The Viagra Triangle

“Why did I so strongly prefer that Mr Sherman not be an old fool,
another lost wanderer in the Viagra Triangle?” A new short story.

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(Illustration by Leslie Herman)

Bill Dolan’s the name, and I’ve been doorman here at The Condorcet Condominiums at 146 E. Cedar for twenty-six years, it’ll be twenty-seven in August. Before this I was a fireman. I played football at Lane Tech High School. I was a linebacker, third team all-city in 1972, to which I owe the fact that my knees gave out at the age of thirty-six and I had to retire on disability from the Chicago Fire Department. With my small pension from the city and my salary from The Condorcet, I make out all right. My wife Marlene and I live in a bungalow in Jefferson Park on the northwest side, and our two kids are grown and long gone.

I sit behind my reception desk at The Condorcet much of the day, receiving packages, making sure no one gets in who isn’t supposed to, meeting a few requests to run errands for our wealthy owners, watching, you might say, how the other half lives. The Condorcet is located between Rush Street and Lake Shore Drive, with Oak Street beach just to the east. The neighbourhood is what used to be known as the Gold Coast, but Cedar, along with Bellevue and Elm Streets, are what lots people have begun to call the Viagra Triangle, so named because there’s lots of older, financially well-off men with wives or in some cases girlfriends thirty and more years younger than themselves.

Over the years I’ve seen guys with funny, hobbling walks, or even on walkers accompanied by knock-out young women who are definitely not their caregivers, unless you put a very loose interpretation on the word “care”. On Oak Street, site of Jimmy Choo, Prada, Barney’s of New York, retired guys in Ralph Lauren suits hit on older girls from Walter Payton High School in the hope, who knows, of getting lucky. In The Condorcet there is a man named Lou Pearlman, must be in his mid-eighties, been in a wheelchair for some years, who is never seen without his wife Candace, who was once the weather girl on the local NBC station under the name Candy Phillips, better known in those days for her rack than for the accuracy of her forecasts, and who must be forty years younger than he.

On the twenty-sixth floor, in one of the building’s two duplexes — they go for over three million — lives Sheldon Fishman with what I believe is his twenty-five years younger mistress. Three weeks ago, a very high-maintenance blonde, she’s maybe thirty-five, approaches the reception desk, and asks for the floor of Mr Fishman’s apartment. I ask her name, and she tells me Brittany Connors. Fishman asks to have her put on the phone. She calls him Shelly, and laughs loudly at something he’s told her. Before hanging up, she says into the phone, winking at me, “I’ll be right up. Don’t start without me.”

When a few hours later the two of them passed my desk on their way out, Fishman, smiling, in a low voice, says to me, “Chemistry is our most important product.” I’m not sure what the right attitude is to a man who cheats on his mistress.

The Condorcet has more than its share of widows and widowers, people in their seventies and early eighties. I’m sixty-two myself, a kid to most of them. I’ve been around the building long enough to watch some of the owners grow into old age. The stages are sadly familiar. Often it begins with the funny walk. Next comes the walker. This is usually followed by the wheelchair and the Filipino caregiver. The fall and the broken hip spells the beginning of the end.

The widows do better. Some, in their early eighties, are still dressing provocatively: designer jeans, dyed hair, heavy make-up — still on the attack, I guess you might say. Many are still looking for new husbands, though they tend to be very critical. Over by the mailboxes, which are near the reception desk, this past Tuesday I overheard Mrs Faye Schwartz, on the ninth floor, say to Elaine Spivak, 12B, “He’s looking for a nurse with a purse. Count me out.”

The widowers do less well. Three or four months after their wives die, most of them start to look kind of rumpled: clothes not pressed, spots on their shirts and jackets, letting hair growing out of their noses and ears. Maybe they go a couple days without a shave. Who’s noticing, they must figure. What’s clear is that it was their wives who kept them in respectable order, and with them no longer on the scene things start to cave in pretty fast.

Sometimes, though, there will be a startling change back to orderliness, or even more than orderliness. Mr Arthur Handler, from the seventh floor, fell into this kind of widower’s scruffiness in a fairly extreme way a month or two after his wife Sarah died from liver cancer. Then one day he shows up in the lobby in a double-breasted suit, an expensive-looking tie, black tassel loafers with a high shine. Later that evening, just before I go off duty, he returns to The Condorcet with a woman, a redhead, maybe thirty or so years younger than him. He was, I guess, under new management.

I was pleased to see this didn’t happen to Philip Sherman, who owned the other penthouse duplex at The Condorcet. I don’t befriend the owners in the building, or maybe it’s more exact to say that they don’t befriend me, but I can’t help liking some more than others. Philip Sherman and his wife Anne were a couple I liked a lot. They seemed to be not just man and wife but also each other’s best friend. I like to think the same is true of Marlene and me. Without any attempt at fake intimacy or anything like that, they always treated me graciously, as if I were something more than hired help. They were very dignified people, and they acted under the assumption that everyone else had dignity, too. Every Christmas I would get a hand-written note from Anne Sherman wishing me happy holidays and thanking me for my help during the past year, with a crisp one-hundred-dollar bill enclosed.

When Anne Sherman was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, her husband wouldn’t let her be sent off to a nursing home, but hired a full-time nurse to watch over her. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the two of them walking through the lobby, she holding tightly onto his arm, a look of frightening emptiness in her eyes.

For two years she staggered on, until, I’m told, she didn’t remember her husband’s name. She died not long after.

I was working in the building the day of Mrs Sherman’s funeral, but I learned from the building manager, Eddie Slaughton, who did go to the funeral, that the Shermans had no children. Mr Sherman, in other words, was alone in the world, living on the thirty-fourth floor in his 4,000-odd square foot apartment. He was long retired. I’m not sure what he did for a living; something in finance, I think, commodities market, hedge funds, I don’t know for sure. Money, though, definitely wasn’t his problem. On the few occasions I was in the apartment I noted lots of art on the walls. He and his wife went to the Symphony most Friday afternoons. Once Mrs Sherman offered me opera tickets they weren’t able to use. My wife and I sat in their box in the mezzanine. Once at the opera was enough for me. The story, something Italian, was preposterous. At one point a fat guy stabs himself and starts singing, loud. Not my idea of a good time. Marlene, though, was pleased to be there.

Philip Sherman was a small man, but with good posture. He’d kept most of his hair, which hadn’t yet all turned grey. He was slender, always well dressed, even in casual clothes. He must have been eighty-three, eighty-four. He droves a two-year-old black Audi, nice but nothing pretentious, unlike Saul Pollock on the fifth floor with his white Bentley, his mottled bald head, and his thirty-or-so-years-younger-than-he Chinese wife Jessica. Or Harry Feitlson, from the twenty-first floor, who twists his old bones into his red Porsche Carrera Cabriolet. I once heard Mr Pollock, passing the reception desk with Mr Feitlson, mutter, “Let’s face it, Harry, without finance, no romance.”

Mr Sherman was better than that. He was a gent. So you can imagine my amazement when, a week or so later, a young woman approaches me at the reception desk to say that she is here to visit Mr. Philip Sherman. This woman is, I would say, maybe twenty-five, she’s wearing low-slung jeans, showing her midriff, and wearing a rhinestone in her bellybutton. She’s maybe five foot ten inches, and her hair is blonde with pink in her ponytail. Her right ear has maybe six piercings. When I ask her name, she answers Vanessa Ross. Mr Sherman, when I reach him, tells me to send her right up.

This young woman showed up four more times in the next few weeks. And then one night she turns up with a small suitcase.

“Mr Sherman,” I say, when I get him on the phone, “your lady friend is here. May I ring her up?”

He laughs. “Lady friend?” he says. “Thanks for the compliment, Bill, but the lady in question is my grand-niece. She’s beginning Northwestern Law School next month. Send her up.”

I’m not sure why, but I was relieved. But maybe I do know why. Philip Sherman is a serious person, a gent, and I guess I don’t like the idea of him making a fool of himself owing to too-late-in-life-arriving sexual fantasies and urges.

Eight or nine days after this, I’m standing waiting for the bus on Foster, just west of Sheridan Road — normally I drive to work, but that day my wife needed the Camry — when a black Audi pulls up to the kerb.

“Need a lift, soldier?” the driver, Mr Sherman, says.

When I get in he explains that he is headed out to O’Hare, to pick up an old high-school friend he hasn’t seen in more than forty years.

“Hope this doesn’t happen to you,” he says, “but two years ago, when I reached eighty, I became nervous about driving freeways. I’ve become one of those old guys who hugs the right lane and probably drives too slow. I don’t mind taking city streets. I’ve lived in Chicago all my life, and I like to drive through it from time to time, noting all the changes.” He adds that he has time to take me home.

“I was amused the other day that you thought my grand-niece Vanessa was my lady friend. Given all that’s going on these days, the assumption wasn’t crazy.”

“Hope I didn’t embarrass you,” I say.

“Not at all. Who knows, maybe I should have been honoured at your assumption that I could — I want to put this delicately — accommodate such a young woman.”

I’m a bit nervous here about talking about anyone else in the building, not sure how Mr Sherman will take it. But I take a chance. “I don’t think your neighbour Mr Pollock would worry too much about it.”

“You’re right there,” he says. “Nor Harry Feitlson or a few other among my distinguished contemporaries I could mention.”

“There’s a lot of it going around in the neighbourhood, you may have noticed.”

“Hard to miss it,” he said. “I feel sorry for these young women. Someone once said that when you marry for money the pay’s good but the hours tend to be long. Can’t be such an easy row to hoe for young women married to these alte kockers. You know that phrase, alte kocker, it’s Yiddish.”

“I think I can figure it out,” I said.

“You know, Bill, alte kockers like me run the risk of falling into bemoaning the way the world has changed, claiming it was so much better when we were young. Maybe it was, maybe not. I make a strong effort to avoid going on these rants. But since we’re on this subject, I’m going to break my rule and say that one of the main things that has changed during my lifetime is the loss of embarrassment. People do things casually today that, forty or so years ago, they would have been embarrassed to do. Once embarrassment goes, there goes shame. Do you suppose some historian will one day look back on our time and call it the Age of Shamelessness? A distinct possibility, I’d say.”

He turned off Foster at Milwaukee.

“I had a friend, Alexi Poulous, a Greek, he was with me on the original board of the Museum of Contemporary Art. An amusing fellow, Alexis. He married a woman thirty or so years younger than himself, and also had a mistress roughly his own age, around fifty-five at that time, I’d guess. I asked him, ‘Alexis, what’s this about? Don’t things usually work the other way around? Older wife, younger mistress.’ ‘I know,’ he said, ‘but married as I am to a woman who is twenty-five, I need someone to talk to’.”

As Mr Sherman turned up Bryn Mawr, where we have our bungalow, he continued: “Sometimes these older men also want to have children with their new young wives, even though they know they won’t be around to watch them grow up. Who knows, sometimes maybe the woman wants the child, something to remember the old guy by. I’m told it’s dangerous. A very high proportion of the children from fathers past seventy have serious birth defects. A Chicago painter I knew named Vincent Orticelli, in his mid-eighties, no doubt jacked up on Viagra or some such drug, had a child with a forty-two-year-old wife and the poor kid turned out deeply autistic.”

When he said this I couldn’t help but think of his and his wife’s own childlessness. Long-married childless couples always leave you wondering if they feel a hole in their lives. And they make you wonder which of them, husband or wife, made it impossible to have children.

“Life has stages,” he continued, “morning, noon, and night. Not a good idea to violate these. Lots of nonsense talked about how you’re only as old as you feel. Seventy is the new fifty, eighty the new sixty. Don’t believe it. Eighty is the old eighty, it’ll always be eighty. Anyone who gets there ought to consider himself lucky and not push it.”

Pulling up in front of my house, Mr Sherman said: “I’d say it’s been nice talking with you, but I seem to have done all the talking. I guess this is a subject much on my mind. Apologies.”

Before getting out of the car, I told him no apologies were needed, I said that I found what he had to say full of interest, which I really did.

At home, at dinner that evening, I told Marlene how impressive I thought Mr Sherman. Unlike most of the rich ninnies at The Condorcet, he had perspective, saw things as they really were, had his head on straight. I didn’t of course tell her my own thoughts about what I would do if I were a wealthy widower in his position. I wasn’t sure myself. Would I go out on the skirt-chase? Nothing to stop my doing so. Young female flesh is always pretty exciting. I love my wife. I’ve never for a moment thought my marrying her a mistake. Marlene has a good heart, was a fine mother, a good wife. I still find her attractive. Yet at the age of sixty-two, I find I’m still checking out pretty women, imagining myself with them in intimate situations that I’m not ready to confess. My guess is that things won’t change much here when I’m seventy- or eighty- or even ninety-two, if I get there. We men, I sometimes think, are baboons. We’re filled with desire long after we ourselves are in the least desirable. Unless money makes some of us desirable, which I guess it must, or how else to explain all the young women married to or living with geezers at The Condorcet and in other buildings on the Viagra Triangle?

Seven or eight months after Mr Sherman drove me home, one evening, close to 5pm, just before I’m to go off duty, a woman enters the lobby of The Condorcet, mentions her name is Andrea Simon, and asks to be announced to Philip Sherman. She’s slender, well-dressed, brunette, fifty or so, I’d say.

“Tell her I’ll be right down,” Mr Sherman says.

When he arrives in the lobby, she puts out both hands in greeting him. He takes her hands, draws her to him a bit, and kisses her on the cheek.

“Wonderful to see you, Phil,” she says.

“Same here, Andrea,” he answers.

Is she a niece? Maybe a cousin? Who knows? I do know he is pleased to see her, no doubt about that. As they pass through the front door of The Condorcet, I think again about what a good man he is.

Another day this Andrea Simon — she’s not wearing a wedding ring — shows up with a small suitcase. I don’t see her again until noon of the following day, when she approaches the reception desk to ask if I could call her a cab. I next learn, from Mr Sherman himself, that he is going to be away in Paris for a week. I am to keep all packages for him, but if a FedEx arrives from the Sidley Austin law firm, I am to forward it to the George V Hotel there, whose address he has written out for me. He ends his note by thanking me.

Eddie Slaughton tells me that he believes “my friend” Mr Sherman has a “girlfriend”. Funny thing to say about a man in his early eighties — he has a “girlfriend”. Eddie keeps up on all the gossip at The Condorcet. He knows who is heartbroken because his only grandson has declared himself gay. Whose daughter has lost her medical licence because of having been caught with cocaine in her possession. Who did time years ago for tax evasion. Whose family money was made by a bootlegger grandfather. Eddie pretty much has the lowdown on everyone in the building.

What’s his evidence that Philip Sherman has a girlfriend? Turns out he saw Mr Sherman holding hands with a woman coming out of the elevator on his way to the building’s garage. The woman was in her fifties, and when he described her his description matched Andrea Simon.

“She could be a cousin, or a niece?” I said.

“Suppose we bet ten bucks that you’re wrong?” Eddie said.

I took the bet. Why did I so strongly prefer that Mr Sherman not be an old fool, another lost wanderer in the Viagra Triangle? What was it my business, anyhow? If he wanted to chase a women twenty-five or thirty or even forty years younger than himself, if that is what gave him pleasure, then let him do it. Still, something in me wanted Mr Sherman to steer clear of this craziness.

Another day this Miss Simon turns up and asks to be connected to Mr Sherman’s apartment. When I make the connection, he asks to speak with her. I hear of course only her end of the conversation. She calls him “sweety”, she says she has a surprise for him. “Yes, dear,” she says, before hanging up and walking over to the elevator.

So it turns out Philip Sherman, despite his convincing lecture to me on our ride to my house, has a lady friend. There can’t be much doubt about it. His wife had been dead a little bit more than a year, and his last few years with her Alzheimer’s can’t have been so easy. He has no children. I could see why he might be lonely for female company. Why not, it was perfectly normal. Who was I to judge? I wished him well.

Eddie Slaughton it was who told me that Mr. Sherman was planning to marry Andrea Simon. How did he come by this knowledge?

“Because Mr Sherman called me to ask if I knew of a notary public in the neighbourhood,” Eddie said. “He wanted to transfer some property. I called my cousin Fred, who works at the nearby Chase Bank. The property he wanted to transfer was a court building on Damen on the northside, twenty-six apartments, he wanted to make one Andrea Simon a joint-owner of it with him.”

“Serious stuff, sounds like,” I said.

“I’d say,” said Eddie. “The old boy isn’t just screwing around here.”

“I hope it works out for him. I hope he get what he wants. He’s a decent guy.”

A week later, Mr Sherman called again for Eddie’s cousin’s notary services. This time it was some commercial real estate he owned in Wicker Park that he wanted to have her own jointly with him.

“I’ll take the ten bucks now, please,” Eddie said, holding out his hand.

I don’t mind saying I was disappointed. Not so much at losing the ten bucks but at the thought that Mr Sherman, for all his sensible talk, in going for a woman thirty or more years younger than himself made him seem just another rich dope from the Viagra Triangle. Would I have been less disappointed if Mr Sherman had joined up with one of the widows in the building? I probably would have been. I hoped this Andrea Simon was worthy of him. I couldn’t help liking him.

Next I heard — again from Eddie — that Andrea Simon was under arrest. Mr Sherman’s lawyer, a guy named Sidney Freifeld, suspicious about his longtime client turning joint ownership of costly real estate over to her, put a detective on Miss Simon. The detective discovered that she had a boyfriend, a guy named Carlo Grandison, who had done time for forgery, burglary, assault and battery and had, as Eddie said, “a rap sheet longer than a pro basketball player’s wingspan”. The police were called in and, under grilling, were able to discover that the plan was for Andrea to marry Mr Sherman and not long after for her friend Carlo to step in and murder him. Murder him how was never revealed.

When his lawyer explained this to Mr Sherman, he thanked him, said nothing else, and walked away.

The next time I saw Philip Sherman after this, maybe ten days later, he was returning to the building with a bag of groceries in his arm. He had, I swear, developed a stoop. He walked past the reception desk, eyes looking down, not greeting me. He had become elderly.

A month later, as he passed in the lobby of The Condorcet, again without a word to me, he was on one of those metal three-pronged canes. His hair, which was none too clean, was whiter than I remembered. Previously always impressively dapper, he now looked as if he were dressing out of the dirty-laundry bag. He moved very slowly, tentatively, on his cane.

Months went by without my seeing Mr Sherman in the lobby. Kenny Cooper, the guy who does the doorman shift after mine — from 5pm till 1am — said that he hadn’t seen him pass through the lobby either. Eddie had no word of him.

Then, May 21, spring window-washing day at the building, one of the window washers, from his perch outside the Sherman apartment, saw Mr Sherman face down on the living-room floor. He reported it to Eddie, who went into the apartment and discovered Mr Sherman dead. How long he was dead wasn’t clear. The man from the Weinstein & Piser funeral home who picked up the body said it couldn’t have been less than a week.

“Poor bastard,” Eddie said, as they took Mr Sherman’s body out the back way, through the servants’ entrance, “I don’t know whether he died of a heart attack or stroke or what, but the real cause of death was depression.”

I didn’t say anything, but to myself I thought, No, Eddie, he didn’t die from depression, he died from embarrassment.

Less than two months later the Sherman apartment was sold. The place went for $3.6 million. The new owner is a retired personal injury lawyer named Mort Feldstein. He lives with a wife, Tiffy he calls her, thirty-eight years younger and six inches taller than him. He walks her two Yorkies three times a day.

Within the Viagra Triangle the beat, as the disc jockeys from my high-school days used to say, goes on.