harvey nitzinger wandered into the uptown bar yesterday afternoon looking like the seven hounds of hell had dragged him through eight of the nine levels and then decided to let him go because he wasn’t fun any more. i’d heard he’d had a reversal of fortune, so to speak, so i sidled up and offered to buy him a drink. you’d have thought i’d offered to take his place on a chain gang, he was that grateful.

“ain’t seen you around in a few months, harvey,” i said. “where you been?”

“if i told you, you wouldn’t believe it,” he said, shaking his head. this i had to hear, so i bought him another drink.

eight or nine years ago, harvey had moved into miss justine ermintrude’s apartment building. at the time, he was a sales rep for a big computer chip manufacturer and riding high. he took miss justine’s $6000 a month penthouse with the built-in sauna and a bird’s-eye view of the harbor and gold leaf in the window trim. he was in his early forties, wasn’t married, was reasonably fit and good-looking, didn’t gamble or drink much, and had women following him around like dogs will follow a steak. he had a pretty good life, i guess, as these things go.

then, three years back this was, he’d gone and made a little mistake. he’d gotten himself involved with the wife of his company’s chief financial officer, one gary welchick, and gary found out about it. he wasn’t amused. the divorce was messy as hell but that was only the beginning. he wanted harvey’s scalp hanging on his teepee pole (that’s the way he put it), and he fixed the books so it looked like harvey had been stealing from the company for months. they fired him, of course, though gary made sure it didn’t go any further than that (though the odds were against it, you never can tell when you might stumble on a cop bright enough to figure out what really happened, and gary didn’t see any sense in taking the chance), but he did make sure the word got around. Before you could say persona non grata, harvey was. everywhere.

he moved out of the penthouse, of course, and took a small three-room apartment on the sixth floor. he had some savings and he was sure he’d land another good job real soon. miss justine was sympathetic. these things happened. she had suffered herself. life was hard but she was sure he’d pick himself up and be back on top in no time.

at first he managed to get a job selling computer hardware for a small outfit over on mott street, but then they moved their whole operation to india, lock-stock-and-barrel, and harvey wasn’t invited to make the trip. he was out of work for months after that and his savings slimmed down dramatically. he moved to an even smaller two-room apartment on the fifth floor. the rooms were so small you could have fit both of them in one of the 6th-floor rooms. he had to sell most of his furniture because he couldn’t afford to store it any more. miss justine frowned and shook her head when she rented it to him.

“seems like you just can’t get a break, mr. nitzinger,” she said. “a good man like you. it’s a shame. but i’m sure your luck is going to improve any day now. you just keep swinging.”

harvey did keep swinging and eventually, at practically the last possible moment, he landed a job selling computer equipment in a department store. the salary wasn’t much and the commissions not much more, so he moved to an efficiency on the third floor the size of the bathroom in the 5th-floor apartment. there was no room for a bed, so he slept on the chair with his legs stretched out over an ottoman left over from better days. his ‘stove’ was a pair of hotplates and a toaster-oven on a shelf in the tiny closet, and his ‘refrigerator’ was an ice chest like the kind you might use to bring beer to a softball game in the summer. it was hardly an elegant life.

when he moved there, he didn’t even see miss justine. she slipped the re-written lease under his door. he signed it and left it in her mailbox. the only time he saw her after he moved, he said “hello” and she pretended she hadn’t seen or heard him and kept going right on past him without answering, her eyes pointed in the other direction.

it wasn’t much of a life, harvey thought, but it was a life of some kind and better than no life at all. “there’s something,” harvey said as i bought him his third neat jameson’s, “about stripping your life down to the bone. you find out what’s important, really important, to you.” what was important to harvey, it turned out, was chocolate eclairs. and napoleons and creme puffs and whoopee pies and mallomars. he discovered a sweet tooth, and he fed it. he knew where to go to get the thickest baklava, the flakiest apple turnovers, the lightest tira misu. he knew which bakeries did bird’s-nests on mondays and where you could find melt-in-your-mouth chocolate cream pie at 3 in the morning.

he gained some weight, naturally, but he didn’t care. there was no one he needed to impress, no one he wanted to show off for. it was liberating, especially for a salesman. he might even have learned to be happy in a way if it had gone on long enough. but then, last year, he discovered he had cancer.

they caught it early and over the course of the year they beat it, but it meant sessions of radiation and chemotherapy. his hair fell out, he was sick all the time, and he couldn’t work but a couple of days a week for months. he lost his regular job and had to take a succession of part-time temporary positions that barely paid food money. he hadn’t paid his rent in four months when miss justine showed up one afternoon.

he told her what had happened and asked her for just a little more time. the effects of the treatments were beginning to subside; he wasn’t as sick when he got sick and it didn’t last as long. he was getting stronger, and he just needed a chance to finish healing. miss justine sighed.

“i shouldn’t do this. all my friends are going to tell me you’re taking advantage of my good nature and they’re probably right, but i can’t just throw you into the street. you can’t stay here, though. this is an income-producing room. i’ll tell you what. there’s some space in the basement. there’s a toilet down there, and a sink, and you can fix up a corner of it with a bed and some furniture. it won’t be pretty but it’s better than living in a dumpster on morgan street. i’ll let you have it for a hundred a week. it’s the best i can do.”

it was a more generous offer than he had expected, and he took it. when she was leaving, she frowned at him. “you’ve really let yourself go, mr. nitzinger. it’s a shame.”

he agreed.

end of part 1

snake marchand