Mitzi is a tidy, compressed little woman who lives alone but is
not lonely. Her apartment is cozy. Her middle-management job is a
happy match for her skills and experience, and the benefits are
secure. When she retires in five or ten years, she’ll be a free-moving
woman who will never have to order cheap or walk home in a storm.
Mitzi’s off-time is taken up with coffee dates, workouts at the
gym, and cultural pursuits. One night a week, every week—rain, snow,
or Renee Fleming at the Opera House—she takes a bus to the dark side
of town and, holding tight to the rail, makes her way down a steep
stairway to the vestry of the Good Shepherd church, where she and a
fellow volunteer set out a KFC dinner for twelve homeless people, some
new, some returnees, who then spend the rest of the night sleeping or
awake on a perimeter of folding beds with fresh linens and warm
blankets. Compassion shines from the pale eyes behind Mitzi’s round,
A man like Steve can spot a woman like Mitzi from the far end of
a football field. Steve is nearer than that, in front of a bank
building, watching Mitzi come out of the traffic, stepping briskly
onto the curbstone. It’s late Friday afternoon in early April in a
city where April can be cold, and it is. The young man is standing in
a circle of perplexity, neat but disoriented. He doesn’t have to catch
Mitzi’s eye since she has already found him.
Mitzi sees him needing warmer clothes than his tie-less white
shirt and his helplessly open blazer. He is a sweet-looking boy, not
tall, not short, with blunt, babyish features, skin as even as maple
sugar candy, a head of dark hair. He holds her eyes. "Excuse me,
Ma’am. I’ve got myself kind of mixed up here. I wonder if you could
give me some information." He takes from his pocket an open deck of
legal tender and spreads it in his outstretched hand. "I’m new to this
part of the country." he tells her. Mitzi wonders. She’s not
street-dumb. But there is no danger in his face or his voice.
Mitzi was married once. It didn’t work out. After the ceremony
she and what’s-his-name never got really close. The physical thing
never got beyond physical. She didn’t like it. She didn’t like him
over her—panting, sweating, pushing himself in. She is almost sure
that it wasn’t her fault, that with a different man, someone more
poetic, more adept, she would have wanted to give herself.
"How can I help you?" Mitzi asks Steve. This is ironic because
she’s the one who needs help. She’s loaded down with a bulky Gap
shopping bag on one arm, and a tote full of books on the other, and a
designer-knockoff shoulder bag bobbing between them.
He’s showing a handful of tens and twenties with a couple of
hundred-dollar bills. He wants to put his money in the bank, but the
bank is closed. Mitzi gently pushes his hand to his chest. "You
shouldn’t display your money."
The ATM entrance is seductive, circus-colored. WE’RE HERE TO HELP
YOU. The starry sign arches over the parade of customers entering with
pass cards, exiting with money. Steve observes them with round, brown,
harmless eyes. "I have two thousand dollars here," he says to the
general public. To Mitzi: "It’s my savings. I don’t want to carry it
around all weekend."
Of course he has no account, no card, no pin number. Mitzi shakes her head.
Steve stops her from leaving. He’s supposed to meet some Big Man
from the University. An interview to get into business school. He has
the marks but, as Mitzi knows, interviews carry a lot of weight.
"We’re supposed to meet in the hotel lobby. I can’t have all these
bills bulging out of my pocket."
Mitzi has to laugh. "You’re studying business?"
His eyes bug when he smiles. "That’s what my Momma asks me. I
tell her that’s right, I’m only studying. I haven’t learned it."
He can’t put the money into his hotel safe because the kind of
place he’s staying in doesn’t have a safe.
Mitzi’s smile is sympathetic but irked. They’re just outside the
ATM entrance. An exiting customer holds the door open, and Mitzi says
No thanks. "She shouldn’t let people in," she explains to her young
friend. She inserts her card. Steve holds the door for her. "Can you
believe it—I’ve never used these machines?"
No. She can’t believe it.
"Momma took care of everything. One major reason why I had to
leave home." That’s something Mitzi can understand.
"Okay," Steve says, "so I need to open an account. I’ll do it
first thing tomorrow." For now, he’d be obliged if Mitzi would put
his money into her account.
"You can’t put money in. It’s got to be a check."
"So how about if I give you the money tomorrow?"
The boy is hopeless. She says, "I know you can trust me but you
can’t be sure."
"How would you reclaim it? I don’t live in the bank."
She sets her shopping bag on the floor. Steve holds her tote and
stands aside while Mitzi makes her withdrawal, careful as always to
cover her pin number. "It’s easy," she explains. "The screen tells you
exactly what to do. I’m withdrawing two hundred dollars."
"Such a little bit," Steve muses. "Will it last you?"
"I’m not a big spender. I don’t like to carry a lot of money."
"Neither do I." His laughter dances in her head.
Once or twice a month Mitzi addresses her needs. She prepares
herself primly. A light cover. A used towel. Vaseline. She sometimes
thinks it is sad to be alone, but then she recalls one or another of
the few men she has been close with since her divorce and she is
grateful, though rueful, for the satisfaction she achieves.
Self-stimulation carries none of the interactive problems—impotence,
rough handling, unseemly grunts. Once with a woman friend she ventured
into a sex toy shop. The two ladies were ambushed by implements in a
jarring array of sizes and color, many of which Mitzi couldn’t imagine
the use for, none of which she would dare to buy. She said to her
friend, feeling adolescent as they left the premises, "what if I were
in an accident or had a heart attack and someone found one of those
things in my drawer?"
The ATM delivers ten twenty-dollar bills through the mouth of its
miraculous dispenser. Mitzi counts them. It is her habit to place her
withdrawals in her big-bill wallet compartment and to slide the wallet
into the zippered pocket of her handbag. But today she is interrupted.
A young blonde woman bumps into her, knocking her off balance. "Oh,
I’m so sorry!" The woman, fashionably dressed, bends to pick up
Mitzi’s shopping bag. Steve returns her tote. "Just hold my money till
tomorrow." He waves it in her face.
"No. I won’t take it. I really can’t." Where did that woman go?
"Oh, please, Ma’am. It would help me so much." He
thrusts the wad deep into her shoulder bag. The move is quick,
decisive, in and out. Then he walks away. "But you don’t have my
number!" she hears herself calling after him.
Mitzi stands in a circle of light, gripping her open
bag. The shopping bag bulges at her feet. The tote bag, stiff with
library books, leans against it. She pulls out Steve’s pile of bills.
It’s cut-up newspaper. She looks for her own money. The two hundred
dollars. Not in her wallet. Not in her shoulder bag. She unzips all
the zippers, unsnaps all the snaps, feels into the pockets, her coat
pockets, her skirt pockets.
"Are you okay?" A younger woman in a knitted cap has
come to use the ATM. Her face is long with concern. Her hand hovers
over Mitzi’s arm. Mitzi pulls away.
She is not okay.
"I’m fine. Fine. Thank you for asking." She shuts her
mouth, zips her shoulder bag, drops the fake money into the waste can,
digs it out again thinking it might be evidence. She is panting, as if
something heavy and hard had jammed into the pit of her stomach.
Mitzi never longed for a child. Growing a baby in her small
frame, squeezing a seven-pound product through her narrow pelvic
channel and her tight crotch was too painful to imagine. No less
harrowing was the specter of an eating, excreting, breath-taking,
noise-making object for which she would be responsible. So she was
surprised at how blue she felt when menopause overtook her. The
change came on stealthily. No hot flashes or embarrassing sweats. She
hardly noticed the ebb of her monthly flow.
It is gray out. Mitzi pulls her coat around her and snaps the
collar tight. She wants to be home in bed under covers, but the rush
hour buses pass her by. She enters a coffee shop and gets into line to
order hot tea with lemon. The plastic cup pitches in her hand while
she finds a place at the narrow ledge facing the street. She sets her
bags between her feet and climbs onto the stool, brushing off the
crumbs of the previous occupant. She imagines she sees Steve outside,
looking for another dupe. Dope.
The tea bag steeps. She needs something strong and hot to fill the
hollow left from the blow she has taken. She sips and sets the cup
down. She takes another, longer sip. She is so ashamed. It was her
fault. Her ridiculous vanity.
She’ll never tell anyone. She sees her friends rolling
their eyes behind her back. Her mother in Florida jumping on a new
argument for Mitzi to move closer, buy into a gated community. Mitzi
looks into her tea. She takes the stirrer and makes a whirlpool.
The tea braces her. She remembers. She has to tell the story once,
to report the theft. She dreads the prospect. She knows she will sound
like an idiot. But it’s her duty to go to the police. Not that there’s
an iota of a chance to get her money back, but a crime must be
recorded. Her blood is turning to cement. With a last long swallow,
she slips to the edge of the stool, waiting till the tip of her shoe
touches the floor.
Mitzi is a prize alumna of her Alma Mater, a regular and
generous donor, on hand to interview prospective students from her
area. Visiting campus one day, not long before the bank incident, she
arranged to sit in on Professor Knowlton’s afternoon class in
contemporary literature. As a student, Mitzi had signed up for English
classes—stealthily, guiltily indulging in unearned luxury, not a part
of her parents’ investment in her future financial security. She read
her literature assignments after hours, the same secretive way her
roommate sneaked out through the window to sleep with a boyfriend.
Knowlton—a ton of knowledge: Mitzi liked that. Besides,
he was tall and paunchless, appropriately dressed in khakis and a
sweater, watchful eyes, not much of a shave. He was younger than she,
just approaching the cusp between youth and age, but Mitzi was in trim
jeans and jacket and wisely made up. He took a second look before
pointing out a desk chair at the side of the classroom.
Mitzi was fond of young people who were old enough for
intelligent conversation. But not these kids. They sauntered or
shambled in late. When the professor asked how many had read the
assignment, only four hands went up out of twenty-five students, two
of those hands half-hearted. So he read the story aloud.
Just as the scary stranger in the story was rapping at the screen
of the cabin where the girl, all alone, was preparing to wash her
hair, Mitzi felt a warm wetness between her crossed legs. The
sensation was unsettling, but not unwelcome. It had been months since
her last visitation from "the curse." She wasn’t carrying a tampon.
The familiar thick, moist feeling, accompaniment to a secretion
of intimate blood, carried an exciting message. A ray of joy entered
her spirit. The story was cumulatively terrifying. The professor was
still reading when the dismissal bell rang.
Mitzi went directly to the newly co-ed lav. She hurried into a
far stall, lowered her pantyhose and underpants in one neat gesture,
squatted over the seat and took a look.
She expected to find a little blood—not messy, not soppy—just a
thin, rust-red smear like a brushstroke on a dry canvas, a meaningful
sign on an ancient wall. She looked very carefully because she had,
she really had, felt quite damp, quite hopeful. Nothing.
The night is starless as she works to push open the heavy steel
door. Inside, the on-duty policeman takes a look at her, assessment
and dismissal in one glance. Mitzi says in an authoritative voice.
"I’m Mildred Petrow."
Detective Leblang, who awaits her in a back room, is more
ceremonious. He stands and introduces himself, a youngish, bulky man
with a smudgy moustache. He holds his pen correctly, the hair on the
back of his hands showing sandy in the sharp light. The holster on his
hip and the heavy gun thrust into it give her confidence. She tells
him what seems pertinent, eliminating the parts that make her look
like an utter imbecile.
"But you’re all right. You weren’t hurt in any way?"
"Not at all. Except for the injury to my pride." She squeezes her eyes.
"You feel violated. You were violated."
"I don’t suppose he’ll be caught."
"You can never tell. These guys usually think they’re smarter
than they really are."
Without seeming to hurry, Officer Leblang leads her to the
outside door. "You get a good night’s sleep, Mildred, and try to put
this matter out of your mind. It’s in our hands now."
The name of Mildred must have meant lot to her mother—the name of
a proper child, demurely posed, in one of those elaborate filigree
frames. Instead her mother got a stumpy little kid with a flat face
and evasive eyes—a scuffer of shoes, a bumper into furniture, with
limp hair that wouldn’t take a curl. To make up for her failings and
to keep out of trouble, Mildred kept herself small and swallowed her
appetites. She grew up with the qualifications of a first-class wife,
but not long after the wan honeymoon, she insisted on getting a job and
that was the ruin of her. She started calling herself Mitzi. Her
husband was shocked when she decided to separate. He didn’t know what
had gotten into her.
The season has changed. Mitzi has vacuumed her closets and
disposed of clothes she never wears. It is a hot July day, but she is
coolly at her desk in her thermostatically-controlled office, looking
through important papers. She is not as patient as she used to be. She
has a new assistant who moves quickly and never forgets a message. The
new assistant sets Mitzi’s skim-milk latte on a coaster to protect the
surface finish of the desk. She answers a phone call and, covering the
mouthpiece, mouths the name of Detective Leblang. She mouths
"Mildred?" Mitzi frowns and pictures blue eyes and a smudgy moustache,
the gun at his side. She swings around in her posture chair.
Leblang has a suspect. Being held on a related charge. Answering
Mildred’s description of person and MO. Will she come down and
"If you’re worried that he’ll see who you are, don’t be.
He’s behind a glass wall. You see in. They can’t see out. Honest to
God, he’ll never know."
He waits for the words to kick in. "You got off light,"
he reminds her. "This guy has taken other women for much more. We need
to nail him."
What Mitzi hates about growing old is the dismissal in men’s
eyes. It is not the look she wants. She wants to be considered. When
she was young, she failed to recognize the signs of interest. She
would drop her eyes and ponder later, lying in bed, if perhaps that
man had something in mind. Once in early middle age, on a vacation
tour, ready for flight, she was introduced to a pilot—the face of a
Renaissance portrait, smooth skin, penetrating eyes, a man’s strong
body under his impeccable uniform—and he looked at her that way. This
time she met the look. She and the man shook hands intimately and
ruefully because they were departing on different planes. "Too bad,"
she said, and his eyes shimmered. That look comes in dwindling
frequency and from the wrong eyes.
Mitzi selects a pair of mid-heeled pumps that make her taller and
more confident. The charcoal gray black pants suit is right for a
serious occasion. She makes herself up to look as attractive as
possible, and walks, breathing deeply to slow down her heartbeat,
toward the precinct station, where her appearance makes no impression.
The receptionist points her to the door of the witness room.
Two women are already there, a pair of sparrows sitting on the
edge of an armless bench staked to the floor. Stale smoke odors hang
under tubes of light and the tile floor is chipped. The water cooler
has no cups. Mitzi stays buttoned, takes a seat on a bench near the
door, pulls a newspaper from her new stronghold of a handbag. A fourth
witness enters unobtrusively and sits at the end of Mitzi’s bench. She
looks like the others—tidy and compressed, dyed or graying,
sweet-faced, carefully dressed. Mitzi pictures herself as more chic
than they are. On good days, she even feels winsome.
"Did we all have the same experience?" the newcomer asks in a
Steve got around—though he wasn’t always Steve. He had an
umbrella when it was raining, but never a hat. Rain or shine he wore a
white shirt and an open blazer. His repertory was limited. He worked
ATM centers. Always a woman accomplice, sometimes blond, always
well-dressed. "I almost invited him home for dinner," one woman says.
Mitzi understands perfectly. She can see herself poking through the
refrigerator, looking for something nutritious while Steve waits at
the kitchen table.
A fifth woman tiptoes in. "I didn’t want to come," she says. "I’m
still so damn mad at myself."
The other women look at her.
"At yourself? Be mad at him!"
"He thinks we love being conned."
Mitzi wonders what made her such an easy mark. He surely had to
work harder on these women.
The flustered one takes a chestful of air. "We don’t know whether
they’ve got the right perp."
"We’ll know when we see him."
A tingle of apprehension goes up the back of Mitzi’s neck.
Purple light floods the waiting room as the door opens. Officer
Leblang, in brass-buttoned uniform, is framed in purple. Mitzi is up
first. He calls her Mildred.
She’d like to retaliate by using his first name, but she doesn’t
know it. She scurries behind his tall stride, becoming smaller with
each step. By the time they enter a huge box of a room, she’s a
miniature. A policewoman sits heavily at a small table. She finds Ms.
Petrow on the list, checks it off, asks questions, recites the
procedure. She juts her chin toward an isolated chair. Mitzi sits on
the edge, peering through the glass wall in front of her.
Six men walk in from nowhere. They arrange themselves into a
jagged row in striking individual postures. They are a runway show of
the latest in men’s street clothes—pimp clothes, homeless clothes,
geek clothes, scam clothes—modeled in various postures of aggression,
indifference, scorn, humility. From Mitzi’s close-up view, they take
on a sameness, like the women in the waiting room, like a row of ATM
machines. She changes her eye glasses. Rule out the tank-top with
tattoos. Rule out the basketball player with a shaved head. The one in
the business suit is short and looks Latino. It can’t be the fourth
one unless Steve has gained a lot of weight.
Mitzi is hoping he isn’t there. But he might be the one in
sneakers and khakis. He is not as she remembers him. The hair seems
shorter. There is a little chin beard. His flannel shirt has long
sleeves like a druggy’s.
Mitzi is taking too long. She is told to stand even closer. From
a yard away, she looks hard at the Steve one, and she is perplexed.
She can’t find the appealing student, the clean young man whose white
shirt billowed and whose loose-hanging jacket flapped in the corner
wind, whose lively eyes laughed at his own greenness. This Steve is
bigger. And older. The face is still smooth and rounded, but it has no
entry. He looks into a room he can’t see, but there is no seeking in
his eyes. Mitzi is studying a man she could never reach, who would not
respond to kindness or reason or pleading. She would be afraid to meet
him on a lonely street. She would be afraid of him without the glass.
She’s afraid of him with the glass.
Mitzi closes her eyes and waits for her strength to come in. She
puts away her glasses and takes as long a look as she can bear. She
moves her handbag from her right arm to her left. The hand with the
finger to point has turned to solid brick, but Mitzi gets it up and