May 6, 2016 | Rome, Italy | Clear 21°C

Jimmy, an excerpt

By Bonnie Altucher
Published: 2016-04-11

"Can you help me jimmy the lock to my apartment?"

n a summer evening in 1967, Helen walked alone through the Greenwich Village crowd. She passed smartly dressed couples lined up at the Bon Soir, a shirtless boy in a magician's cape who handed her a flyer; he was barely propped up by the solid heat tainted with airborne lead, garbage. The Mad Lads were playing tonight, and the Hand People. Ozone bloomed, then a spatter of rain marked her light shift and sandals.

She decided to take shelter in the Eighth Street bus crosstown. Rain struck the roof and as suddenly ceased when they entered her own scruffy neighborhood, polished with pink and green neon. The pavement was already drying as she crossed busy St. Marks Place, avoiding a forest of closing umbrellas.

The whole way home she had been thinking about her psychotherapist, silently arguing while keeping her teary face turned to the window glass. "You're attacking me because I'm not doing things your way. Well, I've made some mistakes, but I've made even more progress, according to you! Don't I get credit for that?"

As she opened her building door, she reached for the little money purse to which her keys were attached. She dug into her crocheted shoulder bag again. Gone. There had been at least four dollars folded inside, plus assorted coins. She hurried out to the street, partly retraced her steps to the bus stop, before giving up.

In the vestibule she could hear raucous, wheeling Puerto Rican music like those cartoons in which everyone chased each other before collapsing in a dizzy heap. On the third floor someone's plunky piano practice competed with a Nancy Wilson single, lately left on to repeat many times in a row. Helen shared her fire escape with an exotic plant storeowner who had lived there for decades. She knocked on his door, hoping he would allow her access through his apartment, though he would scold her for leaving her windows unlocked. Finally, she walked back down to the third floor. The Nancy Wilson-lover's door opened on what turned out to be a teary-eyed blond sausaged into a bath towel. She claimed to have a gate obstructing her fire escape and when Helen asked if she could possibly unlock it, she said that she couldn't remember where she'd hidden the key. Outside it was two more steps down to the super's apartment where he was often dead drunk by this hour. She knocked for a while, then gave up.

Helen would have to ask a passerby for dimes and then start calling friends from a pay phone.

A hippie was approaching down the street. Boy or man? He was narrow-hipped, his cockeyed but appealing face still marred by residual acne, but she saw that his forearms, exposed in a tee shirt, were muscular.

"A dime for a phone call?" He looked her up and down with one appraising eye. "If you're after my money you have to do better that!"

"Oh, drop it." She waved him away. "It isn't your money, it's only one dime we're discussing here."

"What's the matter? Somebody rob you? You live in this building?"

She said warily, "Why do you ask?"

"'Cause I live right around the corner, back to back with this one. You just break up with somebody? Face it, Girl. You into Nancy Wilson, by any chance?"

"Try 3C."

"Hah. I can hear it in my place."

She studied him, trying to size him up. Bell-bottoms, bandana, a Mr. Clean earring, the lank hair eclipsing his sideburns. What was he, a hippie? Some interesting new thing, a psychedelic Puerto Rican?

She said, "You live around the corner?"

"Yeah, in the building right behind this one."

"Do you want to earn two dollars?" Did that sound too cheap? "I can't pay you tonight though. You'd have to come back on Monday. Can you help me jimmy the lock to my apartment?"

"Jimmy. Hey, that's my name. I'm Jimmy. Hi, Helen!" he said when she introduced herself. "You serious? Wait a minute, what kind of lock you got?"

"Nothing fancy. Just what was already on the door when I moved in."

"I don't want two dollars, but I'll tell you, there's a favor you could do me."

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