“Your friend’s at the door,” Jodie remarks to her husband, her voice arch on the word “friend,” the shine in her eyes giving away her amusement.
Roger Castleman is standing in the dining room leafing through Kirkpatrick Sales’ Conquest of Paradise, looking up references to “paradise” for a clue to the European Christian conception of a prelapsarian people cavorting about naked, happy as pigs in shit, without rulers or laws, where nobody experienced need and nobody had to toil for sustenance. Castleman is writing a poem about innocence, so elemental that both virtue and guilt are alien concepts.
Columbus had actually believed he’d discovered the garden, east of Eden, when on his third voyage in 1498 he discovered South America. “I am completely persuaded in my own mind that the Terrestrial Paradise is in the place I have said,” Columbus wrote. God’s chosen home for all life on earth, from which humankind had been banned since the fall of Adam. Here it was!
Castleman stares at Jodie sailing past him to the kitchen, bemused by her expression as much as by her words, still lost in the pre-Columbian jungles of South America. His friend? What was she talking about? Then he notices Keith standing at the front door.
“Come in!” he calls out, oddly cheered by the sight of the con man, inviting him in out of the early February cold. Keith is a young guy, early twenties, Castleman guesses, though already there are lines etched in the light brown skin around his mouth and eyes, the lines of concentration of somebody who lives by his wits. Castleman has always thought it strange to describe Keith as “black,” because really he is orange — tints of orange highlight his face, and the tight short curls of his hair likewise have a reddish cast. He comes around several times a year selling candy to support the “Waverly Recreation Center.” He requests a twenty-five dollar “donation” for a two-dollar box of candy, and he always gives Castleman a receipt for his income tax records for “charitable donations.” Castleman wonders if there really is a Waverly Recreation Center. Keith comes around in the summer for baseball, the fall for football, and here he is now collecting for the basketball team. In the spring it will be track and field. The Waverly Rec Center must field some impressive teams.
Castleman has heard neighbors complain about Keith, but he always invites him in and buys a candy bar or two, charmed by the raconteur scam artist. Often Keith’s eyes are bloodshot roadmaps. Castleman finds him amusing for his non-stop chatter, the impression he gives of keeping one step ahead of the law, talking himself out of the very corner he’s talked himself into.
They shake hands. Castleman buys a box of Thin Mints, writes a check, takes the “tax-deductible contribution” receipt. He always assumes Keith knows he’s in on the joke.
“Wow, what do you think of the Wizards?” Castleman prompts, putting the transaction behind them, always a little awkward, and changing the subject.
Keith practically flops, exaggerating his disappointment.
“Man, I had hopes Stackhouse could carry them to the playoffs this year. He had to play behind Michael last year, and now he’s been injured and everything.” Keith’s eyes seem to be sliding down his face on rivers of red.
“Too bad Kwame Brown hasn’t developed as a player.”
“Oh, man!” Keith nearly collapses again, shoulders falling and legs splaying in an exaggerated move Bojangles would have envied. “I don’t know what Michael thought he saw in Kwame! He plays good one game and then he just lays back the next two or three. You got to play hard every game, man, every game, not just now and then!” He sounds like he knows what he’s talking about, playing hard.
“Who you like in the Super Bowl?” Castleman says, changing the subject.
Keith takes his leave after about ten minutes, calling goodbye to Jodie, who is in the kitchen, and nodding at Carol and Lily, who are shyly eyeing their father and the candy man. Keith promises to be back for spring sports in a couple of months, then disappears into the darkness.
“You made your donation to the Waverly Rec Center?” Jodie asks, laughter in her look.
“Want a Thin Mint?” Castleman responds, offering the box. Lily and Carol come over for one.
Castleman is sitting in the living room with the radio on, a news program with an update on the Terri Schiavo case. The 2004 presidential campaign season is in full swing, and everything has political overtones. A judge has ruled “Terri’s Law” unconstitutional. The governor, Jeb Bush, the president’s brother, has appealed the ruling. Castleman has been only half-listening, revising a poem in his head that he has recently composed, when the doorbell rings. Behind the gauze curtains filming the glass panes of the front door he makes out his friend the con man, Keith.
“Summer softball again! Seems like track and field just started and it’s already time for summer softball again. My God you should have seen the kids at the championship meet! The relay team took first in the 1600 meters and we placed second and third in the 800. And talk about shot put! Get out of here! You should have seen our little guy Alexander! He shoved that thing into the air, must have gone twenty yards. You read about it in the paper?” Keith’s rapid-fire delivery has a comic undertone, as if he is leading up to a punchline that never arrives. But then, Castleman himself is really the punchline, isn’t he?
“Yeah, I think I did,” Castleman lies. From the way Keith ducks his head, he can’t be sure if there’s even been a championship track meet, much less a story about it in the newspaper.
Castleman fishes around in his wallet for two tens and a five right away to get the self-consciousness out of the way and selects a package of Thin Mints. (Keith remembers Castleman’s kids like Thin Mints, as opposed to the nut bars and the milk chocolates—an endearing touch.)
“Looks like the Lakers are on their way again.”
“Oh, man!” Keith jumps back, shaking his head and making his eyes go wide with exaggerated amazement. “I thought the Spurs had them for sure! Tony Parker made Kobe look foolish those first two games, but then the Lakers came back to win four in a row! Four in a row! My God! You know why, they started following Phil’s triangle offense is why, get the ball into Shaq. Even Kobe stopped being selfish and trying to carry the team. Not even my man Tim Duncan could do anything about that triangle offense.”
“Who you think’s gonna win in the East?”
“I’d like to see Indiana. You know why? Because then they’d have home court advantage and make it all that much harder for the Lakers. And that boy Artest! Look out for Artest!” Keith does a little shuffle.
“What about Detroit? I grew up in Potawatomi Rapids, Michigan, and I followed the Pistons.”
“The Pistons, shoot! Rasheed’ll prob’ly go off his head. Larry Brown should have stuck with the Sixers and Iverson, man.”
Castleman and Keith talk about the NBA playoffs for another ten minutes before he leaves.
Castleman is sitting at his computer transcribing poetry from his notebook to electronic files when the doorbell rings, accompanied by an insistent knocking, so urgent-sounding that Castleman wonders if his house is on fire, the car has been stolen, Publisher’s Clearing House is there to give him a million dollars. No, it’s his neighbor, Barry Krantz. Barry has an adopted son, Marshall, who it turned out was deaf. Barry hadn’t known this when he and Marjorie adopted the boy. Marshall is a vague-looking towhead, probably four years old, with flesh-colored plastic hearing aids in his ears and wires all over the place. Barry uses a hand puppet he calls Mister Cow to talk to Marshall. Castleman always has the impression Barry wants to talk to him with Mister Cow, too.
“Roger, hi, sorry to disturb you.” Castleman swears he notices Barry’s right hand moving as if manipulating a puppet’s mouth, thumb against fingers. “Some of the folks in the neighborhood were just wondering if you’d noticed any suspicious activity. Somebody broke into Herm and Betty Knuth’s house two nights ago.”
“Wow! No, I hadn’t! But thanks for the warning. I’ll keep an eye out and report anything suspicious to the police.” Castleman is about to close the door and get back to his work, but Mister Cow has more to say.
“Could you just come out and talk to Tillie and Marge?”.
Castleman and Barry approach his wife and another neighbor, both large women. They are talking loudly about something they’ve seen advertised on television called the “Fab Abs Lounger”—a $14.95 money-back offer—“so you can fit into those tight jeans….” A magic bullet for a svelte figure without having to diet or exercise.
As they approach, the talk blows by like candy wrappers, potato chip bags, and cigarette butts in the wind.
“University tests show it works good, too.”
“I got a three-CD set of Motown hits from the same folks.”
Folks! So the folks are at it again! Beware the people who pose as “regular guys” and pretend to groove on NASCAR races! Just plain folks! If you needed somebody to be suspicious about, look no further than the “folks.”
“Who are these folks who were torturing the prisoners in Abu Ghraib?” Castleman remembered the NPR talkshow host asking his guest, an expert on Middle East foreign policy. Folks. So now we describe these people as “folks”? Who next? Who are these folks that we call serial killers? Who are these folks who commit home invasions, raping the women and ransacking the premises? Who are these folks who commit genocide? Just folks. Now there was world-class deception!
“They’ll give you your money back if you’re not satisfied,” Tillie Panelback is saying, self-evident proof that the gizmo works.
“Marge, Tillie,” Barry says, his hand twitching. “Roger says he hasn’t seen anything, but didn’t you have a question about somebody who came to your door?”
“Hi, Roger, yes, there was a young black man who came to our door selling candy bars. He said it was for the Waverly Recreation Center.”
“I told him no when he came around to our place,” Marge interrupts Tillie. “He looked like he was casing the joint. Did you or Jodie happen to see anybody like that, Roger? Anybody like that try to sell you some candy?”
“Oh, that’s Keith,” Castleman says, and suddenly he wishes he’d used another name. He’s tossed the folks some information they can use. “Or did he say André? Yeah, I think he said his name was André. I wouldn’t worry about him. He seems legitimate to me.” But now by introducing the confusion of names, he’s cast the searchlight of suspicion on Keith.
“I don’t know. I don’t believe he has anything to do with the Waverly Recreation Center.”
“He gives me a tax deductible receipt when I buy anything. He seems okay.”
“You say his name is Keith?”
“André, I think.”
“He gave you a different name or something?” Tillie looks suspicious.
“No, I was just getting him mixed up with somebody else.”
“You mean there’ve been others coming around trying to sell the same thing, pull the same rip-off?”
“No, no, just somebody else. And I don’t think it’s a scam. Or if it is, it’s kind of harmless, don’t you think? You do get the Thin Mints or Peanut Butter Cups, after all.”
“I don’t know. There’s been this break-in at Herm and Betty’s.”
“I’ll keep my eye out for any suspicious activity. And thanks for the heads up. It’s good to have neighbors who look out for each other.”
“Okay. Maybe we’ll call the police about these folks. How’s Jodie doing? Haven’t seen much of you since last fall. I guess it’s like that every year, you don’t see people in winter when we’re all indoors.”
“Jodie’s doing fine,” Castleman assures them and beats a hasty retreat as soon as he can.
“Your friend’s here,” Jodie sings out, coming away from the front door, her loose summer dress a flag waving around her. The windows are open to let in the cool evening breeze. A storm is expected.
Keith! Castleman looks up from the computer where he’s been organizing a collection of poems for a chapbook he is going to submit to a contest. His inner Geiger counter starts to tick. He needs to warn Keith about the neighborhood suspicions somehow but without making it sound as if he suspects Keith of a scam, even though he knows it’s a scam (and likes to think Keith knows he knows). But what can he say? Um, Keith, I mean, André—there’ve been some break-ins in the neighborhood lately and they’re watching everybody. . . but no, if Keith is a legitimate fundraiser—which is the essential fiction they maintain, about which he cannot express any doubts without ruining the whole basis of their “friendship”—then why would he bring it up at all?
“Keith!” Castleman greets the candy man from the Waverly Rec Center, coming to the door, extending his hand. He invites him in, hoping the neighbors haven’t noticed and called the cops.
“Wha’d you think of them Pistons? Man, oh man. I knew the Lakers were old and hadn’t played together much, with the Mailman injured and Kobe and Shaq wanting to kill each other, but I didn’t think the Pistons had a chance! Getting Rasheed when they did made all the difference. They played like a team. They won the NBA title because they played like a team, nobody just looking out for theirself.”
“Kobe is just pretty selfish. I wonder how that team will be next year with Phil and Shaq gone,” Castleman agrees.
“So what you think of the Ravens this year? They still ain’t got no offense, and the defense is getting older. I think New England’s gonna win again this year.”
“Maybe Boller will be better his second year, but what about Jamal Lewis and his drug arrest? He was about the only bright spot they had on offense.”
“Football’s just around the corner,” Keith summarizes. “That’s why I’m here.”
Now! Castleman thinks. Say something now.
“I’ll take a box of Thin Mints to support the cause,” Castleman says, reaching for his wallet.
“You need a receipt?”
“Yeah, could I?” He fumbles around in his wallet. “Man,” he says, not looking at Keith, trying to sound casual, “we’ve had a number of burglaries around here this summer. My neighbors are all pretty upset.”
“Oh yeah?” Keith says, and it’s as if Castleman can see his antennae go up.
“Yeah. One of them even asked me if I’d seen anybody selling candy for the Waverly Rec Center. I assured them you were legitimate, though.” He looks into Keith’s eyes as he says this, handing him the bills.
“Thanks,” Keith says, and Castleman can’t be sure what he’s being thanked for. The money? The tip-off? The support?
“So I’ll see you in the fall before basketball season?” Castleman asks.
Barry Krantz greets Castleman when he emerges from his car, bursting with news, his hand twitching as if Mister Cow is similarly agitated.
“Rodge, there’s been another break-in. The Panelbacks over on Tudor Arms. Television, microwave, DVD player, a couple of radios—the whole nine yards. And whoever did it wrote the f-word on the living room wall in dog poop. Disgusting! I saw it. Tillie invited me in and showed me the vandalism. Simply disgusting. If it’s that kid who’s been selling candy door-to-door, I hope they toss his butt in jail and throw away the key.”
“André would never do anything like that.” Castleman has no doubts about this assertion. Whatever else you could say about the guy’s business practices, he wasn’t destructive. Slick, but not a vandal.
“Just be careful, Rodge. I’m warning you. A word to the wise.” Barry turns on his heel, his thumb and fingers gibbering away. Racist bastard, Castleman thinks, but he knows Barry has a right to be concerned.
Once inside, Castleman looks around to make sure nothing is out of place, nothing stolen.
“Look who’s on the television screen!” Jodie says, astonished, pointing at the mug shot on the evening news bulletin.
It’s Keith. Three weeks have passed since Castleman last bought a box of Thin Mints from him.
“. . . goes by the name ‘André’ and uses other aliases and claims to be soliciting donations for the Waverly Recreation Center,” the anchorman is saying, a good-looking black man with a bushy mustache. “If he attempts to sell you candy, do not purchase anything from him and call the police immediately. Melanie?”
The pert blond co-anchor Melanie looks into the camera and reads from the teleprompter. “Thank you, Stan. And in other area news, an Anne Arundel County man was found shot to death in his truck on Holeclaw Street in Annapolis. . .”
Walking up St. Paul Street near the Johns Hopkins University Homewood campus, notebook in hand, Castleman spots a familiar-looking figure shuffling along about a block and a half ahead of him and impulsively shouts, “Keith!” Though the man does not turn around, Castleman can tell by a certain hunkering of the shoulders and an ever so subtle quickening of his pace that he has heard, and he shouts the name again. Suddenly, at 32nd Street, the figure darts into a throng of college students and disappears. Looking around, Castleman knows he will never find Keith.
“Marshall,” Mr. Cow coos to the dazed-looking towhead standing at the edge of Castleman’s front yard. “Say hello to Mister Castleman.”
Barry Krantz stands up from his kneeling position. Castleman is raking the leaves in his front yard, and Barry has just come along with his son. Mr. Cow hangs from the end of his arm like a worn-out potholder, a frayed cook’s handmitt.
Castleman musses the little boy’s hair. Marshall blushes self-consciously and dives into the mound of leaves Castleman has just gathered into a pile.
“Beautiful day, isn’t it?” Castleman comments.
“Lovely. Say, Roger, you haven’t seen that con artist around again, have you? The dark-complected young man who was selling candy for the Waverly Rec Center under false pretenses?”
“No, I haven’t,” Castleman says, remembering when he thought he’d seen Keith scuttling down 32nd Street. “What was his name? André?”
“André, J.D., Renaldo, Cujo, Raphael—apparently he had a whole list of names he used. It’s surprising he didn’t trip up and use the wrong one once in a while.”
“He wasn’t arrested or anything?”
Castleman likes to think Keith used his real name with him, but he knows he probably didn’t. He wonders if Keith has a real name at all that anybody knows about besides him.
“It’s only a matter of time. Somebody tries to pull an obvious scam like that, sooner or later they’re going to get caught.”
“Did they ever find out who vandalized Tilly Panelback’s place?”
“Oh, that. Well, that did turn out to be Tilly’s ex, but he’s really just in need of some help, Roger. Jim’s not a criminal. He needs therapy, not prison. Folks around here know Jim and we’ve always looked up to him.”
Castleman’s antennae go up again. Folks! All it takes is that one word and poof! the sociopath is forgiven for his peoplehood, blessed with invisibility, made to seem normal. One of us. Just folks.
© Charles Rammelkamp
Charles Rammelkamp lives in Baltimore. His latest book, Fusen Bakudan (“Balloon Bombs” in Japanese), was published in 2012 by Time Being Books. It’s a collection of monologues involving missionaries in a leper colony in Vietnam during the war. A chapbook, Mixed Signals, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. Charles edits an online literary journal called The Potomac (http://thepotomacjournal.com/).