The Man of a Thousand Faces Strikes Again! the headlines read, once more. Internally Florence groaned. He was at it again.
She turned from the newsstand that was loudly proclaiming its wares with bold typeface and a young child crying news, news! Closing her eyes, Florence breathed in deeply, as if trying to scrape off the blaring words from her brain. But you cannot un-see things.
She took the path that pleased her most; down Coburg and up Rass. She liked this route because it was on the water, and she could look out over the wharf and listen to the gulls crying. Long ago, her mother had entered America through this wharf.
She took off her shoes and dangled them in the water. The mussels and barnacles stuck to the sides of the piers brushed her bare feet gently and she smiled into the cool swirling water. Florence watched as the ships came in and docked and people unloaded, families with three generations, young single men and women, elderly couples trying their luck in a new world.
Sighing, Florence stood again and walked barefoot to the end of the wharf, where she put her shoes on again.
Carrying her small leather briefcase, Florence walked the whole way down Rass, turned to Hillerbrad Avenue, and stopped at the corner of Remy. Remy Street was an apartment street for immigrants and the near-homeless. But it was the only place where she could afford to keep herself and Josy.
The first apartment on Remy was pre-furnished and more expensive. She passed this one. Florence walked all the way down to the second block of Remy, to the poorer apartments, and stopped at the gloomiest building. The apartment was sagging, its once-red bricks greying sadly from the wind off the wharf, its windows shattered and replaced with soggy cardboard. The apartment at the top, though, seemed cheerier. The window box was full of red poppies and sweetly waving lilies.
Florence unlocked the door with her dangerously thin key and climbed up the eternal stairs to the penthouse. She let herself into her apartment.
Inside was total havoc.
Cloth—or was it clothes? Or sheets?—was piled everywhere, on the table, in the chipping sink, on both creaky beds, on the bookshelves, dangling out the windows and crushing her flowers, partly blocking the front door, in the bathtub, in the bathroom sink, everywhere. Books were piled almost everywhere too, and food. Carrots dripped from the icebox; ice sat melting in the cupboards next to soggy bread, raw steaks, waiting patiently for the apartment party the coming weekend, doused clothing with spatters of animal blood. Onions, usually hanging up in the eaves and corners of the room, hung like small white bodies, in clean saucepans and in the small toilet and on the shelves in the closet.
At least the walls were relatively the same; wallpapered with the pages of books her cousin had torn from bookstore books that she had been unable to persuade him to return. Leafs from Moby Dick, Communist Manifesto, Dombey and Son, Paradise Lost, and even a few books that he had taken from his own Bible, Amos, Malachai, Lamentations, Philemon, Leviticus, Proverbs, Job, and Letters to the Romans, to name a few.
Florence groaned loudly, pointedly.
One of the mounds of clothing—this particular mound had flopped itself on her rickety iron cot—moved slightly and sat up, not revealing the spirit that haunted it. Angrily Florence flounced over to her bed and struck her cousin.
‘Hey, what’d you do that for?’ cried the bruised clothing.
‘How?’ asked Florence incredulously. ‘How on earth, in the three hours that I was gone, did you make all this mess?’
‘O, this?’ asked her cousin. ‘April Fools!’
Florence shrieked in fury. ‘Clean it up, Josephinus! Clean it up!’
‘All right, all right.’ Slowly her cousin got up and over a long half-hour, cleaned their apartment.
When he was done Florence stood there, slowly shaking her head. ‘Why would you do this? I came home from a long day of working for rich, fat, irritable men and I come home to your horrible mess, a mess created out of a foolish April Fool’s joke.
‘I cannot believe you.’
And through his scolding Josephinus sat there on his bed and looked straight at her, into her eyes, smiling slightly, either evilly or innocently she could not be sure. Huffing, annoyed, Florence suddenly remembered, looking into those eyes that could change their owner into someone totally different, the headlines of the paper that afternoon.
‘O yes, and Josephinus, do you care to explain today’s newspaper heading?’
And then his large lionlike eyes sparked, ‘Surely. You know a genius like me has to have some sort of stimulation for his mind. Even Dante and Socrates down at the Public Library will only tide me over for a few hours. And you know I cannot take a job. Jobs are dull. I shall write a book, or a song, someday, and make all my money, and pay you back for everything, and move away and you’ll never see me again and rue your harsh words to me,’
But in all of this his eyes, if his mouth did not, smiled, and she knew he did not mean his words.
‘But robbery, Josephinus. How could you? We are of an honest family, Josy. Would you be the first one to break that strain?
‘But no! you already have, I forget. What was the first? Disguising yourself as a porter on the USS Lousia for the day, and pilfering Lady Aria’s pearl necklace and replacing it with a fake, dropping off the real necklace where the fake had been, in that pawnshop off Sixth. That’s your idea of stimulation? And then it was taking the stone elephants from Carnegie, carved before Christ came, and replacing them with ones you made yourself. You sold those real ones to a widow for two bits, I recall. You—you—twopenny Robin Hood! You sod head! You three eyed salmon! I hope you are pleased with yourself! Today the President’s gold pocket watch, which had been given to him by his grandmother, was stolen, and they say it was replaced with a plastic one. They can’t place the original. I suppose, Josy, it’s in some secondhand pawnshop on—Crotona—or Saxe Boulevard or something! I hope you are pleased with yourself, Josy! For your mother certainly isn’t! She is rolling over in her grave in shame right now, I am certain!’
Josephinus’s grin just grew larger. ‘I am pleased with myself. I am Robin Hood. And some poor maltreated woman will find that golden pocket watch and pull herself up by her bootstraps tomorrow.’
‘But thievery, Josy!’
‘It stimulates me, and the rich need some drama in their lives. Thievery serves as both,’ he shrugged nonchalantly.
‘Josy, you have to stop! They’ll catch you one day! How on earth did they even find out it was the same person?’
‘Well, I leave a mark,’ he replied vaguely.
‘A mark!’ she was near exploding.
‘Yeah. I leave a note, stating my name—the Man of a Thousand Faces (though in reality I can only do three hundred disguises or so)—which is how they got that particular nickname. You like it?’
Florence snorted in disgust and turned away. ‘You have to stop, Josy. If I hear another new article about it, or see another headline, you are out of this apartment. I won’t stand for it. It has to stop.’
She slammed out of the apartment before he could reply.
Florence went down to the wharf again.
Josephinus sat down at the table. There was a little bowl of sugar cubes, and he took one and put it into his mouth, letting the granules dissolve onto his tongue. The moon, outside, rose quietly, and he smiled at the globe of light spilling onto the water in his glass. Then he turned to his small trunk of disguises and began his transformation.
‘Well, Mr Philips,’ he murmured to himself as he strapped on white butler’s gloves. He was oign to be Mr Philips, butler to the esteemed Rockefeller, tonight.
His words were like quiet stains on the tablecloth, washed like a river. Stains that were trying to cover for the others, or at least blend into the pattern, making excuses for himself and for Florence. He was dissatisfied with his impeccable alteration, but told himself that good was better than perfect.
Down at the water, Florence took sand in her palms and scrubbed at her bare feet angrily, as though washing away the stains of her apartment. She scoured so long and so hard on her own tough and gnarled feet that when she raised her hand from her sore soles, she saw that her under her fingernails was a dark color, trickling out into the water and onto her fingers.
She laughed suddenly, ‘I have literally scrubbed until my fingers bled,’ she told the gently moving water.
Then, a thought blasted through her mind like lightening on a clear day. Josephinus might be able to go out, do his work, and come back in all the time she had been gone.
The apartment door was slowly opening as she rounded the corner, panting. Florence threw herself onto it unresisting wood, yelling, ‘No, Josy, no!’
She heard a quick movement on the other side, as though he was going to shove her away and make his escape, but then he thought better of it, and leaped away from the pushing door. The sound of its slamming was too loud.
Florence wrenched it open again and threw herself into the room, screaming, ‘Josy, no!’
He was sitting at the table, under the window, looking tragic.
She was so angry she could spit—and not only that; she was so angry that she felt if she spit, the saliva would turn lava and burn its acidic way through the apartment and down to the center of the earth to meet with its cousins, and on its way set fire to anything it came into contact with.
‘Explain yourself.’ Her voice was a barely controlled dragon.
‘Flo, I’m sorry.’
She could tell this was sincere.
‘This last time, please. Please, I ask you, just let me do it once more, and then I’ll never, ever do it again as long as I live.’
Florence was shaking physically. But then she abruptly gave in, seeing the steely glint in her cousin’s eyes. ‘If I catch you at it again, Josephinus, you will never see me again.’
Like a child at a candy shop, Josephinus gave a whoop and was gone.
And he kept his word. Florence never heard another word about it, never saw him looking like anyone other than himself, never saw another headline about the Man of a Thousand Faces—except the ones praising the police for having scared off the notorious thief. She knew he disguised himself a few times on Halloween, for better candy, but she never caught him at it—for, of course, she could not tell if the old woman with a little bag of candy was Josephinus or really an old woman, if the lean young man dressed in black eating a neighbor’s cookout was really the musician from U of A like he said, or if he was Josephinus.
It was true, at least when they shared an apartment. But when he’d bought his own house, it was a different story altogether. But he really could not help himself; he was, as he said, a genius, and geniuses need stimulation. Disguise was Josy’s. Though it was less than one thousand, he was as the newspapers called him.
He was the man of a thousand faces.