Next of Kin
It was a middle-of-the-night sort of phone call that came on a Saturday afternoon, a New York City police officer asking if I knew a man named Basil Farley. I’d known him at one time, I said, but I didn’t know him anymore. I hadn’t seen him in ages. Basil had been my mother’s boyfriend—her “beau,” as she called him—during the last couple of years of her life.
“He was clipped by a cab on Second Avenue this morning,” the officer said. “It looked like he’d be fine except for a broken leg, but then he had a heart attack at the hospital. I’m sorry.”
“You mean he’s dead?” I said.
“I’m afraid so.”
“But why are you calling me about it?”
“He listed you as his next of kin.”
“I’m not, though. He has a daughter.” I struggled to remember her name.
“He’s at Lenox Hill Hospital,” the officer said and gave me a number to call. Reflexively, I wrote it down on a fashion catalog, scrawled across a photo of an ecru alpaca wrap. “They can suggest a funeral home if you don’t have one in mind.”
“A funeral home? But I’m not responsible for him.” He had hung up.
I’d been on my way out to meet a friend for lunch, a rare book dealer named Sid whom I was actively wooing despite his obvious lack of interest in being anything but my friend. We were both in our early forties, and neither of us had been married, which made me a spinster and him a catch. I called him and told him what had happened. He asked if he could help. That was how he was. You could fall madly in love with me, I thought. I very nearly said it.
“What would happen if I just left him there?” I said.
“They might hound you about him,” he said.
“Do you think I’ll have to give him a funeral?” I didn’t have the money for even a pine box. My freelance job scouting celebrity interviews for a gossip magazine was barely enough to keep me afloat. “It’s just so weird that he had my number. What am I going to do?”
“A step at a time,” Sid said. “Call the hospital first.”
The number I called was answered by a woman’s brusque voice. I explained myself and was told that I had to come to the hospital to retrieve Basil’s possessions.
“I’d rather not,” I said. “Can’t you just give them away?”
“There’s a gold watch and a leather wallet with three hundred twenty dollars in it,” she said. “You got seventy-two hours to collect the body.”
“What happens after seventy-two hours?” I said.
“State takes it,” she said. “Body goes to science.”
“Well, that’s a good cause,” I said brightly.
“I wouldn’t want it for my father,” she said.
“He’s not my father.”
“Wouldn’t want it for anyone,” she said. “Room 1B06, use the east side entrance, elevator to the first basement. I’m here until five.”
The hospital wasn’t far, so I walked there. It was the first really beautiful day of spring after weeks of chilly rain, and the pear trees on my street were snowing blossoms. I lived on East 69th Street in a studio apartment that I had rigged up with a curtain so it looked like two rooms. At one time I had owned a one bedroom in the West Village, but the morning talk show for which I’d worked as a producer was canceled a few years back, and I’d ended up having to find somewhere less expensive to live. My forty-two-year-old life closely resembled what my life had looked like at twenty-five, when I lived in a shoebox apartment and worked a job I considered a waste of my talent and time.
The brusque woman at the hospital was as small as her voice was large. Her thick blond hair was teased into a helmet-shaped bouffant and held fast to her head by a wide, red barrette. I wondered where someone so tiny bought her clothes. In the children’s department, I guessed. There was nothing childish about her, though, she had an unusually dignified air considering she was only about four feet tall. She slid off her desk chair and went to a double row of gray metal lockers stacked on top of each other.
“Help me with this,” she commanded, pointing to an upper locker. I went over and opened it. There was a clear plastic bag as big as a bed pillow that held a tweed jacket and a pair of gray flannel pants, a wallet, a set of keys, and a handful of loose change. The watch was fancy, a Rolex.
“This is his stuff?” I said.
“You tell me,” she said. She went back to her desk and climbed onto her chair. “You have to verify that everything is there.”
“I wouldn’t know,” I said. “I haven’t seen him in years.”
“Your own father, what a tragedy,” she said, pushing a form across the desk.
“He’s not—” I began but decided not to bother.
In the hospital lobby, I sat on a bench and fished Basil’s wallet from the bottom of the bag. I pocketed the cash and extracted his driver’s license from behind a chunk of credit cards. On the license was his address. I took my phone from my purse and called Sid.
“Will you come with me to Basil’s apartment?” I said.
“Sure,” Sid said. “I’ll meet you there.”
I strapped Basil’s Rolex loosely around my wrist. I would need to have it adjusted to fit me. “Guess what,” I said. “The woman who gave me his stuff was a midget.”
“Wow, no kidding. You never see midgets anymore. Why is that, I wonder?” We were silent for a moment, considering the question. “Or dwarves either,” he said.
I didn’t want to make a thing out of Basil being dead until I could find someone to take responsibility for his body, so I told the doorman at Basil’s building on Fifth Avenue that I was Basil’s visiting niece. I was wearing leggings and a tattered hoodie, but Sid looked respectable in a blue cashmere sweater and jeans that he had ironed so many times they had pale creases down their legs. There were nerdy things about Sid I ignored—who cared that he wore a white undershirt that showed beneath his collar or laughed in a dry “hee-hee-hee” way, like a dastardly cartoon character? He was sweet and almost handsome in a Clark Kent-ish-like manner, shorter than I was, but that was okay. I wondered what he thought of me more than I should have. I wasn’t so fabulous either.
After some confusion with the locks and keys, we let ourselves into Basil’s apartment. On a round table in a little foyer sat a delicious smelling arrangement of white peonies and lilac. The flowers were fresh, perhaps delivered that morning. He’d expected to come home, like everyone did.
We went into the living room. It was high-ceilinged and large, with three big windows facing the park. There was a conglomeration of upholstered furniture covered in matching green and white chintz, and little side tables here and there with knickknacks displayed on their polished surfaces, china figurines and miniature paintings, a carved ivory fan, a purple crystal on a stand. I picked up a netsuke of a sleeping dog I admired and slipped it into the pocket of my hoodie.
“What was he like?” Sid said. He was perusing the books in a gigantic built-in bookcase. He took out a book. “Leather bound. Nice.”
“He was short and chubby. And bald,” I said.
“No, I meant what kind of person was he?”
I thought about it. A rich person, obviously. My mother, who’d had very little money herself, had made a point of dating rich men. “Very polite. Old fashioned. He always stood up when I came into the room. I didn’t see him very often, but we always got along.” My mother hadn’t been in love with him, or with any of her other boyfriends either. Not for the first time, I wondered if she’d ever been in love.
“It must have been hell growing up with a name like Basil.”
“Bahsil,” I drawled. “It suited him, though.”
I went back out to the foyer and down a short hall that led to Basil’s bedroom. A queen-size bed was flanked by matching nightstands that held stacks of hardcover novels and biographies. I picked one up: The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama, dog-eared in several places. I wouldn’t have taken Basil for a Democrat. Certainly my mother hadn’t been one. The nightstands’ shallow drawers offered not much more than a battalion of medication bottles, nail clippers and a file, and a white Bible no bigger than the palm of my hand. In between the pages of the Bible was a studio photograph of Basil as a young man with a curly-haired little girl perched on his knee. Out of the blue, I remembered his daughter’s name: Arabella. I’d never met her, but Basil once said I should because she and I were about the same age.
“I have a very strong feeling the daughter is dead,” I shouted to Sid as I sat down on the side of the bed. He was wandering around somewhere. When he came in, I showed him the Bible and the photograph. “Because why else wouldn’t he have given her name as next of kin?”
“Uh oh,” Sid said. “Well, he must have a lawyer. Everyone has a lawyer.”
“I don’t.” I would list Sid as my next of kin, I thought, I’d make him responsible for my body. “Did you see a den or an office?”
Sid shook his head. “There’s a little desk in the living room, but it looks like he only used it to store old tax returns and bank statements in the drawers. I looked for a will, but I didn’t find one. Otherwise there’s only this room and a dining room off the kitchen. Considering his age, he didn’t have much stuff. My parents have so much junk in their house you can barely get through the door.”
I wondered, if Basil’s daughter was dead, had he made me a beneficiary of his will? I couldn’t think why he would have, but stranger things had happened. Already, I was spending the imaginary money and planning to move into his apartment. I looked around: I would paint the bedroom a deep shade of periwinkle and replace the queen bed with a king.
“I need to find his address book,” I said. There hadn’t been a cell phone in the bag with his effects, but there was an ancient touchtone phone by the bed. Old people, I thought impatiently. My mother had died without ever using an ATM; she’d written checks at the bank when she needed cash, standing in line for the teller. She’d had a fat leather address book full of disconnected old numbers and outdated addresses, but she could always find whom she was looking for in it. Basil had to have had something like that. Eventually I would scare up a friend or a relative.
His chest of drawers held neatly folded boxer shorts and shirts, argyle socks rolled into balls; his large closet, hung with a surprising number of trousers and sport jackets, smelled like mothballs and lime aftershave. There were shoes fitted with wooden shoetrees and sweaters stacked on the shelves. Everything was just so. If I were to die that minute, Sid would find a half-eaten bag of Doritos in my unmade bed and yesterday’s underpants on the bathroom floor.
I gazed out the window while I tried to think where else an address book would be. The sun streamed low and golden through the trees in the park, painting half the street. It was closing in on cocktail hour. “I wonder if he has anything to drink.”
“We can’t drink his liquor,” Sid said in a scandalized voice.
“Of course we can,” I said. Sid grinned at me as if I were a mischievous child. I hadn’t meant to come off as mischievous, I was just dying for a glass of wine.
On a counter in the kitchen there was a wrought iron wine rack that held a few bottles of Bordeaux; a large blue bottle of Bombay gin sat nearby on a brass handled wooden tray. I uncorked a Bordeaux using the corkscrew on the tray and found a wineglass in an upper cupboard. The kitchen was small and gloomy and had only a single window that looked out on a brick wall. The yellow linoleum floor was scratched and worn, and the appliances looked as if they’d been bought in the last century. I looked in the fridge. Half a lemon, an unopened bottle of tonic, and two bottles of what appeared to be expensive champagne. The Formica and chrome table and matching chairs were so old they were back in fashion.
“Wine?” I said to Sid as I took down another glass.
He was scrabbling around in a drawer, taking out items and dropping them back in. He pulled out a creased paper menu and let it flutter to the floor. “Gross, there are mouse droppings in here!” he said and rushed to the sink to wash his hands.
I picked up the menu. “I remember this restaurant. It’s around the corner. Basil used to take my mother there all the time.” Basil had circled several dishes on the menu in pencil. “He must have ordered his meals from here. How sad.” I imagined him sitting at the table all by himself dining on boeuf en croûte and floating island and drinking a glass of champagne. There was a little TV on the counter opposite the table. He had probably watched it while he was eating.
“Drawer number two,” Sid said as he peeked into the second drawer. “Oh! Silver flatware.” He held a fork up to the overhead light. “Kirk Stieff Repousse. Gorgeous.”
I watched him through my wineglass. I wished he would look at me the way he was looking at that fork. “Hey, I’m starving,” I said. “Let’s order something to eat.”
“I don’t know, it feels weird to hang around here. Let’s go get sushi or something.”
“But look, they have Dover sole!” I said. We both loved Dover sole.
He blinked at the menu. “Whoa, for thirty dollars.”
“Live a little,” I said. I picked up the receiver of a wall-mounted phone—an old touchtone like the one in the bedroom—and dialed the number of the restaurant. Taped to the wall beside the phone was an index card printed with phone numbers for the front desk in the lobby, a dry cleaner, a grocery store, a pharmacy, and someone named Mrs. Gomez. At the bottom of the list “Arabella” was written above a phone number with an unfamiliar area code. Both the name and the number had lines drawn through them, scratched out but still legible, which made me wonder if she was estranged from Basil rather than dead. I could have called the number immediately and found out which, but I wasn’t in the mood just then to give or hear unhappy news.
I set the dining room table with an embroidered white cloth and two gold-rimmed plates that I found in a glass-fronted sideboard. If Basil had given dinner parties, and it seemed he once had, he hadn’t given one in a long time, because the cloth smelled musty and the plates were sticky with dust, requiring a wash with dish soap and a brush. When I lived in the Village, I’d given a lot of parties. I missed the excitement of preparing for guests, the buzz of a packed dinner table. Being invited to a party wasn’t nearly as fun as giving one of my own, but I never had people over to my place on 69th. It was too small to entertain in, and, frankly embarrassing: I didn’t need to view my diminished life through anyone else’s eyes.
Sid was at the living room bookcase again, a proverbial bee to honey. “I wonder if I can buy some of these books from Basil’s estate,” he said as I walked in. I filled his empty glass from a fresh bottle of wine. He showed me a book. “House of Mirth, first edition.”
“Take it,” I said.
He replaced the book. “Grave robber,” he said. “You can’t just take a dead person’s things.”
“Yes, you can. When my aunt died, I took all her jewelry.”
“Because she was your aunt,” Sid said. “You had a relationship.”
“I had somewhat of a relationship with Basil a while ago. And, hello, I’m his next of kin.” I took the book from the shelf again and offered it to him. “Here, I’m giving it to you as a present.” He looked at the empty slot in the bookcase, then back at the book. Clearly he wanted to have it. The doorbell rang. “The food’s here!” I said and thrust it into his hands.
A bevy of side dishes came with the sole, kept warm in aluminum foil containers. I arranged the food on our plates and lit four candles in a small silver candelabra. The dining room had only an overhead light that I was certain made me look haggard, so I turned it off, and we ate in a pool of candlelight that was either spooky or romantic, depending on your perspective. I poured champagne into a pair of crystal flutes.
“To Basil,” I said, raising my glass.
“Poor guy,” Sid said.
“Well, if you have to go, I think a heart attack is a pretty good way.” My mother had died a long and agonizing death from esophageal cancer.
“But dying alone?” Sid said. “I wouldn’t want that.”
Me either, I thought, but unless Sid or some other man stepped up, dying alone was where I was headed. Back in the days when my life made sense, I’d had a boyfriend I’d expected eventually to marry until he moved to Los Angeles for a job. Stupidly, I hadn’t gone with him because of my job (soon to be nonexistent) and because I didn’t want to be the kind of woman who gave up things for a man. Quite the feminist I was. Thinking about it made me grimace.
“What’s wrong?” Sid said. “You okay?” His forehead was creased with concern.
God, how I loved his thoughtfulness. “Not a thing!” I said.
“What could be wrong?”
“Oh, I don’t know. We’re sitting in a dead man’s dining room, which in theory could be depressing.”
“Yet in actuality it’s very pleasant,” I said. If he disagreed, I couldn’t tell.
“You know, I bet the doorman would know the names of a few of Basil’s friends,” he said. “Doormen are in on everything. What do you think?”
For a moment I didn’t know what to say. Of course he was right. “It’s an idea,” I said. “But I already told him I’m Basil’s niece. I’d have to admit I was lying.”
“He won’t care,” Syd said. He took a bite of his sole. “Delicious.”
“Isn’t it? My mother loved Dover sole, too.” This also was a lie, she’d hated fish, but I knew that my lack of family pulled heavily at Sid’s heartstrings. He reached over and patted the table an inch from my hand, as if he’d been going for the hand and missed.
I poured the last two inches of the champagne into our glasses and went to open the second bottle. When I came back, Sid was eating buttered asparagus with his fingers, which if not exactly sexy, made me think about sex. I kicked off my sneakers, sat down, and felt for his leg with my foot. I found his thigh and scooted down in my chair until my toe touched what I hoped was his crotch.
“Oh,” he said, looking down at his lap. “What are you up to?”
“Taking things in hand,” I said. “Or rather, in foot.” He continued to look at his crotch as if shocked to find it there. I slid off my chair and ducked under the tablecloth, plunging into darkness so black I was momentarily unmoored. On my hands and knees, I crawled to him and felt for the zipper of his pants. His penis was limp but grew hard when I put it in my mouth. Giving a blowjob was rarity for me, it just wasn’t my forte, but what I lacked in technique I made up for in determination. When he was good and hard and breathing heavily, I crawled back out from under the table. I took his hand.
“Come on,” I said, leading him toward Basil’s bedroom. He looked ridiculous with a massive hard-on poking out of his fly.
“I don’t think . . .” he said.
“Don’t think,” I said.
Basil’s bedroom was dark. I went to turn on a lamp.
“No,” Sid said. “Leave it off.”
I fell onto the bed and pulled him on top of me. We kissed aggressively for a while, our tongues wrestling with each other, then I peeled off my leggings and unbuckled his belt. I felt for his penis. It was limp again.
“What can I do to remedy this?” I said in a humorous voice. “Tell me what you like.”
There was a long moment when we stared at each other’s indistinct faces, pale ovals in the dark. “Guys,” he said finally.
“Guys?” I said.
“I like men. I’m gay.”
I popped up like a jack-in-the box and snapped on the bedside light. Basil’s bedroom sprang to life. “Gay?” I said loudly. I pulled up my leggings and readjusted my hoodie. Basil’s netsuke fell out of my pocket and rolled off the bed onto the floor. “Jesus, Sid, you should have told me.”
“I thought it was obvious!” he said as he pulled himself together. “I mean, come on. You must have known on some level.”
Wishful thinking, I thought. Sure, he wasn’t the manliest of men, but I hadn’t considered him particularly effeminate either. I’d thought he was being polite when he never mentioned ex-girlfriends, but he hadn’t told me about any boyfriends either, so I didn’t think I’d been that dense. I had been working on him for over five months, ever since we met at a mutual friend’s party.
“What a waste of time,” I said.
“Wow, thanks. I thought we’ve been having a lot of fun together, but I guess not.”
“No, we were,” I said. “We do. But I wanted you to be in love with me.”
He drew back. “Are you in love with me?”
I paused. “Okay, good point. But I could potentially be. I like you better than any guy I’ve known.”
“I like you better than anyone too. We think the same things are funny, we always have a lot to talk about. We enjoy each other’s company! Don’t you know how unusual it is to make a new friend at our age?”
“Our age. Right.” I flopped back on the bed and stared at the ceiling. Basil’s sheets smelled like they needed to be washed, body odor mixed with the tang of his cologne. The last time I’d seen him was at the hospital when my mother was days from death. I must have given him my phone number then. I was surprised to feel tears slide down the sides of my face. I hadn’t known I was crying. “Sid?” I said. “Will you be my next of kin?”
“I’d like nothing better,” he said. He lay down next to me and put his arm over my waist. We fell asleep like that. Like lovers.