Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Mr. Grey (1/2)

I once met a man who dressed himself everyday in grey from head to foot. I kid you not. Why would I lie about something like that? After all, there are weirder things I could make up. For example, I could have told you that my uncle has five arms due to an accident of birth, he being the only survivor of deformed quintuplets. This is not true, and I don’t even have an uncle. I might have exaggerated for dramatic effect the ailment that my sister-in-law Griselda suffers, namely Tourette syndrome, by convincing you with all the feigned seriousness I could muster that aliens, with the approval and even complicity of U.S. government officials, regularly visit her to plant random curse words into her brain in a bizarre intergalactic experiment. You probably wouldn’t buy it, but I’ve made my point.

Before I had the opportunity to meet the man in grey and ask him about his wardrobe, I had seen him for weeks coming and going with his briefcase—and, yes, the briefcase was grey too. I figured he was a paralegal, as he looked relatively young and inexperienced. Perhaps he entered law to change the world, only to become disillusioned in the day-to-day morass of legal posturing and courtroom sophistry. I’ve seen this all too often, for I work the information booth at the county courthouse and most of my friends and acquaintances are either lawyers or lawyer-wannabes. I myself quit law school one year into it, as it was not what I thought it would be.

During the winter I didn’t think much of it. He’d come through the revolving door with a large grey overcoat. Everyone wears the same overcoat, except perhaps Judy, my co-worker, who’s been looking for a guy since her less-than-cordial breakup with her mooch of a boyfriend and seems to sport a new coat or sweater (and shoes too!) everyday. Once March hit, though, Mr. Grey, as we called him—the we here being me, Judy, and Rob, who works upstairs in the Clerk of Courts office—was of course sans overcoat, allowing me to see that his shirt, slacks, and shoes were likewise grey. Everyday! I can’t vouch for the weekends. I’d like to think this guy would unwind, wear a Hawaiian shirt and red leather pants. (Actually, Judy supplied the latter piece of wardrobe in one of our discussions about Mr. Grey, prefacing her naughty suggestion with a nicotine-coated guffaw.)

For what it’s worth, I should point out that Mr. Grey’s articles of clothing were rarely of the same exact hue. On any given day, his shirt might be charcoal and his pants light grey. Then, he might reverse this two-tone pattern. One of his pairs of shoes, I noticed, was purply grey. Once in a while he’d wear the same light grey shirt and pants, and this would make him stick out all the more, as if he were wearing a jumpsuit.

You might wonder why I’m seemingly fixated on this briefcase-wielding fellow. In college I read a book called Death in Venice about a composer who follows an attractive young man around in rather homoerotic fashion. Well, I’m not a composer, nor am I gay like my good friend Rob. But I’ve never met a man (and most certainly not a man in his late twenties or early thirties, which I take Mr. Grey to be), who took such pains to remind himself of life’s basic lessons. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I should also add, however, that what you’d mistake for an obsession with Mr. Grey has to do with something you don’t know, something that would place my inordinate interest, bewilderment really, in its proper context: his untimely death only a few months after I met him.

As chance would have it, we spotted the mystery man at Geli’s Deli down the street from the court building. We eat here for lunch at least once a week, largely because Judy was on one of her hopeless diets and the place serves a bacon and avocado sandwich “to die for” (her words) on their weight conscious menu.

Rob eagerly pointed him out. “That’s him! Jim something….”

“What are you talking about? Mr. Grey?” I gestured with my head toward the grey figure ordering food at the counter. I saw him just at the moment Rob brought him to our attention.

“What do you mean Jim?” asked Judy.

“I know that’s his first name from the grapevine.”  The nebulous grapevine that Rob was referring to is Cynthia Brackman, the receptionist at small claims court, who makes it her business to know everyone else's business.

“Listen,” I cautioned. “Don’t embarrass us.” I knew Rob had an interest in Mr. Grey, and he convinced himself that the guy was gay with no evidence other than his self-proclaimed “gaydar” intuition.

True to form, Judy, who for her part was hoping Rob was wrong in his assessment, walked up to the counter, put on her sanguine pizzazz, and introduced herself to Mr. Grey.

She made a beeline back to our table within a minute. “He agreed to join us. He’s very nice.” Judy winked at Rob in such a way that it wasn’t clear whether she now thought Mr. Grey was gay or if she was high as a kite upon meeting the guy she’d been fantasizing about for a couple of weeks now.

“What did he order?” asked Rob.

“A Greek salad, I think.”

“I knew it!”

I rolled my eyes.

Coffee cup in hand, the man of the hour approached our table.  “Hello, my name is Jim Lemoux.”

“Have a seat,” I volunteered. “Nice to meet you.”

“I’m Patrick and this is Rob. You’ve met Judy already.”


Rob fixed his gaze on our lunch guest. “Your name is French?”

“Yes, uh, Huguenot in fact. My ancestors were Huguenots who migrated to South Carolina.”

I certainly wanted to ask him about his grey wardrobe, the elephant in the room as far as I was concerned. I figured I’d have to work up to the question with some small talk first, however.

He went on to tell us that he was a legal consultant for the prosecution in the Winchester case. Terrence Winchester had embezzled millions of dollars from various insurance companies.

“Tell me, Jim,” I said, not being able to contain myself. “Why do you wear grey clothing everyday? I hope you don’t mind me asking,” I hastened to add. “I’m sure you get this question often.”

“Fair question. My great-grandfather Thomas Lemoux served as a colonel in the Confederate Army, so I wear grey to commemorate the lost cause but noble fight of my ancestors.”

“Wow! Really?” responded Rob. My friend’s credulity and eagerness to show how attentive he was got the better of him. I could tell from Mr. Grey’s tone that he was kidding. Frankly, I still had my doubts about the Huguenot comment.

“No, not really.” Mr. Grey had a playful look, no doubt endearing himself all the more to my co-workers. Then, the young man’s demeanor took on a more serious bearing, as if he were about to address more weighty matters. “Since you seem genuinely interested in my grey wardrobe, I’ll give you the long answer. Well,” he looked at his watch, “the 15-minute answer. Do you have the time?”

“Yes,” said Judy, “we have a half hour before we need to get back.”

“Very well then. You see, I once fell in love with a woman.” With the last word, Rob’s heart sank. He already had a vision of marrying this guy in Vermont, honeymooning in a quaint winter lodge, and perhaps settling down on a birch tree farm. But I knew he would soon recover, for he, like Judy, was a sucker for a love story.

Yet, as Mr. Lemoux launched into his explanation, I was bothered by Rob's virtual disinterest in the man's wardrobe, that is to say, the reasons and purpose behind it, which I happened to find both fascinating and weird. I knew Rob found Mr. Grey attractive because he usually gets giggly when he’s around someone he likes and, well, Mr. Grey wasn’t exactly chopped liver.

I don’t have any issue with Rob’s sexual orientation, though; that’s not my point. I have lots of gay friends. Around the court house you meet lots of gay people. (On a side note, Judy wished she were gay, given her poor luck with guys.) I just felt Rob was not really tuning into the conversation so much as trying to make himself attractive to poor Mr. Grey, Jim Lemoux that is, through his tone of voice and witty remarks, most of which hit far short of their mark.

“The woman’s name was Maria.”

“Did she return your love?” asked Judy, so caught up in the dramatic way Mr. Grey introduced the story that she seemed to throw patience and decorum out the window.

“Oh yes, very much so. But alas!”

“What?” interjected Rob, eliciting a look from me that said something like Shut the fuck up and listen to the story, asshole!

“It was not to be. She was married with two small children.  I was going to law school at the time, some ten years ago, when I met her. She worked at a university that shall remain nameless, in administration. Her husband was the vice chancellor of academic affairs, a bigwig, whom Maria respected but did not love. Before you get out your air violins, I’ll steal your thunder by admitting that my story is not unique.”

“True,” volunteered Judy, “but it’s not any less tragic.”