As I was going up the steps to Malcolm’s apartment, I was surprised to meet Janet coming down. She looked lovely; we all thought so. Janet Dunkel wasn’t pretty so much as she was cute. She was about five-two, with a trim figure that attracted a lot of attention from the guys in the group. Her brassy blond hair was worn in a bob that would have looked old-fashioned for most women, but Janet made it work.
The name of our peer group was Portland Esoterica. It had been started by Johnny Benigni as a Facebook group. It was pretty much a local hangout for a loosely-knit group of friends that enjoyed talking about geeky, esoteric pop culture and philosophy. Malcolm was the one who clued me into it. He was friends with Johnny, and invited me as soon as he had heard about it.
Eventually, Johnny decided that we should have what he called “meatspace events,” which was pretty much an excuse to get together in Colonel Summers Park to drink beer and smoke weed. There were enough girlfriends and friends of girlfriends in the group’s orbit to keep the get-togethers from being a complete sausage party, but there were a lot of single guys.
When Janet showed up at one such gathering, more or less out of the blue, she’d made a big splash. Beyond being very cute, Janet was cool. She was into all of the geeky things that most of the other people in the group were. She could hold her own in any discussion about comic books, the teachings of Gurdjieff, the shortcomings of the Matrix movies, the best Monty Python skits, you name it. And she had a hell of a sense of humor, always ready to crack a joke or laugh at someone else’s.
When it became evident that this bright, attractive, unattended young woman was at our event on purpose, the single guys in the group swarmed around her like bees around a rosebush. She didn’t seem to mind the rampant testostero-geekery that was being flung in her direction, and had even managed to one-up Bill Daly – our comic book nerd extraordinaire – on the history of Galactus. From that point on, Janet was the queen of the Portland Esoterica group.
I was there when she first showed up, but I didn’t engage in any of the swarming. At the time, I had started dating a woman named Céline, and I was totally smitten with her. I was secure enough then to stand back and watch all of the single guys peacock around Janet without feeling jealous. I figured it was not much of a contest anyway, as Derek was sure to win her. Derek was the group’s face man – he was handsome, had a good-paying job at a bank and drove a flashy BMW.
I was right, for a while: Derek and Janet went out a time or three, but it didn’t work out. Bill asked her out, but she very politely declined. I know that Kevin Baldwin managed to wrangle a date with her, too – but I think she said yes out of pity and nothing ever came of it.
I hadn’t had any designs on Janet since then, even after my relationship with Céline imploded. Sure, I was just as smitten as any of the other single guys in the group, but I figured she was a little out of my league. For one thing, I was a good ten years older than her. Also, I was a little too insecure to ask her out. The men of my family were not blessed with a great deal of good looks, height or poise, and I had always struggled to get dates.
Consequently, I hadn’t given much thought to Janet as a potential girlfriend; I just enjoyed her company whenever the group got together. She seemed to enjoy mine as well. Good enough; I was (I thought) mature enough to enjoy female friendship without thinking about how I could inveigle the woman into the sack.
That changed the morning I went up to see Malcolm Greene and met Janet Dunkel coming down the apartment building stairs. She looked distracted, flushed and her hair was slightly mussed. She had what my college roommate had described as “that fresh-fucked look.”
Her eyes widened when she saw me, and she flushed a little more. “Hi, Carlos,” she said, and hurried past me on the stairs.
“Yo, Janet,” I replied, trying to sound cool and unconcerned. I kept going up the stairs, then turned and watched her leave. She didn’t look back at me.
I paused, trying to make sense of what I’d seen. It seemed a good bet that she had come from Malcolm’s apartment. There were only four apartments on the top floor of that building, and besides Malcolm’s, the other three were occupied by families with small children.
My initial response upon seeing her was surprise, followed by a savage pang of jealousy that was startling in its intensity. The surprise was obvious: Malcolm was a few years older than I, and though perhaps a little more conventionally attractive than I was (a low bar, admittedly), he was no face man. So the notion that he and Janet had hooked up was a bit of a surprise.
The needle of jealousy was even more surprising. I guess that I had abandoned the idea of any romantic connection with Janet, and the idea that Malcolm had somehow managed to woo her really brought out the green in my eyes.
Winston Churchill once described the motivations of Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” That quote came to mind when I first got to know Malcolm Greene. The guy was a total cypher.
For starters, he was by far and away the smartest person I had ever met, bar none. He had gotten bored in high school, dropped out at age 16 and had gotten his GED on the first try, without even studying. He hadn’t gone to college, but had received training and certification as a paralegal and a paramedic. Both of these skills had proven useful in party situations, dealing with cops and drunken accidents. Once, at one off-the-rails party at Johnny B’s, a bunch of bad pills had gone around. Johnny had a strobe light, and when he turned it on, three people keeled over with seizures. Malcolm was able to make sure they were OK, and kept everyone else from freaking out.
I could easily see Malcolm rocketing up to the head of the science department at some Ivy League school, but he just wasn’t interested. His father had been a history professor at a small private college in Pennsylvania, and his glimpse into the world of academia had cured him of any desire to attend college, much less seek tenure at one.
Instead, he just studied whatever interested him. The paralegal and paramedic stuff had required some in-person instruction, but it was more vocational training rather than education. That had been a long time ago, undertaken to keep his parents from griping about his future once he’d parted ways with high school.
His apartment was filled with piles of obscure textbooks and journals about a panoply of subjects that included architecture, electronics, music, civil engineering, sculpture, photography, classical physics, quantum physics, metaphysics and needlepoint.
He had plenty of time for his studies, as he didn’t have a job. At first, most people assumed he was just a trust fund kid. I certainly did. As I found out much later, this was not the case. There was no Greene family fortune, no trust fund; Malcolm supported himself. Even later I found out how he did it: by speculating in currency. He had a number of international news and financial papers delivered to his place every morning. Over his sunrise coffee, he would scan the international news and business information, then go online and make a few trades. It usually took less than an hour to earn his daily bread; after that he was free to spend the other 23 following his own interests.
I had no idea how much money he actually made. He would never volunteer that information, and I would never ask. I secretly wondered why, if he could support himself by working an hour a day, why he didn’t work two or three and really make some dough. Instead, he was content to live in a small one-bedroom apartment, and get around town on his ten-speed or on public transportation.
None of these things were on my mind when I got to his door and gave it a good rap. I wasn’t sure what to expect – would he show up at the door in a robe with a shit-eating grin? I know I would have if I’d just spent the night with Janet Dunkel. However, he looked as he always did: shaved, with a fresh t-shirt and recently-pressed chino slacks. He was tall and pretty gangly – there couldn’t be more than 170 pounds on his six-foot-four frame. His skin was the color of coffee with just a dollop of cream, and he wore his hair short – a tight cap of black curls that was just starting to gray around the ears.
When I’d first met him, he amended his introduction by saying, “And, no, I don’t play basketball.” It always pissed him off that people assumed that because he was Black and tall, that he was good at basketball. He didn’t introduce himself that way anymore, but when he was younger he would always inform a new acquaintance of his non-b-ball playing status. I could attest to the fact that his basketball skills were nearly non-existent. I’d once talked him into playing Horse at the park, and I beat him silly – and I suck at basketball.
“Hola, Carlitos!” he said as he swung open the door. Coming from anyone else, this would have pissed me off. I’d always been insecure about my short stature, and the use of the diminutive version of my name would generally be fighting words. Of course, Malcolm was fluent in Spanish, having picked up the basics by blazing through a library-borrowed Rosetta Stone course, then honing his skills by frequenting the local taquerias. Besides, my family’s not even Hispanic; my mom was an admirer of William Carlos Williams, and named me in his honor.
“Hey, Malc, what’s new?” I asked.
“Oh, I got a good one today. I was up half the night putzing with it, but I think I’ve got most of the bugs worked out.”
He led me over to his kitchen table which was holding a beat-up Casio keyboard, a radio controlled quad-copter and bunch of tools, electronic gear and snippets of wire. The back of the keyboard had been popped off, and a bundle of wires ran from the back into an old iPhone. The iPhone was connected to a laptop and what looked to be an RC controller unit.
“What’s all this, then?” I asked in a cheesy cockney accent.
“Well, Constable Clitoris,” he said, picking up on the Monty Python reference. “I could tell you, but it would be easier to show you.”
He flipped a number of power switches; lights came on, electronic chimes bonged and the quadcopter’s rotors twitched. “Observe,” he said, and pressed middle C on the keyboard. The quad’s rotors whirred to life, and it rose about a foot off of the table.
Malcolm loved tinkering, and I was always amazed by (and a little jealous of) his creativity and skill. He had done some pretty cool stuff before. My favorite was the robot that he had made from Campbell’s soup cans – labels still intact – that could walk and tell knock-knock jokes. He had given it away to a friend who was moving to Los Angeles.
On the keyboard, Malcolm hit the high C; the copter rose; low C, it dropped down. Other keys produced other effects: move forward, sideways, rotate left or right.
“Pretty cool, huh?” he said.
“Yeah, cool,” I said. I wasn’t sure, though. This seemed pretty basic for one of Malcolm’s gadgets.
“Yeah, I know it seems pretty dumb,” he said. “Any moron could rewire the keyboard to the controller, but it’s how I wired it that’s interesting. I just got this working, so I really haven’t had time to work out the music.” He hit a key and the copter scooted into the middle of the room. The old building had high ceilings, and Malcolm had pushed most of the furniture to the edge of the room. There was a lot of space for the copter.
“Here’s something I was trying out just before you came in,” he said. That reminded me about Janet: hadn’t he been with her right before I came in? I decided it wasn’t a good time to mention it.
He began playing a simple four-note tune. The copter followed along: up, forward, down, right. The copter spiraled towards the corner of the room. As it neared the walls, Malcolm reversed the pattern and the copter worked its way to the middle again. When it got there, he made the pattern of notes a little more intricate, the melody a little more interesting. The copter danced along. He added a little counter-melody with his left hand; the copter started to spin and twirl as it danced to Malcolm’s tune.
I watched, open-mouthed. This had the soup-can robot beat all to hell. The quad-copter zoomed and pirouetted across the room, its motions and the music growing more complex and more frantic. I looked over at Malcolm who was also watching wide-eyed as his hands flew over the keys of the old Casio. There was a look of supreme joy and confidence on his face. For some reason, it made me a little uneasy to watch him. You could imagine Robert Oppenheimer beaming like that as he watched the first atomic explosion.
I shrank back into the couch as the copter moved around the room in measured recklessness. Malcolm was really pounding on the keyboards, the music rising to a climax. With a frantic riffle of high notes the copter gyroscoped towards the ceiling. Then a majestic final power chord and the copter heeled over and dove straight into a brightly-colored shrine, where it exploded with a resounding crash.
“Whoops,” said Malcolm with a sheepish grin. “I guess I got a little carried away there at the end.”
“Pretty impressive, though,” I said. “So you were just improvising that whole thing?”
“Yeah, pretty much. I mean, I thought I had mapped the keys of the keyboard so I could play a discernible tune and still make the quad copter move in a regular pattern.”
“I think you accomplished that,” I said. “Really amazing, man. It’s like you choreographed the whole thing!”
“Nope. I was just working on the finishing touches when you showed up. I had played maybe five notes before that performance.” He knelt down by the shrine and began picking up the pieces.
The shrine was a stepped box, painted red with gold filigree trim. The top step held a large brass Buddha. Buddha had survived the crash pretty well, but the step below it, which held framed photographs of the Dalai Lama and a number of bald Asian men in robes. Most of these had been scattered but only one had broken. The lowest step had held seven glass bowls of rice, and these were now scattered all over the corner of the living room. I knelt down next to Malcolm and helped him sort through the damage.
“Isn’t your god going to be mad you crashed into his shrine?” I asked.
“Nah, ol’ Gautama is pretty chill. Besides, he’s an enlightened teacher. We don’t worship him as a god or anything.”
“But what about all that bowing and scraping?”
“That’s just showing respect,” said Malcolm. “Respect for a great teacher. That’s what I like about Buddhism: it isn’t dogmatic. The Buddha basically said, ‘I did this and that happened. Perhaps you should try doing this and see if you get the same results.’ It’s the scientific method applied to the human spirit.”
“Sounds like a pretty decent approach,” I said. “Although there does seem to be a preponderance of focus on suffering.”
“Life is suffering,” said Malcolm. “I don’t think that there’s any question about that, now do you?”
“I guess not.” I never really knew how to respond when Malcolm laid on the eastern mysticism. Fortunately, he didn’t do it very often.
“So, uh, was that Janet I saw leaving as I was coming up?” I asked
“What?” He seemed surprised. “Uh, yeah, I suppose it was. Yes, of course it was. I guess you just missed her.”
I waited for elaboration, but none was forthcoming. I looked at Malcolm; he was looking at me patiently, and – I thought – a little curiously.
There was no doubt that Malcolm was a cool customer. During one very raucous party at Johnny B’s, we decided to go over to the park and shoot off some fireworks. Someone must have reported gunshots, because the cops rolled up on us like it was D-Day: guns drawn, screaming at us, lights shining in our eyes – the whole SWAT team scene. Malcolm had, very coolly, walked up to the main cop, who was pointing a gun at him and very agitated, and talked him down. Not only did the cops chill out, but Malcolm managed to pull some of his paralegal juju on them and got them to go away without hassling us about the fireworks. During that entire encounter, Malcolm had never once got excited or raised his voice; it was like his heart rate didn’t budge an iota from its normal resting rate, even with a pissed-off police officer hollering and pointing a gun at him. Pissed-off Portland cops and Black men generally did not mix well.
If he could stay cool during that encounter, he’d certainly not break a sweat about my noticing a girl leaving his place. He was a very private person, and it really wasn’t any of my business. At least, not much of it. I looked him in the eye again and saw a flash of something that made me decide to drop the topic entirely.
“Hey, shouldn’t you be at work?” he asked – a little archly, I thought.
“Nope,” I said. “It’s a holiday: Presidents Day.”
“Of course,” he replied, definitely sounding annoyed now. “I just didn’t realize your company gave you the day off.”
“It’s true,” I said. “They just implemented it last year. Replaced Martin Luther King Day.”
“Figures,” muttered Malcolm.
I didn’t want a lecture at this point, so I said, “Well, I just wanted to see if you wanted to get some coffee or a doughnut or something.”
“Uh, normally I’m always up for a coffee-and,” he said. “But I’ve got a shift at the shelter at one. Gonna have to take off here before too long.” Malcolm volunteered three days a week at a homeless shelter down by the bus station. He eyed me again, uncomfortably. “Maybe next time you should call before you head over.”
“Yeah, sure, man,” I said. “Sorry if I harshed your mellow or anything.”
“De nada,” he replied. “It’s just that I’ve got a lot of projects going right now, and my sleep schedule is a little off. So, yeah, probably best if you called next time.”
“Yeah, sure,” I said. I was trying to keep the hurt out of my voice; but I was not sure if I was succeeding. I had known Malcolm for damn near twenty years. When we first met, cell phones were the size of a brick and mostly unaffordable by all but the businessman big-wigs. Back then, nobody thought twice about stopping by unannounced. Now, with everyone hyper-connected with these ubiquitous little rectangular dog-collars, that practice was all but unheard-of. Except for me and Malcolm; we only lived about ten blocks away from each other, so we dropped in all the time. At least until now.
“Good man,” said Malcolm, and he clapped me on the shoulder with false good cheer. “Hey, I’ll be off at six if you want to grab dinner or something.”
“Nah, probably not,” I said. I tried to think up an excuse, even a lame one, but nothing would come. “See you around, I guess.”
I slipped out of the apartment and unlocked my bike, feeling put out. Like I said, I’d known Malcolm for decades, but now it felt as if something had changed. There was now a distance between us, but whether the source of that distance was Janet or something else, I had no idea. I mounted my bike and headed off. I didn’t really care where; I just wanted to clear my head.