By Richard Ballou
That man over there, the one in the olive-toned hounds-tooth blazer and gold mock turtleneck, both at least two, maybe even four seasons out of style—yes, that man with his back slightly turned to us—he stole my wallet. He doesn’t know that I know. He thinks, because I didn’t say a word, he got away with it. Presumes that his timing and technique were impeccable: just as I rose from my chair, no doubt he bumped me just so on the left hip while his dexterous hand lifted the billfold from my opposite back pocket, the first action deftly distracting from the second. But I am no fool. I immediately sensed an absence, that something essential was missing from my person. A quick self-frisk revealed my full-grain, Italian-leather wallet to be gone. Emboldened, the rogue I’m sure now believes he’ll be able to execute the very same move again and again, perhaps in this very same room, so blithely unsuspecting as it is, so overflowing with Dom Pérignon, lavish hors d’oeuvres, and disposable income. For the time being he has no choice, for they have shut the doors of this splendid ballroom and no one is to leave, at least not until the grand entrance of the lovely couple.
I keep my eyes on him to see when and how he will pick another pocket. Or, worse, lift from the plump neck of some lightheaded matron a particularly vulnerable strand of pearls. I edge a little closer but maintain sufficient distance so he won’t suspect. Watching him carefully across the teeming floor, I can soon tell, however, that another theft is not his intent. He’s nervous and doesn’t want to draw attention. That is why he remains in the corner, his face studying the intricate pattern of the inlaid parquet instead of the crowd. He looks almost sad. His plan, I now realize, was to make the one hit and then quickly remove himself from the scene. He probably chanced upon all the cars and noticed the easy flow to and from of convivial guests, observed the obvious opulence of the grounds and evident lack of security. It would be an easy mark, a quick in-and-out. But the double doors closing was quite unexpected, a pair of tall and burly ushers planted like twin sphinxes in front of each one nonetheless. Both are dressed officially, golden sashes cutting diagonally across the chests of their military-like tuxedos, their arms crossed decisively to further proclaim they bar the way. Nothing is to spoil the climactic coup de théâtre of this wedding.
The room is a hum of anticipation. With our sequestration, the level of gaiety has ratcheted up a notch. The liquor flows more freely, the laughter more contagiously; bodies and faces cluster ever closer and closer. It’s as if we are all delighted to be sealed in, like so many oblivious lambs fattened up and then herded into the death pen the moment before slaughter.
The more jocund and gregarious the crowd grows, the more solemn and isolated our gate-crasher seems. He is out of place in more ways than one. No longer apprehensive, I have time to feel sorry for him, to note the subtleties of his discomfort. I read not only guilt and regret in his face, but a fall from grace, as if he himself once belonged in this milieu. He’s not a common thief, perhaps this is the very first time he has attempted a heist; for certain, crime is not in his nature. But these are desperate times. Not just for him, but for so many like him who only a few years ago were living a good life, swimming in the excess of the global economy, buoyed by the sleight of hand of the banks and financial wizards, figuring the bill would never come due. And then the mortgage crisis, followed by the oil crisis, the credit collapse coming close on its heels; and the economy, so long patched together by elaborate shell games and unbridled illusion and delusion, imploded. He is but one of thousands upon thousands of innocent middle- and upper-middle-class victims. But something in his eyes—the intelligence, the sensitivity, the self-consciousness—informs me he’s more victim than most.
The doors still remain closed. A person or two make inquiries as to when the newlyweds will arrive, but the ushers remain rigid and unapproachable, like two royal sentries on watch at Buckingham Palace. Again, it must be part of the program, a touch of dramatic, post-nuptial flair. Yet an elderly chap is making an impassioned request, flapping and waving his arms desperately at the inscrutable gatekeepers. It seems he must use the facilities. A kind gentleman chancing by advises him there’s a bathroom within the hall and escorts him in its direction. My petty larcenist apparently overhears and follows. I apprehend his intent: the restroom might afford an escape, if not through a window then at least from a skeptical eye. Perhaps, he thinks, I will soon discover my loss and begin to search for someone suspicious-looking. Someone whose attire doesn’t quite dovetail with the rest of the crowd. Worse, that I will yell out, “Thief, thief, keep the room sealed!”
I could have saved him the trip. There are no windows in that bathroom. I had cause to visit it earlier, a bit of indigestion perhaps from the buttery pâté de foie gras. Besides, there is only the one stall. If he sequesters himself within, sooner or later someone else will need access. Eventually he’ll be forced to emerge from his lair and face the crowd once again. Perhaps I will be waiting for him just outside.
As he enters, still the room waits. There has been sufficient time for the usual photographs with the wedding party. Time enough to sign the necessary documents, to tip the pastor handsomely, for a tearful chat with the mother and father who footed this six-figure fare. Something else is keeping the bride and groom. Perhaps some trouble pinning up the gown, a lock of hair out of place, or, heaven forbid, a premature lovers’ quarrel. No one here is much concerned except for my offender. There is a smorgasbord of top-shelf liquor, and tray upon tray of savory canapés makes the rounds.
And now it seems there is also entertainment. On the dais where the wedding party will preside, a man takes the microphone. Not just any man, but the spitting image of Frank Sinatra in his mid-career prime. He even has a set of pipes to match. He croons a snapshot medley of Ol’ Blue Eyes hits—from “Luck Be a Lady Tonight” to “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” to “Strangers in the Night,” from “My Kind of Town (Chicago Is)” to “New York, New York,” segueing from one to the other without hardly skipping a beat—and the crowd is mesmerized by the verisimilitude of his countenance, his manner, and his voice. For a minute or two I stand and listen, forgetting my loss and my adversary, losing myself in the magic of the moment, swept up by the rapture of the crowd.
The lingering void in my back pocket eventually stirs me from my reverie, and I turn my attention once more to the bathroom. The old man emerges. He looks first relieved and then shocked at the sight of the leader of the infamous Rat Pack. Has he walked through a time warp, he wonders? Is this real? Has the champagne affected not only his feeble, incontinent bladder but also his onset-of-Alzheimer’s mind? He stands in rapt attention as if entering the pearly gates, stunned perhaps to get in. Meanwhile, the ersatz Blue Eyes warbles “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered.”
I wonder what my caged intruder is doing now. Has he foraged through the contents of my wallet to see if the heist was worth it? Does he now know my identity? Strange, but as the thought occurs to me I feel an unsettling twinge, as if at this very moment something deep inside has been violated, as if some innermost, personal myth has been laid bare. I recover my composure and quickly tell myself, no, most likely he is simply preoccupied with laying low. Abject and self-loathing that he ever got himself into this mess. I wait for him to poke his head out to determine if the coast is clear while the crowd continues to wait for the lovely couple. Slowly and melodically our substitute Sultan of Swoon entertains us with “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.”
I have an opportunity. I can confront this man in the lavatory, face-to-face in front of the mirror, or mano a mano across the stall door. I can bang my fist on that barrier telling him I must use the toilet, “It is an emergency, I’m going to soil myself!” As he emerges I will be standing at the vanity, gazing at my reflection. I could reach for my comb and then in that very room, at that precise moment, pretend to realize my wallet is gone. I could look him in the eye and abruptly denounce, as if reading his guilt-ridden thoughts, “J’accuse. You, you are the one, you brushed me earlier. You are no guest.”
But it does not come to that. Soon enough he pokes his head out the door, eases out of the restroom and, hugging the adjacent wall, surveys the floor. The ballroom doors are still closed. Like the old man before him, our miscreant, too, does a double take at the double on the dais, who is now snapping his fingers and singing with saucy attitude “The Lady Is a Tramp.” The sound of the word “tramp” seems to transport my malefactor to a further state of guilt, for he now slinks away from the bathroom and mingles again with the crowd, his eyes darting nervously about, his hands thrust deeply in his pockets. He thinks twice about the plate of appetizers dangled tantalizingly before his nose. He looks hungrily at the waiter but then declines. Too bad, I think, because when else will he get such an offer. The pâté is sumptuous as are the shrimp and sushi rolls wrapped so delicately in the thinnest of rice papers and that rare and flavorful nori. He will never witness such extravagance again. If he should escape this afternoon, he’ll soon be back in the long unemployment line waiting for a job that might pay a third of his former income. Poor devil, it will only get worse for his sort. As opposed to the privileged in this room who remain largely insulated from the vagaries of the economy and the market. We saw it coming. We always see it coming.
“Frank” announces that there has been a slight delay. In a street-smart and bawdy tone, he cracks a joke about the groom perhaps not being able to hold out until tonight to “check out the goods.” And who would, he approvingly adds, with a dame as loaded in all departments as she? But bear with us folks, he promises, it will be worth the wait, there is quite a show to come. That said, he abruptly turns his back to the audience, tilts his head down, and takes a deep, introspective pause. Slowly swiveling back to face us, he seems in the interim to have somehow morphed into the older Sinatra now, much fuller in the face and chest, mellowed and settled, no longer full of himself. He launches into “It Was a Very Good Year.”
I am once more drawn into the performance, my eyes on the dais, again entranced by not only the music but the uncanny faithfulness of our impressionist’s delivery and style. The earlier swagger and cool command bend and age into a more nuanced and pensive tone—slightly flawed here or there by a faint crack in the timbre or an occasional note insufficiently sustained—as our emulator summons the subtleties and vulnerabilities of The Voice in the autumn of his years. I find myself lost in the museful, measured rhythm.
That disquieting twinge in some back alley of my mind returns, pulling my focus away from the nostalgia of the dais back down to the present and the floor. But I do not spy my nemesis. I look to each of the corners of the ballroom, to the nooks and crannies and points farthest where he might be hiding. Has he made himself as small a target as possible? Has he retreated back to the restroom? Has he somehow escaped?
What’s this? From the far side of the room, our trespasser is heading my way. He appears, in fact, to be staring straight at me. I gaze away. I glance back in his direction only to find he still approaches, his eyes most definitely directed precisely on mine. He is no longer stooped, no longer angst-ridden. There is a confidence about him, and his head seems to rise well above the crowd. For the first time I realize he’s rather tall, as tall as me perhaps before I began to lose height through the compression of an aging spine. It happens to taller men once they reach their mid-fifties, you know. It happens even to those like me who continue to work out and watch their weight. I cannot help but now notice how fit and slender his figure is. As slender and fit as mine in my time, I should say. Women take note of him as he passes, give their appraising up and down, smile demurely and approvingly as they catch his eye. He returns the briefest and most urbane of smiles and moves on through the crowd, ever closer to me.
Is this the same man? Have I somehow mistaken him for another? Is that the same coat and shirt? Yes, there is no mistaking. The dated outfit stands out from the rest. And yet now, compared to everyone else’s, his outmoded attire seems to take a sudden leap forward, as if here at this very moment he has established some new, groundbreaking style.
It occurs to me that perhaps it is not him after all. That he swapped clothes with someone else while in the bathroom. With a man who he resembled. That my furtive intruder is now elsewhere in this large hall, cloaked in more elegant dress. No, as he edges nearer, some twenty feet away now, there is no confusing that face. It is such a familiar face. A strangely likable, admirable, and yet unapproachable one. There is no doubt it is him. There is no doubt that is the man who stole from me what he has no right to.
And just what are his present intentions? What is he going to do when he reaches me? Will he, confidence and position apparently restored, buttonhole me chest to chest and whisper in my ear, “Don’t dare cry out, don’t finger me now or later. I know who you are. I know where you live. I can steal again.” Or will he simply laugh in my face, as if I’m some sort of cravenly worm who he has presently sized up as no threat whatsoever. Or, worse, having infiltrated such an exclusive gathering, having violated my person and my privacy, having usurped my identity in this cloistered hall, will he in the end expose to me some covert truth about myself I cannot bear to hear?
For sure something has changed, for certain my life will never be the same. There is no retreating. He is now within striking distance. His larcenous arm rises up.
“I believe this is yours,” he says and hands me the wallet. “You must have dropped it. I hope you don’t mind, I stole a look inside. Your license photo allowed me to pick you out of the crowd. Except for the age difference, we rather resemble each other, wouldn’t you say?”
Just then on the dais our charming impersonator, returning once more to his assumed persona in his prime, concludes “Love and Marriage;” and as if on cue the two obdurate ushers step aside and the doors finally thrust open. With a baritone bravado that precisely mimes the Chairman of the Board at his vintage best, our master of ceremonies proclaims, “Ladies and gentleman, I give you your eternally conjoined couple, the lovely, the inseparable Mr. and Mrs. __________.”
The bride and groom appear, and there is a round of explosive, pent-up applause. My interloper exits even as they enter, and for a moment, for a long tempting moment, I want to follow.