Holzer. That son of a bitch. There he stood, on the stage just a few rows of seating in front of me. It had to be him.
Even from a distance I noted his fastidious dress style, his suit cut perfectly, his shoes gleaming in the stage lights, his head shaved clean. Somehow, I was able to pick up the glint of a gold wedding band as he held out his hand to shake with another suited man. I imagined his signature scent, Polo by Ralph Lauren, it filled my nostrils in ghostly waves. He exuded confidence as he leaned in to make a comment to another person standing beside him on the stage. His eyes still had that incisive focus, locked in that constant state of surveillance, never missing anything. I purposefully stared down his wrist, looking for a watch, the watch, but his suit jacket covered him.
Holzer, that sociopath. Goes to show you, I thought, the bastards always end up on top. My chest tightened as I shifted my large body stuffed in a chair made for teenage asses. I tried to remember my purpose in this uncomfortable place: parents’ orientation. Laura, my daughter, would be starting high school next year.
I should have known about Holzer right away, but his odd qualities, and my and our other college roommate, Lafferty’s, awareness of them, emerged gradually. In the beginning, he kind of cast a spell over everyone, so we didn’t think too much about any of his oddball tendencies, like obsessively locking his bedroom door.
Once, on one of those first September Saturdays, as I prepared to go home to South Philly to work at my family’s deli, I innocently kidded him about it.
“I know you like all your underwear locked up like the crown jewels,” I called out from my room as I picked up the laundry from my floor to stuff into my duffle bag. Holzer gave no response. I figured he either didn’t hear or maybe smirked a little. Later, a comment like that would render an incisive verbal assault, but not that day.
His other quirks established themselves in succession: He tidied, straightened, and organized compulsively, constantly adjusting our crappy coffee table so it lined up with our crappy couch. He carried his bathroom stuff in an initialed toilet case, like the kind a dad has. He never risked cross contamination by leaving his toothbrush near ours, keeping it in a special, strangely salmon pink colored case. He never, ever ate leftovers or took a sip out of someone else’s glass. His posters were all in frames, all very snobby fake arty, like the Andy Warhol tomato soup can poster. He ironed his jeans, pressed his button downs and tee shirts, and shaved every day. When he got a spot on his shirt, unlike most guys, he would run to the sink to get the cold water going. And he was mean, like really mean. This last thing took us the longest to fully realize.
We laughed so hard when he told us on one of our first nights together about his high school habit of leaving his own feces in bags in lockers of his least favorite classmates. “You’re shittin’ us!” I said, and then we all cracked up about the pun and forgot to let the story sink in. I really didn’t think about that story again until much later, after the room split up.
Holzer’s real viciousness, not as intrusive or shocking or gross as an assault by a bag of crap, came out in more subtle behaviors. When we were hanging out just the three of us watching TV he would make fun of every person in a show and have Lafferty and me and whoever else was in the room in stitches. He excelled at seeing unfortunate likenesses between people on television and kids we knew in the dorm. He thought Jack Black looked like Sean Ferguson down the hall, Dana Glockins, a mousy haired overweight girl upstairs he said resembled Roseanne Barr. Holzer even called Dana Rosie, a joke she didn’t understand which caused her to smile nervously, not knowing how to take him.
As I grew to know Holzer better I felt sorry for people he talked to, because I knew many would be fodder for one of his routines. Once, I overheard him having a long conversation with this girl on our living room couch, Carrie Somebody. He asked her a lot of questions about her summer job working at a supermarket in Pennsylvania. Lafferty was part of this conversation, and I noticed how he was so truly interested in her town (Dunmore) and its proximity to Scranton, Lafferty’s. They were yuckin’ it up about Parade Day, a big St. Patrick’s Day tradition in Scranton. Holzer was more interested in her supermarket job.
“So how does everything get delivered?” he asked, feigning extreme interest. I started to get this edgy feeling as the girl dutifully answered every question, believing Holzer gave two shits. The next day Holzer said to Lafferty on the way down the hill to campus, “Boy was that chick Carrie a fat slob, wasn’t she, Lafferty? Is that the Scranton type?”
I slowly became suspicious of Holzer. If we were at the bodega across the street from our dorm, I prepared for him to steal a pack of potato chips or a candy bar, although I never saw him do it. Or when a big group of us were at the cafeteria I would get this overwhelming feeling that Holzer listened and observed like an outsider, like he was tucking everything he learned away, in case he needed it. I could sense his eyes and ears, alert, picking up on everything, taking weird little Holzer mental notes.
Eventually, my suspicions about Holzer would be confirmed by an incident I would witness and keep secret the rest of my life, until now. Lafferty had a sister, Kara, a beautiful junior. She baked her brother cookies (and therefore me) and came to our apartment to help him do his laundry. I have to admit, her smooth skin, shiny hair, and curvy, petite frame rendered me tongue tied. I usually ran into my room or out into the hall whenever Kara showed up. I really never paid attention to how Holzer reacted to her. So, when I saw the two of them having sex one late October night, I was shocked to say the least.
When Holzer, Lafferty, and I first moved into our apartment in University Hamlet, I drew the short straw and got the worst room, the one with the cut out in the wall, looking out into the living area. From my bed I could see through stupid space and watch everything in the living room and, of course, everyone there could see me, clearly a bad design. I hung a sheet over it almost right away, but I could still hear everything.
The night Holzer and Kara were getting it on, I knew what I was hearing, but I still peeked out from my sheet wall to be sure. As disturbing a scene as it was, I couldn’t stop myself from looking, and then I wished I hadn’t. There they were going at it, pressed up against the counter in our kitchen, dirty dishes and a pizza box pushed aside, and me watching from my little cut out.
I honestly didn’t know how it happened. A Friday, Kara had not been in our apartment that night. Lafferty, thank God, had gone home to Scranton for the weekend. Holzer and I shared a pizza, drank a few beers, and since nothing really seemed to be happening on the floor, we both said we were going to bed. Somehow, somewhere, Holzer got together with Kara Lafferty. Or were they dating? Who knew? I didn’t see Kara as a one-night stand kind of person. If she wasn’t so alert I would have thought he stuck something in her drink. I wouldn’t put that past him. Seriously. Lafferty would be totally traumatized if he knew. He held Kara on a very high pedestal. I mean, I didn’t even think he had sex with his own girlfriend.
That night, after I peeped at the sex incident, I never fell back asleep. I lay staring at the wall, overcome with possibilities. I tried to imagine what Lafferty would say, what he would do. Maybe I would call up Kara and tell her to stay away from Holzer, tell her he was bad news, but I really had no hard evidence of his badness, mere speculation. Holzer’s quietly controlling side made me think his open display of sex was something he wanted me to see, either a secret I was meant to keep, a show of power, or a test of loyalty. But, for me, I really just wanted to keep the peace in the room, so I stayed mum on the subject.
But that wasn’t the worst thing, believe it or not. Lafferty and I jokingly called our apartment the black pit because things had sort of casually been “getting lost” from our room all semester. Little things at first, things that would sort of seem natural to disappear, a ten-dollar bill here or there, a pair of jeans, a set of keys, a favorite mug. Sometimes I would be surprised when I thought there was a 20 in my wallet and there actually would be a five. Each incident would cause us a moment of wonder, then we’d move on, forgetting it until the next time.
Finally, something of value vanished. It was odd, something Lafferty kept secretly in his sock drawer, his dead father’s watch. I just happened to know about it because Lafferty and I bonded over both of us losing parents to cancer. It wasn’t fancy or worth a lot, but obviously it had priceless sentimental value.
Lafferty came out of his room one morning during finals week looking totally distraught. I sat on our couch mindlessly flipping through movies.
“What?” I continued to watch the screen.
“Something is missing in my room and I’m having a heart attack,” he said.
“What?” I said, snapping to attention and standing.
“My dad’s watch.”
“You never moved it or wore it?”
“When was the last time you saw it?”
“I don’t know, I kinda look at it every other day or so. Just make sure it’s there.” His face flushed.
“C’mon.” I said, kind of tugging on his arm to get him moving. We went into the room, dumped the drawers out, picked up every sock, pressing each to make sure nothing was inside. We moved the bed and practically chucked every piece of furniture out of Lafferty’s room. By the time we were done, he crouched down, close to the floor, his hands spread across his face, sobbing. And then, on cue, Holzer walked in.
“What the fuck is wrong with him?” he asked.
“Lafferty can’t find his dad’s watch.” I lowered my voice, feeling uncomfortable. “You know his dad passed away, right?”
Holzer stared for a moment, and then shrugged, “C’mon, get a grip, Lafferty. Be a big boy. You’ll survive.”
I knew in my soul Holzer took it, and that truth confirmed that there was something seriously wrong with that kid. I didn’t know what Lafferty thought, but Holzer’s blatant lack of empathy destroyed even their feigned buddy act. From that point on, our apartment became a pit stop for Lafferty and I, a silent pit stop.
I don’t think Lafferty ever told his mom or Kara he lost the watch. Maybe part of him thought that Holzer was right, that his distress about losing his dad’s watch was wimpy or pathetic or unmanly or something. I never asked him and he never mentioned it. We never saw Kara with Holzer, and I never told Lafferty I saw Holzer screwing his sister. Lafferty and I requested a transfer to another room for the next semester, together, which we got. Holzer played it cool and said he wanted a single in another building anyway, claiming, “You guys are fuckin’ slobs.”
A lot of the time, that’s the way it goes with guys, you just never see each other again, never say what really happened, you actively contain the rage. Honestly, if I really let it loose, I’d of beat the crap out of him with my bare hands. Seriously. Sometimes I fantasized about telling Lafferty and the two of us killing Holzer together. But that’s exactly why I kept my knowledge to myself. My own anger scared the shit out of me.
Twenty years later, sitting in Merion Station School District’s parent orientation for incoming high school students, I observed this older Holzer, the new principal of what would be my daughter’s school. I knew whatever education or experience Holzer accumulated since college he accomplished with some level of stealing, just like Lafferty’s watch. Now, he was the guy in charge.
I felt old, fat, sloppy in my Dockers khakis and yellow button down, especially in comparison to Holzer’s neat looks and thin frame. My leg bounced up and down, a juvenile habit I had tried every so often to stop, as I reviewed options for other schools for Laura. Maybe I could send her to Catholic school? My ex would never go for it. She’d think I lost my marbles. I could hear her: You want to switch Laura’s school because of some guy you didn’t like in college? Exactly, I’d say. This guy was insane, I’d explain. Maybe people change I wondered. Nope. Not Holzer. He would be worse with time, more calculating, maybe more sneaky, smarter, devious.
I fought the urge to take out my phone and photograph him, shoot the picture to Lafferty in a text. In our sparse communication, Lafferty and I never discussed Holzer. He married his college girlfriend, Becca, like fifteen minutes after graduation and started cranking out the kids. Kara married an oral surgeon in Jersey. Lafferty had forced-forgotten Holzer.
Once again in my life, I resolved to keep what I knew about Holzer to myself, for no other reason than self-protection. If I told anyone about my past with Holzer, the district’s new high school principal, I’d sound like I had some weird axe to grind. I’d be the asshole, the nut job, not him.∎