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From The Westlake Village Collection.
Howard Klass stuck out like a sore thumb in Westlake Village. I the first place
he was a bachelor in a town where single, unattached males past a certain age
were never seen. Widowers like me are rarely considered single, or even male for
that matter, even though they wear their wedding rings until the end. But a
single man of marriageable age is always under scrutiny in a town like ours.
I wouldn't have known his name was Howard Klass except for the basketball
backstop. He had one delivered and he mounted it on the back wall of his garage,
and quite by accident I happened to read his name on the empty carton he left at
the curb. That was the first question that occurred to me; what was a single man
of a certain age doing with a basketball backstop? The second question was his
bull mastiff! A frightening animal! Nobody needs a dog like that. Howard
exercised the dog by letting him run with his leash looped over the side view
mirror of his convertible as he drove at a steady twenty miles an hour on the
service road alongside Northern State Parkway.
The third thing was the Saab convertible itself. What kind of car is that?
Everybody in town drove American cars like Hondas and Toyotas -- Howard Klass
had to drive a Saab! Whoever heard of a country like Sweden up there in the
Arctic Circle making convertibles in the first place?
The men of Westlake Village discussed Howard in hushed tones at the barber shop
on retiree Friday and on Saturdays for the working men. Whatever the subject
might be, it always seemed to drift back to the question of Howard Klass. He
lived near me -- in fact his property shared a corner with mine, therefore I was
bullied into monitoring his moves after dark and to check on the comings and
goings of any visitors he might have.
There wasn't much to report. I turn in early and I get up early, therefore I was
in bed during the hours of any clandestine activity he might have had. I
couldn't imagine that anything Howard Klass might do during that time would be
something I should lose sleep over in the first place. I looked over there
every night just before I turned out my light and invariably I saw a light
burning in what I thought must be Howard's bedroom. I assumed that he, too, was
calling it a day, and like me, had decided to read in bed.
Tony Sargasso thought otherwise, "You don't know that. Maybe it ain't his
bedroom, or if it is, maybe he's got women up there with him -- how many
haircuts do I gotta get before you come up with somethin' .... ?"
The curiosity wasn't only confined to the men of Westlake Village, Mrs. Petrasek,
a widow, and Clare Hardy, a widow of the grass variety cornered me almost daily
in the street, both together and singly to ask me how my neighbor was.
"He's not my neighbor, Mrs. Petrasek .... he lives on the street behind me."
"We must be more neighborly, Mr. Buschman. I'm afraid you're not extending the
hand of welcome as God says we should."
"No, Clare, really .... he lives on the street behind mine. I've never spoken to
him .... really."
"We must be more cordial, we should welcome each and every new arrival to
Westlake Village, the poor man must be lonely. I think I'll make him a
cheesecake." Miss Hardy, from the size of her made more cheesecakes than she
gave away. The little I knew of Howard Klass convinced me that he would not be
interested in either Mrs. Petrasek or Clare Hardy and her cheesecakes. He did
not appear to be the sort to surrender to neighborliness or bribery. I warned
them both, separately and together, of the fearsome dog they would have to face
if they knocked at his door.
He appeared to be on the sunny side of forty. He read a lot on weekends while
stretched out in a plastic lawn chair under an apple tree in his rear yard with
his monstrous bull mastiff chained to a stake that he hammered in the ground. He
read from several books at once, making notes in them as he read, as though
comparing the facts in one with the facts in the other. He would often seem
puzzled and stare at the sky through the dappled green cover of the apple tree.
When he did so, the dog, (whom I later learned he called Winston) would sit up
alertly and stare into the apple tree as he did. He gave no parties and
entertained no visitors.
Although it doesn't sound like it, I am not normally an inquisitive person. My
interest in Howard Klass was provoked by the likes of Tony Sargasso, "Old" Dick
Donahue, the lavender Mrs. Petrasek and the cheesecake lady. I am ashamed of
myself now for what seems like an almost Gestapo like surveillance of a
neighbor's privacy, but the prodding and constant questioning of these people
persuaded me that Howard Klass was a man of mystery and required constant
His work habits were erratic. He would commute later than most men, and not
daily. He carried the thinnest attaché case I have ever seen, far too thin to
carry his lunch in. It was obvious from the size of his trash bags that he did
little eating at home. The food he threw away, I believe, is what the dog would
I fell back on religion as a final means of research into the mysterious Howard
Klass, but that, too, proved unavailing. I looked for him vainly in Our Lady of
Perpetual Hope, then later stood watch at St. Bartholomew Congregational, and
Jesus Is Light, Pentecostal. On Friday evening I waited patiently at Temple
Shalom -- he was neither a church nor a templegoer.
Throughout the late days of spring and early into August I exhausted every
avenue of investigation I could think of. In addition to feeling ashamed of
myself, I had developed a resentment toward Howard Klass that was born of
frustration. I could pass on no significant intelligence to my neighbors. I had
none to give. I would have disclosed my conjectures and suppositions gladly, but
they would have none of that. They demanded hard evidence, and I had none.
On the Friday before Labor Day the mystery of Howard Klass was solved. I walked
down to the deli to get the "Times" and on the way back I noticed that
Howard had strung gaily colored balloons from the filigree molding of his porch.
He was in the process of stretching a blue ribbon between the columns over the
front steps. "WELCOME, Nattie, Chuck and Dave," it said. It was too much to
bear . . .
"Having a party?" I ventured.
He turned to me and smiled, "You bet, family gets here today. Family and
furniture too." It was the first time I'd seen him up close, and he radiated a
barely concealed private happiness that he seemed eager to share. "God," he went
"I've been alone here, just me and Winston, nearly two months now."
"Where's your family?"
"They're in Cleveland. I had to start this job at the "Times," so I came on
Things were beginning to make sense after all.
"You work for the "Times"?" I asked.
"That's right. You've got the Times there .... look in the sports section." I
"See the article on the pennant race? .... byline's Howard Klass .... that's
"Pleased to meet you Howard, my name's Harry Buschman." I looked up at the
"Chuck and Dave are the kids? -- how old are they?"
He reached in his back pocket for his wallet. "Chuck's ten and little Davy's
eight." He pulled a picture out and said, "There they are, took this just before
I left .... that's Nattie, my wife, in the middle."
Octogenarians are rarely at a loss for words, they've seen a lot, done a lot,
and there isn't much the world has to offer that it hasn't offered them before.
But I didn't expect it, Nattie was black and the two boys were brown and Howard,
on the bottom step of his porch staring down at me was as white as I was.
"Nice family, Howard. I can see why you're anxious to have them with you again."
"Did I do well," I wondered? "Did I say the right thing?" How many times had
Howard straddled this wall that separates us to make friends on both sides? In
that short, short space of time I could see Tony Sargasso swallow hard and shake
his head. I saw Mrs. Petrasek's frozen smile, and I wondered if Clare Hardy
would take her cheesecake home with her.
"Drop over when they get here," he said. "It's not easy breaking into a new
"I will, I will, Howard -- it's a long weekend -- nice meeting you." I was
uneasy and anxious to get away, and I'm sure it showed. "Take it easy," I
reminded myself, "it's a new world, much wider than the narrow one you've lived
in for the last eighty years. Look at the friends you've made here. There's
Ramash on Lavender Street, Paoxing and his brother Rongli on Maple, Seymour on
Oak Drive. Isn't it about time for Mr. and Mrs. Klass?"
©Harry Buschman 1998
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