The First Defense
A short story.
To avoid the property manager, Jerry parked at a chain bagel restaurant a block away, lit a cigarette and began the discreet walk home in the late afternoon. Autumn encroached, making it dark earlier. He pulled deep from the tobacco. He knew it was silly, but he was more worried about seeing the property manager than encountering the young thugs who had been lifting goods from evening pedestrians in this neighborhood with an alarming frequency.
Jerry had a financial pecking order that spread everything thin. Mrs. Wimmer, the manager, would get the rent check—but not until the 14th, when his checks were solvent. If nothing changed, he’d find himself living in his mother’s house again at 42.
Jerry treated each workday as if it were his last at the electronics repair shop. People had more incentive these days to buy new televisions and stereos than to get old ones fixed. He could blame this on everyone from dead and living presidents to the factories in China, but the shop was on borrowed time regardless. The owner was an unpredictable alcoholic with lint in his beard. Edwin had threatened to close up shop because he’d launched a porn website. Jerry wasn’t sure he believed the site was genuine, since it either would’ve made Edwin rich or gotten him arrested by now. The store had its problems, but Jerry had a business card that looked smart. Or at least it had impressed Daria when he met her.
He peered around the corner of the old shoe store, which was now a coffee shop with table waiters. His eyes were almost touching the brick wall. Mrs. Wimmer’s Buick was in its usual spot in the front of the building, so he cut around the long way and entered through the laundry room. The trick was to avoid running into Mrs. Wimmer in the hallway. If he had to, he could get into his apartment by fire escape, but he’d only do that if she’d put an extra lock on his door. She hadn’t. Yet.
Earlier that day, Jerry had seen yet more scenes of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, broadcast on a half-dozen television screens at the shop.
And here he was having to use stealth to invade his own apartment.
In the hallway, Jerry cupped his cigarette in his palm. Smoking was forbidden in the building. A neighbor leading her small child by the hand paid little notice to Jerry, but the child watched him intently, even after they’d passed. The boy wore a pair of toy sunglasses with concentric circles printed over the lenses. X-ray glasses, Jerry thought. The grown-ups are fooled, but the child can see. Jerry once had glasses like those. He found himself longing lately for such innocent objects from the past, as opposed to the things weighing on him presently.
He unlocked his door, pushing aside the mail that had dropped through the slot. There was a cellphone service bill, which he knew would have a balance from the previous month. Jerry examined it, guessing it would be at least another month before they cut him off. The 14th would be here soon.
Instead of putting the wadded bill in the wastebasket, Jerry placed it in a clean skillet on the range. Turning on the hood fan, he took one last puff of the cigarette, then rolled its tip against the bill’s edges until flames took. He watched as the fire surrounded it, shriveled it.
It was partly a measure against identity theft. He had no personal grudge against the phone company, and no habit of setting things on fire in his house, other than this bill and the breakup note from his last girlfriend. She had called him on his false sense of financial security and on being someone he wasn’t. She relied on spas for lobster tans in February. He thought they were made for each other. Her Dear Jerry email had been printed out for a cleansing by fire.
And now Daria was getting warm, he thought. She was, of all things, a bank teller. He didn’t bank where she worked. She told him about free checking and debit cards, perks his bank didn’t offer, and how he should switch. But then she would see how far in hock he was.
A knock sounded at his door, sharp and sobering. Mrs. Wimmer, he thought, must have smelled the burned mail.
He decided to answer it and own up to his debts and his pyromania.
First, his eyes told him the building manager had corrected her bad posture, dyed most of the gray from her hair and taken to wearing amber sunglasses. Then, of course, he saw it wasn’t Mrs. Wimmer.
“Jerry Merchak,” the woman said. She spoke like a game show contestant confident of her answer. It was not a question.
“Help you?” he asked.
She wore a blue fleece jacket, and a duffel bag hung from her shoulder. “You might recognize me. Or not.” She took off the sunglasses.
Neurons tickled in his head. “I don’t,” he said. She was just familiar enough for him not to ask. Possibly a teacher from grade school.
“I used to be Crystal,” she said.
He stopped short of saying, “I used to be Jerry,” because now he recognized her. But time had turned her hard and dusty. There were flaws and lines, distortions of the face he knew.
Prime-time television didn’t rule the second-grader’s evenings, but on Wednesdays at 8 o’clock he was perched reliably before the Zenith. Jerry knew his mother didn’t like him watching a show about a group of super-spies who saved the world from mass destruction each week.
A lot of punching and kicking went on, even an occasional explosion. But that wasn’t why he watched.
“Why did Crystal start wearing those goofy false eyelashes?” Jerry asked his mother.
“She’s a spy. She has to change her looks. And probably because the director told her to.”
“They should leave her face alone.”
Jerry’s father would’ve been less permissive about television. But he’d been declared MIA in the tangle of Southeast Asia. That sounded more temporary than other things Jerry could’ve been told, so he hoped real-life counterparts of The First Defense would bring his father home.
Crystal was played by an actress named Sylvia Sand. She had the features of a brunette Barbie doll, with the caterpillar-thick lashes that were then in style. Her character, like the rest of the cast, was an agile secret agent who could outsmart, outfight or out-gadget any villain she came across. A beautiful woman in such a role seemed unlikely compared with the mostly vulnerable femmes of I Spy or Star Trek. It was this quality, with her beauty, that held Jerry captive to the black-and-white screen.
One Wednesday night, his mother saw him dabbling in homework instead of watching his favorite star.
“No show tonight?” she inquired.
“There’s a dumb Bob Hope special on instead.”
Later she suggested he write Sylvia Sand a fan letter. “She’d be happy to know how much you think of her.”
“Naw,” Jerry said, contorting his face. “That’s what girls do.” Affection toward females meant hair-pulling and arm-pinching, which was clearly impossible with Crystal.
“I learned something about her yesterday,” his mother said. “An article in the paper said she grew up right down the road, in Baltimore.”
He found this interesting, and despite his initial reaction, the letter idea grew on him. Feeling secure in the anonymous distance between Maryland and California, and confident in his new ability to write a letter, he held back nothing in the words he scrawled. He told her she was the planet’s prettiest woman, and he liked the thought of her keeping him safe. He suggested she and the cast go and win the war in Vietnam, although he knew the show wasn’t real. And even if she had a husband, he said, she was welcome to live at their house if she ever needed a place to stay.
Six weeks later he got a large manila envelope in the mail. Sylvia Sand stated, in a professional manner, her appreciation of Jerry’s interest in the program. The short form letter came with an 8-by-10 glossy photo of the cast, signed by each of them. Like the television show, the photograph was black-and-white.
The whole package looked disappointingly production-line made, but he kept up with the show anyway. Two seasons later, while he was learning division in fourth grade, The First Defense was axed by the network. He hardly noticed, though he still carried the metal lunch box with the cast members’ pictures on it to school.
Jerry grasped the doorknob to keep things steady. So many obsessions and fixations had moved through his mind’s revolving door since he’d last watched the television star of his childhood.
“I guess you don’t burn your mail,” Jerry said.
“Los Angeles is a bad place to set anything on fire,” she said.
Actors weren’t supposed to be anything like their characters, but so far, Sylvia Sand was just as quick and precise as her screen self. Jerry wondered briefly if he was hallucinating.
“Can I take your jacket?” He thought perhaps if he touched the fabric it would help ground him.
“Thanks.” She shrugged out of the fleece, but stood where she was.
“That means you can come in.”
She looked good, even if she wasn’t quite the prime-time idol of 35 years ago. The swoop of her simply combed hair was almost the same, but peppered with gray wisps. Her facial structure was free of jowls and a double chin, although there were crow’s feet around the eyes and furrows by her mouth. They could’ve been wrinkles that came with aging gracefully, but she wasn’t quite in that percentile. They were wrinkles pointed at slightly wrong angles, Jerry decided.
“Sylvia Sand,” he said, taking the jacket. “I’m just…amazed.” He struggled to think of something else to say. That she looked good? That she had been a great performer? As far as he knew, obscurity had swallowed her whole.
“Rebecca Goinenheimer,” she said, glancing at the Ansel Adams knockoffs on his wall. “That’s my real name. Agents, you know. But Sylvia’s fine.”
It took Jerry a moment to realize that she meant Hollywood agents, not secret agents. “How’d you find me?” he asked, though in his mind the more relevant question was why?
“You were easy,” she said, hovering near the sectional sofa in the middle of the room. “Some folks are just untraceable, but you haven’t gone very far.”
“Sadly,” he said.
An extra furrow appeared on her brow and she looked flustered. “I didn’t mean…you know…”
“It’s fine. Have a seat.” He sat at the far end of the sectional so he could face her. She wore capri pants and a black, sleeveless shirt. She hadn’t lost much of her shape since her television days. “So…you look up your fans,” he said, nodding. “That’s really…” What was it, really? Creepy? Crazy? Perhaps she had gone into politics?
“It’s essential,” Sylvia said. “I wish I’d done it years ago.”
“Are you promoting something?”
“I’m a big fan of the past,” she said. “How about you?”
“It was such a great show. Are they making a movie? Old shows get that now. Let me guess: The box set’s out in DVD?”
Sylvia Sand shook her head. “No promotions. I’ve been disconnected from Hollywood for a while. I do this for me. And for the fans.”
“So you came home to Baltimore?”
“I’ve been through a couple of times. But it’ll never be the same place for me.”
He wanted another cigarette, but he held out in case it bothered her. “Seeing how long it’s been,” he said, “I’ve forgotten a lot. What else were you in after the show? Or before?”
“There were two commercials for a European sports car. Julie Andrews turned it down, and I was the first non-Brit they asked. I wore a body stocking with the Union Jack on it. A sellout. Rather not dwell on that.” Sylvia kept fidgeting with her sunglasses. “The series was the only good time. Later I went from directing a modeling agency to selling real estate to working in a travel agency, which is what got me roaming. This is my 10th state for fan scouting.”
“Don’t you get tired?” Jerry knew she was in her early 20s during The First Defense. He guessed she was about 60 now.
“Yes but no,” she said. “It’s too rewarding to get tired of. Fame smothers your identity. You question who you are all day. But when you constantly meet new people who admire you, that’s affirming.”
“And this is OK with your family,” he said, not quite a question.
She adjusted the duffel bag, its strap still draped over her shoulder. “My kids, they’re on their father’s side of the continental divide.”
“OK,” he said. “I’ll let you choose topics.” Jerry sat up. “I’m being rude. You want anything to drink?”
“Whatever you’re having.”
Kahlúa was the only thing left in any quantity in his liquor cabinet. He fetched the milk and two glasses. Sylvia watched him over her shoulder from the couch and said, “If you have any cinnamon, could you put in a dash?”
“Sorry, no cinnamon,” he said.
“It’s OK. Just add more Kahlúa.”
When Jerry put the drinks on the coffee table, she saw the cigarettes in his shirt pocket and said, “You smoke.” It wasn’t an accusation but a discovery.
They both lit up. Because of his trade, he recognized bad circuitry, and Sylvia had it. He wouldn’t ask where she was staying. He suspected she’d have no answer, and this would only make her embarrassed. But maybe she was past embarrassment. He decided it best to entertain her, since she had done so for him on those long-ago Wednesday nights.
He remembered something. “Hey. Wait here a second.”
Jerry opened the door to the second bedroom, which he generally kept closed to hide the clutter. It was little more than an annex of the repair shop: dissected tubes, boards, wire bundles and cabinets, stacked atop one another. Small-caliber screwdrivers littered the floor like needles in a landfill. He swept them aside to pull out his relic. He got an old metal stand on wheels and placed the gray-green Zenith on it.
When he rolled it into the living room, she laughed. “No, wait,” Jerry said. “You won’t believe it, but this is the very set I watched you on.”
“Great,” she said, still snickering. “Let’s see if anything good’s on.” But her eyes widened when he began transferring the cable box plugs from his current set.
“It works,” he said. “I do this stuff all day.”
It took a full minute for the screen to light up. The Zenith looked like an old bank safe with a glass lens on one side. Jerry wiped dust from the screen with his shirt sleeve.
“Black-and-white?” she asked, pointing to the set with her white drink.
“This was it,” he said, pleased with himself for holding on to it.
“I’m impressed,” she said. “I knew you worked with your hands. The hands always tell.”
A show was on that had no actors, only regular people on an island or in a desert, voting each other off it one by one. The black-and-white picture somehow lent gravitas to this cheesy reality show. Those people will never get fan mail, Jerry thought.
“I haven’t been this impressed since…,” she paused. “Two months ago. I tracked down a woman, slightly older than you, in Baytown, Texas.”
“Married with three kids?”
“Two. Divorced, with her name back. She’s a roughneck on an oil rig. Loves her job. Said I was her role model after the episode…”
“Where the mob kidnapped the oil barons. I remember! You took out those thugs on the platform.”
“Well, my stand-in did most of that.” She beamed a smile that made him want to fix another round of drinks.
“To me, it was all you,” he said.
She reached up and rummaged through her duffel bag. As she took something out, a few other things tumbled to the coffee table. A set of keys, a parking stub, two prescription bottles. She scooped everything up like a croupier. “Whoops. Sinus meds. Crisscrossing these climates…”
She placed a yellowed, mutilated envelope on the table. The address was carefully lettered in pencil. Jerry saw the 5-cent postage stamp, the one with the Mississippi magnolia on it. He recalled his mother telling him to mail the letter soon because they were about to raise the postage.
He didn’t know if she was giving it back or if he was just supposed to read it. He was more interested in talking to her. Her left eyebrow arched, just the way Crystal’s did when she thwarted an impostor or defused a bomb.
“Watching that show,” Jerry said, “was the last time I ever felt safe.”
“Including right now?”
“Including right now.”
“The double kept me safe,” she said. “A shame I couldn’t use her in real life.”
Night fell, darkening the windows. They drained the Kahlúa, and further violated Mrs. Wimmer’s no-smoking rule, coating the room in a buffering haze of tobacco amid the blue-white glow of the television.
“People used to smoke,” Sylvia said. “What happened?”
“We used to live more dangerously on so many levels. Now preservation is what’s in.”
Sylvia was reclined on the sectional with her arm across his knee. She leaned her head back, softly blowing smoke at the ceiling. “People can’t be themselves anymore. What you wrote to me at age 7, that was you. Older people never say honest things like that.”
“That’s why it’s called a schoolboy crush.”
Immediately he regretted saying this. Sylvia Sand pouted up at him, making him wonder if this was her or the actress. To save his less-than-shaven face, he added, “You’re right. That phrase has an unfair reputation.”
Sylvia stared at the Zenith. Enormous vehicles zoomed forward, trailing signs with monthly payment numbers. “You almost recognized me, didn’t you?” she said. “At the door?”
“Of course! It just took a minute, it’s such a surprise to see a stunning woman at my door. You understand it’s been 35 years.”
“We know how long, Jerry. Let’s stop mentioning numbers. Are you going to read your letter?”
“I know what it says. You’re a First Defender, and I want you to keep protecting us from tyranny and destruction. And to find my father and bring him home.”
“Those are big jobs,” Sylvia said. “I’ll need help.”
“You had a team once.”
Whether he read the letter or not, he sensed Sylvia wasn’t going anywhere. They were both going nowhere, as it happened, so he tried to steer. He leaned sideways in a slow list, and kissed the mouth of the fallen star. Her arms circled his neck. Her hair was brittle, sprayed into shape.
“Is this adultery?” Jerry asked.
She folded one leg toward her to pull off a loafer. “For who?” she asked.
The television stayed on.
After three days, she left. Jerry had been out only on brief errands. He’d silenced his phone after the first couple of calls. Toward the end, debris overtook infatuation. Chinese takeout boxes, dirty glasses, soiled laundry, smoked butts, empty bottles and wadded Kleenexes littered every surface, including the hardwood floor. He felt consumed. If the wind touched him, he’d become powder, like the ashes in the skillet. He might still have his job—or possibly not. When he’d begun cleaning up, she’d proclaimed abruptly, sullenly, that she had more fans to visit.
She didn’t ask for directions. She was a person long since done with taking directions. All she said was, “Thanks for keeping me out of the landfill, Jerry,” and gestured toward the Zenith.
“If you find my dad, let me know,” he replied. Jerry realized he had no clue as to her mode of transportation. It didn’t matter. Better to think of her as a firefly that might’ve just been a reflection on glass. Sylvia was gone, and he felt the same vague emptiness as when he’d received the signed glossy of the cast 35 years ago. The spell had long been broken, and besides, the reality of terrorists annihilating his way of life no longer bothered him. He was doing a pretty good job of destroying himself through insolvency.
He leased a 12-foot truck and a push broom. He specified two days for the truck rental. Though his mother’s house was only 10 miles away, he’d have to clear out part of her basement.
Maybe his living at home would matter to Daria, or maybe it wouldn’t.
He started in the bedroom, sweeping everything toward the front door, not bothering to sort clothing and dirty dishes from wrappers and plastic bottles. He had just stuffed the first trash bag when someone knocked at the door.
The tired eyes of Mrs. Wimmer looked first at him and then down at the refuse.
“Your rent’s overdue again, honey,” she said. “What happened? It smells like smoke in here.”
Jerry scrambled for his checkbook. “Sorry,” he said. “I’m moving. Today and tomorrow. Want to buy any furniture?”
“So quickly?” she said. “But you’ll lose your deposit with no notice.” She seemed genuinely concerned about this.
“It’s OK.” He held the check out to her over the berm of garbage, the rubble of no-man’s land. He gave her the check, even though it was not yet the 14th.
Arthur Hondros lives in Takoma Park and works in pre-press production for National Geographic in Washington, D.C. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Haight Ashbury Literary Journal, Karamu (now Bluestem Magazine), Packingtown Review, Pisgah Review, Red Wheelbarrow Literary Magazine, Westview and Winston-Salem Writers Anthology.