When I say the story is unbelievable, I use the word not to amaze, as in, “Our new au pair has an unbelievable body,” but to warn the reader that the events depicted may seem like the plot of a bad movie: a black-and-white Forties movie, a definite B picture. And yet, everything noted actually happened to Murray Tempkin, a slim, bespectacled thirty-year-old writer, who on a good hair day resembles a scientist or an intellectual but should the weather turn humid looks more like some kind of meshuggener. Unlike the noir tabloid crime thrillers of yesteryear, with their cheap dames, seedy hotel rooms, and broken, blinking neon signs, this unlikely tale unfolded in living color in one of Manhattan’s toniest zip codes.
Tempkin, the protagonist, takes his breakfast at eight o’ clock each morning at the same coffee shop on Madison Avenue in the Seventies. Almost invariably he sits at a table next to the plate-glass window. The ritual is a freshly squeezed OJ, coffee, and toasted English. He reads the Times on his cell phone, and, as his window gives a wide view of passersby, he enjoys watching the 1 percent come alive. Denizens of the Upper East Side parade by on the avenue en route to their daily adventures: successful business types, stylish women, and uniformed kids off to pursue their private-school educations while mom scoots to her Pilates.
Tempkin’s own digs were just around the corner, and after breakfast it is always back to the modest three rooms where he lived alone since his divorce. Shimmying into position between his chair and the walnut desk that housed his Olivetti portable, he then sits to challenge Dostoevsky and Kafka, Bellow and Salinger. His first novel had gotten some encouraging reviews, and his second was almost half done. Jessica, his ex-wife, was a pretty Boston girl, from a well-to-do family. She had attended Bard College and after graduating worked for a photographer. Jessica was social, always up for dinner parties, clubs, the beach, and travel: all the things that kept him from staring into the middle distance over a blank page and dreaming up emotional intrigues to beguile or amuse.
When she left him for her photographer boss, he wasn’t totally shocked, as they had discussed a split and agreed the hots that fueled their romantic beginning had come down to room temperature. Jessica moved out and Tempkin returned to the single man’s playbook. In short order, he was back at the typewriter full time, eating General Tso’s chicken from takeout containers by himself. He dined out with friends now and then, but as far as slipping back into the social ramble, he never had been at ease in the dating world and appreciated the freedom to work uninterrupted. Tempkin was by nature shy, an introvert, most comfortable at his desk fabricating storylines and agonizing over just the right word. The few women he met or was introduced to or fixed up with by his friends were pleasant but nothing special. But who was this new person?
On a cool summer morning she walked past the plate-glass window of the coffee shop during his breakfast, and he noticed her right off. And now she was gone. She was kind of great, he thought. For a few seconds the juices flowed, but it was a transient moment in a town full of transient moments. Two days later she passed again. Still great. Adorable. The third time she passed, wiggling just enough, her pheromones penetrated the glass right through to his English muffin. She passed the next day too, and by the following week he was waiting for her to pass, looking forward to the buzz she ignited. She was pretty in the very special way that had been fatal to him since high school. Her looks reminded him of his first and only love, Lexi Riggs. Her face was fresh and natural like Lexi’s. No lipstick, no makeup, white skin, huge blue eyes—or if he could get a better look, possibly green. She was like a farmer’s daughter or some beautiful Polish peasant. Of course, Lexi had been anything but a peasant. She had been a cultivated intellectual who had helped educate Tempkin culturally and in ways I won’t get into. His heart disintegrated when she chose Jerry Simmons to go off with and eventually marry. Word was she lived in Provence and was the mother of two. This woman had Lexi’s luscious haystack look. The other girls in high school were mostly versions of each other, but Lexi was artsy, not commercial, with Greenwich Village silver earrings dangling from her pierced ears. This stranger, filling out her short, light-colored cotton slip dresses was like God himself had taken over and told his angels, “Step back, guys, let me complete her figure.” What a treat, Tempkin thought. I wonder who she is? Married? Probably. Or a boyfriend. How could she not? Still, I’d love to strike up a conversation and find out for myself. Of course, going up to a beautiful woman on the streets of Manhattan, given the amount of sleazeballs and head cases walking around, could easily be very off-putting to her. And let’s face it, he was the least comfortable, least experienced male human at picking up women. Technically speaking, he had never actually picked up a woman in his life and didn’t think he could start by accosting a total stranger with some bumbling pitch. Much as he longed to speak to her, the direct approach was definitely not his thing. Each day he watched the woman pass, casting her in a smorgasbord of delightful scenarios. One morning, fate, trying to convince him the universe did not single him out for special mistreatment, caused her to pause in front of the coffee-shop window and pull out her cell phone to make a call. In the moment she stood dialing there was enough time to see that she also wore silver earrings, that her eyes were not blue or green but violet, and the cherry on the cake, that she wore no rings, marital nor engagement. Tempkin thought—now is the time to run outside, and, however inept, which he knew he would be, say something. Or would I be interrupting her call? Of course, I’d wait till she hung up. But if she decides to talk while walking, what do I do, shadow her and hope for an opening? Perhaps this is not the best moment after all. On the other hand, she may not walk and talk. Meanwhile, in the time he debated the pros and cons in his mind, Hamlet could have killed the king twice over. And suddenly she was gone, striding down Madison Avenue talking animatedly on her call and vanishing into Manhattan.
That night, dining with his friend Al Trochman, the bass player, he laid the details on the musician.
“Of course, you should go up and speak to her,” he advised. “So, she’ll turn out to have a boyfriend and she’ll tell you to get lost. So what? What do you lose?”
“I know. I’m making too much of this, but it’s easy for you,” Tempkin said. “You’re smooth initiating banter, but I get coffee nerves. I hate the sound of my voice.”
“You’re too sensitive, man. Just say hello and tell her that you couldn’t take your eyes off her. When it comes to women you never got out of high school. I’ll bet she’ll find the whole thing flattering.”
“You think so?”
“She’ll think it’s romantic. Shall I remind you that you met your ex-wife in a stalled elevator and had no trouble talking to her?”
“Well sure, alone, between floors, just us two. It was very natural. But this—”
“Your trouble is you’re pathologically shy. That’s why you’re a writer. You’re only comfortable in your room alone with your Olivetti. When I hear you suffer so, I change my mind and say pass. There’s enough great women in this town so you don’t have to pick one up on the street. I could do it, but you’re a whole different neurotic.”
“Maybe you’re right.”
Like all hypochondriacs, Tempkin went for a second opinion.
Ruth Mayer, his painter friend, said, “You said it yourself. She reminds you of your first love. But Murray, use your head. She’s not that same bohemian high-school girl you talked Proust with way back when. You’re reading too much into a look, into violet eyes. What if you hit on her and she’s a zombie. What if she’s never read The Waste Land and prefers bungee jumping?”
Tempkin knew they were both right, but who should he listen to? Wise friends with sound advice, or the frantic lunacy of his irrational heart?
The following morning Tempkin forewent his breakfast routine and loitered in front of the coffee shop. He didn’t know exactly what he would say, but he hoped maybe the words would flow as they did when he wrote dialogue for characters in his prose. He told himself spontaneity would work better than if he’d rehearsed and memorized a speech, that true art proceeds from the unconscious. It all made sense till he saw her approaching and the butterflies took flight. He suddenly became aware of people around. What if she reacted badly, panicking, or caused a scene? He had never experienced writer’s block, but as she got close his mind went blank, and, quicker than he expected, she was past him. He stood frozen, missing the moment. Unsure of the right next move but still determined to meet her, he took off in her direction. He asked himself, am I acting or acting out? He knew one was healthy and one was bad. Navigating his way past assorted pedestrians, he ping-ponged between the existential and the Freudian and lost her. Then he spotted her crossing Madison heading east, and, of course, he got stuck at a red light. What the hell am I doing?, he thought. I’m following her. How is this different from stalking? When he finally managed to cross, she had turned on Park Avenue and was gone from sight. He came to the corner, went round, and there she was with two men and a woman standing and chatting. Not to appear suspicious, he was forced to keep walking and go right past them. All he heard her say to the man and woman was, “This is my husband, Doug. He loves tennis too.” And with that Tempkin was plunged into the world of the actual, the world where despair is emperor. He continued his pace without skipping a beat, taking the body blow and disappearing ignominiously around the first corner he could turn. She was married. No ring, but taken nonetheless. Her husband was Doug. Tempkin made him out to be one of those cookie-cutter, mass-produced hedge-fund types who lived in a co-op on Park Avenue, played tennis at the Southampton Tennis Club: a blond, fit wasp. Tempkin had laid eyes on him for only a few seconds, but that was all his frantic creative mind needed to assign him a philistine résumé. An assembly-line Park Avenue Republican was how he would phrase that character for the reader, a liberal on cultural issues but a fiscal conservative. Her choice said something about her he didn’t want to hear. He marched on deflated, even crushed, yet relieved of the discomforting need to confront her and do his wooden spiel. He would not have to go through a forced, transparent attempt to chat her up. He had only one or two moments thinking about what might have been if the ball had bounced differently, the tennis ball. I play tennis too, thought Tempkin, though I could never master the serve. Later, at home, after a Cutty, he thought maybe he shouldn’t rush to judgment. What if she wasn’t happily married? For example, where does she go every morning that she’s walking down Madison? Tempkin had a theory. The Seventies through the Nineties on the Upper East Side were honeycombed with shrinks, he reasoned. Maybe she’s seeing an analyst. Maybe she’s got some personal issues, marital stuff. Tempkin refilled his glass, but, hard as it was to part with his pipe dreams, he knew the handwriting on the wall read get real, move on.
“Sad,” he told his friend Trochman, “she was the first woman I got excited over, and I didn’t even know her. Ruth Mayer said just because she reminded me of Lexi, I shouldn’t fool myself. I should tell Ruth she’s not into bungee jumping because she was carrying The New York Review of Books in her bag. I have to face it, it’s over. Before it began, it’s over. To quote the Bard of Peru, it was ‘one of those bells that now and then rings.’”
Okay—so, finally having set the table, we come to the part of our story that reads like a B movie.
Dissolve to two months later. Tempkin has resigned himself to the fact that the lovely creature who passes his coffee-shop window each morning will never be his. Then one day he is downtown on Nassau Street. Why Nassau Street? He is at a fishing-tackle store because he has a sister who has a kid who loves fishing, and, as the dutiful uncle, Tempkin is getting the kid certain feather flies and plugs the kid has requested for his birthday. Tempkin buys a Royal Coachman, Parmachene Belle, some Arbogast lures, a Hula Popper. He had gone on his lunch hour and now it is past the time he usually has downed his tuna melt and pie and he’s hungry. Unfamiliar with the neighborhood, he ducks into the first decent-looking restaurant he comes to. The place is almost empty, as most of the Wall Street crowd is back at work. He is seated at a back booth, takes out his phone to read the Times on it, and orders a bowl of clam chowder. He sits quietly in his nook and spoons it up. He orders coffee and rice pudding and is about finished when he happens to look up from his portion and sees a couple enter. He twigs on the man, at first unable to place him, and then he realizes it’s her husband, his dream girl’s blond wasp tennis-playing, cookie-cutter guy. That’s where I’ve seen him, Tempkin thinks. On Park Avenue and Seventy-second. But who’s the woman with him? The one he’s so lovey-dovey with? That’s not his wife. She doesn’t compare to the Polish peasant with the violet eyes. This woman is more sophisticated, coolly attractive: a tall redhead, definitely not my type, not artsy-looking in the Lexi mold but more commercial. Then, as if dreamed up by a Hollywood hack, they sit down in a booth next to Tempkin but do not see him. That’s right—they do not realize that he’s there. You can see what’s coming. They order margaritas and although they are separated by a partition, it consists of open wood slats with assorted potted plants screening off one booth from another. I can’t explain this any better, but the bottom line is that while they can’t see Tempkin, he can hear them. Especially as the drinks take effect and he is making a concerted effort to listen. From their conversation it becomes clear they are lovers. Christ, they’re all over each other, he notes, discreetly stealing a safe peek now and then through the complicated foliage. Much romantic, flirtatious smooching and intimate talk, some of it dispositive. “What were you thinking after we made love?” she asks.
“That I need you. That it’s never the same with my wife.”
My god, thought Tempkin, no one will believe this. What are the odds? As he strained and listened to the affectionate, sometimes passionate up and back, it couldn’t help occurring to him: he may have been right in thinking she had marital problems. Clearly he’s unhappy, tired of the woman he’s married to. Maybe there’s a glimmer of hope in all this for Mrs. Tempkin’s little boy, Murray. Wouldn’t that be something? If their marriage is on the rocks and I could actually pursue her?
“I should never have signed that prenup. It’s far too generous. I’m far too generous. It was on the advice of my lawyer who is now history,” the husband says.
“Who knew things would work out between us?” says the woman.
“It’s frustrating,” he says.
“Unless you bite the bullet and get the divorce—and—”
“And what? And pay out that kind of money? Give her a fortune I really can’t afford to give her?”
“Maybe we’ll catch a break and she’ll meet somebody and initiate the divorce herself.”
“Wishful thinking. But I’d still be on the hook financially. I have to say that, more and more, I think about that accident we discussed.”
“Let’s not get into that,” says the woman. “I told you that when you first brought it up.”
“I’ve given it a lot of thought and I know I can make it seem very natural.”
“Yeah. That’s what they all think. Next thing you’re wearing an orange jumpsuit.”
“I don’t see any other way to really be rid of her. She has an accident, and it’s over, and can I tell you something? The sooner it happens the better off we are.”
“You’re a little drunk.”
“I’m perfectly sober and I know exactly how I’m going to do it and when.”
“Well don’t tell me about it. I don’t want to know about it.”
“Hey, don’t pout. Although you are very pretty when you pout.”
Tempkin sat there listening, taking it in, his mind at the moment a Jackson Pollock. Breathing deeply, he had once read, calms oneself. He inhaled and exhaled silently over and over and then softly he slid, ever so delicately, to the edge of his booth. Easing away, melting away, from the adjoining space where the cheating twosome were much too involved canoodling and drinking to suspect he even existed. Slowly he moved to the cashier and mutely paid his check. Then he walked out into what passes for fresh air in New York and just stood there immobile. I don’t know what word to use here: stunned, shaken, mortified. But you get the idea. When the neurons in his skull finally stopped firing off like Roman candles, he called his friend Trochman, told him he absolutely must see him right now, and Ubered uptown. Panting like he’d just run the whole distance on foot, he blurted out the events of the afternoon sounding like the old vaudeville comedian Al Kelly, whose specialty was doubletalk. When Trochman soothed him and digested the lurid particulars, he advised Tempkin to go directly to the police.
“And tell them what?” he bleated. “That a man whose name I don’t know is planning to kill a woman I don’t know? What’s their names? I don’t know. Doug. Doug what? I don’t know. Where do they live? I don’t really know. He said he’s going to kill her? Not in precisely those words, but he said he was going to arrange an accident. When? Where? What kind of accident? Who said this? I don’t know. You see my point?”
Trochman gave it some thought and finally agreed. The information was not much for the police to go on. And they certainly wouldn’t book a man for a crime that hadn’t yet been committed on Murray Tempkin’s hysterical say so.
“That’s the trouble with the police,” Tempkin said, “they’re stymied when it comes to that whole preemptive thing. They never can arrest a criminal till after he’s done his dirty work.”
“Well, you certainly have to warn the woman.”
“What do you mean, how? She passes the coffee shop every morning. Go up and tell her what you just told me.”
“What? That her husband is planning to kill her? That I’ve been obsessing over her? That she reminds me of a high-school sweetheart that I never got over? That I’ve been eyeing her, following her? Stalking her? That I saw who she was married to and by chance I overheard him say he plans to murder you because he’s having an affair with a tall redhead?”
“That’s exactly what you tell her.”
“They’ll take me away in a straitjacket.”
“Hey, man, you were looking for a chance to meet her. Here it is. Wouldn’t it be romantic if this brought the two of you together and she fell in love with you?”
At this point Tempkin realized the jazz player was a little high and perhaps not the most judicious sounding board.
“I won’t sleep tonight,” Tempkin said. And of course he didn’t. The few times he did drift off for a moment, his dreams were classics of anxiety. Though he should have been exhausted, by morning he was full of manic energy. He shaved and dressed, hitting the coffee shop well before she usually showed. Waiting and pacing, he ran through the various win/lose fantasies over and over. It occurred to him it might already be too late. She could by now be lying face down on the pavement outside some high-floor open window. Or floating down the Hudson, or permanently asleep from carbon monoxide. And then she appeared looking robust and beautiful. As she came close to him, he fell in stride and moved along with her.
“Excuse me,” he said in a small, fragile voice that she either didn’t hear or ignored. “Excuse me, miss? Excuse me, miss?”
“Are you speaking to me?” she asked without stopping.
“I have to explain something and I need just a moment of your time,” he said.
“I’m in a rush,” she answered, trying to be polite and also giving the brush to this unwelcome stranger.
“What I’m going to say may be shocking,” Tempkin said. “Shocking, and I’m sure very disturbing. It’s about your marriage.”
She kept walking, realizing he was one of the assorted head cases that wander the streets either panhandling or with some delusional axe to grind.
“Please, I have no time,” she said, quickening her pace in an effort to lose him.
“I don’t want anything from you. No money, not your phone number. I just want to warn you. You’re in mortal danger.”
The thought that he was a well-dressed psychotic flashed through her mind, and she hoped she wasn’t in for trouble.
“Please leave me alone,” she said. “I’m late.”
“I know how this must sound, but I assure you, I’m no threat. I’m a writer. Murray Tempkin. Short stories and novels. I’m not a troublemaker. You may have even read my first book, The Blue Mosque, about a woman’s summer in Istanbul. It was reasonably well received. A promising new voice, they said. Not that it sold a lot. What I’m trying to tell you is that I came into possession of a plot to murder you. And when I tell you the details, you’re going to be shocked.”
“I’ve asked you nicely several times to please leave me alone,” she said.
“I’m only trying to rescue you. I have to confess, I’ve had a crush on you—for a while now from afar.”
Tempkin at this point was starting to lose his composure.
“I hate to be the one to tell you, but your husband is having an affair and is planning on making sure you have an accident, a fatal one so you don’t get the prenup.”
She had her phone out now.
“I’m dialing 911,” she said as some passersby were beginning to notice a small drama unfolding.
In for a penny, Tempkin let it all come pouring out.
“See, your husband, Doug, and some tall redhead who doesn’t compare to you were talking and I happened to overhear the conversation.”
“How do you know my husband?” she said, brought up short by the mention of his name.
“I followed you and saw you with him and another couple chatting on Park Avenue. This was a while ago. You may remember, I passed you. I mean, how could I expect you to remember? But you walk by the coffee shop every morning, and of course I didn’t know you were married. I go to the same shop every morning and order an OJ, coffee, and toasted English muffin. Same drill. You’d think I’d get tired of it, but I vary the jam. Sometimes marmalade, sometimes strawberry—”
“You followed me?” she said, making that face people make when they’re absolutely appalled.
“I’m telling you—I fell in love with you through the plate-glass window. You remind me of an old flame. Lexi Riggs, my high school sweetheart. You’re beautiful in the exact same way. It’s a sad story. I was so damn in love with her. I didn’t know where you were going every morning. I wondered maybe it was to a shrink. Maybe you were unhappy about something, maybe your marriage. Which now makes perfect sense considering what he’s planning to do to you.”
Now he was really lost, babbling, the ranting of a street crazy.
“You shouldn’t be walking around the city following women,” she said. “You need help. What you need is a good psychiatrist.”
She was approaching Ralph Lauren’s sidewalk coffee café at Madison and Seventy-second, where it turned out she was meeting her husband.
“Hi, sweetheart,” he said. “How was your mother?”
“Much better. Let’s go inside. This person is bothering me.”
“This guy?” he said, lamping Tempkin.
She nodded toward Tempkin and rolled her eyes.
“Er, Cuckoo time,” she said sotto voce. “He thinks you’re planning to kill me.”
Her husband looked squarely at Tempkin; they were only a few feet apart, and that’s when the wheels came off.
“You better move on, buddy,” her husband said politely but firmly.
Except her husband was not the man with the other woman Tempkin overheard in the restaurant. He had mistaken that man for Doug. Both her husband and the man could have come from the same assembly line. Certainly, in Tempkin’s eyes, they were both cookie-cutter, mass-produced hedge-fund types.
“I said beat it,” Doug barked at Tempkin, clearly meaning business as he got deeper in the smaller man’s face.
Tempkin realized he had made a mistake, a colossal mistake, and edged back slowly, muttering, “I’m sorry, excuse me. Sorry.”
Reeling from his error, his voice cracked with embarrassment; he slowly retreated, backing away dazed. Like a shell-shocked victim, he wandered mechanically to nowhere, to anywhere, to his morning coffee shop. He ordered his OJ, his muffin, and coffee. He sat by the window and thought about what a boob he was. What a stupendous blunder he had made. It occurred to him that somewhere in the city, some unlucky woman may well wind up the victim of a planned accident by her sinister husband. There was nothing he could do about it. Evil exists, he thought. Hapless lovers who make idiots of themselves exist. Looking out the window, people were going to work.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 42 Number 6, on page 25
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