Thursday, July 28, 2005

The Meridian

A long short story.

Mr. Alistair Kendall owned an apartment building downtown called The Meridian. Made of red brick, it stood twenty-one stories tall, and Mr. Kendall lived on the top floor. When asked why the building had an odd number of stories, Mr. Kendall responded that twenty-one was just as arbitrary as twenty.

Mr. Kendall cut a strange but impressive figure. Tall and impeccably dressed, he looked the part of a gentleman. He always wore a black suit, long black coat, and bowler hat and carried a tightly rolled umbrella on which he leaned with exaggerated grace. His delicate features, high cheekbones, and almost cadaverous paleness suggested fine breeding and a life of leisure or perhaps industrious study. He was so slim that he appeared on the verge of consumption, or, at the very least, malnutrition, which was in accordance with his lifestyle; he rarely ate or slept. He was not an insomniac, but only allowed himself three hours of sleep a day, from eight to eleven o’clock in the morning.

All the residents knew that he shut himself in his condominium and worked around the clock on something terribly urgent and important, but no one was ever quite sure what it was. Certainly his administrative paperwork for the building could not have been so demanding as to leave him no time for anything else. Each resident, therefore, had his own theory about how Mr. Kendall spent his days and nights. It was a frequent topic of speculation. One resident thought that he was writing the Great American Novel. A second resident guessed that he was counting and recounting his money. A third proposed that he was preparing to take over the world. Perhaps, claimed a fourth, he just sat around picking his teeth with the bones of ex-residents.

Mr. Kendall ran the building with something of an iron fist. He took the concept of in loco parentis to a whole new level. For starters, he demanded respect from his residents, refusing to answer to anything but “Mr. Kendall” or “Sir.” He would allow no condominium to differ from any other; all of them had identical furnishings and off-white walls. He collected an exorbitant monthly rent from each of his residents, which he deposited in the “common fund” for maintenance, landscaping, and “special events.” And he reserved the right of eminent domain; if he could find someone else who would pay a higher rent for a particular condominium, he would evict the current resident.

He also enforced a curfew: midnight on weekdays, one o’clock on weekends. Last but not least, he required all residents to swim for an hour a day in the indoor pool. The logic behind this was simple: if the pool was there, they should use it. Because he was too busy to ensure that everyone abided by this rule, he hired someone to supervise the pool area.

Mr. Kendall never stopped to speak with any of his residents individually unless it was to admonish them for breaking a rule. By refusing to engage in small talk, he simply denied them the pleasure of hearing his honeyed, transatlantic drawl or his archaic diction. “Commence” and “heretofore” were among his favorite words. Worst of all, he concealed from them his smile, supernaturally straight and white.

To add even further to his air of mystery, none of Mr. Kendall’s residents ever saw him in a towel or bathrobe or even pajamas, which was quite odd considering that the bathrooms were communal. Each floor had two bathrooms with sinks, toilets, showers, tubs, cubbies, and changing stalls. Most of the residents went into the bathrooms in their bathrobes, towels slung over their shoulders, and emerged again in their robes after showering or bathing. There were a few who came in bathrobes and brought their clothes with them, preferring to emerge from the bathroom fully dressed. Mr. Kendall, on the other hand, was never seen in anything except his black suit.

He was never seen in the bathroom at all, as a matter of fact. The residents assumed that he bathed, brushed his teeth, and did his business in the middle of the night or at some obscene hour of the morning. It was no secret that his residents considered him a god among mortals.

Miss Rhonda Price, a secretary who lived on the sixteenth floor, had been in love with Mr. Kendall since she had moved into the building six months ago. Rather, she was in love with the idea of him; they had met only once, when she was enthusiastically signing her lease. With one hand on the Bible, she pledged to follow every one of his strict rules.

Each day after work she would visit her friend, Miss Betty Costa, a stenographer who lived on the twenty-first floor, hoping to catch a glimpse of the divine Mr. Kendall. She never did.

But that did not stop her from fantasizing. Though she knew he was out of her league, she nonetheless dreamt of waltzing with him in the huge, marble-floored lobby. With his poise and stature, he would be a strong, natural lead, expertly whisking her around the dance floor. Her feet would hardly touch the ground. After the dance, she would break tradition and remove one of her long, white gloves so that he could kiss her bare hand.

In another scenario, she would flagrantly violate one of his rules. Perhaps it would be the curfew. She would come back late, soaked from the rain. He would be standing by the door, having waited all night for her to return. He would grab her firmly by the collar of her coat and lead her up to his condominium for a talking-to, followed by a swift slap across the face. She would swear that she would never break curfew again. He would proceed to apologize for being so uncouth and tenderly caress her cheek.

Miss Costa reminded her not to get too carried away; after all, Mr. Kendall barely acknowledged her existence. Besides, it was possible that he already had a lady friend. Miss Price found that highly unlikely. According to the other residents, no one but Mr. Kendall ever entered or left his condominium.

Miss Price continued to grow intimate with him in her imagination. Once, in a conversation with Miss Costa, she had even referred to him as Alistair. This informality had been so inappropriately erotic that she could not refer to him as anything but Mr. Kendall thereafter.

One Saturday afternoon the sky turned unexpectedly gray and threatened rain. Miss Price considered it the perfect opportunity to take a dip in the pool and watch the storm through the glass ceiling. An hour of swimming a day was, for her, no great hardship; in fact, she enjoyed it immensely and was bothered by the fact that the other residents always complained about it. What was wrong with taking a few laps and socializing with the neighbors? There was no rule against talking in the pool. Some people took their swimming far too seriously; they watched the clock like hawks, making sure that they were in motion for exactly an hour. Miss Price, on the other hand, floated on her back, held her breath underwater just for fun, and gossiped with her girlfriends. She often found that she spent much longer than the requisite hour in the pool.

On this particular stormy Saturday afternoon she took her towel and went down to the pool area. There were only a few people in the shallow end, mostly elderly and subdued. She waved to them. They waved back and smiled their gummy smiles.

Miss Price sat on the side of the pool, her feet dangling in the water, and tucked her shoulder-length brown hair into her swimming cap. The pool area was eerily quiet, except for the occasional splashing of water. She wished that someone would bring a phonograph and some records, but then she remembered that music was not allowed.

She hopped into the pool, and, finding the temperature agreeable, doggie-paddled to the deep end. She wondered if Mr. Kendall ever swam. In his sleek black suit he seemed rather like a cat, disdainful of water. He would not have made a very good Roman, she thought, if he avoided the baths.

The supervisor and lifeguard looked particularly disgruntled today. Perhaps it was the weather.

Miss Price floated on her back and looked up though the glass ceiling. Fine bolts of lightning like veins of ore appeared in the darkening sky. A few drops of rain fell on the planes of glass. She pretended that she was in the middle of a lake and had to duck for cover from the deluge. Holding her breath, she sank to the bottom of the deep end, seven feet down.

As she rose she was aware of a dark shape making its way around the pool deck. Her head broke the surface of the water, and the imposing figure of Mr. Kendall sharpened into view. He was talking with the supervisor; no, reprimanding him for something. They were speaking in hushed tones, but Miss Price could tell that Mr. Kendall was upset. She wished that she could put a reassuring hand on his shoulder or smooth the furrow in his brow with a kiss.

A devious thought crossed her mind. Before she could think it through, she was flailing her arms wildly and gasping for air.

“Help! I’m drowning. Lifeguard! Mr. Kendall! Oh, help me!” she cried. “Mr. Kendall?”

Mr. Kendall barely looked in her direction. He turned to the lifeguard and said, “You deal with this. I have some business to attend to, so I must bid you adieu.” He tipped his hat to the lifeguard and the supervisor and walked out the door into the lobby.

“You can stop now, Miss Price,” the lifeguard said coolly.

Miss Price ceased her flailing and smacked the water with the heel of her hand in frustration.

“Damn it,” she said under her breath.

“What do you think his childhood was like?” Miss Price asked Miss Costa the next afternoon as they were drinking tea on Miss Costa’s porch. The storm had passed, and the day was clear and bright.

Miss Costa took a sip of her chamomile tea. “Bleak, probably repressed. I mean, just look at him. He seems downright miserable most of the time—so uptight, so formal. And he never smiles. Something is missing, a human touch maybe.”

“But that is what I like about him.”

“That he isn’t human?”

“Exactly,” Miss Price replied. “Yesterday at the pool I saw him talking to the supervisor. I pretended that I was drowning to get his attention.”

Miss Costa slid to the end of her chair and put down her teacup. “Oh, Rhonda, did he jump in and rescue you?”

“No. He walked right out of the pool area.” In spite of herself, Miss Price felt her mouth twist itself into a grin.

“Why are you smiling?” Miss Costa said. “Certainly this doesn’t please you.”

“Maybe it does.”

“He is a cruel man,” Miss Costa said.

That night Miss Price decided to sneak into the twenty-first floor bathroom to see if indeed Mr. Kendall used it at some ungodly hour. She hid in a shower stall. It was five past midnight, and she was feeling slightly sleepy. She was usually in bed by eleven thirty, at the latest, because she was up at six-thirty every morning to get ready for work at eight. She found that washing and curling her hair, choosing an outfit, and applying makeup took an inordinate amount of time.

At one thirty she began to drift off, slumping down in the stall against the cold tile. The muscles in her neck relaxed, and her head dropped forward, waking her up. She quietly pulled back the shower curtain and peered into the sink area. No one was there. She resolved to stay awake for the rest of the night, but the heavy opiate of sleep quickly took hold once again.

She awoke the next morning to the sound of footsteps. Someone’s shoes were clacking rhythmically against the floor. The footsteps grew louder as they came closer. She froze. What if it was Mr. Kendall coming to take a shower?

She stood up and turned on the water just as someone pulled back the curtain. It was Mr. Teivos, a twenty-first floor resident who was on cleaning duty that day. Both she and Mr. Teivos shrieked. She immediately turned off the water.

“What in creation are you doing in there?” he asked.

“I was…taking a shower.”

“In your clothes?”

She could not explain, so she dashed past him and down the hall. She noticed a box by Mr. Kendall’s door. Though she was dripping wet, her curiously got the better of her, and she bent down to examine it. It was a box of rubber gloves. What could he possibly want with rubber gloves? Without thinking, she snatched the box and tucked it under her arm. She took the stairs back down to the sixteenth floor.

“Comrades,” Mr. Kendall said the next evening at an emergency pan-Meridian meeting in the lobby, “it has come to my attention that one of you has been engaging in suspicious behavior. It seems that this person has misused the showering facilities and blatantly lied to the resident on cleaning duty. Not long after this incident, a very important parcel of mine, left outside my door, went missing. Coincidence? I think not.”

He paused, placing one hand in his pocket and shifting his weight to the other foot. He looked sternly at the crowd.

“Will the person in question please come forward?” he said.

No one moved. The residents looked uneasily at one another.

“I repeat,” he said, “will the person in question please come forward? You will set an example from which your fellow residents can learn. It is up to you to listen to your conscience and do what is right. Remember, honesty and integrity are two of the most important qualities that a person can possess.”

Still no one came forward.

Mr. Kendall pivoted on his heels. “Supervisor,” he said sharply. “Is there anyone absent from this meeting?”

The supervisor glanced at his clipboard. “Miss Rhonda Price, sir.”

“What floor?”

“Sixteenth,” the supervisor said.

“Supervisor. Guard. Follow me,” Mr. Kendall said. “We are going to pay Miss Price a little visit.”

Miss Price awoke to a loud banging on the door. She had been lying in bed all day in her wet clothes, having skipped work, and must have drifted off to sleep. She looked at her beside clock. It was a quarter to nine.

The banging stopped. She wondered whether she had just been dreaming, but then the sound resumed. She rose sleepily and answered the door.

To her surprise, Mr. Kendall and two tall men in dark suits stood before her. She squinted from the bright hall lights. She recognized the two other men as the supervisor and the guard.

Before she could ask what they wanted, the guard grabbed her by the arm and pulled her out into the hallway.

“What is this all about?” she asked as the guard and supervisor marched into her condominium.

“I think you know,” Mr. Kendall said.

Moments later the two men emerged. The supervisor was holding the box of rubber gloves.

“Found this under the bed, sir,” he said, handing it to Mr. Kendall.

“Good work, Supervisor,” Mr. Kendall said. “However, I will require a fresh box.”

“No problem, sir,” the supervisor said. At Mr. Kendall’s nod, he and the guard took their leave.

“Miss Price,” Mr. Kendall said in his famous drawl, “Come with me.”

“Sit down,” he said when they had reached his office on the first floor. She obeyed.
The office was small and rarely used, for he did almost all of his work from his own condominium. There was only one window, and it was closed.

“Now, Miss Price,” he said, sitting at his desk, “I’d like you to tell me why you have been behaving so strangely as of late.”


“Don’t think I didn’t see you pretending to drown the other day at the pool. What was it, a cry for attention?”

“Well, yes…I mean, no,” she said.

“At The Meridian we do not call attention to ourselves. We strive to be as humble, meek, and invisible as possible. Is that clear?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Yes, what?”

“Yes, Mr. Kendall.”

He leaned back in his chair and ran his fingers through his chin-length dark hair. He looked colder and paler than Miss Price had ever seen him.

“Mr. Teivos told me you were behaving oddly in the shower,” he said, “and then he noticed that shortly after you left the bathroom my box of gloves was gone.”

“I’m so sorry, Mr. Kendall,” she said. “I didn’t mean any harm—really, I didn’t. I saw the box by your door, and my curiosity got the better of me, so I took it. I didn’t mean to steal it; I just wanted to…to borrow it.”

He smiled and folded his hands before him on the desk. “That is a touching story, Miss Price, but I’m afraid that disciplinary action must be taken.”

“Please, Mr. Kendall,” she said. “Don’t do this to me.” She stopped, realizing that her dream of breaking a rule and getting punished for it was coming true. Now, faced with the reality of the punishment, she was not so sure that she wanted it.

Impulsively, she pushed back her chair and stood. “Mr. Kendall, I wouldn’t have taken your box of gloves if you didn’t act so mysterious all the time, always skulking around in your dark suit and bowler hat. You know, there are some people who leave nothing to the imagination, but you leave everything. By the way, I still haven’t figured out what you use those gloves for.”

“That is none of your business, Miss Price. Your insolence will not be tolerated. Sit down this instant.”

“Make me,” she said.

She saw the color begin to creep into his cheeks. She was positive that any moment he would call in the guard and tell him to crush her into little pieces.

Instead he pushed back his own chair and stood behind it.

“Fine,” he said. “If you won’t conform, then I will.”

“Mr. Kendall,” she said, not knowing where she got her nerve, “You look quite handsome with a little color in your face.”

He gripped the back of the chair. “I don’t respond well to flattery, Miss Price.” He was biting his lower lip, a nervous habit which made him look less imposing and rather endearing.

“That’s because people rarely flatter you,” she said, “which is really a shame.”

“Why is that?”

“Gosh, Mr. Kendall, have you looked in the mirror lately? With a bone structure like that, you ought to be on the cover of magazines.”

“Really?” he said.

“Yes,” she said. “It’s all right to be vain once in awhile.” She took her compact from her pocket, opened it, and handed it to him. “Look,” she said. She stood behind him as he timidly admired his reflection. It was as though he was seeing himself for the first time.

“Well, what do you think?” she asked.

“Not bad,” he said. “Not bad at all.” He closed the compact and handed it back to her. “You are not bad yourself, Miss Price. In fact, I’d say you are rather easy on the eyes.”

“Why, thank you,” she said, genuinely shocked by the compliment. She had always thought of herself as something of a plain Jane. Was he actually flirting with her?

“You seem to be adept at sneaking around at odd hours and absconding with my things,” he continued. “Would you like to work on my security committee? It is a very elite, top-secret group of your peers. You would be tracking down petty thieves like yourself.”

“That is a very nice offer, Mr. Kendall, but what about my job?”

“Quit your job. I will pay you twice as much as you currently earn as a secretary. You could be quite useful to me,” he said.

“I…I don’t know what to say, Mr. Kendall.”

“Say yes.”

With her usual lack of forethought, she agreed. She extended her hand to him, but, to her surprise, he did not reciprocate.

“You must never breathe a word of this to anyone,” he said.

“I promise.” With that, she bade him good night and walked out of his office.

“He offered you a job on his security committee?” Miss Costa said the next morning. She stifled a yawn. Miss Price had awakened early from excitement and knocked on her friend’s door at six fifteen.

“Yes. Can you believe it?” Miss Price said.

“What I can’t believe is that you’re telling me about it. Isn’t the committee supposed to be secret? The point is that it’s invisible—the invisible eye of The Meridian. Any one of us could be on it.”

“So don’t tell anybody I’m a member.” Miss Price flopped onto Miss Costa’s couch and sighed with contentment. “It’s very simple, really. All you have to do is keep your mouth shut, and no one will find out.”

“Fine,” Miss Costa said, “but you’d better not come after me for breaking any of the rules.”

Later that morning Miss Price met again with Mr. Kendall for her initiation into the security committee.

“Who are the other members?” she asked after she had taken her oath.

“I cannot tell you that,” he said. “Your job as a member is to keep tabs on all residents of The Meridian, regardless of whether or not they are on the security committee.”

“But if I don’t know who’s on the committee, then how do we collaborate to fight crime?”

“There is no collaboration involved,” he said. “Besides, don’t you think that, if you knew who the other members were, you would be less likely to suspect them of wrongdoing or more hesitant to classify their behavior as suspicious when it clearly was?”

“I guess,” she said. He did have a point.

“Remember,” he said, “they are also watching you.”

Miss Price was surprised to discover that her new job involved running errands all day long for Mr. Kendall. He kept her out of the building from eight to four every weekday to create the illusion that she was still working as a secretary. The errands—more like secret missions—included buying innumerable hygienic items such as cotton balls, tissue boxes, bars of soap, rolls of toilet paper, bandages, surgical tape, and, of course, boxes and boxes of rubber gloves.

He also requested certain food items like shark liver oil and exotic herbs that could only be found at specialty stores. She noticed that he never asked for anything fatty or sugary. So much for surprising him with a chocolate cake or a box of cookies. She wondered if he was reducing. He certainly didn’t need to; he was too thin as it was.

After making the daily purchases, she would send them up a hidden dumbwaiter to his condominium. She then went about her “patrol” by sitting in the lobby or in the pool area, crocheting or pretending to read but actually watching the other residents. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, and no one noticed her presence.

Upon returning to her condominium one evening she found a note that had been slipped under the door. “Miss Price,” it read, “Please join me for dinner at my condominium tonight at eight. Be sure to wash yourself thoroughly beforehand and wear clean clothes. And please be punctual.” It was signed, “Yours, A. Kendall.”

At seven fifty-five she took the elevator up to the twenty-first floor. She had showered twice. She had painstakingly curled every strand of her squeaky-clean hair. She was wearing her favorite red dress, which she had pressed and starched with the greatest care. She had even painted her nails a fiery red to match. In her hand was a bottle of Merlot.

She took a deep breath and stepped out of the elevator. This was the moment she had been waiting for practically her whole life.

It was exactly eight when she knocked on the door. There was no answer. She knocked again. This time Mr. Kendall answered it. He was dressed in his usual black suit but was not wearing his long coat. To Miss Price, it was the equivalent of partial nudity. She smiled.

“Good evening, Miss Price,” he said. “Please come in.”

She could not believe what she saw. She had expected to see a condominium like all the rest: small, spare, and monochrome. Instead, it was expansive, and the décor was rich and vibrant, abounding in exotic reds and golds. One whole wall consisted of nothing but bookshelves piled high with burgundy-spined tomes. Beneath the sumptuous, golden Oriental rugs was Brazilian cherry wood flooring. The leather chairs and sofas were the color of wine, darkened by the shadows of the crimson lampshades.

She took a step forward and handed him the bottle of Merlot.

“Thank you,” he said, “but I don’t drink.”

“Oh,” she said.

“Please take off your shoes,” he said. “I don’t want street germs spread all over the condominium.”

She slipped off her pumps and lined them up next to his black shoes at the door.

“Also, I’d like you to put on a pair of these,” he said, extending to her a box of rubber gloves.
She looked at him strangely, but reached into the box and pulled out two powdery gloves. She noticed that he was wearing them, too. Once she put them on, her hands immediately began to sweat.

“I feel like a nurse,” she said.

“You’ll get used to it,” he replied.

“How long do I have to wear them?”

“For as long as you are in my condominium.”

She shrugged. Wearing the gloves was uncomfortable, but entirely worth the discomfort if it meant spending time with Mr. Kendall.

She looked at him. He looked at her.

“What now?” she said.

“Dinner,” he said. “We’ll have dinner.”

“Did you cook?”

“No. My food comes pre-prepared. All I have to do is heat it in the oven.”

“Is that sanitary?” she teased.

“The heat kills almost all of the germs.”

“Is that a scientific fact, Mr. Kendall?”

The timer on the oven dinged.

“It’s ready,” he said. “Stop asking so many questions. I don’t like it when people do that.”

“Why not?”

He glared at her.

“I was just kidding,” she said.

He turned and walked into the kitchen.

“Excuse me, Mr. Kendall,” she said. “I have to use the bathroom. I’ll be right back.” She turned to get her shoes and go across the hallway.

“No need,” he said. He led her across the condominium to his private bathroom.

“No wonder you don’t use the communal one,” she said. She clasped her hand over her mouth—now it was blatantly obvious that she had been stalking him.

Luckily, he let it slide. “I couldn’t fathom using a bathroom that is contaminated by so many people on a daily basis. By the way, don’t touch anything you shouldn’t be touching; I know how curious you can be. There is a fresh bar of soap by the sink for you to use. Please dispose of it when you are finished.”

She nodded and closed the door. She was still in shock that she was standing in Mr. Kendall’s bathroom. Of course, the first thing she did was open the medicine cabinet. Inside were shelves and shelves filled with wrapped bars of soap. The top shelf was lined with orange bottles of medication. She flushed the toilet to mask the rattle of the pills as she took down the bottles one by one. She did not recognize any of the names—were they for some serious medical condition? Were they antidepressants? Antipsychotics? She shuddered pleasurably at the thought.

“Come on, Miss Price,” Mr. Kendall called. “Dinner is ready.”

Panicking, she hastily returned the bottles to the shelf, shut the medicine cabinet, removed her rubber gloves, and washed her hands. She placed the bar of soap into the wastepaper basket and stepped out of the bathroom.

Mr. Kendall was standing outside the door with a fresh pair of gloves.

“I figured you’d need these,” he said. His smile was pleasant.

“Oh, thanks.”

She followed him into the dining room, where they sat down to a meal of sea bass and asparagus. She noticed that he was not eating, but rather picking at his asparagus.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “but I’ve lost my appetite. This asparagus is going bad. See all those brown spots? I request the best produce, and what do I get? The very bottom of the barrel, the dregs of the earth!” He composed himself and set down his fork and knife.

Miss Price swallowed her bite of asparagus, which she thought was actually quite tasty. The fish was a little bland, but she could live with it.

“Gosh, you’re a picky eater,” she said. Then she had an idea. “Will you let me prepare a meal for you sometime?”

“Certainly,” he said, “if it meets my specifications. It must not be too spicy or too hard or mushy. If the consistency is questionable, I will not eat it. It must have at least one type of meat and one vegetable. The vegetable should be ripe, but not overripe, and, of course, devoid of brown spots.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” she said.

After dinner they sat on one of the wine-dark couches and looked out the window at the glistering night skyline. She watched with wide eyes as he removed his jacket, loosened his tie, and reclined. It was the first time she had ever seen him relax. His stiff posture loosened, and he sighed contentedly. She inched closer. He slid in the opposite direction.

“It’s getting late, Miss Price,” he said, affecting a polite yawn.

“Yes, I suppose it is,” she replied, stung. She started toward the door to claim her shoes and unopened bottle of Merlot.

“Goodnight, Miss Price,” he said. “Thank you for joining me for dinner.”

“You’re entirely welcome,” she said. “Goodnight, Mr. Kendall.” She paused at the doorsill. “When can I see you again?”

“Whenever you want,” he said.

Every night from then on, she made him dinner and brought it up to his condominium, where they would dine together. Her chicken broccoli casserole, cooked to perfection, turned out to be his favorite. She was pleased that he was eating heartily and had filled out a little. She would see to it that he was soon glowing with health.

Miss Costa, however, was concerned. “Don’t you realize,” she said, “that he has
you wrapped around his little finger?”

“Au contraire! I think it’s the other way around.”

“I know you don’t actually believe that,” Miss Costa said. “You’re not so
hopelessly naïve.”

“Why are you taking this so seriously all of a sudden?” Miss Price said. “It’s just dinner, a permanent dinner date.”

“I’m taking this seriously because I’m your friend. I’m worried about you.”

“You can’t be my friend if you’re not happy for me,” she said. “You know what you are? You’re jealous. You’re positively green with envy that Mr. Kendall chose me over you. ”

“Good heavens! Jealous is the last thing I’d ever be,” Miss Costa replied. “I want nothing to do with the man.” She softened her tone. “Do be careful, Rhonda.”

One night after their meal Mr. Kendall sprawled on the couch while Miss Price washed the dishes.

“Did you enjoy the casserole?” she asked.

“Yes. As usual, it was delicious.”

“You’re not getting tired of casseroles?”

“Not yet. I’ll let you know when I do,” he said.

She ran the forks under the warm water, rubbing them tenderly with the sponge.

“What’s the story behind The Meridian?” she asked. “I know there must be a story.”

“Hmm,” he said. “Let me start at the very beginning. You don’t mind a bit of personal detail, do you? Of course not—what am I thinking? You are all about personal detail.” He folded his arms above his head.

“At the turn of the century,” he began, “my father emigrated from England. He opened a steel mill just outside Philadelphia. Within a decade he had amassed a fortune. Shortly thereafter he opened mills in every major Northeastern city and also began investing in real estate. One of his most valuable properties was a tract of land in southern Louisiana that bordered on the Gulf of Mexico. In no time at all he had turned it into the kind of prosperous plantation it had been before the Civil War—with the exception of the slaves, of course. My father was a decent man. He hired all of his workers and paid them a fair wage, both in the mills and on the plantation.

“He divided his time between the North and South. When it got too cold in Pennsylvania he retreated to the humid warmth of Louisiana. He had the idea to breed and train horses on his land, which served to take his mind off business matters.

“My father believed he truly had everything—except that he felt a gnawing emptiness inside. Something was missing, something that steel or horses or the shining Gulf or even close friends could not assuage. He wanted a wife. He desperately wanted to start a family.

“One day while riding around the perimeter of the plantation he met a woman who was also on horseback. Her name was Alexandra, the daughter of the neighboring plantation owner. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Her family was one of the fortunate few in the area that had not lost everything during the war.

“After a brief courtship she and my father were married. They settled in Philadelphia. Two years later I was born. As I was their only child, they saw to it that I had the best of everything. They did not spoil me, however; they helped me to appreciate the value of a dollar. My father instilled in me a keen business sense and taught me the principles of responsible money management. He gave me an allowance each week and made me keep track of my expenditures. If I failed to spend my money wisely I was punished.

“It was around the time when I was preparing to go off to university that my father’s steel empire began to decline. Eventually he was forced to close his mills and sell his land.
“What bothered me most was the fact that, although my father never abused his power or wealth, the capitalist system turned its back on him. My father was the least corrupt person I have ever known, and still he suffered at the hands of the free market.

“When I graduated from university I had the notion that I was destined to become a great enemy of capitalism. I did not merely want to rearrange the furniture of the capitalist mansion; I wanted to burn the structure to the ground. At the time, of course, I had neither the money nor the clout to effect any real change.

“I relocated to this city and worked for awhile as a newspaper reporter exposing injustices in the workplace and in government policy. I rented a small condominium in an apartment building downtown. For years I lived frugally, putting whatever money I could toward buying my condominium and others, as well. Before long, I owned the floor. Soon after that, I bought the entire building. I renamed it The Meridian. It was to be a quasi-socialist enclave in a capitalist city—a capitalist country, to be more accurate. I have succeeded in bringing together like-minded people to live as citizens of a collective with the benefit of their fundamental individual rights.”

He paused.

“But deep down I know that I have failed in my endeavor. The Meridian, after all, is a money-making enterprise; I profit at your expense. I promised you the world, but I didn’t deliver. I know that you all think of me as a tyrant or a dictator.”

“Oh, no,” Miss Price said, unfolding a dish towel. “We know that you are only looking out for our best interest.”

He looked directly at her. “I am a hypocrite,” he said.

“No, you’re not.”

“This was supposed to be a utopia, but it is little more than a sham, a social experiment gone terribly wrong. I can feel my residents beginning to turn against me.”

“I will never turn against you, Mr. Kendall,” she said.

“I didn’t think so,” he said.

Several nights later Miss Price was awakened by a knock at the door. She bolted upright in bed. She knew that something was not right.

“Mr. Kendall is quite ill,” the guard said when she opened the door. “He says he needs to see you right away.”


“I don’t know why, but yes, you.”

Miss Price quickly dressed and rushed up to his condominium. Thankfully, she found the door unlocked; Mr. Kendall had not given her a key and probably never would, which was unfortunate because she knew the place almost better than she knew her own. She left her shoes by the door and walked into the kitchen. Turning on the lights, she found the familiar box of rubber gloves on the counter and slipped a pair over her bare hands. She was beginning to enjoy the sensuous feel of the thin, powdered rubber on her skin.

“Mr. Kendall?” she said.

“In here,” a voice said. It sounded weak and strained.


“The master bedroom.”

She had never been in the master bedroom; he had told her repeatedly that it was off limits. Now, in his time of need, he was permitting her to enter.

She gasped when she saw him. Mr. Kendall was lying in bed, his head propped up on pillows. His face was lurid, and his eyes were ringed with dark circles, like an absinthe addict. His chin-length hair was slicked back into a ponytail. He was naked to the waist, and she could see the outline of his ribcage.

If there was anyone who could make illness look elegant and alluring, she thought, it was certainly Mr. Kendall.

The state of the room, however, was appalling. It was strewn with wadded-up tissues, dirty plates, and empty pill bottles. There was an oxygen tank and humidifier next to the bedside table.

“Miss Price,” he said. “What took you so long?”


“Put on a mask,” he said. “I cannot afford to get any sicker.”

“Where?” she said.

He pointed to a chair beside the door. The combination of the surgical mask and the rubber gloves made her feel like a doctor: necessary, a necessity.

She placed a hand on his forehead. “You feel warm. I’m going to take your temperature.”

“The thermometer is in the bathroom. Sanitize it first.”

“Of course.” She returned with the cleanest thermometer known to man and placed it under his tongue.

“Why do I get the impression that you’re enjoying this?” he mumbled.

“Because I am,” she said. There was no point in pretending. “Now keep your mouth closed or I won’t be able to get an accurate reading.”

Exactly three minutes later she took the thermometer and held it up to the light.

“Just as I suspected,” she said. “A hundred and two degrees. Mister, you’re burning up.”

“This is what happens if I stay out too long. The outside world is full of pathogens against which I have no defense.” He began to cough.

“Shush,” she said. She went into the bathroom and returned with a cool cloth, which she laid on his perspiring forehead. He closed his eyes and smiled faintly.

She dimmed the lamp and quietly crept onto the bed beside him. His eyes snapped open.

“What are you doing?” he demanded.

“Nothing. Stay calm, stay calm, my dear.” The last part had just slipped out, but he seemed to ignore it. He closed his eyes again.

They lay silently in the semi-darkness for a long time.

“Alistair,” she whispered. Her stomach fluttered. He didn’t respond. “Alistair,” she said again, a little louder.

“Yes?” was the feeble reply.

“Nothing…I just like saying your name.”

“You do?”

“I do. I looked it up. It means ‘protector of men.’”

“I know,” he said. “It was also my father’s name.”

“What’s your middle name?” she asked.

“I don’t have one.”

“That’s a shame. Mine is Marie.”

“Rhonda Marie Price,” he said, turning over the syllables on his tongue. “That is a lovely name.”

“You really think so?”

He nodded. “It suits you.”

“You know, I never actually liked it. I always wanted a more exotic name like Theodora or Allegra or Samantha or—”

“Miss Price,” he said, “do you ever shut up?”

“No,” she said. “I will keep right on talking through the night just to torture you.”

He laughed. It was a small, contained giggle, but nevertheless it was a laugh
“You’re laughing! Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Kendall is laughing. I think the world is coming to an end.”

She began to laugh with him. Soon they both fell silent again. She waited for him to fall asleep, watching his chest rise and fall. She removed the cloth, now warm from his fever, and caressed his forehead. He did not stir. She got under the covers and inched closer to him. Brushing her lips against his bare arm, she realized how fragile he was, how vulnerable; there was nothing remotely fascist about him now. She finally allowed herself to drift off to sleep.

The first rays of light crept through the Venetian blinds, gently waking her. At first, she did not know where she was—the illness, the mask, the thermometer, and the conversation might have all been a dream. Then, excitedly, she remembered that she was in Mr. Kendall’s bed. Her first instinct was to check on him, to see if his fever had broken.

“Good morning, Alistair,” she said, rolling over. But he was not there. The pillows were neatly stacked, and the wrinkles in the sheets had been smoothed, as though he had never been lying there at all.

Swinging her legs over the edge of the bed, she noticed that the room had been restored to its pre-fever state. Even the oxygen tank and humidifier were gone.

“Alistair?” she said.

She went from room to room, but he was nowhere to be found. She took a deep breath, temporarily stifling her urge to cry. She picked up her shoes and walked out the door.
Mr. Teivos, who was on his way to the elevator, shook his head disapprovingly.

“What?” she said, the straps of her shoes dangling from the tips of her fingers.

“I need to start keeping count,” he said.

She turned her back on him and took the stairs.

That evening, at Miss Costa’s condominium, Miss Price cried into glass after glass of sherry.

“There, there,” Miss Costa said, handing her a tissue.

“I should have listened to you,” Miss Price said.

“There, there,” Miss Costa said, refilling her glass.

A week passed, and still Miss Price did not see or even hear from Mr. Kendall. She unofficially quit the security committee and returned to her secretarial job, this time in a different office. Sadly, she dumped the casserole ingredients in the garbage when they began to get moldy.
One morning, while stepping out of the elevator into the lobby, she caught a glimpse of his black coat as he walked out the front door. That snatch of fabric brought on a wave lust tinged with bitterness.

“Where is Mr. Kendall going?” she asked the guard.

“Haven’t you heard?” he said brusquely. “Mr. Kendall died of pneumonia last Tuesday.”

[The story could technically stop here, but I felt compelled to continue.]

She felt her heart stop. “People don’t die of pneumonia,” she said.

“He had a weakened immune system,” the guard said.

“He is not dead,” she heard herself say.

The supervisor entered the lobby. “Listen, Miss Price, we know you were his inamorata. We know how hard this must be for you.” His voice was cloying, ironic.

“No, I wasn’t. We were simply good friends.”

“No one was ‘simply good friends’ with Mr. Kendall,” the supervisor said. “It was never that easy.”

“You cared for him while he was sick,” the guard said.

“That’s true,” she said. “What of it?”

“He died under your care. You, obviously, were responsible.”

“What! I took his temperature, put a cool cloth on his forehead, and waited for him to fall asleep. Then I dozed off for a few hours. When I woke up, he was gone. I thought he’d recovered and run off.”

“Miss Rhonda Price,” the guard said, “you are under arrest for the murder of Mr. Alistair Kendall.”

To be continued…


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