognized from yesterday. “It’s me, Agnes, John Black. I’m here for the meeting.” The door opened to reveal Agnes Krump, the theater manager. Today she was alone in the office. “Goodness, John!” she exclaimed. “You’re way early. Tell you what, I’ll bet you haven’t seen our performance space yet, have you? I’ll be glad to take you on a little tour.” “You’re right. I haven’t really seen anything other than, let’s see, the entrance, ticket booth, and this office.” “Then come with me.” She took Matthew by the arm and led him out of the office and back down the hall to the main entrance. “We might as well start at the beginning.” Her voice was gradually taking on the manner of a professional tour guide, as though she had done this many times. “The Third Eye Theater has been in existance in this location since 1968, a period of almost twenty years. During the first twelve years of its life it was relegated to a church D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 1 3


basement and so there were only two levels to the theater— this one and the stage and audience level down these stairs.” She pointed down the flight of concrete stairs that Matthew had noticed yesterday. “But since the Great Fire of ’81 which burned down the church but miraculously spared the theater, we have gradually completed a third level, above ground, which we use mainly for offices, storage, and costume and construction shops.” “Oh, this third level must be what I saw when I came yesterday,” interjected Matthew. “It seemed a little, well, ordinary.” “That’s because it was really quickly planned and cheaply built,” chuckled Agnes. “What you see from outside is almost literally the tip of the iceberg. The real beauty of this theater is the performance space, which is entirely underground.” She led Matthew down the hall, stopping at each door to explain the function of that particular room. “On the right here is the green room,” she said as they looked in on a large room containing several comfortablelooking sofas and chairs. “It’s empty at the moment, but this is where many of the actors wait for their calls before and during a performance.” She then pointed to a room across the hall. “On the left here is the electrical storage room. Spare lighting instruments, electrical cable, gels, plugs, etcetera, are kept in here. This next room,” she said, moving down the hall, “is our pride and joy. It’s called simply the booth, though some of our technicians have taken to calling it ‘the sweat box’, especially in hot weather. This is where the stage manager and the light and sound board operators make all the technical things happen that a performance calls for, such as lighting changes, sound effects, recorded music, and the like.” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 1 4


She opened the door to reveal a steep ladder extending about ten feet to a raised wooden platform. Except for the fact that it was carpeted to reduce noise, it reminded Matthew of climbing up to a tree house. Agnes knocked on the side of the ladder. “Anyone up there?” she called out. “Can we come up?” “Who’s there?” answered a woman’s impatient voice. “I’m busy up here!” “Oh, I’m sorry, dear,” responded Agnes in a conciliatory tone. “I’ve brought a new volunteer to see your booth.” “So it’s Agnes, is it? And with yet another new volunteer, huh? Well, you can come up, then, but only for a minute,” was the slightly softer reply. Matthew followed Agnes up the ladder, marveling at the older woman’s surprising strength and agility. When they reached the top, Matthew looked around the room in awe. It seemed to him that he must be in the cockpit of some jet plane or the computer room of a large corporation. On either side of him were desks and tables covered with machines, each machine having a profusion of dials, levers, blinking lights, and cables. On closer inspection he thought it bore a startling resemblance to Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. All it needed was a large misshapen body on a table. Instead, standing in the corner busily polishing the largest window Matthew had ever seen was a small, rather heavy-set woman of indeterminate age. She wore her short brown hair in a rather boyish style which oddly complemented her rather mannish attire— dark button-down collared shirt and matching black slacks. As she turned to regard Agnes and Matthew, her face bore the remnants of a scowl that she seemed to be attempting D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 1 5


to turn into a smile. “Just cleaning the screen,” she said somewhat apologetically. “People will smoke in here, though I’ve told them a million times not to, and the glass gets all cruddy. Yuck!” She discovered another dirty spot and began scrubbing away at it. “Dear,” said Agnes hesitantly, trying to regain her attention. “Let me present our newest volunteer. His name is John Black. John, this is our resident stage manager, Patricia Kaye.” Patricia shook his hand perfunctorily. “Welcome to the Third Eye, John. Any experience?” “Not in the theater, no,” Matthew admitted. “Mary recruited him for us, dear. This is his first day,” Agnes began hopefully. “Ah, that explains it!” said Patricia savagely. “Where does she find these people, anyway?” “I’m sure I don’t know, dear,” Agnes replied in a mild voice. “Come, John, let me show you the rest of the theater.” “Um, pleased to meet you, Ms. Kaye,” said Matthew, turning and going down the ladder again, followed closely by Agnes. “Yeah, right!” was the only response. Once outside the booth Matthew turned to Agnes. “Is she always like that?” he inquired. “Don’t judge her too harshly, John. She has a hard job and gets very little recognition for it. Besides, unless you’re on a running crew, you won’t see her that much. Oh, but if you do see her around the theater, just remember,” she ticked the points off on her fingers, “no smoking, eating, drinking, or littering in the theater.” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 1 6


“The theater’s rules?” he asked. “Worse. Her rules,” was the kindly reply. Matthew thought about running screaming out the door. Then he thought about Barbara and Mary. More to the point, he thought about Julio and mountains of dirty dishes. Oh well, he thought, in for a penny, in for a pound. “So what’s next?” he asked as brightly as he could. She showed him the main dressing room, in which several actors were already getting into Dickensian costumes and makeup for the evening’s performance. When he was introduced they chorused “Hi, John!” in a bored manner. “And now,” said Agnes grandly. “I’m going to show you our pride and joy—the performance space itself!” She led him around a corner of the hall to a small door marked “Actors’ Entrance.” They passed through this door and descended a long staircase. When they finally reached the bottom, Matthew looked around in amazement. He seemed to be standing in the rear of a huge European cathedral, so vast was the space. The walls and ceiling were painted black and were windowless. Suspended from the thirty-foot high ceiling was a huge metal grid upon which were fastened dozens of theatrical lighting instruments cabled together by thick electrical cord and plugged into four-plug sockets also attached to the grid. At the front end of the theater was a large deep proscenium stage, the curtain raised to reveal what he thought must be the primary set for A Christmas Carol. On either side of the proscenium and about halfway down was a space that was closed off with black curtains, and in the very center of the huge space was an audience area consisting of about a hundred comfortable-looking D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 1 7


upholstered seats. On either side of the rear of the theater was a twenty-foot high wooden platform at the top of which could be seen a large follow spotlight. The harsh white work lights made all this clearly visible to Matthew. As he turned around and around, looking first in one direction and then another, Agnes tapped him on the shoulder. “Well, what do you think of our performance space?” she asked, rather smugly Matthew thought. “I’m impressed!” he admitted. “I don’t think I’ve been in very many theaters. But I’m sure this one’s unique.” As he made this comment, the curtain on the left side of the proscenium parted to reveal someone pushing some kind of a four-wheeled cart to which was fastened a huge wooden stepladder. “What the heck is that?” asked Matthew, stunned by the size of the contraption. “Oh, that,” replied Agnes. “We call it the rolling platform. It’s for the lights.” As if to prove her point she called out to the person who had by now stopped pushing the huge platform and was scrambling up on to it. “Hey, Ernie, you better hurry up with whatever needs fixing. There’s a meeting in here in half an hour, you know, and then it’s going to be showtime.” “No prob, Agnes,” the man answered cheerfully from halfway up the ladder. “I won’t be five minutes. I’m just replacing a lamp that blew at the end of last night’s show. Who’s your friend there?” he asked, seeing Matthew for the first time. “This is John Black, Ernie. He’s our newest volunteer.” Ernie reached the top of the ladder, deftly popped D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 1 8


open a panel on the offending instrument, changed the lamp, and closed the panel again, all in the space of just a few seconds. “That’s terrific!” he replied, grinning broadly and scampering back down the ladder. He leaped gracefully off the platform and walked over to where Matthew and Agnes were standing. “Nice to meet you, John,” he said warmly. “Know anything about lighting?” “Not really,” admitted Matthew. “Want to learn?” “Sure,” agreed Matthew. “It looks like fun.” “Not so fast, you two,” interrupted Agnes. She turned to Matthew. “This is Ernie Michaels, our Master Electrician. He’s always looking for someone to do the dirty work—hanging and focusing, geling, cabling—isn’t that right, Ernie?” Ernie admitted that it was so. “Mary and Tucky will decide how to use this man the most efficiently. You can put in your bid at tonight’s meeting if you want to.” “Okay by me, Agnes,” Ernie cheerfully agreed. To Matthew he said earnestly, “Put in a request to work for me. You won’t regret it.” He turned away from them and pushed the rolling platform back through the curtain again. “Seems like a nice guy,” Matthew commented. “Ernie’s been with us for over seven years now. Master Electrician for five of them,” Agnes replied. “He could work for any theater in town, including Off-Broadway houses, for a lot more money, but he prefers to stay with us. He says that compared to lighting this space, all the other theaters are boring.” “I see what he means,” said Matthew solemnly, looking up at the grid again. “There must be nearly a hundred lights up there.” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 1 9


“And this is one of our simpler shows,” laughed Ernie, who had quietly returned to where they were standing. “Wait ‘til you see one of our big shows, with all those great special effects.” He rubbed his hands together, apparently relishing the thought. “We’ll see you at the meeting, Ernie. I want to show John the catwalk.” She led Matthew up a metal staircase at the rear of the theater. At the top of the stairs was a narrow but sturdy walkway about twenty feet above the floor and extending around the back and both sides of the performance space. They were about ten feet below the ceiling now, and Matthew could see a series of doors built into the walls opposite the safety rail. “These doors open onto the part of the theater you can see from the outside,” explained Agnes. “They’re mostly for storage and private offices. I don’t believe anyone is up here just now, so I’ll just show you the highlights.” As they passed each room she explained its purpose. It’s a little confusing,” she apologized. “Some of the doors have signs and some don’t. Here’s Whitey Richardson’s private office. He’s the theater’s Artistic Director, so if you need to see him for any reason, knock first.” She gave a little chuckle. “He’s very proud of his position, you know. And here we have the set construction shop, the property room, the costume shop, and various storage areas,” she said, pointing to each door in turn. “Well, those are the highlights. You’ll meet the people in charge of these various departments at the meeting. Which”—she looked at her watch—“should be starting in about fifteen minutes or so.” She looked down over the railing at the seating area. Even as high up as they were, they could hear an increasingly loud buzz of voices, as the staff members and volunteers began entering the D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 2 0


audience area. “Go ahead down and join them,” urged Agnes. “I have to get some things from the office.” “Well, thanks for the tour, Agnes.” “The pleasure is all mine, John.” She gave his arm a little squeeze. “Let me know if you need anything, promise?” “Oh, I will,” Matthew reassured her. Then, with a feeling of anticipation, he started down the stairs to attend his first theater meeting. 3.

A

s Matthew approached the seating area from the rear of the theater, he noticed that the incoming crowd of people were dividing themselves into two groups: In the section to his right some dozen or so people were taking their seats around a banner that read simply “Staff”. The group to his left which numbered about half that of the staff was seated beneath a “Volunteers” sign. Matthew had no trouble figuring out to which group he belonged, so he sat down in one of the seats to his left, next to a young woman of slightly Asian appearance. She was small and slender with long dark straight hair and appeared to be in her early twenties. She flashed a brief welcoming smile to Matthew which he quickly returned. Then the work lights blinked three times and the noise of the crowd subsided. A large heavyset man with a shock of light blond hair strode to a wooden podium which had been placed between the seating area and the proscenium stage. He shuffled some papers and cleared his throat. “Good evening, staff and volunteers of the Third Eye Theater, and welcome to our weekly Wednesday night business meeting,” he began. “For any of you who are new D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 2 1


to this theater, let me introduce myself.” He turned toward the volunteer section. “My name is Whitey Richardson, Artistic Director of the theater. That makes me your boss.” There was some polite laughter and a few groans from the staff section. As the laughter subsided, a woman who Matthew recognized as Proud Mary left her seat, hurried up to the podium, whispered something in Whitey’s ear, and sat down again, all in the space of a few seconds. When she had taken her seat again, Whitey continued. “Mary just wanted to remind me that since tonight is Christmas Eve, everyone is invited to our Christmas party in the Green Room right after the meeting.” Wild cheers broke out. Whitey held up a cautioning hand. “Except for you on the running crew, of course. You’ve got a show to do tonight. Agnes informs me that we’ve already got reservations for over half a house. So you on the running crew will have to wait ‘til after the show to get drunk.” There were a few sporadic boos. “Also Mary asks me to get tonight’s meeting over with as quickly as possible so we can, as she puts it, ‘party down’.” An anonymous male voice in the back broke in. “I move we adjourn!” After the laughter had subsided, Whitey called out “You! In the back!” He shook a finger sternly at the culprit. “You’re lucky it’s Christmas. Okay, first order of business. Mary informs me that we have a new volunteer who just joined us yesterday. How many on the active roster now, Mary?” “Six and counting, Whitey,” Mary’s voice boomed out. “Will the new volunteer please stand up?” requested Whitey. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 2 2


Matthew stood up. “Whitey, this is John Black,” Mary introduced him. “No theater experience, but eager to learn and make a change in his life.” Everyone applauded. “John, you can sit back down now. You’ll get to meet everyone at the party.” Matthew obediently sat down again. “Next on the agenda,” resumed Whitey, looking at his notes. “As many of you know, A Christmas Carol closes January fourth. That’s a week from this Sunday. We need all you volunteers here at ten o’clock that night to strike the set. Then the following day construction begins for our next production Arms and the Man. We think it’ll be a great show. We were lucky to be able to get that grand old man of the theater, Albert Brent, to reprise his Obie-Award winning role of Bluntschli.” There was scattered polite applause. “Remember, we have only two weeks to finish the set. So anyone who wants to volunteer for set construction, sign up with either Mary Nolan or Swamp Girl, our Master Carpenter. If you want to be on the running crew, talk to our Stage Manager, Patricia Kaye. Experienced people only, please. This is an important show.” “And speaking of important shows,” Whitey continued, placing his notes down on the podium, “as most of you know, next September marks the beginning of our twentieth season. September may seem like a long way off, but we need to get started now searching for a dynamite season opener. Here are the official criteria: one, we need a new play, hopefully one we can advertise as a world premiere; two, let’s try to get a new work by an established playwright, the more famous, the better; three, it can be a comedy or drama, but it has to be a serious piece of work. No musicals, performance pieces, multi-media shows, D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 2 3


etcetera. We’re looking for something with some literary value. And finally, no ethnic pieces.” There was more laughter. “Any of you who remember In My Mother’s House will understand this requirement.” The laughs turned to groans. “Well, that’s about all I’ve got. Was that short enough, Mary?” he called out. “Before we adjourn, anybody got anything else?” “I have a few items, if you don’t mind, Mr. Richardson.” The short stocky woman who had spoken was already on her way to the podium. Whitey put his hand to his forehead. “Why am I not surprised?” To the group he said “For anyone who doesn’t know her, our Stage Manager, Ms. Patricia Kaye, has a few words.” She stepped quickly up to the podium. “Thank you, Mr. Richardson,” she said graciously, her tone implying that she had just won some sort of award. Whitey shrugged his shoulders and rolled his eyes at the group. There were a few suppressed giggles to which Patricia responded with a fierce glare. “Fellow members of the Third Eye Theater,” she began formally. “I wish to address once again the issue of cleanliness in the theater. Many times as I walk through the work areas, I see candy wrappers, half-full coffee cups, even soda cans left carelessly on tables or even on the floor. I have made sure that there are sufficient waste receptacles available, so come on people, let’s not litter. Remember, the theater, for most of us, is our home—we spend more time here than anywhere else. The second topic I wish to introduce…” She was interrupted by jeers and catcalls. “You tell ‘em, Pattycake!” exclaimed a voice in the back. Patricia’s eyes darted around the room. “Who said D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 2 4


that?” she growled menacingly. “I told you never to call me that!” “Enough already!” someone cried out. Patricia ignored the interruption and pulled herself together. “The second topic,” she continued in a dignified manner, “is the persistent and vile habit of tobacco use. You all know that this theater has been designated a nosmoking building except for the lobby before performances and during intermission and certain private offices.” “Yeah, thanks to you!” another voice called out. Patricia ignored it. “Well today, in the booth, my booth mind you, I could clearly smell traces of cigarette smoke. And there were smudges on the glass,” she continued accusingly. “I warn all of you, if this continues, the booth will be locked during the day.” Whitey, sitting in the back, put both his hands to his mouth and said in a muffled voice, “I move we adjourn!” “Second!” immediately cried someone else. Whitey quickly got up and strode back to the podium. Patricia opened and closed her mouth a few times but silently returned to her seat. “Well,” said Whitey, “it’s been moved and seconded that we adjourn. If anyone has anything more to say, we’ll be happy to hear it in the Green Room, where we’ll be ‘partying down’! Meeting adjourned!” Instantely there was a scramble of people pushing their way up the stairs and into the hall. A surprised Matthew found himself bringing up the rear. As he turned to enter the green room, he felt a hand on his arm. “You really must be new,” said a voice. Matthew looked around and recognized the young woman he had sat beside during the meeting. “The party’s not in the theater green room. It’s at a bar down the street called the Green D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 2 5


Room. Come on, I’ll take you there.” Outside, festive lights, decorations, and throngs of hurrying people showed that it was clearly Christmas Eve. And for the second time in three days, Matthew found himself being taken to a Christmas party by a woman he didn’t know. It seemed like a good time, he thought, to go with the flow. 4.

M

onday morning at about 8:45 I was in my office going over some papers for the Bechtel meeting which was scheduled to begin in a little over an hour. I had been here since about eight o’clock, I was that nervous about this meeting. I was just getting up to pour myself a third cup of coffee, when I heard voices in the outer office. Puzzled, I went over to my office door and cupped my ear against it. “It’s nice to finally meet you too, Stacey,” I could hear a woman’s voice saying. “I hope you’ll forgive me for getting you out of bed the other night, but I was worried sick. I still am, I guess.” “Don’t you give it another thought, Mrs. Kingston,” replied Stacey. “But what are you doing here, and so early in the morning, too?” “Didn’t Manny tell you? He asked me to attend a business meeting he’s having this morning. He said he needed my moral support.” At this point I opened the door a crack and peeked out. Glory was standing in front of Stacey’s desk looking like a million bucks. She was wearing an expensive-looking silver fox fur coat which she had opened to reveal a severely-tailored blue jacket with matching thigh-high D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 2 6


skirt. She was also wearing sheer flesh-colored nylon stockings and black leather knee-high boots. From what I could see she had also lost some weight since Saturday and her blue eyes had regained their sparkle. Stacey was frowning and leafing through the appointment book. “The only thing scheduled for today appears to be the Bechtel meeting. But that’s not until ten o’clock.” “That’s impossible! Manny told me nine o’clock sharp! You mean I wasted my time getting up early, getting dressed and driving all the way down here in rush hour traffic, just to find,” she checked her watch impatiently, “that I’m over an hour early for this damn meeting?” I couldn’t stand it any longer. I flung open the door and waved at Stacey, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of this.” I flashed a big smile at Glory. “You look terrific, kiddo,” I exclaimed enthusiastically. “I can’t tell you how grateful I am to you for taking the time to come down here and help us out.” At the same time I was saying this I was ushering her into my office. When I got her inside I quickly closed the door. “May I take your coat?” I kept up the pleasantries. “How about some coffee, I was just about to get some myself.” She took off her coat, tossed it at me, and fixed me with a glare. “Manny Klein! How dare you drag me down here at this time of the morning! What am I supposed to do for the next hour?” “I’m sorry, Glory,” I said sheepishly. “Force of habit. Whenever I scheduled a meeting involving the King, I’d always tell him it was an hour earlier. That way, if he was late, he wouldn’t be late, if you see what I mean. Don’t tell Stacey, she always looked up to the D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 2 7


King, and I don’t want her to know.” Glory looked mad for about another two seconds and then she laughed out loud. “So that’s why Matthew never missed a meeting even though he was always leaving the house a half-hour late. I should have known.” She shook her finger at me. “You got it, kiddo, and that’s why we never have meetings before ten if I can help it and I usually can.” “This is all very well, but once again, what do I do until ten o’clock?” “Actually, I’m kind of glad you’re here early. Let’s go out and get some breakfast so I can fill you in on a few things regarding the Bechtel deal. By the time we get back, everybody should be here. It’s just you and me, two guys from Bechtel, and you remember Artie Goldberg, our lawyer.” So I took her out to breakfast at a little coffee shop I like downtown where you can get a decent bagel and the lox is actually fresh. Glory was all business and in control of herself and the situation in a way I’d never seen from her before. By the time we got back to the office it was a quarter to ten and I was already beginning to feel like Glory’s assistant. “One thing,” I told her as we were getting off the elevator. “I think it would be better if you called me Mr. Klein and I called you Mrs. Kingston during the meeting. The formality is more businesslike and besides, we want to avoid seeming overly familiar with each other.” She gave me a look that made me feel like I was applying for a loan. “I completely concur with your position, Mr. Klein,” she said primly and entered the office two steps ahead of me. Stacey took our coats and told us D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 2 8


that the three men had just arrived, and that she had installed them in the King’s spacious office with cups of freshly brewed coffee. I gave her a nod of approval, and Glory and I went in to join them. Now, Glory had never been in King’s office before; she rarely even came downtown. But it was magnificent to see her march in like she owned the place. “Mr. Goldberg, how nice to see you again,” she greeted him briskly. “And you gentlemen must be Mr. Folger and Mr. Gould.” She shook their hands in a businesslike way. Artie was looking at me questioningly, but I silently gave him the wait-and-see sign. Without hesitation Glory went directly to the chair at the head of the conference table, the red leather chair where the King always sat when he wasn’t behind his desk. Artie and I sat on her right, the Bechtel boys on the left. That pretty much left me at the other end of the table, away from the action. Glory quickly opened the meeting. From the moment she walked in, she seemed in such complete control of the situation that I decided not to interrupt her unless absolutely necessary. I signaled Artie to do the same. “My name is Mrs. Gloria Kingston. You two gentlemen are no doubt surprised to see me here instead of my husband, Matthew Kingston.” Folger started to say something, but Glory silenced him with a single gesture. “I won’t waste your valuable time with the details, gentlemen, but the rumors you have heard about my husband are true. Rest assured that he is as of this moment receiving the help he needs.” There were murmurs of condolences all around, including Artie and me. “Unfortunately,” she continued quickly, “his condition precipitated a rather serious lapse in judgment concerning the agreement between Kingston & D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 2 9


Klein and your corporation. It appears that instead of forcing out the tenant of the property you wish to acquire, the tenant has signed a new lease and intends to continue to occupy the property for quite some time.” Folger conferred for a moment with Gould. When they had finished, Gould leaped to his feet. “This is outrageous!” he complained. “This may very well constitute breach of contract!” He looked at Glory and said in a softer tone, “We appreciate your situation, especially yours, Mrs. Kingston, but certain promises were made.” “Mr. Gould, Mr. Folger,” I broke in quickly. “Please calm yourselves. I in no way wish to appear to be condoning the conduct of my partner. In fact, I would do anything to be able to reverse it. The lawyer for Mr. Horvath, the tenant in question, assures me that his client’s lease is unbreakable and our attorney,” I indicated Artie, “concurs. But as for breach of contract. . . Mr. Goldberg, give us your highly qualified legal opinion on this matter.” Artie stood up and began reading from our agreement with Bechtel. “So you see, gentlemen,” he concluded, “this document states only that we will acquire the property and resell it to you at such and such a price. It does not state,” he emphasized, “the condition of the property or whether it is tenanted or untenanted. The agreement to force out the tenant was an oral agreement only, which in my opinion is unenforceable. And even if you were to take it to court, there might be some question as to the legality of what we agreed to in the first place.” Artie sat back down with a satisfied look on his face. Glory and I were both watching Folger and Gould, who seemed to be having a heated, whispered discussion. Finally Folger stood up. “Well, Mr. Klein. You seem to D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 3 0


have us over the proverbial barrel. We agreed to pay you three million for that property, but I’ll be damned if we’re going to honor that agreement. So here’s my proposition: We won’t sue you for breach of contract. But, neither will we purchase the property from you. So, if you don’t sue, we won’t. But if you do, I swear by all that’s holy, we’ll counter-sue and bring this all out into the open. So let’s agree to just forget this matter and each go his own way. Have we got a deal?” Before Artie or I could answer, Glory, who had been listening intently, spoke up. “Gentlemen, before we commit to any agreement which would result in either side feeling cheated in this matter, I have a suggestion which might satisfy both parties.” She gave each one of us a reproving look. “We’re quite willing to listen to anything you have to say, Mrs. Kingston,” said Folger. Gould nodded his agreement. “Mr. Klein, Mr. Goldberg?” Glory looked at us and winked, I swear to God. “Uh, okay by us, Mrs. Kingston,” I managed. “Well then, gentlemen. I am going to state some facts as I know them. Please correct me if I say anything wrong.” She looked at Folger and Gould. “Your corporation, Bechtel, is in the planning stages of building an industrial park which was to include Mr. Horvath’s property as well as several others. As I understand it, you have already acquired the other properties and Horvath’s is the last piece of the puzzle, so to speak.” “Correct so far,” admitted Folger. “I also understand that you have yet to break ground on this project and that it is estimated to require anywhere D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 3 1


from three to five years to complete.” “Yes, that is our estimate,” agreed Gould. “I wonder if you have a copy of the plans for this industrial park, Mr. Gould?” “Why yes, I believe I do.” He rummaged in his briefcase for a few moments and brought out a blue print which he unfolded on the table in front of Glory. She scrutinized it intently for a long moment. Then she stood up and smiled. “Just as I suspected, gentlemen. If I’m reading this right, the properties you have already acquired surround Mr. Horvath’s on three sides, making his property ideal for your parking lot. You had planned to include a parking lot, hadn’t you?” “Well of course, Mrs. Kingston. But our architect had planned it to be over there on the left. What are you getting at?” Gould appeared to be genuinely puzzled. “Look at it this way,” said Glory, giving him a kind but pitying look. “If you use Horvath’s property as your parking facility, it will be much more centrally located. The buildings will practically surround the parking area, rather than it being off to one side. So access will be quicker and easier.” Gould wiped his brow with his handkerchief. “I, uh, see what you mean, Mrs. Kingston.” “But there’s another benefit, too,” she continued. “Your industrial park will take from three to five years to complete. But how long would it take to make a usable parking lot?” Folger conferred with Gould. “I don’t know, six months, maybe a year tops?” “Sounds realistic to me,” I put in quickly, beginning to see where Glory was going with this. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 3 2


“So, gentlemen, consider the facts. If you broke ground at the first of the year, there’s no guarantee that your facility would be ready before late 1991, right? Mr. Horvath is sixty-five years old. By that time he’ll be seventy. Any number of things could happen between now and then. He could get sick, be unable to work. He could, God forbid, die. And even if he remains healthy and vigorous, he might reconsider retiring by that time. So here’s my proposition, gentlemen, to which I think Kingston & Klein would be agreeable. Purchase the property from Kingston & Klein as agreed. But because of the inconvenience to you, we will lower the asking price to 1.5 million. Perhaps with the extra money you can even convince Mr. Horvath that it’s in his best interest to retire or relocate.” I looked at Artie. I could see he was having a hard time restraining himself from cheering out loud. “We would agree to that, in principle,” he said carefully. Folger and Gould whispered to each other for long moments. “We also agree,” Gould said finally. “But because of the distress and the expense involved in changing our plans, our offer is half a million.” I threw up my hands. “What the hell! Let’s compromise at one million, unless you think you can get a better deal somewhere else.” “One million it is,” said Gould, smiling for the first time. “Mrs. Kingston, thank you for a brilliant suggestion.” He turned to me. “I can see that your firm isn’t going to suffer while Mr. Kingston’s away.” Glory stood up. “Well, Mr. Klein, what is the usual procedure in cases like this?” “Well, Mrs. Kingston,” I told her. “We usually take the D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 3 3


clients to an expensive restaurant for lunch and get them drunk.” “Oh, goodie,” said Glory. “I think I’m going to like this job. I’ll get my coat.” Artie and I exchanged looks. “We’ll all three sit down and discuss it later, Manny,” he whispered. “But I think this could be the solution to all our problems.” We left the office and headed toward the elevator. Glory brought up the rear, laughing and joking, a Bechtel boy on each arm. 5.

T

he Green Room turned out to be just another dingy, poorly-lit bar on First Avenue, a few doors down from the theater. As Matthew and his new friend entered the bar’s gloomy interior, a voice greeted them. “Hey Terry, what’s shakin’?” Matthew looked around and discovered that the speaker was a large man with shoulder-length blond hair who, despite the season, was wearing a sleeveless white tee shirt and impossibly tight blues jeans. Since he was behind the bar serving drinks, Matthew assumed he was the bartender. “Only your ass, Dave,” Terry retorted. “I’d like you to meet a new co-worker of mine. Dave, this is John Black. He just started at the Third Eye yesterday. John, this is Dave, co-owner of the Green Room.” “A pleasure, John. You kids’ll be here for the Third Eye Christmas party, right? It’s in the party room, straight back.” He waved a hand toward the rear of the bar. They had no trouble finding the “party room.” It was set off from the rest of the bar by a pair of sliding doors D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 3 4


that were now wide open. Once inside, Matthew saw that most of the people who had been at the theater meeting were there, and quite a few others besides. Some were seated on the few metal folding chairs along the back wall, but most were milling about, talking animatedly with one another near a long folding tables that had been set up at each end of the room. On each was a large plastic punch bowl containing some sort of red liquid and two ice chests containing cans of Rheingold beer and bottles of cheap white wine. Beside each punchbowl was a plastic ladle and a few stacks of plastic cups. In the center of the room was a scraggly Christmas tree to which were attached a number of styrofoam balls of various colors. In the corner was a small table with a portable record player and a small stack of LP’s. Just barely audible over the buzz of the party was Perry Como crooning “Silent Night”. Matthew was puzzled. The threadbare décor of the room and its minimal refreshments seemed to provide little cause for celebration, yet everyone seemed to be in high spirits, laughing and talking enthusiastically, happily drinking plastic cups of wine or punch and cans of beer. Terry cut into Matthew’s thoughts. “Hey, I guess we didn’t have time to get properly introduced. I know your name’s John Black from the meeting. Mine’s Teresa Cristina Isabella Maria Aberin de la Peña Ramos, but you can call me Terry.” She grinned and stuck her hand out. “I’m happy to meet you. You’re also a theater volunteer, right? Boy, do I have a lot of questions I want to ask you, like how long have you been working there, what is it that you do mostly, how do you like—” “Whoa!” laughed Terry. “Slow down! All questions cheerfully answered. But first, let’s get something to drink.” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 3 5


She led him over to the nearest table, which was at that moment being presided over by none other than Whitey Richardson. “What’s your poison?” she asked him, filling a cup with punch for herself. “Uh, what you’re having, I guess,” was Matthew’s vague response as he searched the table in vain for something that could be remotely considered drinkable. “You won’t regret it,” put in Whitey, filling a cup for Matthew. “Secret family recipe, handed down for generations.” He winked at Terry who winked back. “If you say so, sir,” replied Matthew, accepting the cup from him. “A Christmas toast!” proclaimed Whitey, raising his cup and his voice so all could hear. “To our newest member. Merry Christmas, John, and the happiest of New Years!” Everyone cheered and raised their cups or cans and then drank heartily. Matthew followed suit, and it was only by an act of supreme will power that he avoided gagging. Upon analysis, the “punch” seemed to be cheap red wine mixed with warm lemon lime soda with a few citrus peels floating on its surface. He forced himself to swallow and then coughed slightly. “Maybe a little too strong for me. I guess I’ll have a beer.” He took one out of the ice chest and let Terry lead him over to a couple of recently vacated chairs. She grinned at him. “Vile stuff, huh? You either get used to it or you don’t. The joke is, every time we have any kind of a party, like opening or closing night celebration, Whitey brings in this same swill. It’s legendary in the theatrical community. I think his mother makes it up in the basement or something.” Matthew coughed again and Terry patted him D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 3 6


sympathetically on the back. He took a long pull off his Rheingold. “Ah,” he managed. “That’s somewhat better. So tell me, what’s it like working at the theater?” Terry thought for a minute. “Well, I’ve been there for about six months now. I do mostly what everybody does— you know, cleaning, maintenance, ticket-taking, ushering. But mostly I like doing sound—operating tape-recorded sound cues during the performances. I’ve been on the running crew for every show this season except Christmas Carol. And I could have been on that one except it’s during the Christmas season and I like to party too much.” Matthew started to say something but Terry put a finger to his lips. “Shush! I know you don’t really know what I’m talking about yet, but you’ll learn. Just take it from me, this is a great place to work. It’s like everybody works together, you know. We’ve all got our jobs to do, from Whitey on down to you and me. But you never get the idea that it’s like bosses and workers like in practically every other place. It’s more that we’re all in this together and everybody depends on everybody else. It’s terrific. I don’t know what I’d do if I had to go back and get a straight job again.” Matthew had been listening intently to Terry when he felt a tap on his shoulder. “Hi, John,” a voice behind him purred. “I thought I might find you here tonight.” He turned around quickly. “Barbara! What are you doing here?” he asked innocently. Barbara shrugged. “A party’s a party. Listen, I’ve got some great news for you, John. Is there someplace where we can talk privately?” She looked pointedly at Terry. “Who’s your little friend here?” “Oh, ah, I’m sorry. Let me introduce you. Terry, this is D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 3 7


Barbara Mann, an actress friend of mine. Barbara, this is Terry Ramos. She’s a Third Eye volunteer, just like me. And she was just filling me in--” “Yes, yes, I’m sure she was,” said Barbara impatiently. She eyed Terry coolly. “Nice to meet you. Now, could we talk, John?” “Uh, sure thing, Barbara. You’ll excuse me for a few minutes, Terry?” “Don’t be too long, John,” she laughed. “We might run out of punch.” Matthew and Barbara carefully made their way through the crowded room and went back out into the main part of the bar. Here, there were considerably fewer people. They found a small booth over on one side and sat down. Matthew looked longingly at the rows of bottles behind the bar. “Wish I could afford a real drink,” he said sadly. Barbara pulled a twenty out of the pocket of her coat and silently handed it to Matthew. He looked at it in astonishment. “I can’t take this, Barbara.” “Sure you can. I just got paid a residual from a TV commercial I did last year, so I can afford it. Just consider it as payback for the other night. Besides, we can’t have you drinking Whitey’s punch all night, can we?” Matthew grinned. “Oh, you know about that, huh?” “Yeah. Whitey gave me a cup at a closing night party last year. I was in the bathroom for hours.” Laughing, Matthew went over to the bar and soon returned with a scotch and soda for himself and a white russian for Barbara. “Good boy,” she said when Matthew set the drink down in front of her. “You’re learning.” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 3 8


“I try. But what did you want to talk to me about?” She grabbed him by the collar of his coat and pulled him across the table so his face was only inches from hers. “Listen ver-ee care-fooly,” she whispered in an absurd French accent, “I weel say zis only once. First, I have solved ze problem of your identity card.” She shoved a scrap of paper into his hand. “Be at zis address at ten o’clock next Monday morning, so my contact can take your picture. Forty-eight hours after zat you will have a New York driver’s license in the name of John Black. Second,” she released him and resumed her normal voice. “I got a part!” She laughed and clapped her hands. “And not only a part, not only a great part, but a leading role! I go into rehearsal a week from Monday, January fifth, for the part of Nina in The Seagull. It’s being revived by the Cherry Lane in the Village. Isn’t that just great?” “Why, that’s wonderful, Barbara! Congratulations!” She bowed to Matthew and, as if accepting a Tony Award, intoned, “Thank you, thank you. I’d like to thank all the little people out there, Mickey Rooney, Danny DeVito… But seriously, John, here’s the best news of all. Next week, my roommate’s going to Connecticut. She leaves the afternoon of New Year’s Eve and won’t be back until Sunday night. That gives us four whole nights at my place, alone. What do you say? Unless,” she jerked her thumb in the direction of the party room, “you’d rather be with your little friend in there.” “Don’t be preposterous,” said Matthew hotly. “We just met tonight. And anyway, you know how much I want to be with you.” “Then it’s settled.” She seemed satisfied and quickly finished her drink and stood up. “Remember, Monday at D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 3 9


ten. And don’t make any plans for New Year’s Eve. Now I’ve got to run. Give my regrets to little what’s-her-name. Byebye now.” She kissed Matthew full on the lips and left the bar. Matthew went back into the party room happy but confused.

D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 4 0


PART EIGHT THE PLAY

A

fter the rather one-sided conversation with Barbara, Matthew returned to the Christmas party and enjoyed himself immensely, meeting new people and drinking into the wee hours of the morning. He couldn’t remember a party where he found it so easy and stimulating talking to people he didn’t even know, but then how many parties could he remember? The gratifying thing, however, was that the people he met seemed to be genuinely interested in him. When he left the party at about two in the morning it was still going strong. He awoke at about noon on Christmas Day to the sound of merrily chiming church bells and promptly hurried out into the street. It was a fresh, clean, sparkling day, quite cold but brilliantly sunny, of the type that New Yorkers often hope for but seldom receive. As he walked purposefully uptown, he felt reborn and resolved to do something about it. When he reached 14th Street he noticed a little Korean variety shop, open despite the holiday. He purchased a large cheap spiral notebook of the D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 4 1


type that high school students use, two black ballpoint pens, and a small bag of discount candy canes. Satisfied with his purchases, he returned to his rooms at Guy Donnally’s and immediately sat down at the dining table, placing the spiral notebook in front of him. He thought for a moment and then, picking up one of the pens, inscribed in large block letters on the notebook’s cover: “The Personal and Professional Journal of John Black”. He opened the book carefully and began to write on the first page the following: INTRODUCTION From today, Christmas Day, December 25, 1986, I, John Black, resolve to faithfully keep this journal, because about two weeks ago I suddenly and unaccountably lost the memory of my entire previous life. On the first day of my new life I wandered into Nick’s Café, where I gave myself my new name and also went to work as a dishwasher, a job I performed until just a few days ago when I met Barbara Mann, an actress and a very sweet girl, who introduced me to the people at the Third Eye Theater where I begin work tomorrow. The object in writing all this down is simple. Since I have no understanding of why I lost my memory in the first place, I cannot be sure that it will not happen again. Up until a few days ago I don’t think I would have cared, but since then wonderful things have happened to me—I’ve met a beautiful young girl who seems to like me, a sincere and warm-hearted old man has given me a great place to live, and I have been given a chance to perform a job which I think will be not only interesting and challenging, but D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 4 2


objectively worthwhile as well. Since I don’t want to lose any of this, I have used the inside cover of this book to list the names, descriptions, and functions of the people I have met, the addresses of the theater where I work and the building where I live, and other important facts. This way, if I should again lose my memory, I will be able to read this book and, if I cannot remember my life at least I can learn how much I have lost so I can continue where I left off, so to speak. In the case of a possible memory loss occurring when I am neither here nor at the theater, I have written down the names and addresses of both establishments on pieces of paper which I carry with me at all times in the same pocket as I carry what appears to be an ancient yellowed envelope. This last item puzzles me; it has become almost like a birth artifact to me, since it was the only item left on my person by the people who robbed me when I first lost my memory and left me to die in the snow. Such are its talismanic qualities that I can bring myself neither to open the envelope to learn about its contents or indeed to throw it away altogether. At any rate, should I once again lose my memory, I will know where to go and the names of the people I will find there. This having been said, I will close now and go down to eat the Christmas dinner Guy Donnally has so generously provided for us. Matthew closed the notebook and placed it carefully in the center drawer of the little desk in the living room. Then, having washed up and changed into his best-looking plaid flannel shirt, he went downstairs to dinner. ~~~ D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 4 3


EXCERPTS FROM THE JOURNAL OF JOHN BLACK Wednesday, December 31, 1986 After spending my first week at the Third Eye Theater doing odd jobs of cleaning, sorting props, etc., I asked Proud Mary Nolan, the theater’s volunteer coordinator who is more or less my boss, if I could not somehow contribute in a more meaningful way. She looked at me oddly and said, in that impassioned way of hers, “It’s been my experience that most people want to do less rather than more. I knew I’d made a good choice when I met you, John.” She has this way of looking directly at you, and when she praises you, even in a small way, it can make you feel like you just won the lottery. “But today is New Year’s Eve,” she continued. “And for the whole weekend, nobody will be here who doesn’t have to be. Don’t you have some place to go this weekend, John?” she asked me gently. I told her about my plans for four nights of bliss with Barbara. She laughed and said, “You just come to the strike on Sunday night, John. I don’t want to see you or hear from you until then, understand?” Honestly, that woman has a heart of gold! Sunday, January 4, 1987 After finally tearing myself away from Barbara, I got to the theater tonight at about ten o’clock. The show had just closed and the actors were in the process of removing their makeup and getting out of costume before going to the closing night party at the Green Room down the street. The theater’s technical director, Casey Woodson, a small slender young man with a cherubic face and an unruly pile of hair resembling blond steel wool, was just beginning D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 4 4


to give us our assignments. When he came to me he said, “Hi, John Black, isn’t it?” I admitted my identity and he told me that since I was new, I would be relegated to mule work—carrying lumber, furniture and whatnot to the storage room in the rear of the theater. I set to it with a will and soon the entire stage including the two side areas had been stripped bare. Without being told I seized a push broom and began to sweep the debris off the stage. Casey looked at his watch and then regarded me curiously. “One hour and five minutes. That’s only about half as long as it usually takes. I think we may have set a new record, people!” The other half-dozen or so workers cheered and immediately left the performance space, presumably to get to the closing night party before all the punch was gone. Perhaps mindful of that, I hung about after the others had left. “Anything else I can do?” I asked Casey. “Well, the only thing left is the lights…” he began. I saw Ernie Michaels bringing the rolling platform out and I remembered my conversation with him the first day I came to the theater. I asked him if he needed any help, to which he replied, rather jokingly I thought, “Yeah, you can go up there and bring all those lights down.” “Sure thing,” I told him, and began to clamber up onto the platform. He put a hand on my shoulder as if to stop me. “Jesus!” he exclaimed. “I didn’t think you’d take me seriously.” He looked at Casey who just shrugged his shoulders. “Might as well take him up on it, Ernie. He’s a strong guy and seems to be pretty careful.” “Okay,” Ernie relented, turning to me. “But first let me tell you how I want it done. There’s a specific procedure to this, you know.” He went on to tell me to uncable everything first and bring the cables down one by one. I did as I was told and D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 4 5


soon Ernie had all the cables neatly coiled, tied and stacked on the platform. “Now we go stack the cables in the electrics room, being sure to arrange them by length.” He showed me a tag on each cable that indicated how many feet long it was. “Now,” he said, handing me an eight-inch crescent wrench, “comes the difficult part. Taking down the instruments themselves. Are you sure you’re up to it, John?” I assured him that I felt myself capable of unbolting a few lights from a grid. “Just be careful. Some of those instruments are left over from World War II and weigh over thirty pounds each. Which means,” he grinned, “you break ‘em, you buy ‘em.” I shrugged, took the wrench from Ernie, and scrambled up the ladder. This work did not seem particularly difficult and soon all the instruments were stacked on the rolling platform and the ceiling looked oddly bare. Ernie expressed his amazement and gratitude. “I had a feeling about you, John, the first day we met,” he confided. Putting an arm around my shoulder, he then showed me how to remove and file the gels, stack the gel frames, and safely store the instruments. Then he invited me to what he called, I swear to God, a “hanging party”. When I nervously asked him what the hell he was talking about, he explained that we would be hanging, focusing and cabling all the lights again for the next show in a couple of weeks. I told him I’d be delighted, but why did we go to all the trouble of taking them down if we were only going to put them back up again. He explained that because the design was going to be totally different for the next show, it was easier and less confusing to start from scratch rather than to have to move things around, and probably less work as well. Then he locked up the electrics room D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 4 6


and, arm in arm, we both went to the Green Room to see if there was any punch left. Monday, January 5 First work call to build the set for Arms and the Man. Before I could even find anyone to give me my assignment, however, an attractive and stylish young woman came up to me and asked if I was the new volunteer. I admitted that I was. She eyed what I had come to think of as my “lumberjack clothes” with obvious distaste and told me to come with her. She led me toward the back of the theater and up the stairs toward the catwalk and then stopped in front of one of the doors. She opened it with a key and turned on the light switch. I gasped in astonishment. It looked like the largest K-Mart I had ever seen! Rows upon rows of racks upon which hung theatrical costumes and everyday clothing in a multitude of styles and historical periods. The woman busied herself in the back for a moment and then brought out a pile of black long-sleeve turtleneck shirts and matching black work pants. “These are for you,” she said simply. “You may change your clothes now.” Embarrassed I looked around. Noting my discomfiture, she said, “Go down to the dressing room, you idiot. What’s your name, anyhow?” “John Black,” I told her. She stuck out her hand and shook mine in a businesslike way. “Katharine Fordyce,” she introduced herself. “My friends call me Kat. I’m the costume mistress and chief clothing forager. Practically all of the clothing and costumes you see here I scrounged on the streets of New York. By the time the weather warms up in the spring, come see me again. I’ll have some black tee shirts for you.” She dismissed me with a look D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 4 7


and, somewhat nervously, I went down to the dressing room to try on my new clothes. Strangely enough, they fit perfectly. I put my old clothes and the rest of my new ones in a plastic bag, reminding myself to pick them up when I left the theater. I then went down to the performance space where Casey, Terry, and a woman I couldn’t recognize were beginning to assemble tools and pieces of lumber and canvas with which, I supposed, to build the set. Casey greeted me warmly. “John!” He called out. “Come and join our little work gang. You know Terry, of course, and this woman is known in the theater community only as Swamp Girl.” She grunted what I supposed was a greeting. “They call her Swamp Girl,” Casey explained, “because she was born in the swamps of Georgia. She doesn’t talk much, but she can build anything out of any materials at hand. Can’t you, Swamp Girl?” She grunted what I supposed was her assent. “She’ll be in charge of the work crew, John, I’ll be in and out.” And with that he left me alone with the two women. Terry grinned at my discomfiture. “You’ll get used to her, John, she’s one of the best.” And so I went to work. Swamp Girl showed me, largely by gestures, what to do and what not to do. We spent the better part of four hours building the set, and I swear her longest speech to me was, “Not like that! Like this!” I’ve got to admit, though, that everything she told me to do turned out to be the right thing, and every time she corrected me the work went better and easier. I do wish she was a bit more talkative, but I guess I can get used to anything. Sunday, January 18 Hanging and focusing for Arms and the Man—my first D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 4 8


work call for anything other than stoop labor. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret for a moment my decision to work at this theater or my jobs here for the last three weeks, but I was eager to show them that I was capable of doing more. It was just me, Casey the TD, and Ernie the ME at the “hanging party”—Ernie explained that more people would just get in the way, because he had to check the position of each lighting instrument anyway before hanging another, and that would slow us down considerably. He then gave me a crash course on the difference between a Fresnel (wide focus, usually used to “wash” the stage with light) and a Leiko (narrow focus, used to project a spot of light on specific things or small areas). He also showed me an electrician’s knot (a loop in the cable to take the pressure off the plug), and what was meant by “twofers” and “threefers”(cabling two or three lights together so that they can be operated by a single dimmer). After his lecture (which took about ten minutes) he handed me his own personal eight-inch crescent wrench, shook my hand, and said “Good luck, kid. If you do good, I’ll get you one of these for your very own.” He then positioned himself in the middle of the area and tacked a huge lighting plot onto a sheet of plywood that had been laid on top of the audience seats, forming a crude table. Then with Ernie calling out instructions to the two of us, we went to the electrics room and brought out the various lengths of cable required. Then we brought out the necessary number of Leikos and Fresnels. Finally I climbed up the ladder on the rolling platform with a Fresnel and a length of cable. I should mention that the ceiling grid was composed of a series of overlapping metal bars that formed a pattern D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 4 9


not unlike that of the city streets of midtown Manhattan. One axis was identified by letters, the other by numbers, so that each small space and therefore each instrument had its own address, so to speak. The plug-in boxes were all numbered as well, so that when I reached the top of the ladder, Ernie would call out to me “Section C-8, plug into number 4,” or something like that. Then I would bolt the instrument onto the grid in that section, then cable it into the proper box, using extra cable if the cord wouldn’t reach. At first I was a bit clumsy and my cabling was anything but neat. Ernie was patient with me, however, even joining me up on the ladder to show me how to “dress” the cables (loop them neatly around the grid bars to keep them from hanging down and interfering with an instrument’s focus). All this was taking place almost thirty feet in the air, and after the first hour or so I was becoming quite dizzy. I noted with dismay that I had succeeded in hanging only about ten instruments out of about fifty. Ernie noticed this, but instead of criticizing me for my slowness and clumsiness as I had expected, he just patted me on the back and said, “Good job, John. Why don’t you take a break for a few minutes and watch me hang a few.” While I sat down to clear my head and catch my breath, I watched as Casey handed Ernie the next instrument and cable. When Casey had pushed the rolling platform into the proper position, Ernie scrambled up the ladder, deftly positioned the instrument, bolted it securely, and quickly cabled it. I couldn’t help but gasp. Ernie seemed as at home on the top of a thirty-foot ladder as any chimp swinging through the African trees. In less than a minute he had accomplished what had taken me at least five. The worst part was that his cables looked neater too. I D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 5 0


watched for about half an hour in which time Ernie had managed to hang about half the remaining instruments. Then he joined me on the floor and nonchalantly asked me if I wanted to take another crack at it. I told him, sure, if he didn’t mind being here all day. He just grinned and said, “This is supposed to be fun, John. And it’s not a competition. No bonuses if we break any records. Besides, you’ll get better with practice. I’ve been watching you and I must say I’m impressed. Most people would have quit by now, or at least dropped a few cables. We’ve even had people fall off the ladder, though no one’s been seriously hurt yet, knock wood.” He tapped me lightly on the head a couple of times and chuckled. “Oh thanks,” I told him. “That makes me feel a lot better.” But I got back up on the ladder and after that things went much more smoothly, maybe because I felt more relaxed. In another few hours we were done. “Gilbert, the designer, will be here tomorrow,” said Casey. “And at that time we’ll gel and fine focus. Thanks for your support, gentlemen. And now, shall we hit the Green Room? I’m buying.” Oddly enough, neither of us refused. Sunday, February 22 My second strike. Arms and the Man had closed after a reasonably successful run. Whitey says it was our best show of the season, which he mostly attributes to the boxoffice draw of its star, Albert Brent, and,of course, his brilliant direction. By this time I had risen to number-one person on Ernie’s lighting crew and as such I was exempt from all duties at the strike of a non-lighting nature. I can’t wait for the set-in for the next show, a new musical called Condo! which is supposed to be about the gentrification of D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 5 1


lower Manhattan at the expense of the underclass. Thinking about this I felt extremely lucky to have my room at Guy’s place, secure in the knowledge that I wouldn’t be evicted or priced out. Guy is a wonderful old man and I love to hear his old show-biz tales. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t sit in his parlor for a few hours late in the evening, drinking his brandy and listening to his stories. I can tell he appreciates it. Barbara and I haven’t had the opportunity to get together since the New Year’s weekend. She’s been in rehearsal for The Seagull which is now playing in the West Village way across town. We talk on the phone about once a week, and I’ve asked her to go out with me some Monday, which is her only night off. She’s been putting me off, though, with excuses about how tired she is and the fact that her roommate’s always home on Monday nights. I guess I understand, in theory. But this is no way to have a relationship. On the other hand I have been seeing quite a bit of Terry, as our work has thrown us together on many occasions. She is a sweet girl and, though not as beautiful as Barbara, really funny and very friendly towards me. I wonder, could something be developing here? Saturday, March 14 A terrible thing happened at the theater yesterday! During a dress rehearsal for Condo! Gertie, our follow-spot operator, fell from the top of the spotlight platform all the way to the theater floor, a distance of about twenty feet. Fortunately she escaped with a minor fracture of her left leg, but since she won’t be able to climb a ladder for at least a couple of months, she’s out of the show. I learned all this D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 5 2


when I entered the theater this afternoon intending to help Ernie as usual with some minor refocusing. Instead Ernie, without a word of greeting, quickly led me to the office. I didn’t know what to think, and felt vaguely like a schoolboy being whisked off to the principal’s office for some heinous but unspoken offense. Upon arrival we were greeted by Mary, Casey, and Patricia Kaye, the stage manager. It was then that I learned from the assembled group the details of the unfortunate incident, and furthermore that my name had been put forth by Ernie as Gertie’s replacement. I’m afraid that I stuttered and stammered a bit, for the idea of actually being on a running crew with my lack of experience overwhelmed me. But Ernie, Casey and Mary convinced me to give it a try. Only Patricia took an attitude of skepticism. So the upshot was that tonight’s rehearsal found me up on the spotlight platform, armed only with my cue sheet and microphone headset so I could hear Patricia’s cues. The rehearsal went reasonably well, although I’m afraid I was late on several cues. Afterward Mary came up to me and complimented me on my accuracy. She had noticed, she told me, that I was instinctively aiming the spotlight like a weapon, sighting down its barrel rather than standing beside it and pointing it in the traditional manner. Even Patricia was unusually complimentary, saying that she was sure that my timing would improve with practice and that she had no reservations about the show (including me) being ready by opening night, which is only next Tuesday. Later, as we were preparing to leave the theater, Mary asked me if I had been in the military. For some reason, I blurted out, “I was in ‘Nam, but I don’t want to talk about it.” Mary said she quite understood and would respect my wishes. I was bowled over! A lowly employee D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 5 3


such as I with less than three months on the job does not usually get such respect. PS—I found out that Terry is also on the running crew for this show, serving as sound operator. So we will be seeing a lot more of each other, a prospect that strangely excites me. Sunday, April 12 Closing night party for Condo! which Whitey termed “a moderate but solid success”. Terry and I have become good friends. It’s nice to have a woman to talk to who doesn’t bring up all the boyfriend and sex stuff. We made plans to try to both be on the running crew of the next show (and season finale), an original drama called In Dreams. Ernie has been telling me that there’s no follow spot on this show, but that nonetheless, the lighting will be tricky, as the scene veers back and forth from fantasy to reality. He usually operates the light board himself during shows in order to save the theater the expense of paying another person, but for this one, he says, he’s going to need an assistant, and that assistant might as well be me. As soon as Gilbert gives him the plot, maybe by next week, we’ll hang and focus the show early so I can get in extra practice on the light board. Not four months, and I feel like a theater veteran. 3.

S

pring has finally come to New York. The bitter winds of winter have been replaced by the refreshing stench of garbage in the streets, thawing out from its long winter nap. Inside his office at the Third Eye Theater, Whitey Richardson is going over some notes for D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 5 4


the usual Wednesday Night Meeting. It is late April, the Wednesday before tech week for In Dreams, the last show of the season. Whitey is roused from his reverie by a pounding on the office door. “Who’s there?” he demands sharply. “It’s Tucker, sir. Open up, I’ve got a surprise for you.” “This better be good, Tucker. You know I don’t like to be disturbed before a meeting.” “Oh, I think you’ll want to be disturbed by this news, sir,” Tucker replies casually. Grunting his assent, Whitey gets up and opens the door. Tuckey immediately bursts into the room, excitedly waving what appears to be a small pamphlet. “I’ve got it!” he exclaims triumphantly. “Well, whatever it is, don’t give it to me.” Even though Whitey’s body could contain nearly two Tuckers, he shrinks back from Tuckey’s wild gesticulations with a worried frown on his face. “Mr. Richardson,” begins Tuckey, ignoring Whitey’s sarcasm and calming down a bit. “You remember last Christmas at the meeting, when you told everyone to go out and find a great opening play for next season. Do you have any likely candidates?” “Nothing really that good,” admits Whitey. “And time’s beginning to grow short. In order to be able to advertise it soon enough for it to have any impact on season ticket sales, we’ve got to make our decision by the first of June. And it’s almost the end of April already.” “Well, Mr. Richardson, what would you say if I told you I found the perfect play for us and also secured the rights to it?” Tuckey inquires, pride evident in his voice. “I’d say, call me Whitey and have a cigar.” A smile D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 5 5


spreads over Whitey’s face as he reaches eagerly for the object in Tuckey’s hand. With a flourish, Tuckey surrenders it. “Hmm. Lessons of Winter, a new play by Tyler Houston,” he reads. “Tyler Houston? Not the Tyler Houston!” “The very same!” cries out Tuckey. “The Pulitzer Prizewinning playwright, iconoclastic poet and dramatist of the great Southwest.” “Didn’t he get his Pulitzer for a play called The Child Within, several years ago? And doesn’t a small theater on the West Coast have the exclusive rights to premiere his plays?” “Yes and no, sir. I mean yes to the first part. But as to the second part…Well, let me explain how the whole thing happened.” Whitey flips through the play and then, apparently satisfied that it actually exists, leans back in his chair and folds his arms behind his head. “Sit down, Tucker, and tell me all about it. I’m all ears.” “Well, a few nights ago, I was in the Lion’s Head. You know, that literary bar over on Sheridan Square? It was late and I was just finishing my last glass of white wine when who do you think should come strolling into the bar with a girl on each arm, acting like he owned the place?” “Let me guess. Not Tyler Houston?” “Yes, yes it was! I recognized him immediately, even though that famous beard of his is starting to show streaks of gray. I approached him, by this time he had sat down with his girls in a booth in the back, and offered to buy them a round of drinks. I was thinking that maybe we could get him to let us do a revival of his, something that we could at least call an East Coast Premiere. But when he D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 5 6


found out I was associated with the Third Eye Theater (he said he’d never heard of it before, but he liked the name), he asked me to join them. We must have talked for over an hour, but to make a long story short, he said he’d written a new play, his first in about five years, something totally unlike his earlier famous stuff. He wanted to cultivate a more serious image, he said. And the only way to do that was to be produced in New York. He said he had completely severed his ties with the West Coast. Well, I didn’t want to mislead him, so I explained about the three levels of New York theater—Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Off-Off-Broadway—and I admitted to him that we were the lowest. And here’s the funny thing—he looked me straight in the eye and said, “Boy, I got a feelin’ about this. Sometimes you gotta start out at the bottom to get to the top.” And he told me about how the theater in San Francisco where he had initially gained his fame was also very small and at that time not highly regarded. And then he gave me this copy of his play. The only thing I had to do was promise that we would produce it as our seasonopening show in September, and that we would publicize it accordingly. So what do you think of that?” Tucker concludes with a flourish. “I think we’re in business.” Whitey rubs his hands together gleefully. “A World Premiere of a new play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Tyler Houston. It’s almost too good to be true.” Whitey opens the bottom drawer of his desk. “I’m sorry I misjudged you, Tucker. Here, have a cigar. Hell, have two.” “Don’t mind if I do, Mr. Richardson,” says Tuckey, obviously basking in the glow of Whitey’s approval. “Call me Whitey—Tuckey.” And the two men sit D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 5 7


contentedly for quite some time, smoking celebratory cigars and smiling benignly at each other. 4.

I

was sitting in my office on a mid-April Wednesday going over the first quarter figures. By coincidence it happened to be Tax Day—but I had nothing to worry about in that department. I had dutifully filled out all the forms and written all the checks months ago like a good little citizen. I checked our balance sheet and P&L statement. I couldn’t believe my eyes! The King had been gone for over four months and our earnings were actually up over the previous quarter. Of course we had done hardly anything in December, never do. But even so, I was surprised. I went over to the file cabinet and pulled the first quarter figures for 1986. Amazing! 1987 was ahead of 1986 by over twenty per cent! I got up and went into the outer office, still clutching the figures in my hand. I looked at the wall clock—nearly five. Stacey was just covering her typewriter and getting ready to leave. We said our goodnights, and then the office was quiet. I walked toward the big office in the rear that used to be the King’s. I could see that the door was shut and, as I approached, I could hear a faint murmur of voices. I knocked tentatively on the door. “Who is it?” answered a feminine, but authoritative, voice. “Uh, it’s Manny,” I ventured. “Got a minute?” The door opened and there stood Glory, looking prim but beautiful in a severely-tailored gray skirt with matching D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 5 8


jacket. Her long blonde hair was knotted into a tight bun on the back of her head and her face was set in that businesslike but noncommittal expression I had come to know so well over the past four months. As I entered her office she appeared to be concluding her conversation with a nondescript but expensively-dressed middle-aged man. I was puzzled because I had never seen him before. Glory seemed to sense my discomfiture. “Mr. Klein, may I introduce Mr. Jack Wilkins, Planning and Development Manager for IBM? Mr. Wilkins, this is Mr. Manny Klein, Senior Partner and Chief Financial Officer for Kingston & Klein.” We shook hands and exchanged brief, meaningless pleasantries. “So, as I was saying, Mr. Wilkins, I think the Staten Island property would suit your needs perfectly. We are the sole agent for this property and we would be willing to let you acquire it for something in the neighborhood of, oh, let’s say three to four mil. If you agree in principle, have your financial people meet with Mr. Klein here to work out the details. But remember, this property is available immediately, and with the real estate market what it is today, I would suggest you not drag your feet on this one.” Wilkins spoke to Glory for the first time since I entered the room. “Thank you for your generous offer, Ms. Kingston. The property does seem ideal for our purposes, so I think we can streamline the process. You may not know that IBM’s Planning and Development section which I manage has the authority to release funds autonomously as long as the expenditures don’t exceed our budget allotment. In short, Ms. Kingston, we have a deal. Mr. Klein?” He turned to me. “If it is satisfactory with you, we D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 5 9


can meet next week to finalize the figures on this purchase.” “That would be, uh, perfectly acceptable to me,” I managed to stammer. “Until next week then. I’ll have my secretary call yours to schedule a mutually acceptable time for the meeting. Good day, Ms. Kingston, Mr. Klein.” And he strolled out of the office, closing the outer door behind him. I went over and put my ear to the door, and when the elevator had arrived, opened and closed, I turned to Glory and exclaimed, “Wow! I can’t believe it! We’ve been stuck with that Staten Island property for over a year. How you managed to unload it, I’ll never know.” Glory looked at me thoughtfully. “What’s our total investment in that property so far, Manny?” “I don’t have the exact figures with me, but it’s got to be less than a million.” “Then we stand to make at least two or three mil on this deal, right?” “You ain’t just whistlin’ ‘Havah Nagilah’, kiddo! Hell, let’s celebrate. Drinks and dinner at Alfredo’s?” She grinned at me for the first time. “You’re on, Manny. But I’m buying. I want to break in my new AmEx Platinum. Just give me about ten minutes to tidy things up.” She went back into her office and closed the door. I went back to my office, sat down at my desk again, and thought about my business association, hell, partnership, with Glory over the past four months. I hadn’t exactly hired her, it was more like our business relationship had just sort of evolved. Ever since that day just before Christmas when she had helped me close the Bechtel deal, she had come into the office every day, bright and early, D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 6 0


and spent the day in King’s (now her) office. She had developed such a good relationship with Stacey that I sometimes felt like an intruder in the office—the only guy with two girls. She had requested and received the records of all our financial dealings, going all the way back to that Fall day in 1974 when the King and I had first found this suite of offices and publicly declared that we were open for business. She had apparently learned so much from these records that she had become increasingly more independent in her business dealings, often, like today, buying and selling without even consulting me until the deal was all but done. And yet her manner toward me, at least in public, was as polite and deferential as a secretary’s toward her boss, so I had no complaints. I tried to maintain the illusion that I had “taught her everything she knows”, as the saying goes, but in my heart I knew it just wasn’t true. Glory was a natural businesswoman, and my only fear was that she might at some time in the future become disenchanted with our little partnership and move up. But for the moment she showed no signs of it. And what about The King? I still thought of him as “The King” rather than Matthew Kingston. When we first opened the business, I started touting him as “The Real Estate King” both to attract business and to bolster his selfconfidence, so it had become a habit to call him that, even in my thoughts. So what about The King, anyway? When we had reopened the office in January after the holidays, I resigned myself to never seeing him again, never knowing what had really happened. I had talked to Mandelbaum during the first week of the New Year, by which time King had been missing for about a month. Mandelbaum had been apologetic, but there had been no new leads. We D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 6 1


mutually and sadly agreed to transfer the Matthew Kingston missing person case to inactive status. As I was musing thus, there was a knock at my door. “Come on, Manny, we don’t want to miss Happy Hour!” “Coming, Glory.” We left the office and walked out onto Broadway, arm in arm in the late afternoon sunshine. 5.

W

hitey Richardson was not a happy camper. He stormed out of his office and leaned over the catwalk railing. “Where the hell’s Tucker?” he bellowed at the work crew on the floor of the performance space who were engaged in building the set for the season finale In Dreams. “I think he might be in the box office,” offered Casey, calm as always. “You want me to go find him?” “You bet your sweet ass I do,” returned Whitey. “Get that sorry excuse for a drama school graduate up here on the double.” He turned and without another word stalked into his office and slammed the door behind him. The members of the work crew—Swamp Girl, Casey, Matthew, and Terry—gave each other puzzled looks. “I’ll go look for him,” Matthew said, putting down his hammer and getting to his feet. “I’m about finished with this section anyway.” “Okay, John,” said Swamp Girl. To the others she said, “Fifteen minute break. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.” “Why, Swamp Girl,” said Terry playfully. “Whatever would Pattycake say?” “Screw Pattycake and the horse she rode in on,” replied Swamp Girl, spitting on the floor for emphasis. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 6 2


“She don’t sign my paycheck and she sure as hell don’t own me.” The three of them lit cigarettes and smoked contentedly for a few minutes, defiantly flicking their ashes on the floor. A few minutes after that, Matthew returned with an apprehensive Tuckey. “What’s going on?” he pleaded, his face pale and his hands trembling. “I don’t know,” said Matthew as kindly as possible. “Whitey said he wants to see you, that’s all. But he doesn’t look happy.” “Oh, boy, I’m really in for it now,” Tuckey muttered and made his way slowly up the ladder toward Whitey’s office like a condemned man going to the gallows. He knocked hesitantly on Whitey’s door. “That you, Tucker?” “Uh, yes sir.” “Then get your ass in here immediately!” Reluctantly Tucker went in, closing the door behind him. “That’s it,” muttered Terry, grinding out her cigarette butt on the floor. “I’ve got to find out what’s going on.” She looked at the other three. “I’m going to go up there and listen at the door. Casey, if I get caught, tell ‘em you sent me up to the shop for some tools or something.” “You got it, Terry,” replied Casey. To the others he said, “All right, people, we’ve got a set to finish building and painting by tomorrow. Let’s get to it, Okay?” “Did you even bother to read this play, Tucker?” screamed Whitey as soon as Tuckey had gotten in the door. “Uh, what play, Whitey?” Tuckey innocently asked. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 6 3


“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, you idiot! Which is what you’re gonna be pretty damn soon! And that’s Mr. Richardson to you, dumb shit! I’m referring, of course, to the play you gave me a couple days ago, the play that you committed us to producing as our gala twentieth season opening world premiere, that’s what! I’m referring to Lessons of Winter, you moron!” “Wh, wh, what’s the matter with it?” stammered Tuckey, who by now was scared almost out of his wits. He had seen Whitey bellow before, but this was a whole new level. The man seemed to be working himself up to a nearpsychotic rage. “Lessons of Winter, you grad school retard, is a twocharacter play,” he began through clenched teeth. “You’ve got your old guy, basically bitching about his wasted life to this young guy who, for some unfathomable reason, seems to idolize him. The whole damn play is ‘Don’t waste your life like I have, don’t make the same mistakes I did,’ etcetera, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.” Whitey was beginning to get control of himself again, but he still spoke with an icy anger that somehow frightened Tuckey even more. “In short, the play as it is now is damn near unstageable. And this from a successful Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright like Tyler Houston. I can’t believe that the same man who wrote The Child Within could write this self-serving, selfpitying crap! It’s no wonder he chose you and our theater to be his patsy. He’s probably shopped this dog around to every other theater in New York.” Whitey was pacing around the room waving his hands in the air. “Um, well, what can we do about it, sir?” “Do about it?” Whitey stopped pacing and looked at Tuckey as if he were some especially repugnant species of D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 6 4


insect. “There’s nothing we can do about it. You committed us to producing it, for some reason known only to yourself and your God. You’re the one that should be committed. But I’ll see what I can do about it. It’s gonna take massive rewrites. I’ve got to meet with Houston as soon as possible. And as for you, Tucker, I want you out of this theater now. This is the last straw. For your last official act, you can give me Tyler Houston’s address and phone number. Hopefully he’s still in New York. Then pack up your drama school baggage and hit the bricks. You’re outta here!” While Whitey was berating Tuckey, Terry was standing outside the door getting an earful. When she heard Whitey’s final dismissal of Tuckey, she quickly ducked into the shop and grabbed a box of nails. By the time Tuckey was shuffling slowly and mournfully toward the stairs, she caught up with him as if by accident. “Oh hi, Tuckey,” she said cheerfully. “How’s it going?” “Not so good,” he snuffled, tears forming in his eyes. “It can’t be as bad as all that. Come on, you can tell us.” She led him down the stairs and over to the work area where Swamp Girl, Matthew, and Casey were still working on the set. After Tuckey had told them everything, Casey slammed down his paintbrush in disgust. “Damn it!” he exclaimed bitterly. “I might have known it. Yet another turkey. And for our twentieth opener, too.” He looked at the others, who seemed shocked at this outburst from the usually calm and soft-spoken TD. “I’m sorry, guys, but I just get so tired of bad theater. I think everybody but you, John, remembers last season’s opener. I stood in the back D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 6 5


and watched nearly every show and, believe me, the only thing worse than watching the show was watching the audience watch the show.” “So where is the book for this world-class turkey?” Terry asked Tuckey. “There’s only one copy and it’s locked up in Whitey’s office.” Matthew had been listening thoughtfully to this. “You know,” he said to the others. “If we could somehow get our hands on that copy, we might be able to figure something out. You all know that old actor who lives around the corner, name of Guy Donnally?” The other four nodded emphatically. “Yeah,” said Casey. “We call him the Old Guy. He’s gets season tickets to the Third Eye every season, and he’s never shy about giving Whitey shit over a bad production.” “Well, I’m living in his house, you know, ‘The Home for Wayward Thespians’? If we could somehow get our hands on that play, I could ask Guy to read it. Maybe he could make some suggestions as to how to improve it. At least it’s worth a try.” “But how do we get it if it’s locked up in Whitey’s office?” protested Tuckey. “That’s a good question,” admitted Terry. They looked at each other for a while in silence. “Well,” said Swamp Girl finally. “I happen to know that Agnes Krump has a set of spare keys in her office drawer. And that probably includes one to Whitey’s office.” Everyone looked at her in surprise, this being a long speech for Swamp Girl. “Great!” exclaimed Terry. “Here’s what we’ll do. Whitey usually leaves the theater about six, except on D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 6 6


Wednesday nights. It’s nearly five now, so let’s everybody get everything cleaned up and put away. Don’t worry, we’ll finish painting the set tomorrow, bright and early. Tuckey, Swamp Girl, and Casey, you guys hang out here until Whitey leaves. John and I will be upstairs in the green room, so you tell us on your way out when the coast is clear. Then there’ll be nobody here except Agnes and us. John, she likes you, so you go into the office and tell her you want to ask her something or show her something, whatever. Then I’ll slip into the office and grab the keys out of Agnes’ desk, run up to Whitey’s office, find the script, run back down and replace the keys, okay? You, John, will have taken Agnes somewhere, oh I don’t know, like the electrics room or anywhere she can’t see the performance space or catwalk. As soon as I’ve done the deed, I’ll come sauntering casually down the hall. If I’m whistling, you’ll know I’ve been successful. You say good night to Agnes and meet me down the street at the Green Room. You’ll recognize me because I’m the thirsty chick with the bad play. Oh, and John?” “Yes, Terry?” “Try not to let Agnes deflower you before I’ve had a crack at it.” “Ha, ha.” “Okay,” said Casey, getting up. “Everybody know what to do?” He shook hands gravely with Matthew and Terry. “I want you to know,” he said solemnly, “that this is service above and beyond. If you’re successful, I’ll see you get a medal for this. But if you’re captured,” he intoned sententiously, “we will disavow any knowledge of your actions.” ~~~ D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 6 7


6.

M

atthew and Terry waited in the green room for what seemed like an eternity, giving each other encouraging looks, but not daring to speak. They both knew the seriousness of what Terry had proposed: trespassing and theft were trespassing and theft, whether to rob a bank or to try to save a theater’s r.eputation. Finally there was a light tap at the green room door and a whispered “all clear”. Relieved to be able to do something at last, Matthew jumped up and went down the hall to the office. At the same time Terry went across the hall and hid in the dressing room, placing her ear against the door in order to hear Matthew and Agnes. Matthew knocked loudly on the office door. When he heard Agnes reply, “Come in,” he entered and began tentatively, “Uh, Agnes, you said that if I ever…well… needed anything I could talk to you.” “Well, of course, dear,” she replied with a look of concern. “You’re not having any trouble fitting in, are you? I know we can be a little cliqueish here at times.” “Oh, no, nothing like that. It’s just that…er, well…I’ve been working here for over four months now and, well, I think this theater is just such a fascinating place. I’d like to know more about its history, and you seem like the right person to ask. I remember the first day I came here, you mentioned something about ‘The Great Fire of ’81’. That phrase has intrigued me ever since. Would it be a great imposition on my part if I asked you to tell me whole story, but only if you’ve got the time right now?” “Why certainly, dear.” She patted a chair. “Sit down right here and I’ll tell you all about it.” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 6 8


Matthew suddenly grew pale. “No!” he exclaimed. “I mean, not here! I’m sorry, Agnes, but this place makes me nervous. I always feel like a kid in the principal’s office. I know it’s irrational, but that’s how it is. Maybe we could talk somewhere else.” “Whatever makes you comfortable, dear. Why don’t you and I go to the green room where we won’t be disturbed.” Before Matthew could protest, Agnes stood up, smoothed down her skirt, and then led him out of the office, closing the door behind her. “You didn’t, uh, lock the door, did you, Agnes?” Matthew inquired nervously. “Heavens no, dear. I have some work that I should finish after our little tête-à-tête.” Matthew heaved a sigh of relief and knocked firmly on the green room door. “Anybody in there?” he called out in a loud voice. To Agnes he said, “Don’t worry, I won’t take up too much of your valuable time.” “It’s no trouble at all, dear,” she cooed. As he and Agnes entered, Matthew quickly slammed the door behind them. Across the hall, Terry muttered to herself, “I’m not deaf, you know, John.” And she quickly entered the office and rummaged through Agnes’ desk until she found the keys. Meanwhile Agnes was beginning her story. “So you’re interested in the fire, are you, John? It happened like this. I should tell you that I’ve been with this theater ever since the beginning in 1968, almost twenty years ago. Of course, I wasn’t always the office manager. I must have been just about your age when I heard about a theater with a bold new revolutionary vision, dedicated to exposing the truth D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 6 9


about modern society, and more interested in its artistic vision than commercial considerations. Like you, I came here that first season as a volunteer, but I soon became house manager in charge of concessions. In those days our theater was in the basement of a Baptist church. Their minister had hopes of attracting a younger congregation by letting a radical theater rent out their basement for a nominal fee. This was the sixties, remember, and young people were deserting organized religion in droves. Well, it wasn’t long before this move began to backfire on the minister, I believe his name was Reverend Gooch. He and our original artistic director, Lionel Johnston, used to have some terrible fights over the content of some of our productions. Lionel loved political theater, the more radically left-wing, the better. Reverend Gooch secretly agreed with Lionel, but his elder and more conservative parishioners forced him to take issue publicly with the political content of some of our more radical shows. Poor man! He couldn’t appease both the radicals and conservatives and, after a while, I guess he just sort of quit trying. Anyway, the sixties soon became the seventies, and by the end of the decade I had become office manager and Whitey Richardson had taken over as Artistic and Administrative Director. Excuse me, John, are you listening for something?” Matthew had been unconsciously leaning his head toward the door. Embarrassed, he replied, “Uh, no, Agnes, I’m just listening intently to your story. And a fascinating one it is, too. But what about the fire?” “I’m coming to that. By the late seventies, the political arguments had been replaced by issues of sex and nudity on stage. At the beginning of the 1981 season, Whitey had D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 7 0


decided to present an autobiographical performance piece, written by and starring a famous local dancer and actor named Joanie Rhodes. Maybe you’ve heard of her?” “Uh, no, I don’t think I have.” “Well, her show not only featured nudity, but a major portion of its content was the story of Joanie growing up in the sixties and seventies as a sex worker, stripper, exotic dancer, whatever they call it these days. Well, the Baptist church was having none of that, I can tell you. The worst part about it from their point of view was not that it contained nudity, but the fact that being a sex worker was glorified as a noble profession, not, as they always liked to think, a prime example of the degradation and exploitation of women. So they asked Reverend Gooch (who by now was in his sixties) to talk to Whitey, but he put them off, saying he needed firsthand information. “By the way, this was before the theater’s aboveground structure was built (the Baptist church being there then), so Whitey’s office was where my office is now. I can still remember that night in early October. The show had been running for a few weeks and had just gathered enough word-of-mouth publicity that it was becoming slightly notorious. The reverend had attended a Sunday matinee and directly afterwards he went to Whitey’s office to confront him. By all reports the good reverend was not nearly as liberal when it came to sex and nudity as he was politically. He and Whitey could be heard screaming at each other up and down the hall, shocking the remaining audience members, actors and staff. Reverend Gooch threatened to kick Whitey out of the theater and close it down if he didn’t cancel the show. Whitey invoked the First Amendment and threatened to sue the church. That very D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 7 1


night there was a mysterious fire that completely destroyed the church before the fire department could even arrive, but the theater was completely undamaged except for some scorching on the ceiling of the performance space itself. “When the reverend heard the news the next morning, he promptly suffered a major heart attack. By the time he recovered, the show had already closed after playing to packed houses for over two more weeks. The next Sunday he began raving to his congregation from his pulpit that, not only had God spared his life, but that he had miraculously spared the theater as well. He began calling it ‘God’s chosen theater’ and begged his flock to see every show the theater produced in order to discern the secret messages from God contained therein. Of course, he was also quite insane and was quickly whisked off to an institution by the church elders where he died a few years later. He was replaced by a younger minister, the Reverend Boyd. Since the church still owned the land on which the theater stood, Whitey immediately met with the Reverend Boyd. The theater, you see, had signed a series of five-year leases with the church, and the latest one was going to expire at the end of the next year, 1982. Somehow Whitey managed to sweet talk the new Reverend into renewing the lease for the same terms. That lease will expire at the end of this calendar year, which is another reason why Whitey is determined to make the theater’s twentieth season the best one ever. But I’m sorry,” Agnes paused and polished her glasses. “I guess I’m wandering away from the point. That’s more or less the story of The Great Fire of ’81, as we call it. Did you hear someone whistling in the hall, John?” “Why no, Agnes, I don’t think so,” Matthew said. “But thank you for your extremely interesting and informative D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 7 2


story. And now I’d better let you get back to work. I don’t want to take up any more of your valuable time.” “That’s quite all right, dear,” Agnes said, patting him on the cheek and gazing tenderly into his eyes. “Is there anything else you want from me?” “Uh…no…nothing more at the moment.” He rose and awkwardly left the green room. Quickly leaving the theater, he e hurried eagerly down the street to the Green Room, where he found Terry sitting in a booth in the back, together with Casey and Swamp Girl. “Buy a girl a drink, sailor?” she asked cheerfully as she recognized Matthew approaching. “Sure, Terry.” He went over to the bar and soon returned with four bottles of Rolling Rock. “But what are you two doing here?” he asked Terry’s companions as he slid into the booth beside her. “We couldn’t stand the suspense,” replied Casey. “We had to know if you guys were successful or not.” “I only just got here a few minutes ago,” explained Terry. She looked around the bar suspiciously. “Anybody else from the theater here?” “Not that I can see,” said Casey, also looking around. “Me neither,” put in Swamp Girl. “Okay, then. Ta-daa!” Terry removed a folded-up script from the inside of her work shirt and held it aloft triumphantly. The others, Matthew included, clapped and cheered appreciatively. She handed it to Matthew, saying, “Okay, John, you know what to do. I hope Mr. Donnally can help.” “Well, we’ll see,” said Matthew diplomatically. “But I think it’s worth a shot. What I still haven’t figured out, D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 7 3


though, is what we’re going to do about it if Guy manages to actually fix the thing.” “We’ll take it up with Whitey, of course,” said Casey without hesitation. “He’ll be mad about the theft at first. But John, one thing you have to remember about him, hell, about everybody in the theater for that matter, even Pattycake, is this: the main concern of all of us is first to do good theater. Sure, Whitey takes most of the credit by virtue of his position, and Pattycake sometimes acts like a little dictator, but the bottom line is, if the play succeeds, we all did it. So don’t think that Whitey won’t listen to you just because you’re new or a ‘lowly volunteer’.” Matthew had listened to this inspirational speech, nodding approvingly from time to time. But now he held up a hand in protest. “Who, me? You mean I have to be the one to tell Whitey? Why me?” Casey grinned at Matthew’s discomfort. “Why it stands to reason, John. You’re the one who lives with Guy Donnally. Guy’s gonna be the one to make the changes, if he can. So you’re gonna sit there and write it all down. There’s no sense in having vital information like that go through any more people than necessary. You know how things tend to get lost in translation.” “All right, Casey, I surrender.” Matthew finished his beer. “I guess I better get home then. I just realized I’m starving and dinner must be almost over. So long, Terry, guys. I’ll let you know what happens just as soon as I can corner Guy. It may be tonight, or several days from now, but I’ll get to him eventually.” And with a look of grim determination, Matthew left the Green Room, clutching the precious script tightly in his hand. He had become a man with a mission. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 7 4


PART NINE DESCENTS

B

y the the time Matthew had walked the three blocks or so to Guy’s establishment, it was nearly seven o’clock. Since he was almost an hour late for dinner, he went directly to the dining area without first going up to his room. Most of the boarders had already left the table, but there remained a pot still containing the remnants of what appeared to be some sort of vegetarian chili and a few hunks of bread. Matthew ate hurriedly but gratefully and, after piling his dishes in the sink in the next room, he knocked on Guy’s parlor door. “Enter!” came the reply. He entered and found Guy sitting on the ancient davenport in his absurd dressing gown, cigarette holder in one hand and brandy glass in the other. When Guy recognized Matthew he folded the theatrical paper he had been reading and looked up. “Ah, John my boy,” he began cheerfully. “An unexpected pleasure. I thought you’d be beavering away at D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 7 5


that theater of yours this evening. If memory serves, you’ve only a few days left before tech week.” “Yes, Guy, that’s true enough. But we just finished building the set a few hours ago and we think we can get it painted tomorrow if we all pitch in.” “Splendid! Ahead of schedule for once, are you? Will wonders never cease?” “So I took the liberty of coming down here early tonight. I very much need to talk with you. In fact, I need, we all need your help.” Guy’s face took on a serious expression. Without another word he motioned Matthew to sit in his usual armchair across from the davenport, where he had sat for many nights listening to Guy’s stories of the Golden Age of the Theater. After Matthew was seated, Guy poured out another glass of brandy from the decanter on the coffee table, handed it to Matthew, and settled himself back on the davenport. When he was comfortable again he said, “Speak, my boy. I know there must be something weighty on your mind. As I told you when you first came to this house, I will help you in any way that I can. You are the only resident of this entire asylum with the patience, good grace, and manners to endure my ceaseless prattle. So, my dear boy, anything for you. And now, at the risk of being blunt, what’s on your mind?” Matthew quickly and succinctly told Guy the whole story: how Whitey had dismissed Tuckey for committing the theater to producing what, in Whitey’s opinion, was a terrible play; Tuckey’s subsequent appeal to the little band of conspirators; and Matthew’s suggestion to get help from Guy. Guy chuckled at the part about the theft of the script, muttering “children, children,” under his breath. When D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 7 6


Matthew came to the end of his story, Guy scratched his head and was silent for a long moment, seemingly deep in thought. Finally he remarked, “So Tyler Houston wants to make a name for himself in New York, does he? I always thought his reputation was rather overblown. Not many good traditional playwrights have come out of the Southwest, you know, or even California, for that matter. East Coast, West Coast, it’s always been a clash of different standards. Ours are more classical, more traditional. Theirs, more visionary and politically oriented. So the ‘cowboy playwright’ wants to break into the mainstream of traditional drama and thereby gain respect as a more ‘mature’ playwright, does he? Well, we’ll see. Hand me the play.” Matthew did so. “Now sit over there in that chair and don’t interrupt me until I’ve finished reading the damn thing. You may help yourself to more brandy at any time.” And without another word he began to pore intently over the manuscript, moving only to refill his glass or to light another cigarette, but never taking his eyes off the printed page. Matthew watched him for what seemed like hours, growing more sleepy all the time. At last he gave up altogether and fell asleep in his chair. Suddenly he felt something shaking his shoulder. He had been so deeply asleep that for a moment he had no idea where he was. He opened his eyes and beheld Guy Donnally’s grinning face just inches away from his, the eyes in that face as bright and sparkling as always. “Well,” Guy remarked when he had succeeded in rousing Matthew to sufficient consciousness. “It’s a bad play all right, very bad theater indeed, as the Leonard D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 7 7


Pinth-Garnell character on Saturday Night Live would say. But possibly not irredeemable.” Matthew looked at the clock on the mantel. Nearly two o’clock in the morning. He must have been asleep for nearly four hours. And here was Guy, still bright-eyed and cracking jokes after studying a bad play for nearly six hours. The man was unbelievable! “So, you think something can be done with it, then?” Matthew inquired dully, still in the process of waking up. “Have some more brandy,” ordered Guy, “you’ll feel better.” Matthew did as he was told. Guy continued, “The main problem with this play, Lessons of Winter, is not its language, but its lack of motion. All two-character plays are difficult because their very nature requires a static dialogue. But look here at this passage in Act I.” He pointed it out to Matthew and they read it together. “In this part he’s talking about his failed marriage. ‘She told me I’d never amount to anything,’ the old man is recalling to the young man (maybe his son?) ‘and so, naturally, I didn’t.’ Now if you take the idea of that passage and populate it with actors, you’ve got a whole other scene here. You use a second set and back-and-forth lighting to show the old man in his youth actually having this argument with his wife, thus relieving the play of much of its static claustrophobia. It’s essentially the same technique used in Death of a Salesman, in which Willy Loman is essentially the old man telling the story of his failed life to someone (maybe his wife?). Now Miller could have made it a dialogue—but he didn’t. He opened it up so that you see the other characters—his sons, Biff and Happy, his boss, his enigmatic brother Ben—instead of Willy merely telling us about them. And that, in my opinion, is what has to be D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 7 8


done with this play—open it up, show don’t tell. You get the idea?” Matthew did. It was astonishingly simple. He wondered why Whitey hadn’t thought of it and asked Guy the same. By way of reply Guy lit another cigarette. Finally he said, “Your Whitey Richardson is a fine man. He’s held that theater together for many years. He’s an able administrator, for what little budget he has to work with, a fine director and a wonderful motivator. But he’s not used to thinking creatively—like a writer would. He’s a director at heart, an interpreter of other people’s writings. Now some directors may be more creative than he is—but they may also have more problems working with writers and actors. Your boy Whitey is a company man, whether he knows it or not. At this stage of his career I think he’d rather produce a bad play than risk alienating anybody who works at his theater. Because, ultimately, his theater is his family, and family is what means the most to him.” Guy got up and walked around, stretching his legs. He yawned a couple of times and then continued. “Well, it’s late. Do you understand the theory of how to improve this play, my boy? Because what you do with this information is your own business. Just don’t mention my name. Tell Whitey, or whoever, that the ideas were entirely yours. For various reasons I don’t want this getting back to me. I value my privacy and, God knows, there are enough people in this town who’ve written bad plays that I should be working day and night if I opened the floodgates. I’m helping you because I like you and, for all its faults, I like the Third Eye as well. They have what I would charitably term a unique vision. So now that we’ve had this little D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 7 9


chat,” he concluded, handing the script back to Matthew, “as Samuel Pepys so ably put it, ‘And so to bed.’” And with that, he opened his front door. As Matthew climbed the stairs to his room, script in hand, he wondered what he would say to Whitey. 2.

U

pon awakening the next morning Matthew was filled with apprehension. The script sat there on his little writing desk just across from his bed, haunting him with doubts and indecision. Maybe he should just drop the script off at the office and pretend nothing had happened. But that would be wrong, he thought. He forced himself to think of his co-conspirators who had risked so much and how disappointed they would be if he didn’t at least try to talk to Whitey. Steeling himself, he resolutely left the boarding house and walked the three blocks to the theater, thinking noble thoughts of God, Country and Duty to bolster his courage. He arrived at the theater about one in the afternoon. Carefully avoiding the office and the work crews, Matthew entered the performance space from the rear and silently climbed the stairs to the catwalk. Taking a deep breath he knocked on Whitey’s office door. “Who’s there?” demanded Whitey, obviously not in the best humor. “Uh, it’s John Black, sir. I need to speak with you about a matter of great importance, Mr. Richardson.” “Come in if you must. Door’s open,” was the reply. Matthew stepped hesitantly into the office. Whitey was sitting behind his desk on a battered rolling chair. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 8 0


Without a word Matthew walked over to the desk and handed Whitey the script. Puzzled, Whitey took the script from Matthew and glanced at it casually. “What the hell!” he cried out as soon as he recognized it. “Where did you get this?” “It was removed from your office, sir.” “So it seems. Removed by whom? How?” “I’d rather not say, sir.” “Oh, come on, Black! This isn’t a military courtmartial, you know. Tell me what’s going on.” So Matthew broke down and told him as much of the whole story as he could without naming names. By the time he had finished, Whitey was pacing around the room restlessly. “Just tell me one thing,” he said. “Was Agnes in on this? She’s the only one besides me with a key to my office.” “No, sir. I can’t tell you who it was, but Agnes didn’t know anything about it.” “And a good thing, too,” retorted Whitey. “Agnes has been here from the beginning. I don’t want to have to start questioning her loyalty now. But what I still can’t figure out is why you (or someone) felt they had to steal the damn thing. Why didn’t you just come to me? I would have made a copy for you.” Matthew admitted that no one had thought of that. “I am hurt,” responded Whitey, and he looked it. “Damn it, I do my best to try to run as democratic a group as possible and this is my reward!” “I guess, sir, that everyone was afraid to approach you directly because of the way you treated Tuckey. Is it true that you fired him, threw him out of the theater?” “Bah! Tucker, that little turd. Look, Black, Tucker is just a self-serving little twerp. I only hired him because he D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 8 1


begged me, said his hifalutin’ dramatic arts education would help me put fannies in the seats. He hasn’t done that and he’s been here practically a whole season. Have you ever seen him help out on the work crews?” “No, sir.” “Take tickets, do box office, even offer to usher?” “Uh, no sir, I can’t say that I have.” “Damn right you haven’t! But as for firing him...” Whitey looked thoughtful. “I’m not sure I have the power to do that. In fact, I’ve never fired anyone before. I just got pissed, that’s all. So if you want Tucker hanging around, it’s fine with me. Just keep him out of my way. Talk to Casey and Pattycake about it. Yes, I call her that, too.” Whitey grinned for the first time upon seeing the shocked look on Matthew’s face. “But seriously, she’s a damn good stage manager, never mind her cleanliness fetish. With all her experience and all she has to put up with, I have no idea why she’s still working here. But I’m glad she is. And you all ought to be, too, if you know what’s good for you. So tell everybody to cut her some slack, will you? I don’t mean you all have to toe her line. Just don’t rub her face in it, okay?” Matthew nodded silently. Whitey went over and sat down behind his desk again. “Look, Black,” he continued in a softer tone. “I don’t really know why I’m telling you all this. I hardly know you. But from all reports you’ve been a good and loyal worker these past four months. I guess I just needed to let off some steam. You know, this season didn’t start off great for us. It’s only with the last two shows that we’ve turned the corner. In a little over a week our last show of the season is opening. And that will tell the story. On top of all this, Tucker brings me this dog,” he rapped his desk with the D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 8 2


script a few times for emphasis, “that we have to open the next season with, our twentieth, and no way to get out of it. Which brings us back to the original subject. I take it from your tale of intrigue and subterfuge that you intended to somehow see if this play could be fixed or improved in any way, is that it?” “Yes, sir,” said Matthew, very much relieved to have finally gotten to the point. “The reason it was, uh, given to me was that I have a, er, friend who knows something about playwrighting.” Forgive me, Guy, he thought silently, but I just can’t take credit for this. I can only hope that Whitey doesn’t guess it’s you. “And so I showed it to him. He agreed that it was not that good a play, but that the problem, if I’m quoting him correctly, was not so much the dialogue itself, but the lack of dramatic, uh…” “Tension? Interaction?” interrupted Whitey, beginning to get interested. “Yes, yes, that’s it exactly,” agreed Matthew with relief. He went on to outline many of Guy’s proposals while Whitey listened attentively, occasionally grunting his approval. When Matthew had finished, Whitey nodded appreciatively. “Yes, that just might work. I’ve got to get Houston to agree to this, though, and quickly, too. I just hope he’s still in town. Otherwise he’s gonna have to get his ass out here ASAP. We only have about a month before we have to start the casting process and go into rehearsal. But that’s my problem. John, I want to thank you for being honest about this, or at least as honest as you feel you can be. Any chance of my meeting this friend of yours?” “Uh, he lives in, uh, Connecticut, sir. He was just in town for a few days. In fact, he just left this morning.” “Well, that’s too bad,” said Whitey. “Bring him around D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 8 3


next time he’s in town, will you?” Matthew mumbled that he would. “There’s just one more thing,” continued Whitey, fixing Matthew with a glare. “Why did you all think I was so stupid I couldn’t fix the damn play myself?” “Well, er, I guess we sort of jumped to some false conclusions, sir. Can you forgive us? After all, we were only thinking of the theater.” Whitey sighed. “Of course you were. Yes, you’re all forgiven, whoever the hell was included in this charade. And that’s precisely why, because you were thinking of the theater. That’s all I think of too, you know, even when I bellow and scream and strut around the place like a damn dictator, I’m only thinking of the theater. Just do me a favor, John.” “What’s that, Mr. Richardson?” “The next time you get some damn fool idea about how to save the theater, talk to me first.” Matthew grinned and held out his hand. “You’ve got a deal, Mr. Richardson.” They shook hands warmly for a few seconds, then Whitey’s face grew stern. “Now, get out of here, Black, I’ve got a theater to run!” Matthew quickly and gratefully withdrew. 3. FURTHER EXCERPTS FROM THE JOURNAL OF JOHN BLACK Tuesday, May 5 Opening night for In Dreams. I am quite entranced by D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 8 4


the show, a thoughtful drama about a teenaged autistic girl, her struggles to distinguish between fantasy and reality, and her difficulties in communicating with the outside world. Ernie was right; I can see why he needs an assistant board operator (me) to run this show. The lighting is spectacular: stark white with harsh shadows for the reality/institutional scenes cross-fading instantly to the most saturated and sophisticated colors in the fantasy scenes. Gilbert, the designer, has outdone himself on this one. Ernie tells me that I’m fortunate to be working on this production, that a show this much fun to light only comes along about every two years. Sunday, May 17 Thanks to Ernie’s patient tutelage, I have finally gotten the hang of the delicate dance of the board operator; I have learned the art of the slow fade in and the slow fade out, the gradual cross fade which seems agonizingly slow, knowing that you’re only going to have a few seconds to set exact levels on twelve or more dimmers before cross fading back. But by now, after running the show for two weeks, everything is falling into place, and I have become almost comfortable in the booth despite the ever-looming presence of Patricia Kaye, our stage manager in perpetuity. To give her her due, she is all business running a show, quick to criticize a missed or late cue, but just as quick to praise what she considers to be a satisfactory performance. To be honest, she has a perfect right to criticize; her timing is never less than perfect: she stands erect in the booth, peering out of the glass window down toward the stage like a sea captain peering out over the bow of his ship into the choppy D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 8 5


waters below. Ernie is at his control board behind and to her right; I am at mine behind and to her left. Terry, the sound board operator, has her tape console set up on a little table at the back of the booth. On difficult cues Patricia squints down toward an often dimly-lit stage, her left and right hands up in the air like a holdup victim. We hold our breaths. Then the left hand points at me—“Go, 21,” she hisses. Her right hand points at Ernie a split second later—“Go, 22!” Then she calmly turns a page on her cue sheet and calls back to Terry, “Ready on Sound 5—go!” Honestly, she never misses. I see her in a whole new light now and go out of my way to be kind and courteous to her when we by chance run into each other between shows. I now know what Whitey was talking about when he told me we couldn’t get along without our Pattycake. Speaking of Whitey, there seem to have been no repercussions from the events of about three weeks ago which Terry has termed “The Great Script Heist”. At the last Wednesday night meeting he informed us that negotiations with Tyler Houston were going well, and that Houston was busy doing rewrites along the lines of Whitey’s (i.e. my, i.e. Guy’s) suggestions, hoping to be finished by the end of this month. As for Tuckey, he has lost his paid position at the theater (it was going to expire at the end of the season anyway), but still hangs around like a lost puppy. Agnes, bless her kindhearted soul, has put him to work mailing out publicity circulars for next season and other tedious and thankless office tasks, thus keeping him out of our hair. Everyone agrees that Tuckey in his present state is just too depressing to take in more than small doses. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 8 6


Wednesday, May 27 Our last scheduled Wednesday Night Meeting of the season. I can’t believe how quickly the last five months have flown by. Whitey began the meeting by thanking us all for our contributions to the season—all in all, one of the best in recent memory, he says, thanks to the surprise success of the last show. We had full houses practically every night, even most Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The show closes this Sunday the 31st, but there is already talk about negotiating to move it into a larger Off-Broadway house in September, a prospect which, needless to say, thrills everyone involved. But the main order of business tonight was Whitey’s announcement that for the fifth straight year he was throwing the theater open for what they call “The Third Eye Summer Festival of the Avant-Garde”. After the meeting I questioned Casey about this festival and he explained it to me like this: The summer festival is not only a chance to do non-traditional theater (music, performance pieces, multimedia, etc.) in a more-or-less traditional theatrical venue, it’s also a chance for the theater administration to have its cake and eat it too. For instance, Whitey is only coming in once a week during the summer to attend to business matters, leaving Agnes in charge. Casey is going back to his beloved Maine for the summer to fish and relax, leaving Ernie as TD. Since there won’t be much need for sets and costumes, Swamp Girl and Kat will also be gone for the summer. Pattycake, however, is staying because, as she puts it, “Someone has to watch these heathens every minute, or the theater will be knee-deep in garbage.” She probably has a point. Anyway, the festival will run from whenever we can D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 8 7


get the theater ready after In Dreams closes and we can book some acts, through Sunday, August 16, after which time with any luck, we’ll be preparing to set-in Lessons of Winter. Whitey stressed that we can use any theater resources—lighting, sound, costumes, props—but otherwise there’s no budget. We can charge whatever we want for admission and use the proceeds as production costs. In the unlikely event that we manage to make a profit—a prospect that Whitey considers highly unlikely—we can split the take among ourselves in any way we see fit. Sounds like it’s going to be a lot of fun. Sunday, June 7 Our first Summer Festival event—a punk rock group who call themselves Hell’s Bastards--four skinny, leatherclad, pimply-faced kids with variously-colored spiky hair. Their leader, a sullen fellow of about nineteen who wishes to be called Maggot, assured us we’d have packed houses for the three weekend shows. It turns out he was right about the quantity of people—we must have turned away hundreds of kids over the last three nights—but he had forgotten to mention the quality. For this show I was alone in the booth, trying to evoke what I imagined was a rock ‘n’ roll kind of lighting, drawing on stuff I had seen on TV, in disco clubs, etc. It consisted mainly of flashing differentcolored lights on different members of the band more or less in time to the music—which, though not particularly musical, at least had a steady beat provided by Snake, the enthusiastic young drummer. Pattycake, having nothing to do in the booth (for this was certainly not a show with precise cues), had stationed herself at the theater entrance, where she assumed the role D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 8 8


of bouncer/security guard. I must confess that I sneaked down from the booth once or twice to catch her performance—much more fascinating than that of the band. She had costumed herself for the occasion in an Emma Peel-style black leather jumpsuit which, I’m sorry to say, bulged rather obviously in the middle, making her resemble nothing so much as an S&M version of the Pillsbury Doughboy. She was spending her time happily frisking kids for cans of beer, bottles of wine, illegal herbs, switchblades, and what have you. Many grumbled, but to their credit few were downright rude and almost no one refused to surrender his contraband. When the entire audience of young punks was seated, and she was satisfied that everything confiscatable had been confiscated, she hauled a Santa Claus bag full of cans and bottles up to the booth for safekeeping. I was shocked when she reached into the bag and pulled out a can of beer, then handed it to me saying, “Have a good show, John, go crazy!” She left the booth without saying another word. All right! I thought, cracking open the beer, let’s rock ‘n’ roll! And so we did. The music, while unimaginative, was performed with great energy and attitude by the young Hell’s Bastards, and soon the audience was literally dancing in the aisles. The joint was definitely rocking, and all went well until the final encore, called something like “Bring Out Your Dead” (it could have been “Dad”). At the end of this number there was a huge bang and the theater filled with thick white smoke. The band disappeared backstage and my last vivid image of the evening was of an enraged, leather-clad Pattycake flinging open the doors of the theater and bellowing, “I told you this was a NO SMOKING theater!” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 8 9


Sunday, August 2 The summer festival has been a huge success, especially for those who worked on it—Ernie, Terry, Agnes, me, and even Pattycake. While there had been a few rough spots, we all felt good about what we’d done. But we were tired too, the lack of available personnel having caused us to work our fingers to the bone. So we unanimously decided to end the festival this weekend and take a muchneeded vacation. We had talked to Proud Mary Nolan who had assured us that she had sufficient volunteers in tow to start the set-in for the season’s first show, Lessons of Winter. So we agreed to reassemble for the season’s first Wednesday Night Meeting, Aug. 26. This would give each of us more than three weeks off. Agnes told us that we had made enough money that each of us five mainstays would get about a hundred dollars. Needless to say, that put us all in an ecstatic mood. “What are you going to do with yours, John?” Terry asked as we were locking up the theater for the summer. I told her I hadn’t given it much thought. “I’ve got an idea if you won’t think I’m too pushy.” I assured her that she wasn’t. “Well,” she continued, “we’ve been working together now for what, about seven months and, aside from theater parties, we’ve never really done anything together, well, you know, fun. I mean, just you and me.” She was right, of course. When I asked her what she had in mind, she gave me a mysterious look and told me she’d think of something, that she’d call me in the next few days. Then she bounced up on tiptoes, kissed me lightly on the cheek and, without another word, bounded towards the subway on 14th Street. ~~~ D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 9 0


4.

O

n the morning of July 2, Whitey Richardson entered the Third Eye Theater as furtively as any sneak thief. He walked down the hall toward the rear entrance of the performance space, making surprisingly little noise for a man his size. As he passed the office he faintly heard a woman’s voice. Good, he thought to himself, Agnes is here. He opened the door to the performance space a crack and peeked in. Luck was with him—there was no one working on the stage or on the floor. As quickly as his bulk would allow, he approached the stairs and climbed up to the catwalk. When he reached his private office, he unlocked it and went inside, relocking the door behind him. The reason for Whitey’s caution was simple—when he had started this summer festival business, four years ago, he had made the mistake of announcing to his staff that he would be available for “consultation”. As a result, for the two months that the first summer festival had run, he had never worked so hard in his life. He found himself doing things he’d never dreamed of doing before—focusing lights, the ladder creaking and groaning alarmingly with every move of his two-hundred-fifty-pound body, painting scenery (it had taken him a month to scrub the paint off his skin), and other odious tasks, all because of the curious law of physics which states that work expanded to occupy the number of people available to do it. So the next summer and ever since then, Whitey had gotten wise. Agnes was the only person who knew when he would be in the theater and she was sworn to secrecy. Whitey turned on the light, sat down at his desk and D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 9 1


went through his mail. Agnes, of course, took care of most of the routine theater mail, leaving him only the unsolicited scripts, the invitations to theater openings and award banquets, and requests for employment from various actors, directors, designers and technicians. Agnes paid all the bills from the meager general fund and Whitey went to all the dinners and parties. A fair division of labor, he thought. He glanced through the few pieces of mail that Agnes felt needed his personal attention. Summer was always the slack period for the theater in New York, no matter what level. Everyone who could possibly arrange it was on vacation out of town somewhere, trying to escape the stifling heat and pungent odors that were Manhattan in the summer. The few new theater companies who bravely and idealistically projected their revenues on a full year of productions soon learned their lessons or folded miserably when they saw their summer ticket sales drop to less than half of what they had expected. Which was exactly why Whitey had instituted the summer festival in the first place. Since his operating budget did not depend on summer productions, he could let the theater volunteers take over the running of the place—they would provide a venue for alternative forms of entertainment and, sink or swim, have some fun and learn some useful skills in the process. That was the theory, anyway, and it had worked, more or less, for the past four years. He reached the bottom of the short stack of mail. The last item immediately grabbed his interest. It was a communication from the Reverend Boyd, pastor of the Baptist church that was, in effect, the theater’s landlord. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 9 2


Immediately he pressed the buzzer on the antique intercom system that connected his office to Agnes’. When he heard the click of his call being acknowledged he said quickly, “Agnes, can you come here right away?” In about thirty seconds there was a light tap on his door. He jumped up, unlocked it and opened it a crack. After satisfying himself that it was Agnes, he pulled her quickly inside and locked the door again. “Anybody out there? Anybody see you come in here?” he asked her nervously. “No, I don’t think so,” Agnes replied calmly. “I don’t think there’s anyone else in the theater yet. They rarely come in before noon in the summer, you know.” “Good, good. Please sit down.” When she had done so and got herself settled, Whitey continued conversationally, “So how’s the summer festival going this year? Just in general.” He held up a hand. “I don’t want to know the details.” Agnes adjusted her thick glasses and stroked her chin thoughtfully. “On the whole I’d say it’s going pretty well. They’ve been having mostly what I guess some people would call musical acts, though they don’t seem very musical to me. John, the new guy—you’ve met him, haven’t you?—has been having a lot of fun with avant-garde lighting, and of course Patricia is beside herself trying to police audiences composed mostly of unruly young people and trying to keep them from smoking in the theater. Breakage has been at a minimum, nothing too expensive or irreplaceable. Let’s see, what else. Oh, the police and fire departments have only been here once each, so that’s a hopeful sign. And the kids seem to be making a fair amount of money. Anything else, Mr. Richardson?” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 9 3


Whitey shuddered. “No, that’s more than enough, Agnes. But I mainly called you in here because of this.” He showed her the envelope from Reverend Boyd. “Oh dear,” she said at once. “Oh dear is right. I haven’t opened it yet, but it can’t possibly be good news. You’ve been here since the beginning, Agnes. I thought you should be apprised of these important matters as soon as I am.” Agnes became a little moist around the eyes. She took off her glasses, wiped them with a lace handkerchief, and then replaced them before saying, “That’s very kind of you, Mr. Richardson.” “In fact,” said Whitey, handing her the envelope. “Would you be so good as to read it to me?” She took it silently, opened it with Whitey’s antique ivory letter opener, and began to read: Dear Mr. Richardson: I’m afraid I have some bad news for you. As I warned you several years ago might happen, the Council of Elders has reviewed the status of our property at 130 First Avenue (your theater). I told them that ever since the fire, almost six years ago, we had intended to rebuild the church but had been unable to raise the necessary funds. When asked about the current use of the property, I had no choice but to tell them the whole story of the fire, Reverend Gooch’s pronouncements of a miracle, and his subsequent dismissal and replacement by myself. They were singularly unimpressed, especially by the two hundred dollars a month you pay in rent. Therefore, the decision of the Elders is this: That D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 9 4


the property be put on the market immediately to be sold as soon as possible. The asking price is five hundred thousand dollars. I did persuade them to give you first chance to buy the property, in case you can come up with the money somehow. If not, this is the way it works: The property will be sold to someone else with the understanding that they will not be able to take possession until your lease expires at the end of this calendar year. If there are no offers to buy before the end of the year, you may try to renegotiate your lease. But I warn you—you will be dealing not with me, but with the Council of Elders. And although I have no specific knowledge of the terms they are likely to impose on you, my guess is that you would be offered a choice between a month-to-month agreement at your current rate until they can find a buyer, or a long-term lease at a substantially increased monthly rate—maybe five or six times what you’re paying now. In closing, let me just say how sorry I am to be the bearer of what I can only assume is bad news. I have valued our association over the years and wish this decision had not been taken out of my hands. If there is anything (of a non-monetary nature) I can do to help, please do not hesitate to call on me at any time. Yours in Christ, Reverend Charles C. Boyd Agnes folded up the sheet of paper, placed it neatly back in the envelope, and returned it to Whitey. They were D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 9 5


both silent for a long moment. Whitey was the first to speak. “Well, that’s it, then. We’re outta here by the end of the year. I guess it’s back to boring old Ashland Shakespeare Festival for me. By this time next year, I’ll be directing Hamlet in the rain while watching squirrels run across the stage.” “Maybe we can somehow raise the necessary sum, Mr. Richardson.” “Agnes, do you have any idea just how much a half a million dollars is? Just by way of comparison, I don’t think we’ve spent a half million since I’ve been here, and that’s what, seven or eight seasons now? And don’t even think of the possibility of a bank loan unless you want to hear some faceless guy in a gray suit laughing harder than he’s ever laughed in his life at our expense.” “All the same, Mr. Richardson, maybe something will turn up. If not, when shall we tell the others?” “Oh, right. The others. Well, let them have their fun this summer. But I think it only fair to announce it at the first Wednesday Night Meeting of the season. What’s the date of that, Agnes?” She looked at Whitey’s desk calendar. “That would be August twenty-sixth. Three weeks before Lessons of Winter is scheduled to open.” “Okay, we’ll tell them then. But if we have to be out by the end of the year, we’re going out on a high note.” “You don’t mean…?” “I do mean! A Christmas Carol, my favorite play in the whole world, in its sixth consecutive heart-warming production. And this time, tell ‘Cratchit’ he’d better start working out! I want to see him carrying Tiny Tim around the stage with no grunting and wheezing!” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 9 6


“Yes sir, Mr. Richardson,” said Agnes dryly. “I’ll make a note of that.” She unlocked the door and quietly exited Whitey’s office. Left alone, Whitey sat at his desk with his head in his hands. “Five hundred thousand dollars,” he muttered bitterly. “Might as well ask for the moon!” 5.

A

t about eleven in the morning on the Thursday following the end of the summer festival, there was a pounding at Matthew’s door. “Phone for you, Black!” said a curt voice. Matthew quickly arose, pulled on a shirt and a pair of pants, and padded down the hall to the pay phone. “Hello?” he said in a sleepy voice. “John?” was the cheerful reply. “I’m calling about our date, remember?” “Oh yes.” Matthew had finally figured out that it must be Terry on the other end. “Well, look. You’ve probably noticed that we’re in the middle of a heat wave, right?” “Uh, yes, it has seemed a bit hot. In fact, I was just thinking about going to the theater to cool off. It’s always so cool and damp down there.” “Ha, ha!” she answered sardonically. “But seriously, John, I’ve got a much better idea. Meet me at high noon— that’s in about an hour—at the subway station at Second Avenue and Houston. And, because I know men are hopeless at this sort of thing, I will tell you what to bring. Anything you don’t have, buy on the way. You still have your festival money, don’t you?” “Most of it. I’m afraid I did a little celebrating at the D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 9 7


Holiday Lounge a couple of nights ago. But I only spent about ten bucks.” “Okay, good. Bring all your money and the following items: straw hat, sunglasses, tank top, shorts suitable for swimming, and some kind of floppies or sandals. You got that?” “Sure, Terry, I can get those things.” “Okay, then. Get a move on—we’re going to Coney Island!” There was a click and then a dial tone. Matthew stared at the phone for a moment and then hung up. Sure, why not Coney Island, he thought. Carefully going over Terry’s list in his mind so as not to forget anything, he quickly left Guy’s place and walked over to Gem Spa on Second Avenue and St. Marks to buy the necessary items. By the time he reached the subway platform at Second and Houston, he was suitably attired in floppy straw hat, cheap sunglasses, green foam rubber flip-flops, orange nylon shorts with pockets and a drawstring front and, last but not least, a purple tank top with a picture of a man with matted hair and beard, dressed in a heavy overcoat and boots, pushing a shopping cart down a beach, flies buzzing around his head, drawing looks of disapproval from the blond surfer types. The picture was captioned “Beach Bum”. Terry recognized him immediately, clapped her hands and laughed out loud. “You look perfect, John!” she told him. She was similarly dressed, but her tank top bore a picture of Betty Boop wearing a skimpy, one-piece red bathing suit, fetching straw hat, and wraparound sunglasses, standing on the Boardwalk and posing provocatively. Her shirt bore the legend, “Coney Island Baby”. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 9 8


As they greeted each other, the train arrived and soon they were hurtling toward the poor man’s resort, Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York, USA. When they arrived and stepped out of the subway station, they were greeted by a blazing sun, shining fiercely and relentlessly in a cloudless sky. As they approached the Boardwalk, however, the hint of a salt sea breeze promised some relief. “So, sailor, you come here often?” Terry asked flirtatiously as they walked toward the beach. She was carrying a basket which contained various useful items, such as suntan lotion, a camera, and a few beach towels. “No, I don’t think I’ve been here in years,” answered Matthew seriously. “But it feels good. Just smell that ocean!” “So what do you want to do then, John? You want to ride a few rides?” They had reached the main section of the Boardwalk to the right of which were located the kiddie and adult amusement parks. Matthew looked up at the people on the Parachute Drop and the Big Dipper. They all seemed to be screaming their heads off. “No, I don’t think we have to be scared half to death to have a good time.” “Spoken like a true coward, John.” Terry grinned at him and punched him playfully in the arm. “Or maybe you’re more the type for water sports, nudge nudge, wink wink?” Matthew ignored her attempts at lewdness. “How about if we just walk around for a while? Are you hungry yet? I could use something to eat.” “Okay, I tell you what. You go get us some hot dogs, fries, a couple of beers. I’ll rent us a couple of beach chairs and meet you down by the water.” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

2 9 9


Soon it was mid-afternoon and they were contentedly lounging in their chairs at the ocean’s edge. They had eaten and drunk and were lazily contemplating the surf, when Terry suddenly stood up and stripped off her outer garments, revealing a red bikini underneath. “I’m going swimming, John. I’ll bet you dinner you can’t catch me!” She turned and ran barefoot down the beach and without hesitation plunged into the ocean. Matthew immediately pulled off his tank top and headed after her in hot pursuit. When he reached the water’s edge she was already thirty yards off shore and swimming rapidly out to sea. He dived in quickly and began paddling with all his might, but after fifteen minutes he gave up, having not been able to close the distance between them. “Terry!” he yelled. “Come back! I give up!” Instantly she turned around and effortlessly swam back to Matthew, using compact, efficient strokes that seemed to propel her through the water like a torpedo. “Wow!” said Matthew when they had safely reached shore again. “Where’d you learn to swim like that? I’m really impressed!” “University of Minnesota,” replied Terry, briskly toweling herself off and pretending not to notice his admiration. “I was on the swim team.” “So, you’re from Minnesota, then, or did you just go to school there?” “Born and raised in Minneapolis. My parents were from the old country, the Philippines. I think I was the only ‘person of color’ in my entire high school.” “So how do you come to be in New York?” Terry had finished drying herself off and had sat back down in her beach chair. She turned over on her stomach D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 0 0


and unstrapped her bikini, leaving her back bare. “Be a good fellow and rub some of this suntan lotion on my back, would you?” she asked, handing him the bottle. “And then I’ll do the same for you.” She turned back around and regarded him critically. “You’ll burn if you’re not careful. You know, you’re just about the whitest man I’ve ever seen. Don’t you ever get any sun?” He shrugged and squeezed some lotion onto his palm. “Turn over,” he said by way of an answer. They spent the next several minutes greasing each other up. Then Matthew went back up the beach and returned with a couple more beers. The sun moved slowly toward the west horizon and sea birds cried. The beach crowd began to thin slightly. “You never did answer my question,” Matthew asked her lazily. “What brought you to New York?” Terry turned over on her back and regarded Matthew seriously. “All right then, if you really want to know, I’ll tell you the whole story.” She chugged half her beer. “My parents had two children, me and my sister. I never seemed to be able to get along with my mother and sister for some reason. My mother was always criticizing or punishing me for something. She would leave the house for hours at a time, I thought just so I would have to take care of my sister who was five years younger than me. I guess I resented my sister ‘cause I had to spend all that time watching her when I could have been doing something fun. Anyway, almost ten years ago my father died. I worshipped my father and he adored me. He was kind of well-known in Minneapolis as the bartender in the Waikiki Room of the Anderson Hotel. He had always been sort of a buffer between me and my mother and sister, I guess. And when he died, you’d think it would have brought the three of us D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 0 1


closer together, but it didn’t work that way. Life there soon became unbearable for me. I moved out of the house as soon as I was old enough, found enough work to support myself, and went to the University for a couple of years. My goal was always to be somehow associated with the arts, literature, anything creative. So I came to New York about six years ago because, as everyone knows, New York is the cultural and artistic capital of America. So that’s my story.” She looked at him intently. “What’s yours?” Matthew, who had been listening to Terry’s story with his eyes half-open, was suddenly taken aback. “Uh, what do you mean?” “I mean, what’s your story? I told you mine, now it’s your turn.” “Uh, well,” Matthew stammered. “Nothing much to tell, really.” He looked at the sun, which by this time was rapidly approaching the horizon. “Hey, must be just about time for dinner,” he said brightly, beginning to get up. “I lost the bet, so it’s my treat.” “Don’t change the subject,” Terry admonished him, grabbing his arm and pulling him back down. “Look, John, this has been a lot of fun. I really like you and all, but if we’re ever going to have any kind of honest relationship, I’ve got to know at least something about you. Something about you before you walked into the theater, that is. I mean, you’re obviously not some kid just out of college. If we’re going to be friends, or hopefully something more, you’ve got to be honest with me about your past.” “Look, Terry,” said Matthew, gently disengaging her arm. “It’s not that I don’t want to tell you. I just don’t know how. I don’t want to lose your friendship.” “Hmm, that bad, huh!” Terry got up and began D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 0 2


dressing. “Okay, John, I’ll tell you what. Buy me that dinner you owe me. There’s a little place down the beach where we can get some great fried clams, corn on the cob, and halfway decent wine. How’s that sound?” “Sounds great, Terry,” Matthew said, relieved that she had changed the subject. “And afterwards, there’s a great bar I know near here. We’ll go there and have a few. That ought to loosen your tongue if anything will. Besides,” she looked at him appraisingly, “you just don’t look right without a drink in your hand.” So, laughing together, arm in arm, they walked back to the boardwalk and went in search of dinner. The sun had just set and a full moon was on the rise. A seagull shrilled a mournful cry. “Thank you for being so understanding,” said Matthew when they had checked in their beach chairs. “This has been a really great day. Just what I needed.” “Me, too,” grinned Terry, squeezing his arm. “But don’t think I’m gonna let you off the hook that easy.” As they walked along, Matthew considered his options. “What the hell!” he said suddenly. “Get me drunk and I’ll tell you everything!” And he leaned over and kissed her full on the lips. When she could breathe again she gasped, “Okay, you’ve got a deal. Now let’s get those clams. I’ve got a feeling we’re going to need our strength!” 6.

I

t was nearly eleven o’clock and the full moon was directly over head when they finally staggered out

D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 0 3


of Hymie’s Clam Hut. They had indeed eaten their fill of fried clams and their accompaniments and drunk rather more than their fill of the cheap but decent house white wine. Laughing and talking, they walked back toward the boardwalk. The beach was almost deserted by now, and the only sounds were the gentle lapping of the waves on the shore and the plaintive cries of the seagulls. It was still warm, though it had cooled down considerably after sunset. Terry had stripped back down to her bikini, exulting in the soft ocean breeze against her skin. “You know, Terry, in this light you look like some exotic ocean creature,” Matthew remarked, marveling at the effect of the moonlight on her café au lait complexion. Terry smiled at him and then grinned an impish grin. Dropping her basket, she ran toward the end of the boardwalk closest to the ocean, calling over her shoulder, “Catch me and I’m yours!” In a second Matthew had snatched up her basket and was after her, running hard down the beach. On land he made better progress and, by the time she had reached the space under the end of the boardwalk, he had caught up with her and tumbled her into the sand. About an hour later they brushed the caked sand from each other’s bodies. Completely naked, they held each other close and kissed tenderly for a few minutes. Then they dressed and emerged once more from the shadows of the Boardwalk into the still-bright moonlight. Hand in hand they walked in silence back toward the little row of shops and refreshment stands. Matthew finally broke the silence. “Okay, Terry, a deal is a deal, and I could sure use that drink now.” She led him about a hundred yards further down the D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 0 4


beach, where the tourist shops began to give way to the narrow streets and residential cottages of a small beach community. On the corner of one of these streets was a small low building with a thatched roof and artificial palm trees on either side of the entrance. The sign on the door read simply “Bob’s Beach Shack”. As they entered the dimly lit interior, they noticed that the bar was almost empty. There were only a few couples sitting on wicker furniture in the back, hunched over low tables lit with candles in jars. They were slowly sipping multi-colored drinks from tall glasses with fruit and paper umbrellas bobbing on the surface, and they appeared to be lost in each other’s eyes. In place of a jukebox, a tape of instrumental Hawaiian music was softly playing in the background. There was no one sitting at the bamboo bar, and a bored-looking bartender was leaning across it reading a racing form. He wore a loud Hawaiian shirt which barely covered his ample belly, and a fat black cigar was clenched between his teeth. “What’ll it be, Mac?” he said without removing the cigar as Matthew and Terry approached the bar. “Scotch and soda,” said Matthew automatically, “and for you, Terry?” “I don’t know,” she said doubtfully. “I may have had a little too much wine and you-know-what.” She squeezed his arm and gave him an endearingly lopsided grin. “Hey, no fair!” protested Matthew. “This was your idea, you know. I’m not gonna get drunk and spill my guts and have you sitting there sober as a judge, laughing at me!” “Oh, all right,” relented Terry. “I’ll have a mai-tai, I guess.” She pulled a ten out of the pocket of her shorts and D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 0 5


slapped it down on the bar. “Good girl,” said Matthew approvingly. Terry went over toward the opposite side of the room and sat down at one of the tables. Matthew soon joined her with the drinks and change. “Well, here’s to a great time at Coney Island,” Matthew said, raising his glass in a toast. They both drank. “And here’s to the good ol’ Third Eye Theater.” Terry raised her glass, getting into the spirit of it. About ten more toasts and three drinks later, Terry looked at Matthew and frowned. “Say,” she said suspiciously. “Wasn’t I supposed to get you drunk? So you would talk about…something, but I forget what.” Matthew, a much more experienced drinker than Terry, was holding up much better. “I remember, but I’m not going to tell you,” he taunted her. Her frown deepened and she slapped him on the arm. “You’re no fun any more,” she complained. “All right,” Matthew relented. “You were supposed to get me drunk enough to tell you about myself.” She brightened considerably. “Yeah, that’s it!” She stifled a hiccup. “And now I think you’re drunk enough to hear it,” continued Matthew. “So here goes. And promise not to say a word until I’m finished.” “I promise.” She put a finger to her lips and made an exaggerated zipping motion. So Matthew began. He told her about waking up in the snow without a clue as to his identity. He talked about Nick’s Café and the Holiday Lounge, the Pyramid Club where he had met Barbara, the party at Tony and Ingrid’s, meeting Proud Mary, and finally walking into the theater. The rest she knew. When he had finished, he took his D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 0 6


wallet out of his pants pocket and showed her his driver’s license in the name of John Black. “Fake, all fake,” he explained. “Barbara got it for me.” Hearing this story from a man she thought she knew sobered Terry up considerably. “I don’t believe it!” she whispered. “That’s such an incredible story! And you have no idea what caused you to lose your memory in the first place?” “None whatsoever. I even began keeping a journal because I was afraid it might happen again.” Terry pursed her lips and thought for a moment. “Let’s see. Barbara got you this fake ID, right? That means she also knows about this.” Matthew nodded. “How many other people know?” “You’re the second.” She frowned again. “So, what do you hear from Barbara?” she asked, a little too casually. Matthew shook his head sadly. “I haven’t seen her since New Year’s,” he sighed. “Ever since she got that part in The Seagull. We’ve talked on the phone a few times, but that’s all.” Terry tried to look sympathetic. “A lot of actors and, I guess, actresses too, are like that, John,” she said gently. “It’s like they’re so insecure when they’re ‘between engagements’—you know, out of work—that they need somebody around to admire them, doesn’t matter who. Then they get a good part and suddenly they have a whole new group of admirers and lovers, so they don’t want anything to remind them of the time when things weren’t going so well.” “That may be,” said Matthew doubtfully, “but it sure D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 0 7


felt like we had something.” “Cheer up, John! You’ve always got me!” She pulled up her tank top, revealing the fact that she had neglected to replace her bikini. “Stop that!” whispered Matthew, shocked at her boldness. “You’re crazy, you know that?” “And you wouldn’t have it any other way,” she replied cheerfully as she lowered her top. “But seriously, what are we going to do about you, John? You can’t just go through life not knowing who you were for all that time. What if you’re a famous doctor or lawyer or something? Wouldn’t you want to know?” Matthew shuddered. “What if I’m a bank robber or a child molester or something? That’s why I don’t want to go to the authorities. Once I find out, they find out. Then I’m committed, condemned to the consequences of whatever I did the first thirty-whatever years of my life. This way I at least have a choice.” “Yeah, but it’s sure based on incomplete information. What if you have some terrific talent or something?” She thought for a minute, then snapped her fingers. “Hey, I just remembered something,” she said excitedly. “I’ve got a terrific idea! But first I think we need one more drink. What time is it?” “I dunno,” said Matthew. “I don’t have a watch. I’ll go get our drinks and ask the bartender.” When he returned he set the glasses down on the table and said, “It’s nearly two in the morning.” He took a quick sip of his scotch. “Okay, then,” said Terry, all business now. “Down the hatch. If we hurry we can just make it in time.” She pulled a crumpled wad of bills out of her pocket. “How much money D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 0 8


have you got left?” She asked him while counting hers. “I’m doing okay,” he replied. “I’ve still got about fifty bucks left.” “And I’ve got nearly seventy,” she told him. “That should be more than enough.” She stood up and drained her drink quickly, causing Matthew to do the same. “Where are we going?” he asked, somewhat confused. “Back to the subway?” “Not just yet,” she replied. “I think I know someone who may be able to solve your problem, for a small fee. And keep the outcome in the strictest confidence, too. Come on!” She grabbed him by the hand. “We’re going to pay a visit to Madame Millie!” 7.

T

he full moon was just beginning to set as Matthew and Terry left Bob’s Beach Shack. Terry led Matthew down a series of dark and deserted streets until they came to a small lot in the middle of which a modest aluminum-sided mobile home was set up on cement blocks. A wooden sign was staked into the ground near the street, illuminated by a single white floodlight also set into the ground. In its entirety the sign read: “Madame Millie Vickers—Psychic—Knows All, Tells All—Past, Present, Future—Cards, Palms and Crystal Reading a Specialty—Reasonable Rates—Call (212) 420-3198.” After reading the sign, Matthew spoke up for the first time since leaving the bar. “Come on, Terry, tell me you didn’t drag me all the way down here in the middle of the night to hear some two-bit psychic’s mumbo jumbo?” “Don’t be like that, John, give her a chance,” was the earnest reply. “She’s well known in the theatrical D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 0 9


community as the genuine article. Let’s give it a shot. I promise, if you don’t get anything out of it, I’ll pay.” “Oh all right, it’s a deal,” Matthew grudgingly agreed. “But how do you know she’s still available at this hour of the morning?” “Simple.” Terry pointed to the sign. “If it’s lit, she’s still open for business.” They went up to the trailer and knocked loudly on its door. This produced a high-pitched yapping from inside, and a deep woman’s voice said reprovingly, “Hush up, Sweetie, don’t scare away the customers!” Then the door opened to reveal what appeared to be a psychic from Central Casting—a woman of indeterminate age wearing a purple headscarf pinned up like a turban by a large red jewel. She had long black hair which the turban only partly obscured and wore a long black robe decorated with silver stars and crescent moons. With one long black-nailed finger she beckoned them inside, intoning “Come! Who seeks the services of Madame Millie?” “We do. That is, he does.” Terry pointed at Matthew as they entered the trailer. There appeared to be no sign of Sweetie, the dog. Probably locked up in the bedroom, thought Terry. Madame Millie led them into the surprisingly neat and spare front room and bade them sit down at a solidly-built wooden table on which was laid a black velvet cloth. On the cloth was a large crystal ball perched on an ebony base. At either end of the table was a silver candlestick fitted with a long black taper. As she lit each taper in turn with a wooden kitchen match, she looked deeply into Matthew’s eyes, then sat down directly across from him, closed her own eyes and put her fingers to her temples, murmuring D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 1 0


cryptically, “He knows not who he is.” Quick as a flash Matthew stood up and cried out eagerly, “Yes, yes, that’s it exactly!” Motioning for him to sit down again, but in no other way acknowledging his words, she took a wooden box from a small table nearby and removed from it a deck of ancientlooking tarot cards. Then she looked at them both, saying “First you must pay my fee.” Matthew went to his pocket and offered her a twenty. She regarded it rather disdainfully, but took it nonetheless and stuffed it into a pocket of her robe. Then she began to deal out a series of cards, pausing at each one to study it intently. At last she looked at Matthew and said in a matter-of-fact voice, “Give it up.” “Give it up?” Matthew was puzzled. “Give what up? I…I don’t know what you mean.” She pointed a long finger at Matthew. “You carry with you the source of your own confusion. You bear upon your person both the cause and the solution to your problem. It has served its purpose. It is time to give it up.” “I, I still don’t know what you mean,” stammered Matthew, now more confused than ever. Madame Millie looked at Terry and rolled her eyes. Dropping her professional voice, she looked back at Matthew and said with a hint of exasperation, “All right, then. The Cliff’s Notes version.” She took from her robe a large gold watch on a chain which she began to swing slowly in front of Matthew’s face. “Watch the watch,” she intoned. Still puzzled, Matthew nonetheless did as he was told. “Some time ago, maybe in the last several months, but certainly within the year, you were given something. From D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 1 1


that moment your life completely changed. It is evident that whatever you were given, you still possess. If you still do not know what it is, you must go back in time and find out. Relate to me your life backward, starting from the moment you entered my presence.” Some thirty minutes later, Matthew had just gotten back to Tony and Ingrid’s party, meeting Barbara, and being at the Pyramid Lounge with Julio. Terry was snoring in her chair. Madame Millie was still swinging the watch in front of Matthew’s face, but more slowly, her eyes half closed. “Do you think you could condense it a bit?” she pleaded. “We’re likely to be here all night at this rate.” So Matthew quickly told her about washing dishes at Nick’s Café, of waking up in the snow bereft of anything that might be a clue to his identity, and finally to the lunatic picnic with the homeless men. He retraced his steps back down Broadway with Cap’n Billy at his side and reentered the Blarney Stone. Then he paused. “And that’s all I know,” he said in a small voice. “Not acceptable!” said Madame Millie firmly, then added more kindly, “But we’re almost there. Think! You’re in the bar, you’re drinking. You must have entered the bar, did you not?” Matthew nodded yes. “Then where were you before you entered the bar?” she persisted. Matthew closed his eyes. “I walked across the street. I came from a building. An office building. Downtown Manhattan.” He was becoming excited, breathing more quickly. Something in his voice jolted Terry awake, but she merely looked at Madame Millie and kept quiet. “I came D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 1 2


down in the elevator,” Matthew was continuing. “I came from an office, no, a suite of offices.” He paused. “Try to remember what you were doing there,” Madame Millie encouraged. Matthew nodded in agreement. He had started to sweat profusely. When he spoke, his voice was choked with emotion. “There was a man, an old man. He and I, we, were alone. I wanted something from him. He wanted something from me. I, I think he got what he wanted. But I, he, gave me something as well. But not what I wanted. Oh no, not what I wanted at all!” He buried his face in his hands. Terry leaned over and sympathetically put her arm around Matthew’s shoulders, not knowing what to make of all this, or even what to say. “So now,” said Madame Millie impassively, “it is time to give it up.” Mechanically Matthew reached into the right back pocket of his shorts. He withdrew a brown wallet, reached inside it, and brought out a thrice-folded envelope. So ancient-looking and yellowed was this envelope that it looked as if it would fall to pieces at any moment. Automatically he handed it to her. As he did so, a look came over his face like the sun bursting through a bank of clouds. The two women failed to notice, as they were intently examining the envelope. Madame Millie opened it and carefully extracted the contents and placed them on the table. Terry beheld two of the most ancient tarot cards she had ever seen and a sheet of crumbling stationery on which something was handwritten in flowery but faded script in a language definitely not English. Madame Millie turned over the tarot cards. They had been fastened together back to back so that as one turned D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 1 3


them, the face of each was clearly visible. One was the Fool, the other the Hanged Man. “I wish I had time to decipher this writing,” Madame Millie remarked, mostly to herself. “Fascinating! It may well be an ancient Gypsy language, Romany or the like. It could have been written well over a hundred years ago.” She turned and spoke to Terry. “Look at him.” She pointed to Matthew whose face bore an expression as blissful as that of a newborn babe, just suckled by his mother. “He is no one right now. Newly born. If we don’t finish this work and quickly, he’ll stay that way forever.” “But what must we do?” asked Terry, beginning to feel the urgency. “Do you love this man?” Madame Millie softly inquired. “Yes, I think I do,” replied Terry, almost in a whisper. Madame Millie went over to a bookcase and brought back a large silver urn. “Pass these cards and this envelope and sheet of paper over a candle flame one by one until they catch fire. When they have burned sufficiently as to be unrecognizable, drop the remains into this urn here, being careful not to spill any on the table or floor. When you have completed this task, the spell will be undone.” Terry did as she was told. As each of the four items in turn burst into flame, burned down, and were cast into the urn, Matthew’s face became less blissful and more troubled. Finally, as the embers died and there remained only gray ash, outside the trailer’s window a silver streak shot through the sky, followed by a deafening crash like a sonic boom. When the room was quiet once again, Madame Millie and Terry looked at Matthew expectantly. He stood up and passed a hand in front of his eyes in D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 1 4


wonderment, like a blind man who has just miraculously regained his sight. He held out his hand to the two women and said in a friendly manner, “I’m Matthew Kingston. Very pleased to meet you.” 8.

I

t was nearly dawn, hot and still, when an exhausted Terry and a stunned Matthew finally reached the subway station and boarded a train back to Manhattan. After leaving Madame Millie’s they had made love on the beach one last time. Terry knew that once they left Coney Island, Matthew would never again be the “John” she had known, and she regretted it. “Boy, you just get to know a guy,” she thought bitterly, “and then he goes and turns into someone else.” During the long subway ride home, Matthew was fiercely arguing with himself. Terry had fallen asleep almost the minute the train had left the station, leaving Matthew undistracted. “I knew it, I knew it,” he said to himself over and over. “I knew nothing good would come of this.” Back at Madame Millie’s after he first realized who he was, he had felt completely disoriented, like an actor who somehow stumbles into the wrong play. After a few minutes he had been able to integrate his two identities, but it had not been without a struggle. “Matthew Kingston wouldn’t be associating with these people,” he had thought. “But then again, when was the last time Matthew Kingston had any fun?” The debate raged back and forth. Matthew at one point was tempted to just ignore the whole thing and get on with his new life. “After all,” a voice told him, “your family and business have probably gotten along fine without you.” And then another voice would say, “You don’t D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 1 5


know that. You have to go back and find out.” But that was the problem: Once he went back, he was committed to that old life, whether they needed him or not, whether he liked it or not. By the time the train reached the station from which just eighteen hours ago he had departed a different and happier man, one thing had become clear to him: all of his previous life, and for the eight months of his new one as well, Matthew Kingston/John Black had been a man of honor. He had always done his duty—in the army, when he had found out Glory was pregnant by him, when he had seen the necessity of making a normal, stable life for his wife and kids. He had never hesitated to do what he thought was the right thing. He woke Terry and they exited the subway station together. Both of them were loathe to say goodbye. Finally Matthew suggested breakfast. Terry’s face brightened and soon they were sitting in an East Village café, fortifying themselves with the breakfast special and many mugs of strong coffee. “So you see, Terry,” Matthew concluded as they pushed away their empty plates. “I have no choice. I’ve got a wife and two teenaged kids as it turns out. If I had known, things would be different between us.” “If you’d known,” retorted Terry pointedly, “I never would have met you. You’d never have walked into that theater in a million years. And I’m still calling you John.” “Point taken. But do me one favor, will you, for old times’ sake?” “Anything I can.” “Don’t mention this, you know, to anyone in the theater. Just tell them I’m going to be away for personal D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 1 6


reasons. Which is certainly the truth. Before too long I’ll try to drop in and tell them what really happened. I just don’t think I can face all my friends right now and tell them who I really am. Will you do that for me?” “Of course, John.” They went outside. Terry’s lower lip began to tremble. “When will I see you again?” Without waiting for an answer, she buried her face in her hands and started to cry. He put his arm around her shoulders one last time. “I’ll be back before you know it,” he lied bravely. Finally they parted. Matthew watched Terry trudge slowly and disconsolately towards the Village. He wanted to run after her, to grab her and spin her around, to say with a big smile on his face, “Hey, you didn’t take all that seriously, did you? It was all a big joke.” He wanted to see the consternation, mock disapproval, and finally relief on her face. But he couldn’t do that. He turned and trudged in a similar manner toward 9th and B, toward Guy’s Home for Wayward Etc. He startled Guy out of bed at about nine that morning. Guy, who hadn’t been up before noon in perhaps ten years, was sure the house was on fire. Matthew reassured him that nothing was wrong. He told him essentially the same story that he had told Terry to tell. That he was going away on personal business. “I don’t know for certain how long I’ll be and I want to travel light. Could I possibly impose upon you to hold my room for me and let me keep my things there?” “Why, of course, dear boy,” Guy replied, being by this time almost fully awake. “It’s not as if I’ll be losing any rent, that’s for sure. But John,” he said more seriously, “hurry back. I’m going to miss our midnight chats. Good D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 1 7


conversationalists, alas, seem to be a dying breed.” So Matthew went up to his room for one last time and, changing out of his ridiculous beachwear, dressed himself in his summer theater work clothes—black tee shirt, pants, and black Reeboks. His beach attire he threw into the closet beside his flannel shirts and corduroy pants. He gazed fondly upon his old overcoat—now dirty and a bit ragged—which was the only garment remaining from his previous life. He closed the closet door and reminded himself that where he was going he wouldn’t need it—he had clothes aplenty in White Plains unless Glory had thrown them out or given them to charity, in which case he could always buy more. After all, he reminded himself, I’m a rich guy. But at the moment he didn’t feel rich. All he felt was a sense of loss and a desire to put off leaving his little room for as long as he could. He waved goodbye to his faithful alarm clock which was sitting patiently on the dresser and swore he saw it wave back. On a sudden whim he went over to his desk and pulled out his journal. He leafed idly through its pages, barely resisting the urge to lie down on the bed and let his mind drift down memory lane. He remembered why he had started keeping it in the first place and grinned sardonically. He quickly closed it and stashed it in a paper shopping bag together with the programs of all the shows he’d worked on since joining the theater. If I can’t have the theater, he thought, at least I’ll have proof it all wasn’t just a dream. Carrying his bag in one hand, he went downstairs and out the door. He turned and waved goodbye to the building, looking up for the last time at the window out of D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 1 8


which he had stared so often when wondering who he really was. The morning was hot and humid, as August mornings often are in Manhattan. Little kids of all ethnicities, some partly clothed and some completely naked, were cavorting in and out of the cooling spray of an open fire hydrant. Matthew had half a mind to strip off his clothes and join them, but thought better of it. In the distance he could hear dogs barking and the incoherent cries of the homeless yelling at each other and themselves. The sound of sirens and heavy service trucks competed with each other for primacy in the cacophony that was summer in New York. Mentally Matthew flipped a coin. By the time he found a working pay phone, he had walked six blocks down Avenue B and his sweat-soaked shirt was sticking to his chest and back. He picked up the receiver, heard the dial tone, dropped in the necessary coins, and dialed a wellremembered number. When he heard the click on the other end, he said in a flat voice, “Manny, it’s me, Matthew. I’m coming home.”

D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 1 9


PART TEN THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS

I

was sitting at my desk on a sweltering August morning, once again cursing myself for locating our business in an old-fashioned building without air conditioning. I had the window open a crack which was all I could do because any wider and the wind would blow the papers around and make it impossible to work. Not that I was getting much work done anyway. I sat there idly fanning myself, sweating in my long-sleeve dress shirt and carefully knotted tie. There were no Casual Fridays for Mr. Manny Klein, now Senior Partner of Kingston & Klein. With King gone I had to look presentable at all times. Like I said, it was hot, and there wasn’t all that much to do. This was the time of year when the King and Glory always took their month-long summer vacations. This August, however, the King was on a permanent vacation. Glory had arrived at nine o’clock as usual, and as usual had closeted herself in her (King’s) office with yet another stack of facts and figures. She looked enviably cool and way too D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 2 0


sexy in her white cotton summer dress, so I was glad that her solitary work habits kept me out of temptation’s reach. For the hundredth time this year I told myself, she’s your de facto partner, Manny, be professional at all times. It was easier said than done. As I was musing in this manner, I guess I must have dozed off briefly, for the next thing I knew, the harsh ringing of a telephone jolted me instantly awake. I was immediately concerned because it had to be my private number, known only to the King, Glory, Mona, Stacey and Artie. When Stacey was here (which she was), all normal business calls went through her phone in the outer office. Startled, I quickly grabbed the receiver and said, “Manny Klein.” “Manny, it’s me, Matthew. I’m coming home,” said a voice I never thought I’d hear again. I’m afraid I lost it completely and started babbling. “Er, Matthew, King, where the hell are you, what the fuck happened to you, can I come pick you up or something, are you okay?” All this came out in a rush before the King could speak another word. When I finally shut up, I heard a chuckle at the other end. “Good old Manny,” said the King with a laugh. “I’ll answer your questions in order. One, I’m in the East Village. Two, it’s a long story, I’ll tell you later. Three, I’ll take the subway downtown, be there in half an hour, and four, yes, I’m perfectly all right. By the way, I called the house and there was no answer. I assume the kids are away at camp as usual, but do you have any idea where Glory could be? She’s always home doing housework at this hour.” I was silent for a moment. This was going to be kind of delicate. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 2 1


“Manny, are you still there?” “Uh yes, King, I’m still here. Glory, well uh, the fact of the matter is, she’s here. In the office. She’s sorta, ah, been helping me out. You know, while you were gone.” “Really? I had no idea she was even remotely interested in the business. So what’s she been doing? Some typing? Filing? Nothing’s happened to Stacey, I hope.” “No, no, Stacey’s here as well. Listen, we’ll talk about it when you get here. And King?” “Yes, Manny?” “You have no idea how good it is to hear from you, to find out you’re okay. I thought, well, you know, I thought I’d never see you again.” “So did I, Manny, so did I. See you in half an hour.” And with that he hung up the phone. I stood up and began pacing around the office, my mind whirling frantically. I felt like I was about to take a final exam in a subject I’d never studied, and I had only thirty minutes to prepare. Should I run out and tell Stacey and Glory, to prepare them for the King’s return? Or should I let him just walk into the office, probably in that nonchalant way of his, like he’d done so often when he’d come in late. It would be fun just to sit back and watch their reactions. I decided on the latter course of action, so I poured myself a coffee and sat back to wait. Sure enough, barely half an hour later Stacey called me on the intercom. “This is totally weird, Mr. Klein, but Gus, the security guard, says he’s got a guy down at the desk who wants to come up and see you. Get this, he says his name’s Matthew Kingston, but he looks like some kind of hippie. Long hair, beard, black tee shirt, and to top it off, the only ID he’s got is in the name of a John Black.” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 2 2


“Let me talk to Gus.” I went into the outer office and picked up Stacey’s phone. “Gus?” “Right here, Mr. Klein.” “Put this ‘John Black’ on the phone, will you?” A few seconds later I heard King’s mellifluous voice. “Sorry about that, Manny, I forgot about my ‘new look’ and the fake ID.” “Never mind that, King, put Gus back on. Gus, send Mr. Kingston up immediately!” “Yes sir, Mr. Klein, you’re the boss. But I still say there’s something fishy going on.” “I’ll take full responsibility,” I said with the voice of authority and hung up the phone. “Is it true?” Stacey asked excitedly. “Is Mr. Kingston really okay? And he’s on his way up?” “Looks like it,” I told her and put a finger to my lips. “But keep it quiet. I want to surprise Mrs. Kingston.” Stacey grinned and nodded her head. Then she sat back down at her desk and looked at me expectantly. “Okay, here’s the plan,” I whispered. “When Mr. Kingston comes through that door, very quietly lead him into my office, then both of you sit down and close the office door. Got it?” She nodded again and I went back into my office. I didn’t have long to wait. A scant few minutes later, Stacey proudly ushered in the King and sat down on a chair as if awaiting further instructions. The King walked over to my desk and shook my hand. “Well, Manny,” he said in a calm voice as if we did this every day, “it’s been a long time, huh?” I thought from Gus’s description that I was prepared for the change in the King’s appearance, but I now saw that Gus hadn’t done him justice. The long hair and beard he D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 2 3


had mentioned, of course. But what I wasn’t ready for were the contradictions. He looked thinner, yet stronger, more well-muscled. He looked at least ten years younger until you looked closely at his eyes which had the world-weary look of a man with a past. His step was springy, more boyish and athletic than previously. And yet he seemed to carry himself with a quiet dignity I had never known him to possess. He broke into my thoughts by saying, “Well, should I sit down or what? And where’s Glory?” I quickly pulled myself together. “Listen, let’s have some fun, for old times’ sake. You sit over there in that guest chair in the corner.” As he silently obliged, I handed him today’s Times. “Here, open this up and cover your face with it, like you’re really interested in some article.” While he complied I pressed a button on the intercom. When a voice answered, “Yes, Mr. Klein?” I said in my best professional manner, “Ms. Kingston, could you step into my office for a moment? I have a very important visitor I want you to meet.” “Right away, Mr. Klein.” Almost immediately there was a tap at the door. Then it opened and Glory strode in, all business. I got up and came around from behind my desk. “Ah, good of you to come, Ms. Kingston. I’m thinking of inviting Mr. Black, here,” I pointed at the King who was still sitting there with the newspaper covering his face, “to join our firm and I wanted to get your opinion. He has some very impressive credentials,” I couldn’t keep myself from adding. “Well, certainly, Mr. Klein…” she began as the King began to emerge from beneath the newspaper. “Ms. Kingston,” he said formally, getting to his feet. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 2 4


“I’ve heard so much about you.” “Matthew!” screamed Glory, managing to laugh, cry, and sound elated and terrified all at the same moment. Stacey laughed and clapped her hands in delight. I barely had time to duck back behind the shelter of my desk before Glory grabbed the King in a tight embrace. He responded by picking her up and swinging her around the room as effortlessly as if she had been a small child. When they had subsided somewhat, Stacey and I went around picking up overturned chairs and other items that had been knocked to the floor. When all was orderly once more, we sat down in our respective places and looked inquiringly at the King. “Well!?” we asked in unison. “Well,” said the King. He looked at Stacey. “Anyone else in the office? Anyone expected?” “No, no one else is here.” She got up and went to the office entrance and locked the door from the inside. Then she came back and sat down, saying, “Okay, no interruptions.” “Yeah,” I said. “So spill it, King. And don’t leave anything out. What happened, where you’ve been for eight months and why, for God’s sake, are you carrying around the ID of someone named John Black?” The King grinned. “For the last eight months I’ve been John Black. Since last night I’ve also been Matthew Kingston again.” He waved away the confusion he saw forming on our faces. “But don’t worry, by the time I’m finished, you’ll understand. At least, as much as I do.” He leaned back, put his arms behind his head, and closed his eyes. “It all started with Anton Horvath…” ~~~ It took him about two hours to finish one of the most D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 2 5


incredible stories any of us had ever heard. How he had inexplicably lost his memory, was robbed of his identification so that he was cut off from all of us, not knowing that we existed, hell, not knowing that Matthew Kingston existed. And how the previous night he had just as inexplicably regained his memory again, and through the aid of some so-called psychic, at that. We all knew how the King felt about psychics. And, as for the incredible events between the forgetting and the remembering—well, all I can say is, it would make a hell of a movie. When he had finished, the King was sagging visibly, like someone who has stayed awake all night to finish an exciting book and only then realizes how tired he is. He yawned aplogetically a few times. It was about one o’clock in the afternoon. “Hey, what say we all go out to lunch to celebrate?” I offered. “My treat.” King yawned again. “Thanks, Manny,” he said quietly, “but I’m afraid I wouldn’t be very good company. I didn’t get any sleep last night,” he explained, “and all I want to do is go home. You all go ahead.” Glory quickly turned to me. “Manny, I’ve never done this before, but I respectfully request permission to take the rest of the day off.” The way she had phrased this made me feel like returning a salute. “Permission heartily granted,” I responded. “Today’s Friday. You’ve got the whole weekend. In fact, don’t bother coming in Monday morning, either of you. As you both know, this is one of our slack periods, and you’re usually on vacation anyway. So when you’re ready, both of you, just give me a call, and we’ll talk about our future. All our futures.” I stood up and embraced the King D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 2 6


manfully. “Now, get outta here, you crazy kids. You’ve got some catching up to do.” “Come on, Matthew,” said Glory. “I’ll drive you home.” They left the office arm in arm. I turned to Stacey and offered her my arm. “Well, kiddo, I guess it’s just you and me. Somebody’s got to celebrate the return of the King.” She took my arm. “I guess it is our sacred duty, Mr. Klein.” “Good,” I replied. “We’ll each do our share. You pick the restaurant and I’ll pick up the check.” We locked up the office, went down the elevator and out onto the sidewalk where a blast of hot air was lying in wait for us. “Somewhere with air conditioning,” said Stacey, fanning herself. “And take off that ridiculous tie, Mr. Klein. It makes me feel hotter just looking at you.” I cheerfully complied. When God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world, you don’t sweat the small stuff. 2.

A

t about three o’clock on that hot Friday afternoon, Matthew and Glory arrived at their home in White Plains. As they entered through the front door, Matthew was grateful for the thrum of the air conditioner and the cool blast of air that washed over him. “It’s great to finally be home,” Matthew remarked. “I want a shower and a change of clothes. And then I may sleep all weekend.” As he looked around, he noticed a small brown woman in a starched white uniform and apron, armed with a dust rag and a can of Pledge, bustling officiously about D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 2 7


the living room. “Uh, Glory,” he murmured. “Do I know that woman?” “Oh, that’s right. You haven’t been home since we acquired Conchita.” Glory turned to the woman and spoke to her loudly and slowly, using the simplest words possible. “Conchita! This is Mr. Kingston.” She pointed at Matthew. “Mr. Kingston is my husband!” She tapped herself on the chest. Conchita immediately turned pale. She dropped her dusting implements onto the carpet and grasped a large crucifix which hung from her neck on a long chain. This she pointed at Matthew as if to ward off evil spirits, while with the other hand she vigorously crossed herself several times. “Ai-eee!” she cried in a piercing tone. “Madre de Dios!” And with that she turned and ran up the stairs. “No, Conchita, wait!” Glory started after her, but it was too late. “That’s Conchita Perez,” she told Matthew. “She’s our new housekeeper and cook. You see, after you, er, left, I had to help Manny out at the office.” “So he told me. I still don’t understand what you’re doing down there.” “Never mind that now. Anyway, I couldn’t take care of the house, the kids, and work all at the same time, so I hired Conchita. She’s really been a big help. Doesn’t know much English, but she cooks and cleans like a dream.” Matthew was still gazing up the stairs. “She seems a bit flighty to me. Hasn’t she ever seen a man with a beard before?” He stroked his furry chin self-consciously. “That’s not it,” said Glory. “I’m afraid that, well, I told you she doesn’t speak much English. So I couldn’t figure out how to explain my present situation. I tried telling her you’d left me, but I couldn’t stand those pitying looks she D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 2 8


kept giving me. So finally I explained that you’d left me because you’d gone up to Heaven. I told her you were dead.” “Dead? Really, Glory!” “Well, I didn’t know. I mean, what was I supposed to think? And then, I guess because the subject never came up again, I totally forgot that I’d said that to her.” Matthew chuckled a little. “I guess it must have been quite a shock to her to be introduced to a dead man.” Glory patted him on the shoulder. “You must be tired. Sit down and have a drink or something while I go up and try to explain things to Conchita. She’s such a gem, I don’t want to lose her.” She rooted through the bookcase. “Damn! Where did I put that Spanish dictionary?” Matthew went over to the liquor cabinet and poured himself a scotch. Then he sat down comfortably on the sofa and put his feet up on the coffee table. “If Julio were here,” he mused, “he could explain it to her.” Glory paused. “Julio? Who’s Julio?” “Just somebody I used to work for last winter. Or a million years ago, depending on how you look at it.” Glory looked bewildered. “I swear, Matthew, sometimes you make no sense at all.” And she hurried and hurried upstairs, dictionary in hand, to try to placate Conchita. That night they had dinner at home. Conchita, having been explained to, reassured, and promised a sizeable raise, had cooked one of her specialties, lomo saltado. As she served them, she still gave Matthew frightened looks out of the corner of her eye, and once or twice “accidentally” touched him on the shoulder as if to reassure D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 2 9


herself of his corporality. “So when will the kids be back?” asked Matthew as they were finishing the main course and waiting for dessert. “I assume you sent them to Camp Lackawanna as usual.” “Let’s see,” she looked at the wall calendar. “They’re due back August twenty-eighth. That’s three weeks from today.” “Plenty of time for us to get to know each other again, right Glory? In fact, if you need a vacation, we could go somewhere together. Manny won’t mind.” “It’s enough vacation for me just having you back again, Matthew.” She squeezed his hand. “So I’ll leave it up to you. What do you want to do?” Matthew thought about it. “Well, I guess I’ve already had my vacation this year. Eight months of it, in fact. So Monday morning I’m going to hit the barbershop and get back to looking like a successful businessman again. Thanks for not getting rid of my suits.” Conchita brought in the flan and chocolate sauce and they both turned their attention to it for several minutes. Then Matthew pushed back his plate with a sigh of contentment. “So,” he resumed, “I guess I’ll be going back to the office on Monday, if it’s kay with you and Manny. Duty calls, and I’m too young to retire. But Manny tells me you’ve been down there every day, Glory. Doing what, if I might ask?” “If you must know, Matthew, I’ve been doing your job. And doing it rather well, too, I might add. Just ask Manny and Artie.” “But this is amazing, Glory! You never wanted to know D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 3 0


anything about the business before.” “That’s largely because it was your business, Matthew. Yours and Manny’s. I’m just old-fashioned enough to feel that a man shouldn’t have to explain to his wife how he supports his family.” She looked him straight in the eye. “But when you disappeared, I had no choice. It was Manny’s fault. He asked me to come down to the office within two weeks after you left to try to fix that Horvath deal you screwed up, and I’ve been there ever since.” “Well, thanks for helping Manny out, Glory. But I’m back now, and it’s my duty to support you and the kids. And as you know, I’ve always done my duty.” “That’s right, Matthew. You’re the man and I’m just the woman.” “What’s that supposed to mean?” protested Matthew. Glory bit her lip. “Oh, nothing, I suppose. It’s just that you men sometimes don’t seem to realize that we women have duties, too. But never mind that now.” She smiled at him. “Besides, it’s stupid to get into an argument on your first night back.” She shot him a meaningful glance. “There’ll be plenty of time for that later.” So Matthew began his transformation back to a respectable businessman. Saturday found him at the barbers where it took only an hour to restore him to his former tonsorial splendor. Monday found him at the offices of Kingston & Klein, where Manny at first protested that the King should take his usual vacation and not return until the day after Labor Day. He soon saw, however, that the King, as always, was bound and determined to have his own way. So Manny loaded Matthew down with the financial statistics, market trends and meeting reports for D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 3 1


the year so far and left him as much as possible to his own devices. The time went slowly for Matthew. For the first time in nearly thirteen years he felt awkward, out of place, like a fish out of water. As the August heat wave blazed on, the unaccustomed stiffness of his collar itched and chafed his neck, and even the smooth perfection of his silk necktie began to feel increasingly like a noose around his neck. He began to spend more and more of his time chatting with Stacey in the outer office. In the past he had barely acknowledged her presence except when he wanted something, or ordered her to do this or that. But now he seemed fascinated with every detail of her life—at work, at home, what she did for entertainment. At first Stacey welcomed the attention, for she had always idolized her boss and had even had an innocent schoolgirl crush on him for a time. But as the days went past he began to take more and more of her time, until she finally complained to Manny who gently set him straight. Morosely, he retreated to his office and comforted himself with clock watching, long lunches, short days and, when all else failed, the occasional glass of scotch in the middle of the afternoon. By the beginning of his third week back he had taken to spending as little time in the office as he possibly could. It was one of the slowest times of the year, and there were practically no phone calls or clients to divert his attention or pique his interest. So on the Wednesday afternoon of his third week back, as he was sitting in his office after his usual long and alcoholic lunch, he thought, as he did so often these days, of the Third Eye Theater. Terry and the others would be coming back from their vacations, ready for a fresh new D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 3 2


season. He consulted his desk calendar. Wednesday, August 26. Tonight would be the first Wednesday Night Meeting of the season, and they would be in the process of building the set the season-opening play, the problematic Lessons of Winter. The thought that he would not be there suddenly moved him to tears. He had thought of his life with Glory and his life at the theater as existing in two different worlds, but now he realized that he could simply walk uptown and be at the Third Eye within forty-five minutes. Damned if I do and damned if I don’t, he thought bitterly. No question about it, I’m not only the Fool, but the Hanged Man as well. Mentally he flipped a coin. When it landed, he got up and left his office. He knocked loudly on Manny’s door. “Manny,” he said in a voice firm with resolve, “we need to talk.” 3.

T

hat the King had not been a happy camper these last few weeks was obvious; the question was why. He had returned, after being gone for eight months without anyone hearing a word from him, to find his job, his home, his family, and even his collection of fine Italian suits waiting for him as if nothing had happened. And yet here he was—moping around the office, bothering Stacey, coming in late and leaving early, and in between taking long solitary alcoholic lunches. You didn’t have to be a student of psychology to see that something was gnawing at him. So, needless to say, I was not entirely surprised when he knocked on my office door on the sweltering afternoon of the last Wednesday in August. “Manny, we need to talk.” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 3 3


The tone of his voice was not encouraging; in fact, if Mona had used those words and that tone with me, I would have immediately started thumbing through the yellow pages for a good divorce lawyer. “Sure, King, come on in.” I decided to put a good face on it, to play dumb and let him say what was on his mind. Uncharacteristically he came straight to the point. “I just can’t do this any more, Manny,” he confessed after he had entered my office, closed the door, and slumped rather heavily into an armchair. “I thought I could, but I can’t.” “What are you talking about, King?” I prompted him, though I thought I knew where he was going with this. “This.” He swept his hand about the office in a gesture of despair. “This job, this life, it’s just not me any more. It’s got nothing to do with you, Manny,” he continued in a warmer tone. “We’ve been friends and partners for a long time. Some of the best years of my life, in fact. But now it’s time for me to move on. I’ve decided. I’m going back to the theater. They need me there. Here I feel sort of like a fifth wheel—especially after the great job Glory’s been doing. I saw the figures myself—nothing else to read, I guess.” He grinned a little. “Sales and profits up a solid twenty per cent or more. And that sparkle in her eyes that day I came back. I haven’t seen it since. She’s been moping around the house the way I have at the office. The kids are due back in a couple of days, Manny, so we’ve got to do something. I’ve got to do something,” he corrected himself. “Therefore,” he stood up, came over and put his hands flat on my desk, “I’m resigning my partnership position as of now in favor of Gloria Pelletier Kingston.” He gave me a wink. I could tell he was feeling better already, like a great weight had D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 3 4


been lifted. “After all,” he continued, “since I’m the King, I’ve got a right to abdicate, don’t I?” “Well gosh, King, if that’s how you want it.” I could tell that he had thought long and hard about this and it was no use trying to change his mind. “That’s how I want it.” He stood up to leave. “Tell Artie to draw up the necessary papers. I’ll sign whatever I need to as soon as possible. I’m going to call Glory right now and tell her the news.” With that he walked out of the office and, just like that, ended a thirteen-year partnership. But that’s the King for you—when he gets an idea in his head no one can stop him. I still wished him well, the dumb son of a bitch. “Hi, Glory, this is Matthew. No, no, everything’s okay. Just listen carefully and don’t say a word. Take off that apron and strap on your business suit—in a very few days, you and Manny Klein will officially be partners. I just can’t do this any more. No, I already told Manny and he took it okay. I’m going back to the theater. No, silly, of course I’m not leaving you. But I may only be home a couple of nights a week. Give Matt Jr. and Steffie my love and tell them I’ll see them on Monday, and I’ll tell them all about it then. If you need me, just call the theater. If I’m not there, they’ll get word to me. Yes, I love you too, honey. Oh, and go drag Conchita back from wherever she went on her vacation. Tell her the ghostly Mr. Kingston says she’s got a full-time job.” It was about three in the afternoon when I hung up the phone after talking to Glory. She had taken it so well I couldn’t help feeling that that’s what she had wanted ever since I came back. It’s funny how so many things can D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 3 5


change in so little time and still look just the same. I went into the Kingston & Klein washroom for the last time and looked in the mirror. The handsome, middle-aged face of that well-dressed successful business and family man, Matthew Kingston, smiled back at me. The idealistic but penniless young theater worker, John Black, was nowhere to be seen. But that also was about to change, I vowed. I left the office without my briefcase, stopping at the reception desk to mumble a routine “Have a nice weekend” to Stacey. Then I was out the door. Freedom! I felt like a kid again. I realized that I hadn’t felt this way since being discharged from the army, eighteen years ago. Never lose this feeling again, I admonished myself sternly. The weather was hot but bearable, so I walked up Broadway to Canal and took the subway to 14th Street. Got to do something about my clothes, I thought. I went into Kaplan’s, a discount clothing store at the corner of Third Avenue, just off Union Square. “Need any help, buddy?” inquired the Middle Eastern guy at the counter. “Yes,” I told him. “I need a plain black tee shirt, a pair of black work pants, size 34-36, and a pair of size 9 black Reeboks.” “Comin’ right up, buddy,” he replied indifferently. He disappeared into the back of the store and returned about ten minutes later with the required items. He placed them on the counter in front of me saying, “That’ll be twentynine fifty, including tax.” I took out two twenties and placed them in his hand. “You can keep the change,” I told him off-handedly, “if you’ll direct me to a place where I can change clothes. Oh, D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 3 6


and could you also give me a large paper bag?” His eyes lit up and he quickly complied. “This way, sir, just follow me.” He led me to a relatively clean restroom in the back of the store marked “Employees Only”. I quickly changed out of my oppressive business suit into my new working clothes. Astonishingly, there was an unbroken mirror on the wall and, as I looked into it, John Black finally began to emerge. Satisfied, I stuffed my previous life into the paper bag and went back to find the sales clerk. He was leaning on the counter reading an Arabic newspaper and smoking a long brown cigarette. “These will do just fine,” I told him. He nodded in a distracted manner. “Oh, by the way,” I added casually, handing him the paper bag. “I don’t need these any more. So you’d be doing me a favor if you would dispose of them in any way you see fit.” He looked at the bag’s contents and gasped. “But mister,” he finally exclaimed. “That suit must have cost you two hundred bucks!” “Three hundred,” I grinned. “And another one-fifty for the shoes. Nice doing business with you.” And with that I departed, leaving him standing in the open door, clutching the paper bag, his mouth open in astonishment. I didn’t care. I felt light as a feather, and a song was in my heart. I realized it was only five o’clock, so I had enough time to make one more stop before the six o’clock theater meeting. The building at 610 East 9th Street still looked the same. And why shouldn’t it? I had been there less than three weeks ago, and yet it seemed more like three years. Once again I admonished myself severely; there seemed to be a vast discrepancy between real time and my memory of it. I entered the building and knocked on Guy’s door. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 3 7


When he opened it, I realized that literally nothing had changed; he looked and was dressed the same as when I had left. “Guy!” I spread my arms in a theatrical gesture of welcome. “The Prodigal Son has returned. Pray kill the fatted calf or a reasonable facsimile thereof. Is my room still available?” “My dear boy!” he exclaimed. “Words unaccountably fail me. Of course it is, it’s ready and waiting for you. Nothing has been touched.” He looked at me more closely. “But why the disguise? From the looks of you, you’ve decided to seek a life of excitement at one of our fine banking institutions.” I just laughed. “Guy,” I answered him reprovingly. “You of all people should understand the pitfalls of idiosyncratic appearance when visiting one’s relatives.” Guy chuckled as well. “I do believe you have me at an unprecedented disadvantage, my boy. But will you be staying for supper?” “No,” I said seriously. “Big theater meeting in half an hour. First one of the season. But I’ll be back later tonight and we can talk, if you wish.” “Nothing would give me greater pleasure, dear boy.” I walked the three blocks to the theater, whistling all the way. As I pushed open the wooden entrance door and began to go down the steps to the performance space itself, a feeling of peace washed over me. The coolness of the theater compared to the heat of the pavement outside was heavenly. That’s it, I thought, that’s exactly it. I’m not entering a theater, I’m descending into heaven. ~~~ D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 3 8


4.

A

s I flung open the door and walked into the performance space, a nostalgic sight greeted me. The setup was the same as it had been at every Wednesday night meeting—podium, one set of chairs for volunteers, the other for staff. Good God, I thought, the last meeting was just before the summer festival, less than three months ago, but it seems like ancient history. Sitting in the staff section were all my old friends— Agnes, Proud Mary, Casey, Ernie, Swamp Girl, Pattycake, and Kat Fordyce, the wardrobe mistress who had literally clothed me upon my arrival at the theater. In the volunteer section were the usual half dozen or so faces, a few who I knew slightly, most of whom I didn’t. It was good to be home. No one had noticed my entrance yet, and I was just starting to go say hello, when I suddenly felt something grab me from behind. Startled, I turned around quickly to find a woman’s head buried in my chest. Then it looked up at me and grinned. “John! Am I ever glad to see you!” exclaimed Terry, still clutching me around the waist. She put her fingers to my lips before I could say a word. “Shush!” she whispered. “Let’s go somewhere and talk. We’ve still got a few minutes before the meeting starts.” She led me into the curtainedoff area to the right of the stage. “Okay,” she told me. “Spill it quick, John! What happened? I didn’t expect to see you back here, at least not so soon. I was all prepared to give everybody the old ‘family emergency’ story, but now it seems I don’t need to. In fact, I haven’t said anything about you to anybody yet, so you can tell ‘em what you want to. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 3 9


But tell me first! What about your family? And, are you back for good, or just to say goodbye? Well? Tell me quick, John, and tell me the truth or, so help me God, I’ll explode right here and now!” She wasn’t exaggerating. “Terry,” I tried to reassure her. “Take it easy! I’m back. Yes, I went back to my family. I even tried to go back to my old job. But after all this it just didn’t feel right. So I worked out a kind of a compromise with my wife. I’ll go home maybe two nights a week or so, and the rest of the time I’ll be at Guy’s. I think in some ways I missed him most of all.” Terry cocked her fist at me. “You better be joking about that last part!” Then she lowered her fist and put her arms around me again. “Does that mean,” she asked more seriously, “that we can still, you know, have a little fun every now and then?” “Terry,” I told her honestly, “there’s no one I’d rather ‘have a little fun’ with than you.” “Great!” She gave me a big kiss. “Now, I think we better get out there. Must be about time for Whitey to appear, and it sounds like the natives are getting restless.” She pulled me toward the seating area and gave everybody a big grin. “Hey, you guys! Look what I found!” she said lightly. “Hey, John!” Ernie was the first to speak. “At least, I think it’s John. What’s with the corporate chop job, man? Your face looks totally naked!” I grinned. “Had to visit the family,” I said nonchalantly. “You know how it is.” I stroked my clean chin. “It’ll grow back.” Terry and I had started to go find seats in the volunteer section when Casey jumped up. “Oh no, you D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 4 0


don’t!” he cried out firmly. “Not after all you did for us last season.” He raised his right hand. “By the power vested in me as Technical Director of the Third Eye Theater,” he intoned pretentiously, “I hereby declare you, John, and you, Terry, Honorary Staff Members.” Terry clapped her hands. “Goodie!” she exclaimed. “You see, John, didn’t I tell you all that hard work would pay off some day? Honorary Staff, imagine that!” We barely had time to take our seats in the staff section before Whitey Richardson strode to the podium carrying his usual bundle of notes and papers. “May I have everyone’s attention please?” he began. When the crowd finally quieted down he continued. “First of all, I want to welcome back our theater staff from their summer vacations.” He paused for a moment and looked at Terry and me. “Hmm,” he said finally. “I see our staff has grown over the summer.” There were appreciative chuckles. “Also I want to welcome our volunteers, some old and some new. Mary Nolan will be introducing the new faces somewhat later in the meeting. And now, to business. Well,” he said, looking very serious, “it seems that, in accordance with the old cliché, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that Tyler Houston’s new play, Lessons of Winter, is already in rehearsal and should open on schedule in about three weeks. That is, provided you technical wizards can manage to get it together by then.” Swamp Girl cheerfully gave him the finger and Whitey grinned back. Then he silently shuffled papers on the podium for several moments before continuing. “And now for the bad news. I really don’t know any good way to say this, so I’m going to read you a letter that the theater received in June from Reverend Boyd.” I heard a collective groan from the staff D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 4 1


members, Terry included. This must be important, I thought. “For those of you who don’t know,” Whitey was continuing, “Reverend Boyd is the pastor of the Baptist church that owns this building. I will now read the contents of this letter in its entirety.” When he had finished, there was a general commotion in the theater as everybody seemed to be asking everybody else what it all meant. Whitey again held up his hand for silence. “And that’s not even the worst part. When I got back to the theater today, there was a follow-up letter waiting for me, dated August fifteenth. It seems they’ve already found a buyer, someone quite willing and able to pay the half-million price they’re asking. The only thing in our favor,” he said grimly, “is our right to first purchase. Since they were not able to get in touch with me last week, the church has kindly given us thirty days to respond. So it all comes down to this: If we don’t somehow come up with five hundred thousand dollars by September fifteenth, the church will sell the theater to their buyer, and we’ll be evicted on January first of next year, just over four months from now. So, the question is,” Whitey walked out from behind the podium and looked pleadingly at each of us in turn. “Has anybody won the lottery lately? Anybody have a rich uncle about ready to kick off? A personal fortune you haven’t told me about?” There was a stunned silence. “I thought not,” he said softly. “So, three more productions and that’s it.” “But what are we going to do?” murmured a subdued Pattycake. “Do?” echoed Whitey. “I don’t even know what I’m going to do. However, to each and every one of you staff members, I want to express my personal thanks for a hard D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 4 2


job well done and also to express my confidence in your professional futures. To that end, as one of my last official acts as Artistic Director, I will be spending as much time as necessary writing detailed recommendations for anyone who asks. I’m sure that any of you, based on the quality of the work you’ve done here, can get a good position in virtually any theater in town, if that is your wish. Any other questions? No? Then Mary will now introduce the new volunteers.” None of us, I think, really paid attention to the rest of the meeting. Volunteers were introduced, work schedules were announced, but it was all just going through the motions after Whitey’s bombshell. When it was over, Terry and I joined Ernie, Casey and Swamp Girl at the Green Room for the purpose of commiseration and drinking ourselves into insensibility. About two hours and six scotches later I had made my decision. I pulled Terry aside. “Let’s go play the jukebox, Terry,” I said loudly, giving her a conspiratorial look. She picked up on it right away. “Sure, John,” she said lightly and got up quickly. “As long as you’re paying.” “Listen,” I said as soon as we had gotten out of earshot of the others. “I think I may have a plan to save the theater. It’s a long shot, so I don’t want anyone else to know.” Quickly I outlined my plan to her, keeping my voice low just in case. “So, you tell me,” I concluded, “do you think it could work, or am I drunker than I think?” “Go for it, John,” she encouraged me firmly. “Then I’ll make the call tomorrow morning,” I said as we slowly walked back to the others, both of us feeling a little lighter. It was up to me now. It seemed it always had been. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 4 3


5.

E

arly the next morning Matthew called Manny on his private line at Kingston & Klein. “Manny, this is Matthew,” he said simply. “I need your help.” And with that phone call the curtain rose on the most important production in the long and checkered history of the Third Eye Theater. Had it been sufficiently rehearsed and performed before an audience, it would have gone something like this: SAVING THE THIRD EYE THEATER A HEARTWARMING FAMILY DRAMA IN FOUR SCENES SCENE ONE: Matthew, Manny, and Glory THE PLACE: The offices of Kingston & Klein THE TIME: Friday, August 27, early in the afternoon As the scene opens, Matthew, Manny, Glory and Artie Goldberg, their attorney, are seated around the conference table in Glory’s, formerly Matthew’s, office. Matthew has just finished his sales pitch. MANNY: (In a puzzled voice.) I still don’t get it, Why would we even want to own a theater in the first place? King, you, of all people, know our policy has always been ‘Don’t buy what you can’t sell.’ And in a hurry, for a profit too, I might add. MATTHEW: Oh, come on. (He pokes Manny in the ribs playfully.) Lighten up. It’ll be just like old times. Besides, you won’t be buying the theater from the owners, the church, in order to make a profit. You’ll be buying the theater from D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 4 4


the new owners of the theater—the theater itself. ARTIE: And that’s exactly where you lost me. Run that by me again. MATTHEW: Okay. (He takes a deep breath.) Step Number One: Manny, you give Glory five hundred thousand. Call it a bonus, incentive pay, profit sharing, whatever. Step Number Two: Glory, armed with the five hundred thou, calls up Whitey Richardson at the Third Eye. She convinces him that she’s some rich patron of the arts and says she wants to donate a half mil to the theater. MANNY: Thus gaining one hell of a personal tax deduction. ARTIE: (Still confused.) But why does she have to give the money to the theater? MATTHEW: Because the church already has a buyer. The only way Whitey can buy the theater at the asking price is because the church has given him, in writing, first purchase rights. If anyone else tried to buy it, they’d likely get into a bidding war with the prospective buyer, and the price could go much higher. Everybody got it? (The other three nod their heads doubtfully.) Okay, to continue. Glory says she’ll only donate the money to the theater on the condition that Whitey turns it over to a management company. That’s Kingston & Klein. Now this is the tricky part—convincing Whitey to sell it to you guys for a nominal fee. But I think he’ll go for it because, first and foremost, he’s not a businessman. He’d like nothing better than to have the artistic freedom to produce the shows without worrying about paying the bills. So then we come to Step Number Three. Whitey then sells the theater to Kingston & Klein for a nominal fee and everyone lives happily ever after. I get to keep my dream job and Kingston & Klein gets D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 4 5


a nice little tax write-off—an enterprise guaranteed to lose money. Any questions? (The other three shake their heads.) Good. (He stands up.) So let’s get the ball rolling as soon as possible. Manny, cut Glory a check. Glory, get Whitey on the phone. Remember, we’ve only got until September fifteenth to pull this off. That’s when Whitey’s right to purchase expires. And Artie? ARTIE: Yes, King? MATTHEW: Please tell me that all this is reasonably legal. ARTIE: (He considers this for a long moment.) Sure. It’s contrived, but there’s nothing really illegal about it. Let’s see, it’s good for Whitey because he gets the theater with all of the fun and none of the headaches. It’s good for the church because they don’t care who they sell it to as long as they get the money. They’ll also be secretly relieved not to have been responsible for shutting down the theater. It’s good for Glory, because she gets a reputation as a philanthropic patron of the arts and a whopping great tax deduction besides. And it’s good for us for tax purposes if for no other reason. I’d say the only loser here is the bidder who won’t get the property, and he doesn’t have a legal leg to stand on. MATTHEW: In that case we have a deal. (They shake hands all around.) END OF SCENE SCENE TWO: Glory and Whitey THE PLACE: Whitey’s office at the Third Eye THE TIME: Later that same afternoon As the scene opens, Whitey is sitting at his desk talking on D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 4 6


the telephone. He manages to look incredulous, joyful, and suspicious in varying degrees during the following conversation: WHITEY: …and you’re willing to donate the entire amount? Once again, you do know we need five hundred thousand dollars to purchase the theater? And you’re willing to come down here and give me a certified check for this amount on Monday? Why, that’s wonderful news! But say, wait a minute. (He frowns.) How do I know this is on the level? This could be some cruel elaborate hoax. I know the people at this theater and they can be a bunch of practical jokers. No—wait—don’t hang up! (Pleadingly.) I wasn’t accusing you of anything. Please don’t be offended. (He takes a handkerchief out of a desk drawer and mops his sweating brow and continues in a calmer tone of voice.) Just tell me how you heard of our theater’s plight. Oh, really? You say your former husband used to know someone who works here? And this is how you found out? Uh, which one? John Black, eh? That figures. Anyway, Mrs. Kingston, at your convenience on Monday, then? Yes, I’ll be in my office all day. And thank you so much for calling, Mrs. Kingston. (He hangs up the phone and turns to the audience.) Can it be possible? Can we really save the theater? END OF SCENE SCENE THREE: Whitey and Rev. Boyd THE PLACE: Same as Scene Two THE TIME: Tuesday, September 1, early afternoon As the scene opens Whitey is handing the Rev. Boyd a certified check for five hundred thousand dollars. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 4 7


WHITEY: Well then. All we need now is the deed to the property. REV. BOYD: (Taking an envelope out of his briefcase and handing it to Whitey.) With pleasure, Mr. Richardson. I’m so glad you will be able to keep your theater. You know, this has been on my conscience for months, ever since the Council of Elders made their decision. But tell me, I know it’s really none of my business, but however did you manage to come up with the money? WHITEY: (With a cheerful grin.) Interestingly enough, Reverend, much the same way you people do. Charitable donations. END OF SCENE SCENE FOUR: Whitey, Manny, and Glory THE PLACE: Manny’s office at Kingston & Klein THE TIME: Wednesday, September 2, early afternoon As the scene opens, Manny is sitting behind his desk. Glory and Artie sit in chairs on either side of Whitey, who sits in a large chair facing Manny’s desk. GLORY: (To Whitey.) So you see, I have two reasons for wanting this theater under the competent and stable ownership of Kingston & Klein. First, let me say how much I admire your directing and your ability to run a theater company. WHITEY: (Preening just a bit.) Why thank you, Mrs. Kingston. GLORY: But tell me, wouldn’t you really rather be able to have your cake and eat it too? I mean, have complete D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 4 8


artistic freedom with none of the financial worries and responsibilities? WHITEY: I see your point, Mrs. Kingston. (To Manny.) So let me get this straight. I sign the theater over to your company, Mr. Klein, and you assume total financial responsibility. MANNY: That’s right, Mr. Richardson. GLORY: My second point, Mr. Richardson, is the matter of production budgets. Just think what you could do with more money. What would you say is your annual budget right now? WHITEY: (He thinks for a moment.) We get all our money from two sources—the box office take, which obviously varies widely from show to show, and the occasional grant, which we can never count on anyway. So I’d say maybe fifty to a hundred thousand a season. MANNY: We could easily kick that figure up to maybe two hundred-fifty thou. What would you think of that? But only on the condition you pay your permanent staff a living wage out of that. (He waves his hand in an unconcerned manner.) But that’s not a problem. I’m the chief financial officer here, so we can work out a mutually agreeable budget later. Do we have a deal? WHITEY: (Frowning.) There’s just one thing that’s bothering me. This offer sounds just a little bit too good to be true. I mean, I know what I’d be getting, hell, what the whole theater would be getting out of this deal. But what’s in it for you? ARTIE: A tax write-off, pure and simple. No offense, Mr. Richardson, but we know your theater is gonna lose money. In fact, we’re counting on it, to the extent that if you start to make money, we’ll just have to increase your D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 4 9


budget accordingly. WHITEY: (Sighing and shrugging his shoulders.) I’m a realist when it comes to this sort of thing, so that’s a point of view I can understand. But there’s just one more thing that’s bothering me. GLORY: (In a gentle voice.) What’s that, Mr. Richardson? WHITEY: Well, what if somewhere down the road your company starts losing money, and you want to unload the Third Eye to someone else because it’s become too big a financial burden? What’s to stop you? Then I’d be in the same position I was in with the church. (Manny looks at Artie and they confer briefly for a moment.) ARTIE: (Reassuringly.) I’ll draw up an agreement, Mr. Richardson, stating that if we ever want to sell the theater, we’ll sell it to you for exactly the amount we’re buying it for—one dollar. Then you’ll be no worse off than you have been all these years. WHITEY: Well then, I guess I’m satisfied. MANNY: (Together with Artie and Glory.) And so are we. (Overflowing champagne glasses suddenly appear out of nowhere and are raised by all in a toast) ALL: Long live the Third Eye Theater! And so the curtain comes down on the production to a standing ovation. After all, who doesn’t like a happy ending? D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 5 0


6.

S

o it was that only a few hours after the conclusion of this drama, when the disheartened staff and volunteers of the soon-to-be former Third Eye Theater silently shuffled in for the Wednesday night meeting, they were astonished to see an exuberant Whitey Richardson stride to the podium grinning from ear to ear. “Friends!” he began dramatically and then spread his arms in a heroic gesture. “The theater is ours!” A collective cheer rang out from the theater members. When the roar had subsided somewhat, a good ten minutes later, and people had stopped jumping up and down, hugging each other, and pounding each other on the back, Whitey continued. “Well, not exactly ours. But it is now owned and being funded by a benevolent real estate company. No, that is not an oxymoron. For purposes of improving their image in the community, not to mention a tax break, they have agreed to assure us in writing of our tenancy for many years to come. I won’t go into the details at this time, but within a week the deal will be completed. At that time anyone who wishes more information may drop by the office, where Agnes will show you the signed agreement and explain its terms. “But what does this mean to each and every one of you, other than merely not losing your jobs, you ask, and rightfully so. Well for starters, a dramatically increased budget, not only for productions and building overhead, but for actual staff salaries as well. That’s right, for the first time in the history of this theater, I can guarantee at a bare minimum that we can pay twelve full time staff positions an honest living wage. The people I have in mind right now D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 5 1


are myself, of course, Agnes, Casey, Ernie, Kat, Mary, Swamp Girl and, of course, our stage manager extraordinaire, Patricia. That’s eight so far. Also, with an increased budget I would also like to hire a Property Master (or Mistress) and an in-house Lighting Designer. Ernie, see if you can entice Gilbert to join our staff and work for us exclusively. Now, we have only two more staff positions to fill.” Whitey put the edge of his hand to his forehead and looked around the theater dramatically. “But what luck!” he exclaimed after a few moments. “The two ideal people are already here! I’ve been talking to everyone on the staff about this for the past week and the decision was unanimous. So, at this time I’d like to welcome our two newest staff members—John Black, Lighting Technician and primary Light Board Operator, and Terry Ramos, Sound Technician and Sound Operator. No need to make a big deal, folks, just say ‘I accept.’” “We accept,” echoed Terry and Matthew. “And now, since you have undoubtedly noticed that I have no notes with me, this concludes the formal part of tonight’s meeting. If there is any other business to discuss, we’ll take it up at the Green Room where the drinks are on the Third Eye.” Everyone again cheered mightily and began to troop happily out of the theater. “Not so fast, Black!” Matthew felt a heavy hand on his shoulder. He turned around to behold a frowning Whitey Richardson. “You folks just run on ahead,” he called out to the others. “We’ll be there in just a few minutes.” When the theater was empty except for Matthew and Whitey, the latter began to speak. “Black, it seems your name came up during negotiations for the theater. It seems D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 5 2


your name is always coming up at crucial times like this. You want to tell me about it?” “Not particularly, Mr. Richardson,” said Matthew carefully. Whitey smiled. “Well, we’ll leave it at that for now. But I thought I once told you that if you had any more plans for saving the theater to come to me first.” “You did, Mr. Richardson.” “Fortunately, it all seems to have worked out for the best this time. But there’s one thing I don’t understand.” “What’s that, sir?” “If you did have a part in all this, why keep it secret? Don’t you want your friends to call you a hero and buy you many rounds of drinks?” “May I be frank, sir?” “Of course.” “It seems to me,” Matthew began slowly, choosing his words carefully, “that the important things in life are to be able to make a decent living at a job you love, and to be allowed to be what you are and not have to live up to what other people think you are or should be. Therefore, sir, I gratefully accept the staff position. It’s all I ever wanted. I will try my best to do as good a job as I know how. But please, for now, keep my name out of anything relating to the business aspects of the theater. Believe me when I tell you that I’ve had more than enough to do with business to last a lifetime.” Whitey nodded his head slowly as Matthew ended his speech. “I’ll respect your privacy, John. That’s what we do here. As long as we get the job done, nobody cares what we did in the past, nor has any right to ask. But someday,” he shook a finger sternly at Matthew, “tell me the whole story, D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 5 3


will you? After all, I’m only the Artistic Director, but I like to know what’s going on as much as anyone. Now, let’s get over to the Green Room. The party can’t start without us!” So Matthew and Whitey went to the Green Room and got roaringly drunk that night, as did the rest of the staff of the newly reincarnated Third Eye Theater. Two weeks later, on the day after the opening night of the long-awaited Lessons of Winter, Whitey came into the Wednesday night meeting waving a fistful of press clippings. “The critics have spoken,” he exulted, “and we appear to have somewhat of a hit on our hands. Let me just read you a few quotes from the reviews. The Daily News says, ‘“Lessons” for us all: Tyler Houston sheds the bombastic mystical snake skin of his youth to reveal an unexpected layer of humanistic maturity. This slow-moving but penetrating character study is aided immensely by imaginative staging and the unique performance space of the Third Eye Theater.’ The Times merely says ‘Pulitzer Prize-winning enfant terrible of West Coast Theater debuts in New York with a sincere character piece about the inevitable ambivalence we all feel about growing old in America. Tyler Houston may just have found The Adult Within.’” The reviews were duly cheered by the theater members. “And now, campers,” Whitey continued when there was quiet once more. “It seems we’re on something of a lucky streak. Not only is the theater saved, the budget adequate for the first time ever, the first show of the season well received, but our second show looks like it’s going to be a sure-fire hit as well. For those of you who haven’t heard, it’s a revival of that great John Guare play, D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 5 4


Landscape of the Body. But the best part is, with our increased budget we’ve been able to hire, as Musical Director and pianist for the show, the very popular Tony Villanova.” “Wow!” exclaimed Agnes, Mary and Terry together. “Not only that,” continued Whitey. “But Ingrid Wolfschmidt has agreed to play the starring role. Tony is in the process of writing not less than three original songs for her.” “Wow!” exclaimed Casey, Ernie and Matthew together. “The show opens November third, and comps for this one will be scarce. Running crew members get only four for the entire run, while remaining staff members get two each. So get your orders in soon. Well, that’s it for me. Anybody else got anything?” Agnes stood up. “I believe Patricia wishes to once again address the condition of the theater.” Everyone groaned except Patricia, who stalked to the podium and began to speak. “I shouldn’t have to remind everyone about the importance of keeping our work spaces neat and tidy,” she began amid a chorus of affectionate boos. Terry grinned at Matthew. Matthew winked back. With any luck, he thought, it was going to be a long season. 7.

S

uddenly, inexplicably, he seemed to be flying, or hovering rather, high above a mountain top clearly visible in the dazzling sunlight. Although he was enveloped by a sort of gray mist, he could see that he was D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 5 5


dressed in a curious black cloak embroidered with stars and crescent moons. On his head was a similarly decorated black pointed hat. He stroked his chin and discovered a long white beard. From his vantage point he could just make out a tiny figure on the ground far below. He moved his arms in the manner of a swimmer and found that he could control his flight. As he slowly came nearer and nearer to the ground, he recognized the tiny figure as a knight in gleaming armor mounted on a white horse proceeding at full gallop. The helmet’s visor was down and the knight’s sword was unsheathed and upraised as if battle were imminent, but he seemed to be alone on the vast plain at the foot of the mountain. As he reached the ground, twenty or so yards in front of the knight, he raised his wooden staff commandingly. When the knight had reined in his steed and come to a full stop, the wizard spoke in a voice at once calm and full of authority. “Stay thy hand, Sir Knight, and put up thy sword!” The knight looked at the wizard in wonderment, but did as he was told. “I know of you, and of this dragon that you seek,” the old man continued. “But know ye this: The dragon may be of more value to you alive than dead; and the treasure of no value at all! Heed my words! Heed my warning!” And with that the gray mist once again began to envelope him. Without any conscious effort on his part, he began to ascend back into the sky from whence he had come. The last thing he remembered seeing was the knight raising the visor of his helmet to reveal the face of a perplexed Manny Klein. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 5 6


Then the alarm clock rang. “Just five more minutes,” groaned a sleepy voice. “Come on, honey, it’s seven o’clock and you’ve got a meeting at nine.” He kissed her gently on the back of the neck. “Is it Monday already? Oh, all right then,” Glory said, reluctantly assuming a sitting position on the edge of the bed. She looked at Matthew suspiciously. Although it was now December and once again snowing heavily, he seemed to greet each morning with a smile and a song. Of course, the fact that he only came home from the theater a couple of nights a week might have something to do with it. That had been part of the agreement they had made when he had given her his partnership at Kingston & Klein back in August. In return the company had, at his urging, stepped forward to buy the theater and kept it running. Since they were paying all the bills, Kingston & Klein had become, in effect, a theatrical producing company. It was a rather strange turn of events, but she couldn’t complain. Even though she saw Matthew rarely, these last few months he had seemed much happier and more relaxed. He had even become much more attentive and sensitive to her moods and feelings now that he no longer played at being the overworked distracted businessman. And their lovemaking, in the few opportunities they had found, was more intense than it had been in years. No, she thought, she definitely had no complaints. She was happier these days as well. Conchita took care of the cooking and the cleaning, and the kids, now seventeen and fifteen, took care of themselves, leaving Glory free to take care of business, which she did with a conscientiousness and verve that had been missing in the old Glory Kingston. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 5 7


Her reverie was interrupted by the touch of Matthew’s hand on her shoulder. “Let’s get going, okay? Big day for you, isn’t it? Something about some office building acquisition?” He grinned and held up a hand. “No, don’t tell me about it, I don’t need to know.” She noticed that Matthew was already dressed in his theater outfit, a black pullover shirt with matching work pants. His beard had grown back in, and his hair was once again approaching shoulder length. He looked almost as he had when she had first met him at Woodstock all those years ago. Appraising him critically, she found she approved. “You go on down to breakfast,” she told him. “And I’ll be there in a few minutes.” She quickly began to dress. By the time she arrived in the downstairs dining room, Matthew, Matt Jr., and Steffie were already at the table, alternately eating with great appetite and talking animatedly, while Conchita bustled back and forth between kitchen and dining room. “Hi, honey!” Matthew greeted her. “I was just telling Matt about some of the shows we did last summer. Turns out he’s a big fan of one of the groups I did the lights for, Hell’s Bastards.” “Yeah, Dad, that’s a totally awesome story!” enthused Matt Jr. He sighed. “I wish you’d gotten their autographs, though. The kids at school aren’t going to believe me without some kind of proof.” “If you’ll remember, at that time I had no idea I had anyone to get an autograph for,” Matthew reminded him. “But I think I’ve got some signed publicity pictures and some programs or something in my room at Guy’s place. I’ll take a look and, if I find anything, I’ll bring it when I come back next weekend.” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 5 8


“Wow, thanks, Dad!” Steffie spoke up. “Uh, Dad? Do you ever do any, you know, musicals at that theater? Like with a chorus and everything?” “Yeah, sometimes, I guess. Why do you ask?” “Well, I’ve been getting some really great comments about my singing, and I thought maybe, if it’s not too much trouble, the next time you do a musical I could try out for the chorus?” Matthew smiled at her. “Hey, if you’re that good, I don’t see why not. I’ll talk to Whitey, he’s the head guy, you know, and find out if it’s okay.” “Gosh, thanks, Dad!” As the conversation continued, Glory sat there contentedly eating her breakfast and drinking her coffee. As she watched her husband and children talking to each other back and forth like rational adults, she thought about how much had happened in the last year. Wednesday, two days from now, would mark the first anniversary of Matthew’s disappearance. She thought of how she had felt then, and how she had felt when Matthew had so dramatically reappeared. Not being able to make any sense of it, she shook her head. But at least I know how I feel now, she told herself. The kids had finished their breakfasts and were starting to gather up coats and books. “You know, Glory,” Matthew remarked to her casually. “Remember that dream I told you about last year? The one I couldn’t get out of my mind?” “I guess so. What about it?” She vaguely remembered Matthew being preoccupied with some Dungeons and Dragons nonsense. D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 5 9


“Well, I had it again last night. But it seemed to be sort of in reverse.” “That’s interesting, dear.” Glory answered automatically, still lost in thought as she sipped her coffee. “But the funny thing,” Matthew persisted, “is that this time it doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, it almost makes sense somehow.” “Dad, we’ve got to get going or we’ll be late for school,” Matt broke in as both he and Steffie took turns hugging their father. “Bye, Mom,” they said and ran out the kitchen door. “Your theater stories seem to have made a big impression on them,” said Glory, after the kids had left. “Yeah,” agreed Matthew. “It’s weird. I work twelve years as a respectable businessman, make millions to give them a comfortable life and I get no respect. But when I disappear for eight months and get a job making practically no money, now I’m a hero. As Manny would say, go figure!” Glory put her arms around him. “You’ll always be my hero,” she told him warmly. “Come on, I’ll drive you into Manhattan. These days, when Manny says nine o’clock, he means nine o’clock.” “You don’t have to rub it in,” he said ruefully. “I guess maybe I wasn’t the best businessman, now that I look back on it. But what’s funny is, at the time I thought that’s all there was for me in the world. Now I know better. Besides, you’re not so bad yourself. Manny thinks very highly of you, you know.” “Maybe a little too highly, if you know what I mean. You should see the way he looks at me sometimes.” “Ah, don’t worry. He’d never leave Mona. Not alive anyway.” D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 6 0


They both laughed. Then they were in the car, driving down the snowy turnpike from White Plains to New York City. The sky had cleared and a brilliant sun was still low on the eastern horizon. We’re still living in different worlds, Matthew thought. Only this time I think we’re both aware of it. Maybe it’ll help us and maybe it’ll hurt us. I only know how happy I am and how happy Glory seems. But how could we go through so much together and end up so far apart? The car sped toward the city. Glory had a smile on her face as she looked forward to her meeting with Manny, Artie, clients, money. Matthew was unconsciously whistling a Christmas tune as he looked forward to seeing Terry, Whitey, Guy, and the theater he loved. The traditional setting in of A Christmas Carol began today. “How could I be so lucky?” they both blurted out at the same time. They laughed in embarrassment and hugged each other briefly. For now, they were on the same page. FIN

D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

b y

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 6 1


Michael Matheny San Francisco November 2002

In loving memory of Sigrid Wurschmidt and Robert DiMatteo

© 2002 Cantara Christopher Advance Reading Copy Creative Commons License 3.0 Attribution-NonCommercial NoDerivs-Unported Cantarabooks.com ISBN 978193368 XXX

COPYEDITING

~ PROOFREADING ~ STRUCTURAL

EDITING

30 YEARS EXPERIENCE IN NY PUBLISHING FICTION AND NARRATIVE NON -FICTION A SPECIALTY FAST TURNAROUND

D e s c e n d i n g

I n t o

H e a v e n

~ FREE

b y

~ PAYPAL ACCEPTED THEMEMETRIX @GMAIL .COM

ESTIMATE

M i c h a e l

M a t h e n y

3 6 2

Descending Into Heaven by Michael Matheny  

A tale of magical off-off Broadway. [PDF Advance Reading Copy]

Read more
Read more
Similar to
Popular now
Just for you