The Goldilocks Syndrome
Peter A. Christensen
“Unusual behavior? Bizarre? No, not him. He’s an observer. He watches, eyes twinkling, drink in hand, as the other guests at the party jump fully clothed into the pool. He keeps buttoned a tight collar of reserve, not on principle nor out of arrogance or pretense, that’s just the way he is. He’s not a player at the rougher sports; the quiet conversations are what come to him.
Well, maybe there was one thing that you might be interested in. He showed up one night, unexpected and unannounced, a Thursday I think it was, a month, six weeks ago. An odd night at an odd hour. Shows up at ten-thirty with a six-pack of beer, wanting to shoot the breeze. Hadn’t been drinking or anything, just said he was in the neighborhood and thought he’d take a chance on stopping by, maybe catch us up and induce us to share his beer. Sure, we were glad to see him. Surprised, maybe even shoved a little off-balance, it was that out of character for him to show up like that. But, hell, we were just watching L.A. Law or something. Sure, come on in.
We sat in front of the T.V. gabbing, light informal chat about nothing in particular. Just old friends schmoozing while keeping an eye on the tube. Midway through the eleven o’clock news, he excuses himself to use the bathroom. Next thing we know, we hear the shower running. I mean he’s in there taking a shower. Singing to himself, snatches of Rigoletto wafting out through the sound of the running water. Loud enough that Susan was afraid he’d wake the kids.
After a while, he comes out, his damp hair combed straight back off his forehead. He looks good. Revitalized. We have another beer, watch a little of the Carson show and he leaves. ‘Tomorrow’s a working day,’ he says. ‘I’ve kept you people up late enough.’ Okay, we shook hands good night and promised to get together soon. Susan checked the bathroom out after he left. ‘It’s neat as a pin,’ she said.”
“We had just finished breakfast,” the police report quoted one Mrs. Thomas Sullivan. “My husband had left for work, and I was in the foyer seeing the children off to school when a man appeared at the head of the stairway.” The intruder, who was dressed in a dark business suit, proceeded down the stairs and out the front door.
“He wished us a ‘good morning,’” Mrs. Sullivan reported, allowing that “he made a good appearance” and “seemed freshly groomed,” having about him the aroma of newly applied after-shave. The intruder also carried “an expensive looking leather portfolio of the kind that might belong to a successful attorney.”
“It gave me a start,” admitted Mrs. Sullivan, “but there was nothing threatening or self-conscious about his demeanor. He simply walked down the stairs and out of the house like a boarder going off to work. He was so at ease that I thought it might be one of my husband’s friends or colleagues.” As a result, Mrs. Sullivan delayed notifying the authorities and the trespasser was not, on that occasion, apprehended.
“What do you do for a living, Mr. Egner?”
“I’m an engineer.”
“By whom are you employed?”
“Well, I’m not really a practicing engineer anymore, much is the pity, though I try to keep my hand in. I’ve taken on more of a management responsibility. I let the younger legs run the bases.”
“And who do you work for?”
“Crown-Tiller Company. Here, I’ve got a card. Please take it. They gave me a box, has a thousand of them. I wouldn’t use them up in ten years.”
“You’re a Vice-President and Senior Manager of Produce Development?”
“Yes. Well, actually Director of Research and Development. I was promoted last month. They’ve got a new card on order. I’ll have to throw out all those unused old ones. Although, I never do. I save them. Use them as bookmarks.”
“He was in the kitchen when I came back from my morning run. He had a pot of coffee up. Was boiling an egg and cooking some toast. Reading the paper. Scared the bejabbers out of me. I thought for a minute maybe I was in the wrong house.”
“How did he react?”
“I shook him up a little. He didn’t expect me to come in as I did. He said something like, ‘My God, you’re up early!’ Yeah, and it’s a good thing I am, I said.”
“What happened then?”
“I asked him what the hell he was doing, or who the hell he thought he was. Put a real edge of irritation on my voice. I didn’t know what to think. The way he was dressed he might have been a real estate solicitor or an insurance salesman, somebody come to pester us on some kind of business; barged in through the door I’d left unlocked when I went out to run. Some of these people have colossal brass. But it was so damn early, not even seven o’clock. And, fact is, he didn’t really fit the part. He had a more upscale look, executive suite class, and he was plainly unsettled by my aggressive posture. He didn’t try to talk his way around me. Once he saw I was angry he was anxious to go.”
“He left then?”
“Oh yeah. I told him to get the hell out, and he went. Picked up his briefcase and left. Then I called the cops and checked on the wife and kids. Now, I’m thinking this guy’s maybe a lunatic, who knows these days. I had a moment of anxiety for my family’s well-being. Had a vision of a tabloid headline– The Custom Tailored Killer. They were all right, of course. All still sound asleep. But it was then I found that the guest room had been slept in. And the toweling in the guest bath had been used.”
“Was there anything missing, any of your possessions not accounted for?”
“No, he didn’t take anything. In fact, we found a fifty dollar bill under the pillow in the guest bed. I don’t know what this guy was up to, but he was no thief.”
“I don’t understand it. It’s clear he’s having some kind of breakdown. What was he doing in those houses?”
“Apparently spending the night.”
“It’s ridiculous. My brother is a successful man, has a place of his own. He’s not a homeless person who needs to take shelter by breaking and entering. He does not require the charity of strangers.”
“Of course not.”
“The first time? It was last month. One of the Board members is an alumnus of a little school in Minnesota. Good academic reputation, Division III football champs as well, about an hour’s drive from Minneapolis. He asked me to participate in a convocation they were having, ‘American Technology on the Brink of the Twenty-First Century’. Give a talk, sit in on a panel discussion, be available for a Q & A session with the students. He asked me to do it like it was a big favor, but in truth it’s the kind of thing I’m only too happy to do. It makes a nice day away from the office.
This one was particularly convivial. It ended with a spaghetti dinner at the Dean’s house. I stayed a little longer than I should have. By the time I left, there was a real chance I wouldn’t make it back to Minneapolis in time for the plane. The Dean volunteered to put me up for the night, and I was tempted– not just for the convenience, hell, after the long day I had no zeal for the trip back to Newark, I wasn’t due to get back home until after two in the morning– but no, it wasn’t just avoiding the hassle but something else, the comfort I felt in the circumstances. The midwestern charm of the campus, the beautiful October day it had been, the earnest enthusiasm the university people– faculty and students alike– seemed to invest in their pursuits. The place had the quality of pastoral sanctuary. I didn’t want to leave. Not just because I was going to have to scramble to make a flight that wouldn’t get me home ‘till after midnight, but because there was something there, on that little campus in the middle of Minnesota farm country– in the middle of nowhere by the standards of the world I inhabit– that I wanted to be a part of.
But I had a meeting the next day, ten a.m. I had to get back. So I said good-bye, got behind the wheel of the rented Chevy, and promptly got lost. I couldn’t find my way off the campus. Finally, a gas station attendant straightened me out and got me on the highway to the Twin Cities. But I’d lost fifteen, twenty minutes and after a while it was pretty clear that I wasn’t going to make the flight. I should have just kept going, of course. Taken a room at one of the airport motels and gotten the first flight out in the morning. Instead, I turned around and drove back to the campus. I guess the plan was to go back and belatedly take up the Dean on his invitation. But by the time I got back the town was virtually shut down. An all-night gas station, a diner, a couple of bars were all that were open.
I tried to find the Dean’s house. I drove off into a residential area that could have been his neighborhood. It was after eleven. Most of the houses were dark. The streets were shade tree lined, and the leaves had already turned and begun to fall. A wind was scattering them through the perspective of the headlights as I drove. I had an uncomfortable feeling of being left out, like a child coming home late and getting lost and suddenly sensing the world’s magnitude and indifference, and panicking at the missed security of his parent’s hearth.
I pulled up at a house that had on some downstairs lights and knocked at their door, hoping its occupants might direct me to the Dean’s place. But no one answered. I pushed the bell and rapped at the face of the door. No response. I was then bold enough to peek in the windows, but saw no one. Perhaps from a kind of desperation I convinced myself that the lights were decoys, left on by the absent residents to give the appearance of occupancy. Maybe that’s not what people do, or need to do, or think of doing in Minnesota, maybe that’s an East Coast ploy– and a weak one at that– but the place looked empty to me. That was my intuition. On impulse, I tried the window. It was open. I had to pull on it some and it came up slowly, but it came up. And then I went inside.
At first I was anxious. I had a vision of myself encountering the owner, he pajama clad and toting a shotgun. I was cautious enough to take off my shoes and reconnoiter the site in stocking feet, like an errant husband returning home after a night out with the boys. First, I checked out the downstairs and then the second floor. There were three bedrooms, the master and two set up for kids, boy’s room both, one a high schooler’s, the other dominated by posters of baseball heroes and model airplanes.
Nobody was home. There was no mail in the box and no paper on the stoop. The thermostat was turned down to sixty. I figured, admittedly on scant evidence, that they were away for a period of days, at least overnight. I gave no concern to the possibility a neighbor might wonder at my car out front, or spot my movements through the windows, and call the police. I was in some strange realm, an intersection of the psyche and spirit I hadn’t passed through in years. I slept that night in the older boy’s bedroom. Beneath his wall-hung collection of Big Ten school pennants. Beneath his poster of Eddie Van Halen. Across from his Commodore PC, his bookshelf of science fiction paperbacks, Stephen King gothics, and stacks of Sports Illustrated. And I slept soundly. Like being rocked in my mother’s arms. I hadn’t realized, until then, how thin and spotty my sleep had become.
The next morning I called the office and withdrew myself from the ten o’clock meeting. Called the airport and got myself on a noon flight back east. Then I indulged myself. Cooked a big country breakfast, eggs and sausage, pancakes on the side, and brewed a pot of coffee. I felt entirely at home. I tidied the place up and left fifty dollars under the sugar bowl. I walked out to my car with a smile on my face, whistling. I hadn’t felt so good in years.”
“I don’t know why he never married. He was always one of those men who didn’t seem to have time for a family. You know the type, it’s on their agenda, something they intend to do, but just haven’t gotten around to. I think he’s really very shy of intimacy. It scares him. He’s always been this very private man.
Our parents adored him. They thrived on his possibilities. His grades, his academic triumphs. Like misers compulsively sifting the stored coins of their wealth, they recounted the individual tokens of his gifts. Yes, he had gotten the highest scores on the aptitude tests given in high school. Yes, Miss Fisher, who had taught math in the junior high for twenty-five years, had told my mother that he was the most able student she’d ever had. Yes, he had, when still in grade school, amazed us all over one Thanksgiving dinner by multiplying numbers in his head faster than our cousin Richard who was home from his first semester at Lehigh, could do them on his slide rule.
They bragged on him. Shamelessly, embarrassingly. The naive dream-mongering of two innocent and discomfited people.
And we adored him too. His siblings. How could we not, at least early on. He lit such a light in our parents’ eyes that we, for a long while, saw him only by that illumination. That all changed of course. He’s not close to any of us now. There were resentments. Some hard feelings.
But what I saw that I think the others missed was that he had to work at it. Our parents’ romantic view was that it was all God-given. The answers were whispered by divine voice directly in his ear. ‘He doesn’t have to crack a book,’ my father would say. Or ‘He’s got a photographic memory. He reads something through one time, he’s got it, under lock and key.’ Nonsense. The fact was he worked hard. Spent hours with the books. He logged more study time than the other three of us combined. He didn’t spurn my parents’ doting, he accepted the laurels all right, but he paid a price. At some point I realized he was carrying a hell of a burden. He was no demigod, but just another working-man with a pick and shovel.”
“When I came home from California I hitchhiked. Maybe I was playing the role a little but I had the look– long hair, a beard, thin as a poker. I was a newly-minted Ph.D. from Berkeley but I looked like a pilgrim on the road to Woodstock. Even had a denim jacket with a patch of the Zig-Zag man.
Turned out I was no Dean Moriarity. Took me ten days and it was a grind. But, you know, people took me in. Not hippies either but ordinary folks, people with haircuts and regular jobs. Guy in Cheyenne, coming back from the movies with his pregnant wife, pulls over in a pick-up truck. ‘Hey, buddy,’ he says, ‘we seen you standin’ there on our way to the theater two hours ago. Doesn’t look like you’re going to catch one tonight, and it’s lookin’ to me like rain.’ They took me home, gave me a sandwich and a beer, and made up the fold-out bed in the den.
Another guy, an accountant, picks me up about forty miles north of Chicago. A Saturday night. He and his wife had another couple over for bridge. They let me use the shower, run my clothes through the washer. Sent out for pizza. In the morning, he drove me out to the access to Route 80 and gave me ten bucks. This was a regular guy, two kids, a house in the suburbs. I could have been anybody, just another spaced-out drifter, but he took me in. That was almost twenty years ago.”
“Do you think society is less generous in its treatment of you now?”
“I don’t know. I’m not sure. Listen, I have this recurring dream. My mother is pulling me by the hand, almost dragging me, up a hill to school. I am a small boy, angry and resisting, furious in the deep, violated way of children who are not given their way. I am yelling at her: ‘I told you and told you, I don’t want to go!’ She ignores me, continues steadfastly up the hill while I persist, in vain, in struggling against her. I fight her all the way, the exertions active and intense enough to enter and disturb my sleep. It is an enduring effort, but after a time, near the top of the hill, I realize she is no longer pulling me. Alarmed and anxious, I turn around and see her standing by herself, far down the hill, watching me. As I look at her she waves, a long slow sad valedictory wave. And then she is gone, and there is no one on the hill but me.”
“Mr. Egner, I don’t understand. Why did you break into the Brownell home?”
“Don’t you see, I had the best of reasons.”
“And they were…?”
“It was cold outside and the wind was blowing. They seemed such a happy family. And it looked so warm and safe inside.”