*as creative works, these Frank Nero memoirs do not represent any residences, facilities, locations or persons either living or deceased — any similarity is purely coincidental.
Brighton Rock Manor
Situated on the sandy banks of Jericho Beach…Brighton Rock Manor stood stoically; a witness to eras past—speaking legacies through its elegant, antique architecture…like a long lost tune vibrating through the static of an old phonograph. If nothing else, the manor stood as the curious residue of dead generations—though we didn’t ask for their legacy—we claimed it as our own, as would our descendants, when we were eventually all worm food. Inside the gates smoothed a circular driveway, in the center of which splashed a small fountain in the form of a sculpted woman wrapped in a toga with one breast exposed…I strolled by this fountain slowly—feeling as if the sculpture was following me with her blank plaster eyes.
Sitting on the concrete edge of the fountain was a couple and they were letting flower petals fall from their hands into the water which moved the petals away from them and into the splashing; lovers—high on dopamine—Vancity was full of them. It was a huge contrast from the hard, sun baked streets of East Hollywood from which I’d recently returned.
Inside, the place was a love-in…guys with tender beards and their campfire girls cuddling on couches…sitting cross legged on the floor hugging each other, or leaning against walls in spoon position, all with drinks in their hands. To tell the truth, I hadn’t ever encountered tender beards in such excessive numbers. I felt out of place…what’s more, it seemed they’d all polished themselves up very properly for the paparazzi in their minds—where I’d shown up rough and tumble…unshaven, clad in torn jeans and a worn out leather jacket…my face still scorched from the desert sun and my insides badly bruised from the mess I’d left in Hollywood. I looked like hell and felt okay about it. They were all rapt with intense concentration as a girl crooned on a makeshift stage that was situated in front of an old coil water heater.
As she let out her heart in song, I glanced around the interior of the manor, moved by the antiquity of the intricate designs…indeed, if I was to try a description of it for you I would start with the ceiling…which was chalk white…along its perimeter was carved a vine that sprouted ivory leaves endlessly, bearing no roots…a nice touch at infinity. Beneath it ran a gold border that gave way to long white walls which were interrupted half way down by candle holders, each blooming with two bronze-leaf cups from which narrow candles rose, their flames holding steady. On one side of the makeshift stage stood a woodgrain baby grand, and on the other a crackling fireplace…above it hung a gold framed oil portrait…perhaps old man Brighton himself…a grey flowing mane of hair combed back in rows of perfect ridges…his eyes surprisingly intense—telling us all exactly what? I wondered, peering back at the man in the oil painting.
I was suddenly drawn back to the function at hand by a parade of applause that seemed to echo up into the attic of the old place and back down; like a holler into a large vacant cavern…for you see dear reader, in spite of its crackling hearth, the place had a cool vacancy to it…as if the fall had set in and wouldn’t leave…no matter how sweltering the temperature would grow in the summer months—a cold hollow would remain; what the hell went on in this place? I wondered, nudged by my senses.
“Thank you…thank you…” said the girl who’d been crooning…soaking up the applause.
There was a man standing next to me watching the girl intensely…he was wearing a closely cropped, particularly tender beard and a fuzzy cardigan, “Sue is just an amazing woman isn’t she?” he said, in a rhetorical tone.
“I haven’t met her.” I confessed.
When Sue was finally through with her set, the room remained silent, with the exception of a few lovers whispering to each other in the dim candle glow. Indeed, the atmosphere was not unlike Valium and I began to feel very sleepy. As silence filled the small spaces between us, I wondered; maybe there was an asteroid out there somewhere heading for earth. Maybe there would be no consequences for refusing to live the status quo: a life of button-downing and 9-5 office sitting…waking up at the crack of dawn for a vegetable smoothie, a quick jerk and a hungover jog…reading men’s health magazines as a guide for living…becoming an expert on stool consistency…engaging in cutthroat competition with friends and colleagues in matters of materialism—starting personal wars and having the audacity to take prisoners…picking a bad sports team and sticking with them…honing one’s powers of social observation for the sake of becoming a square peg.
However, if we will all cease to exist—it may make more sense to embrace the oblivion which most citizens of our era keep perched on their mantelpiece like a declaration of blissful ignorance. If we are all heading down the same conveyor belt of inevitability; why be concerned about anything? Why sweat the big stuff? Faces can be immortalized in ivory, words in ink, ambitions in history…but the flesh withers and dies. Aim for extraordinary. Suddenly a shriek of feedback from the microphone jolted me from my contemplation.
“Listen guys…” said a man who now stood on the makeshift stage…he was holding an open book in his palm and he read from it, as if it was his bible, “Ok…certainly language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed—but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied; infinitely varied.” he said, repeating the last line as if it were a proverb to be dissected with more scrutiny than the Zapruder film.
He went on for a few more minutes, attempting to draw a parallel between what he’d read and the significance of the evening’s fund raiser. Then, rather abruptly he introduced me, inviting me to the stage while peering out into the room with his hand saluting his brow, as if the candle light was too bright for him.
I strode over to the baby grand and hit a few chords.
“I’m Frank. Perhaps great men resided in this house, perhaps great men built this world, perhaps a great man will embalm you one day—I can’t say for sure…but I can tell you this…I never claimed to be a great man…I don’t quote Chomsky; I just quote me.” I said, then sang a few numbers…then a few more. There was a nice resonance in the room and it was one of those great voice nights—which happen…but sometimes don’t. In spite of the dozens who’d paid their $15 at the door and expected to be entertained; I sang more to the house on that evening than to them—more to the wood and the walls and the ceilings…to the ghosts that may have been lingering in the attic, hiding themselves away from all us uninvited guests. With eyes closed, one could nearly imagine the surroundings—the same acoustics that would have existed there in that very living room a hundred years previous. In short dear reader—a strange thing happened; I’d been caught in a hypnotic trance of nostalgia.
When I was through with my set and ordering a soda water from the bartender I felt a hand touch my shoulder. When I turned around I found it was…what’s his name? The guy from the Bronze Tavern who’d opened the evening…the guy who’d become friends with—no…could it be? Indeed, dear reader—as plain as day I stood there in a silent state of surprise to see her casually striding toward us—it was, as you may have guessed, the Debbie Harry clone, the British sugar plum who’d turned hellion on me during our last encounter and even used the ‘fuck’ word. Tonight however, her attire was different, perhaps offsetting a parallel persona in her mind—always a woman. When she was upon us and tilting her head to speak to me—I didn’t return her small grin.
“That piano loves your voice.” she said.
“So…” I said, placing my head on an axis and gazing upon her with a devilish grin, “How long have you been in Canada old girl?”
“Bloody hell, I was hoping you’d have been too drunk to remember that bit.” She grinned.
“I don’t drink.” I said.
“You did that night—at least you seemed drunk.”
“Seltzer…it was seltzer water.”
“Oh. Well, in any case…could you blame me? You basically took a card from a woman while you were in the process of chatting me up.” She said, laughing about it now.
“Lydia? That was so nothing.”
“Yes, the bird who’s a dance instructor—do you do the tango? What a fright she was…fucking utter fright.” She chuckled.
“Listen, you don’t know the half of it…I met her at this grease stained restaurant on Keefer last week and she tells me that her and her husband have an open relationship.”
“Uh, rubbish.” she said, rolling her eyes in a sexy way, “All that means is that she’s sick of sleeping with her man but can’t bring herself to get rid of her security blanket.”
“I don’t know. If I loved a woman, I wouldn’t lend her out. No fucking way. She wouldn’t need to be lent out anyway. I’d make sure. I seem to remember you leaving some guy sporting a remarkably tender and soft, closely cropped, Michael-Gross-from-Family-Ties type of beard. I caught that—in case you were wondering.” I told her.
“Hey,” she shrugged, “guess that night was ill-fated for everyone huh?”
“What the hell is your name anyway?” I asked her.
“Emily.” she said, “…named me after Dickinson.”
“Emily…” I said the name, letting it roll off my tongue…to see if it would do a four digit dive or simply sputter off and fall flat. Indeed, the name I’d always disliked sounded quite nice when matched with her face.
Having allowed us our extended greeting without interruption, the guy whose name I’d forgotten turned to Emily and I after finishing a conversation of his own with a passing tender beard. They’d embraced warmly rather than shake hands. Addressing both Emily and I he declared an expedition…a trek westward, along the beach, into rugged nature—the darkened forest that surrounded the University complex like a moat.
And so dear reader, if you can picture it—there we were, six of us, paired in double file, exiting Brighton Rock Manor through the rear, across the patio and out onto the sprawling grounds that were lit by flood lights fastened to the roof of the mansion. The grounds sloped downward, descending toward sea level, where the ocean could be smelled in the distance just beyond a wall of hedges. Emily’s bandmate Haley headed the convoy, accompanied by her date…easily enough they located the gate which led through the wall of hedges and down a steeply zigzagging wooden stair case, at the bottom of which we found a rocky beach strewn with logs and seaweed. As planned, our convoy trekked westward along the dark beach. As we walked in the dark with the city lights rippling across the vast expanse of bay and the moon high in the sky, smudged slightly behind a thin veil of cloud, Emily and I talked.
“It’s a beautiful night.” she said.
“Soon the rain will come.” said I.
“Just like home.” Emily said, gazing back across the bay toward the illuminated city, “I’m used to the rain.”
“There are places in this world where you might go a whole year without seeing the rain.” I told her.
“You know you don’t belong here right? It’s written all over you.” she said, leaning over and squeezing my arm as she rested her head on my shoulder—ah, she was all kinds of woman.
“Yeah, where do I belong?”
“I don’t know. But I could notice it right away…you’re like a fish out of water.”
“You mean a duck out of water.” I said.
“Why a duck? A duck can go out of the water and be ok.”
“I don’t know—we say ‘duck’ here.” I laughed. “I like your way though..the fish.”
“Bullocks then…I get all your North American phrases wrong. But I don’t care, because I’m relaxed here…it’s so relaxing.” she sighed, removing her head from my shoulder and locking arms with me as we strolled behind the others who were involved in their own moonlit conversations.
“Perhaps too relaxing.” I told Emily
“How do you mean that?”
“It’s the dopamine.”
“They’re all dopamine addicts—the place is crawling with them.”
“Look around…the priority is getting high on dopamine.”
We walked like that for some time, in silence—myself and this stranger from across the mighty Atlantic…this sunny girl from rainy London who decided she wanted to lock arms with me—perhaps because I’d been honest with her. And all at once Haley, Emily’s bandmate started to ignite fireworks. They’d set up on a spot far ahead and as Emily and I approached we admired the crack of the colorful explosions against the night sky, the sound delayed a half moment by our closing distance.
“Can I shoot one off?” asked Emily when we’d finally reached the group.
“Hold it away from your face Em.” said Haley, handing Emily one of the small rockets.
Emily held the rocket as her friend had specified and we all watched as the fuse was ignited into a flash of sparks that sent the rocket whistling into the sky, however, en route the rocket collided with a bird and the impact spun the rocket, reversing its trajectory, sending the rocket back down toward us, where it exploded against the sand. The girls shrieked with laughter and I took a seat on the hull of a beached canoe, feeling terrible for the bird. After which I found myself wondering about S. Wondering what she was doing that very moment…thinking of me perhaps? Walking her dog in Echo Park? Drinking wine with girlfriends? Doing it with her husband—or worse, doing it with someone new?
When the small supply of fireworks in Haley’s backpack was exhausted, the guy whose name I couldn’t remember—the singer who’d opened the night at the Bronze Tavern—he informed us of a text message he’d received just then from his people back at Brighton Rock Manor; the fundraiser was winding down and a number of the guests were moving to a different venue—the Scorpio Room on Commercial Drive; it seemed this man whose name I’d forgotten was fully jacked into a scene—a club…a small picture-perfect social coterie that distracted him from the hard truths of life.
“You’re coming right?” Emily asked me as the others headed back toward the manor, the flood lights of which stood as a beacon to guide them across the stony beach through the darkness.
“I’ll pass.” I said.
“Pass? Like not go? Why not? It sounds like an intriguing time.”
“Does it really though?”
“Yeah…and later we can go dancing.” said Emily, offering a few dance moves for effect after which she extended her hand to help me up from the upturned canoe. I reached up and gripped her hand and pulled her down toward me so she sat on my lap. She was heavier than I’d suspected and I looked up at her for a moment, admiring her Debbie Harry good looks.
“Emily…it sounds like fun, just not my kind of fun; you go ahead.” I insisted.
“And what’s your kind of fun?” she asked.
“Ah, you wouldn’t be interested.” I assured her.
“Maybe I would…so you’re going to just sit here in the dark?” she asked.
“I’m going to turn this canoe over and I’m going to row across the bay. There’s a Spanish café I know of across the water…they serve a mean hot chocolate…come with me—don’t worry I’ll do most of the rowing.” I told her, “I’ve had enough of scene crawling for one evening.”
“You’re a mad man.” Emily said with an edge of seriousness.
“Maybe.” I said, “But this is your one chance at true romance.”
“You can’t be serious.” said Emily, grinning at me as if waiting for a final puzzle piece, “I’m not canoeing across English fucking Bay in the middle of the night. You’re mad.”
“Why not?” I said.
“Well, for one you’re insane, also you have no life jacket…no flares…its very dangerous.” she said, realizing I meant what I’d said.
“And what if Churchill had taken that attitude? Help me get this thing turned right side up.” I said.
With reluctance and a last effort to convince me out of it, Emily helped me turn the canoe over. I grabbed one of the oars and used it as a shovel, pretending to dig into the sand with it, “So, in case shit goes south…I’ll dig my grave here and you can bury me in this spot if the sharks don’t get to my body first.” I chuckled.
“You’re kind of fucked up aren’t you?” she asked, with her head on a tilt.
“No more than anyone else I’m sure.” I said as we pulled the canoe across the stony beach and down to the shoreline.
“Also this canoe must belong to someone…it can’t just be abandoned.” suggested Emily—a last, last effort of discouragement.
“I’m only borrowing it.” I assured her as I got behind the boat and pushed against it carefully across the remaining sand until it was immersed in the salty ocean water, “Besides, this town is one big commune isn’t it—don’t people borrow each other’s shit all the time in a commune?” that got her laughing.
I climbed in from the rear, inevitably soaking my feet. The water wasn’t as cold as I’d suspected however. I balanced on one of the flat wooden seats and fit the oars into their locks. With the oars in place I pushed off from the shore with a strong shove and felt the sudden unsteadied buoyancy moving along with the waves. “See you around gorgeous.” I said as I rowed out further. In the darkness I could just barely make out Emily raise her hand in a small sad wave from her spot on the shore. She offered no parting words, only the wave…then she was trudging back toward the manor, not realizing she’d just missed out on an immortal moment of true romance.
As I rowed at a relaxed pace, the canoe chopped easily through the water, eventually allowing momentum to pull me further out into the bay, until I was so far from shore that the beach front houses became dots of lights sitting like a string of bulbs along the sandy peninsula banks. I rowed on, wondering how deep the bay was, wondering how many leagues of pitch black sea water made up the expanse between the hull of the canoe and the floor of the bay. As I rowed I wondered absently what would be found at the bottom of English Bay if it were to be combed. Ancient aboriginal artifacts? Sunken vessels from eras long past? Human bones? Perhaps an array of hypodermic needles that had been grabbed and dragged out to sea by the tides?
I wondered also what would become of me if I were to capsize. Perhaps no one would ever learn the truth. Quite possibly Emily would return to the UK without ever hearing about my ill-fated canoe ride—in turn telling no one. I would become, in essence, another statistic. I thought of S again and how she might respond—the fact that I wasn’t certain alarmed me. Now near the center of the bay, the blackness reached in for me again, gripping me with the sum of its strength and I sighed, grinning a small defiant grin—because I knew it wanted me…and so I had the power—the power to deny it; and deny it I did dear reader, liberating my existential compromises with a quiet decision; art is the answer, or rather the therapy.
As I lit a Black and Mild, I scanned the illuminated skyline and its uniform architecture, the bridges arcing over the inlet of False Creek…where Lydia Chan leased a post-modern apartment with her live-in boyfriend Gavin; the man who loaned her out. What kind of man loans out the woman he loves? One who doesn’t really love her. I took an estimated inventory of how many others among the uniform skyline residents were just as, if not more lost as Lydia and her tender bearded cuckold. Running my eyes over the skyline from end to end, imagining it all. It was Gomorrah with parking meters, boutiques and liquor stores. But then what was so different about Los Angeles? I wondered…or any city for that matter? I laughed to myself…a moment of hilarity.
After a while I flicked the Black and Mild overboard and heard it sizzle into the water. I resumed rowing and used a sidewalk lamp on the distantly approaching beach as a beacon. The oars cut into the water and pushed on with ease and the burning in my arms felt exquisite…my indifference to my own fate was also exquisite and I wondered if this is how Diefenbaker had done it…living on the open prairie in a wooden shack and shitting in a bucket. He was one of them; the forefathers who had engineered this vast nation with moral geometry and the pursuit of the dawning light; what a country. As I rowed closer to shore, feeling as patriotic as I ever would, I thought of the blown up old photos lining the underground hallway adjoining Canada Place with Waterfront Center; the grainy faces were now just intense stares suggesting ghostly whispers, but uttering none…just bones and chiseled stone now. I leaned back, letting the canoe chop through the water with its momentum until the hull scraped the shore just off Denman st., creating a noise that caught the attention of a couple cuddling softly on a nearby log. They watched me as I pulled the canoe onto the beach and turned it over, much the way I’d found it. As I walked away, the man spoke in a whiny voice, piecing the calm silence around us.
“You can’t just leave that canoe there like that.” he said.
I looked over at him and his girl, sitting on the sand. They were swathed in a colorful blanket and leaning against a log. I lit another Black and Mild and took a puff before addressing the couple who sat there staring at me in an eerie sort of way. I wondered why this man cared about an upturned canoe on such a vast beach.
“What are you, the beach patrol?” I asked.
“No, I’m not…but I’d be happy to call them…and I’m sure they’ll tell you the same thing; you cannot leave your canoe sitting like that on the beach–it’s the rules.” he whined, his voice shaking a bit. He was a pale skinny guy, perhaps 40, blonde hair, pointy nose and a simmering rage in his eyes; another godam defender.
“Then I guess I’m in the clear.” I said.
“It’s not my canoe old chap.” I said, half expecting him to issue me a lecture on the broad spectrum of city ordinance. However, the man didn’t reply, he merely sat still, sneering intensely—defending his beach…defending something.
“Have a nice night.” I said as I trudged past them up the incline that led toward the street, thinking of a cup of hot dark chocolate and that mysterious flamenco dancer I knew was out there somewhere…the one I’d seen at Café Barcelona the night before. The one from Argentina who’d worn the senorita lipstick and the long ruffled flamenco dress…the very one who’d stomped and twirled and clicked the castanets to the violent strum of a classical guitar; indeed, a powerful woman.
I’d met Cabrino that afternoon at a street side cafe on Franklin—just across from Gelson’s. As Cabrino went on about his latest conspiracy, I sipped at a seltzer, half listening to his line of nonsense, thinking of Michelle’s long blonde hair and those dimples in the small of her lovely back and what it exactly was about her that settled very deeply in the pit of my chest.
Always dapper in his appearance, Cabrino stroked his chin, so the diamond studs embedded in his wrist-watch caught the sunshine like a mirrored ball, sparkling a million points of light back at me—waking me from my trance of recollection.
“Frank, are you listening to me?” demanded Cabrino.
“Of course I am old boy—carry on, please.” I assured.
“This is imperative man, c’mon. Cassandra deals in tarot cards man, dark magics…she has witchy routines and some pretty questionable colleagues. She knows this one guy with a John Deer hat and a beard, who sends her poems about eating her ass.” he said with urgency, running a hand through his thick dark hair which carried the sheen of pomade.
I just shook my head, “And how do you feel about that?”
“That ain’t the half of it; I was drinking beer at her place in Palms last weekend and her and her girlfriends did this ritual thing…they were all dressed in gowns…so bizarre…they had ribbons and candles and they were chanting. Mama mia!” said Cabrino, perplexed by what he’d seen.
“Sounds like trouble to me.” I laughed.
“You’re telling me. There was this one guy there. He was sort of the ringmaster; this tall skinny guy in a long black cloak. He was getting on my nerves…he kept breaking my balls real indirectly like. I mean I’m a good sport—but after a while…like half an hour of this kid busting my balls…I couldn’t just sit there and let it go on. So finally, I told him I would drag him outside by the lips and slap him around a bit if he didn’t knock it off.”
“Classic.” I chuckled.
“Not really. The girls weren’t too happy about that.”
“Oh boy.” I laughed.
“And Cassandra said that I was going to be sorry that I did that…that I embarrassed her in front of her wizard friends.”
“Sexual sanctions?” I asked.
“Maybe I oughta take communion.” Said Cabrino, “I should do something…strange shit is afoot—you know, a few days after Cassandra and I got in that huge fight…the one when she kicked her platform shoe through the wall in the studio; I cut myself shaving really bad…there was blood all over the sink. I had to wear a ridiculous fucking band aid on my neck the entire day. People don’t like to see a guy with a band aid on—it’s suspicious.”
“And you think this chick, who works as a what?” I asked.
“A fry cook.”
“A fucking fry cook; you think this chick is working some ancient voodoo on you?” I asked.
“Like I say she has this wack-pack fan club going on spacebook. They write in and leave her comments about her melodramatic poetry. They say it’s powerful, but I read it and just think it’s vague and contrived. You know, if everyone is ‘unusual’ in the exact same way—then nobody is really that unusual are they?” said Cabrino, shaking his head and leaning in now to study his ice cubes.
For a long moment he remained silent. A bus went by, droves of tourists walked by, a distant helicopter chopped it’s propellers through sweltering blue sky somewhere far above us and after a long pause Cabrino made a confession.
“I’ll tell you man, I went to a fortune teller last week. A psychic you know? She took an egg white and put it in a cup, and then told me to piss into it…so I dribbled in the thing, and brought it back to her. She took it and added a magical spice to it, some kind of liquid from an eyedropper…and suddenly the piss and the egg white started to smoke! Right there in the office. It was hard to believe man.”
“You pissed in a cup in a psychic’s office?” I asked, setting down my glass. “In front of her?”
“No man, in the bathroom in her office. Point is; she said the smoke proves that someone is trying to mess with me—and it makes sense. See Cassandra went to Egypt in the fall with her family and while they were on a tour, she threw a locket into one of the pyramids…down a vent or something…and she did it to cast a spell…I can’t remember the specifics but she said something ‘witchy’ was going to happen.”
“Throwing a locket down an air vent?” I chuckled, “Wow…Listen to me man, while we’re out here doing business and getting shit done on the merit of hard work and disciplined craftsmanship; this broad is dancing around in capes and littering archeological finds. Does she have any tattoos?”
“Yeah, a few.” nodded Cabrino.
“It just gets better and better doesn’t it?”
“Listen, if this cheesecake and her wack pack had any powers at all, why wouldn’t they use those powers to improve their situations? Forget about fucking with you…why wouldn’t they use their dark forces to win the lottery? Change their loser status? At least get a life! Or in her case get some clothes from this century; last time we talked about ‘Assy Cassy’ you told me that she dressed like a medieval handmaid. Know what I think? I think you’re using this Cassandra as a diversion…a distraction from yourself.”
Cabrino absorbed what I’d told him for a moment. Nodding.
“How do you know that?” he asked.
“Because I’m magic Cabrino.” I smiled, widening my eyes and making a witchy face.
“That much I don’t believe.” he said, “The worst of it though is that I can’t get her out of my head. I can’t stop thinking about her. Her sexy British accent and her eclectic musical taste—you know she gave me a Stone Roses record for my birthday.”
“Good choice, but that’s not everything man.” I said, realizing I could still smell Michelle’s coconut suntan lotion on my shirt.
“But what can I do?” he asked.
“Let’s focus on what you hated about her.” I suggested.
“She had a breath problem…huge smoker and coffee drinker. It was like a cat came and shit in her mouth when she’d come at me first thing in the morning.” admitted Cabrino.
“Now just imagine life with her…everyday life…walking through the grocery store with her on a Sunday morning, you’re pushing the cart and she’s nagging you and you have a kid and the kid is screaming in your ear and you’re in Britain and it’s raining and she’s breaking your balls in front of the cashier.” I illustrated.
“Mama mia.” Said Cabrino nearly absently as he peered off into the distance, imagining the scenario with intensity.
Cabrino ran a recording studio in the Los Feliz hills, out of an old turn of the century Spanish style villa. Originally Villa studios as he’d so predictably named it, housed a number of potentially lucrative projects from various emo-rock sissies crooning in forlorn tones about the somber side effects of being too cool for one’s own good. However, in recent months, VS had become a hotspot for late night socials, which usually included decent, random jams on any particular night with any particular guest appearance. Lolly Vixen, Seth Narcolepsy, Garland Way, Cash Trio, Humbucker Wall, Vermilion Trees…they all stopped by regularly, bringing with them their deranged and estranged packs of posse.
Yet little was ever recorded anymore by Cabrino; the odd jam perhaps. Mostly, he recorded spoken word sessions, spoken by himself mainly. A two hour and rather tiresome four part lecture on Winston Churchill topped his list of sessions to reveal when asked, by any number of guests, about the capabilities of his studio. Running the lecture, to prove the clarity and body of voice his studio could provide, he’d swivel back to face the center point of his console—the large plasma monitor unraveling on its screen the thick green wave file expanding and contracting with the volume of his words. Like this, he might sit for twenty straight minutes, intensely rapt with a wrinkle of concern between his brows as guests politely stood, losing their comfort as the moments ticked by and the lecture ran on, in a deep full bodied tone that rumbled through the speakers with comical conviction.
Primarily, he rented out the studio during the day to less successful producers as well as many independent producers who owned little more than a laptop computer and a Sure 58. Of course he charged them a reasonable rate, and on occasion became involved in the odd session, lending his prestige to independent recordings. But all in all, Cabrino hadn’t recorded anything himself in two years outside of the spoken word sessions.
Later that evening, as we stood in the control room of Villa Studios, listening to a Lolly Vixen laying down a vocal track, my phone vibrated in the breast pocket of my shirt, sending I imagined, small currents of radiation into my flesh—the price we pay for microwave ovens, TVs and cell phones. For me, however, the cell phone wasn’t the handle end of an ever reaching communicative umbilical cord. I used it primarily for taking and making calls, but found, whether I liked it or not, that I’d become part of a network in doing so; the cell phone talkers network…those people I found so irritating when standing next to them in line at the grocery store, or anywhere at all.
I was relieved to find it was Michelle.
“Michelle.” I said stepping out of the control room.
“Hi. What’s up?” she asked.
“Just listening to a lecture on Winston Churchill.” I said.
“How’s that working out?”
“Churchill was a fascinating man.” I confessed.
“He was solid.” Said Michelle, “Anyway, I stole one of your shirts by the way, in case you wondered where it went.”
“I don’t know, a grey one…it was in your hamper.”
“You stole a dirty shirt from my hamper? How come?”
“There must have been a reason.” I said.
“Nothing perverted; I just like to smell it.” confessed Michelle.
“Ok.” I said.
“It smells like guy.” said Michelle in her playful tone.
“I thought it smelled like Dark Temptation and sweat…but that’s just me.”
“I like it.” She said, “Will I see you later?”
“Yes. I thought when I’m done here I could take you to the House of Pies on Vermont for a bit of ala mode.”
“I’m game—girl wants to see boy later.” She said.
“By the way, I can’t stop thinking about those lovely dimples in the small of your back. What have you done to me?” I told her.
“What dimples?” she asked as I hung up.
Back in the control room, I found that Lolly Vixen had left the confines of the vocal booth and was now sitting on one of the leather sofas in the control room, sipping a cup of tea. On the glass table before her knees was a small saucer containing a few wedges of lemon, the smell of which, brought a ray of memory to my mind; summers in my childhood, sun baked streets and bored kids in the hood, substituting stones for baseballs, and abandon windows for a catcher’s mitt. But there was nothing like ice cold lemonade.
Introductions went around, and a few clammy handshakes that left my palm crawling with pathogens; such a filthy habit, the handshake. For all I knew, this man Samson had pissed all over his hand in the bathroom only moments before—or worse. I next passed the pathogens onto Vixen—who’d been having difficulty projecting through the climb of a scale. Her hand, clammy as well, shook mine before immediately retracting to furiously rub her nose—as if she were eager to infect herself with Samson’s pissy germs.
“Sounds terrific.” I greeted her with a nod and excused myself immediately.
As I walked down the narrow hallway that held at its end, the single purple door labeled ‘Lavatory’, I saw it was opening, and from behind its illuminated interior emerged a face I’d seen before but couldn’t quite place immediately. He wore a designer cap tilted on an axis, and a low V-neck t-shirt that exposed the ripped crease where his waxed pectorals met…it was man-cleavage and dangling over it, hung miscellaneous bling that was the shape of a dollar sign. His teeth beamed from his darkly tanned face in a wide grin that greeted me along with an outstretched hand; a hand that was doubtlessly laden with fresh deposits of feces, urine or possibly herpes.
Because my hand was already contaminated, I shook the tanned man’s hand, which was dry, and though initially deflating to my sense of urgency—the dry hand soon revealed the obviousness that the bastard, having just exited a bathroom, had failed to wash his hands. As he rambled on with lyrical rhythm, dropping props as cunning ops, I placed him; it was Tupelo—the soulless bastard. Laughable at best; whether you loved or loathed him, Tupelo had made a local career out of shamelessly carving his mark in the illusory world of night club DJs. He’d become, in a span of two short years, king of the dance parties. His incidental lyrics were yelped rather than spoken, in a high pitched, out of tune cry that quaked with hilarity. This, coupled with his glossy, ultra-groomed appearance, made the moment nearly macabre.
It seemed he was part of Vixen’s entourage and so in essence; Cabrino’s guest. And so I stood, nodding politely, noticing under the harsh glare of the hallway bulb that he wasn’t only wearing eye liner, but also a thin veil of foundation. It was hard to believe. He spoke of his new project; a cameo on Vixen’s new album and while doing so he managed to cite, in cosmic terms, that essentially—Vixen needed to free herself from inhibitions in the studio by embracing her spirituality. Apparently the lemon, honey and hot water concoction wasn’t working. Or perhaps she simply fucked far better than she sang and Tupelo was only now realizing it.
“You know, I’ve got a taste something versatile, and enterprising is my thang bro. Feel me?” he asked, widening his icy blue eyes.
“I can only speculate.” I nodded.
“And you know, cause I’m from the streets and my background is Michigan-hard, I remain that humble cat stepping out and fandangoing the reality…the main drag reality all up in the da clubs, feel me? Respect it son, that’s a frame of mind not a demand. I bring that essence to all that I touch baby. It’s one of yours I’ve been humming and bumping around in my mind,” said Tupelo, stroking his chin now and gazing up at the bulb with intense recollection, “can’t grasp the name my brotha, but I gotsda melody locked in. Locked in like gun sites. Feel me? That particular groove on the piano, that particular song you have, I could franchise…immortalize…quantize it baby.”
For the most part he’d lost me, and as I stood there, pushing up my chin to clamp back a grin, I offered my hand again, this time in departure from the conversation. Though it seemed to catch him off guard, Tupelo shook again, with two hands and backed away nodding, his smile appearing as a deep wince of hilarious pain.
“I need to wash my hand.” I confessed.
“We’ll rap more on it later bro. Nature calls.” He said before turning and swaggering down the hallway.
Flipping the light switch on, I was enveloped suddenly in a thick, acrid wall of air freshener—the aerosol type. Sickly sweet and covering a sour under odor; one evident in the porcelain bowl directly in front of me. The basin could be heard still refilling from the previous flush Tupelo had given it and in the bowl, swirling slowly clockwise was a floating wad of toilet paper, smeared lengthwise with a tarry looking smudge; Tupelo’s last wipe. I squeezed my eyes shut stricken by sudden terror.
Perplexed at how it could have come to pass that Tupelo remembered to aerosol the room but had forgotten to flush down his last wad of asswipe; I held my breath and lathered down my hands in the marble sink and vacated the small confines without drying my hands on the towel hanging beside the sink, for the towel doubtlessly contained the microscopic residue of flushes past.
Walking back up the hallway, drying my palms in the back pockets of my jeans and taking a deep breath of hallway air in compensation, I noticed Lolly Vixen approaching with her cup of lemon and honey water. Her long cowgirl boots clopped toward me in confident strides and her smile met me with a sudden wrinkle of concern.
“Everything okay?” she asked, her smile still holding beneath her air of concern.
“Yes, of course.” I nodded.
“You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.”
“No, but I should warn you. Tupelo left a wad of asswipe in that toilet…you might want to exercise some caution.”
Putting her hand over her mouth, Vixen giggled, “Oh my god…Really?”
“Unfortunately.” I assured with a solemn nod.
“Wow. But I grew up with four brothers, so I can’t say that it really bothers me too much, I’ve seen way worse; believe me. Boys are so gross though, that’s for sure.” She admitted.
Wondering exactly how she meant her final comment, I watched her clop onward, toward the bathroom door, before which she stopped and turned back to me, “Really?” she asked again with a giggle, as if brimming with some macabre form of fascination at observing the great Tupelo’s wad of asswipe.
“Yeah, maybe you can sell it on Ebay.” I chuckled.
“Ewe.” She laughed opening the door with caution, “I’m sure there are people out there who would pay top dollar too…”
Back in the control room, Cabrino was rolling one particularly fiery segment from a lecture on Centralia Pennsylvania. I sank down into one of the leather couches and listened. Indeed, Tupelo sat in one of the leather swivel chairs, stroking his chin and nodding intensely as the lecture boomed through the speakers in a deep tone, edged with severity. The other man, Samson, sat perched on the arm of the couch, his arms folded across his chest and his face, holding in the fatty pockets of unshaven jowls, a slack jawed awe. Also, I took note of an extra face; it was Seth Narcolepsy and he was looking rather sinister sitting there swathed in leather, hair spray and shamelessly applied mascara. His idol and the mentor of his entire façade was Tommy Stinson, circa 1989—and Narcolepsy did Stinson well, though he had a tendency to get carried away in the performance…to lose himself completely.
“This is brilliant.” He said finally to Cabrino who only nodded in agreeance.
“The low end comes out with such power, yet doesn’t distort—I know.” Cabrino finally said, stopping the roll with a click of his mouse, feeling he’d proven a point.
“Yet another faction of hip-hop evolution baby.” interjected Tupelo with a downward swiping hand gesture.
“I wouldn’t say that.” Said Cabrino, “Sermons are as old as intelligent civilizations my friend. My man J.C. was giving sermons back in biblical times. Know what I mean?”
“Fair enough my brotha from anotha mutha.” Smiled Tupelo, backing off with two humble palms raised—palms teaming with fecal matter no doubt. “Fair enough.”
“I was being sarcastic you douchebag.” said Narcolepsy from beneath his heavy veil of straight whiskey.
“You know something Narcolepsy—you ought to open your mind more often than you open your mouth.” Said Cabrino.
“You don’t think those people have a right to live there? Why should they leave their homes? What would you know about real hardship, sitting up here in the hills in your grand den of slack?” said Seth, gritting his words drunkenly.
“I didn’t say they didn’t have the right…I said they were irresponsible to live on top of an active coal mine inferno…understand dip shit?”
There collected a heavy silence over the room. One into which Cabrino waded with ease. He sank chin deep into it and stared back at Narcolepsy, who squinted drunkenly back at him. Again, at that moment, my phone vibrated in the breast pocket of my shirt and I answered again without checking the call display. It was Michelle and she informed me she was near finished work for the day; she was a personal assistant and was perpetually plagued by the demands of the narcissistic clients to which her agency assigned her. On this evening, she’d driven around Los Angeles for hours searching diligently for a particular basketball requested by a client, whose identity she was contractually obligated to keep confidential.
When I was through speaking with Michelle I realized I was suddenly being drawn into Cabrino’s heated debate with Narcolepsy; it seemed it was time to pick sides–as it often is when insecurity and booze merge and take hold of men of lesser alcohol continence. Indeed, Cabrino was always sipping at a brandy and nibbling strange leafy herbs he kept nearby in a small leather pouch…he nibbled one of the herbs intensely as he peered at Narcolepsy and spoke in a cold tone, “You’re an arsonist…a spiritual arsonist.”
“Arsonist? Is that what you all think of me?” Seth demanded, peering at me, as if the word was in some way a reflection of my personal opinion.
“Did I say something?” I asked, posing the question rhetorically; however, Narcolepsy lashed back with a deeply wounded scream…as if he were in some way directly in tune with the primal traits evolution had discarded. After emitting the gurgling scream, he pulled his shirt off with one hand, up and around the bottle of whisky he clutched in his other hand.
“You said it with your eyes.” he said, squinting hard as if to burn his psychopathic glare into my forehead.
As we all watched in silence, half interested in where he was going to take this demonstration; Narcolepsy raised his face dramatically, as if staring off yonder, into a billowing sunset and across a great expanse of prairie. “Fire on the horizon!” he sang, throwing a flimsy kick forth that destabilized his balance.
“Ok, let’s get him out of here.” said Cabrino looking at me, standing up and rubbing his hands together as if wiping off dust.
“Me?” I asked of his head gesture.
“Whoever.” he said, approaching Seth and grabbing his flailing arms and pinning them at his side.
Narcolepsy didn’t fight it. Like a professional activist he concurred physically, allowing himself to be led by Cabrino down the long carpeted hallway lined with photos of Villa Studios’ past clients. Passing his own photo, Narcolepsy exploded, shaking free of Cabrino’s steel mill grip. With a quick spinning maneuver Seth lifted the photo off of its hook and faced Cabrino, backing away slowly, stating his case, “This is my likeness…my image…and you don’t own my soul. I’m taking it.”
“Take it…and get the hell out.” said Cabrino, stopping now and placing another leafy herb between his teeth, which he nibbled ravenously as he studied Narcolepsy in a certain degree of awe, “You just keep burning bridges don’t you Narcolepsy?”
“You’re the one holding a match to this bridge man…it’s you.” Seth accused, hugging
the picture against his chest, “Give me my shirt then.”
Not missing a beat Cabrino tossed the shirt so it draped softly over Narcolepsy’s head, “Go ahead…get lost…go cool down.” said Cabrino.
“Ok, let it burn. Let it all burn man…I’ll watch it go up in flames.” said Narcolepsy once he was standing out on the lawn, pulling his t shirt back on.
From the lawn the twinkling sprawl of LA stretched as far as the eye could see. There was everything imaginable out there, poverty, violence, drive-by shootings, cheating mothers, absentee fathers, kids on crack, death of all sorts, birth, marriage, love…potluck dinners, speed daters, player haters, suicidals, pimps, johns, telemarketers. What would it all be in a hundred years? The sight of Narcolepsy standing there under the dim glow of the street lamp, swilling back a haul of Jack Daniels suggested that things would only get worse. After all, he was a poster child for generation Z; the truly lost.
A sound had been growing in the distance, becoming louder as it drew nearer. It was only then that I recognized the sound as sirens; or rather it was then that I realized that they were going to pass us directly. As the volume grew, Cabrino covered his ears, wincing against the shrill squeal as flashing red lights strobed against the underside of the palm trees lining Los Feliz blvd. As the convoy snaked its way up the hill the volume grew to an unbearable level and I too, as well as Tupelo covered our ears.
With his bottle of Johnny Walker in hand, Narcolepsy turned toward the street and spread his arms out into a V. All at once the convoy emerged from around a corner at the end of the block and barreled by us in a flurry of whirling lights and shrieking sirens. Two fire trucks, three squad cars and an ambulance pulling up the rear, the convoy took the bend at the opposite end of the road with brazen speed.
“What the fuck?” hollered Cabrino, throwing a perplexed stare after the convoy whose lights flickered against his face in a severe way, as if he were Franz Kafka, held in a crooked hold tight.
Leaping from his place on the stairs, Cabrino proceeded to jog down the long descending side walk which led back out onto the street. Like clockwork, Samson and Tupelo followed suit, sprinting after Cabrino. I stood on the top step; throwing a glance down the street where the glow of an inferno could be seen, igniting the sky with licks of distant flame.
“That’s a massive fire.” I said.
“Aw, big deal!” snarled Narcolepsy, lowering the bottle to his mouth for another copious haul. He then turned to face me and grinned, “Big deal…some movie star probably torched his mansion smoking in bed…fucking attention whores.”
“Strange Cabrino was calling you an arsonist…then this.” I mused as I descended the stairs.
“Fuck Cabrino…let’s go watch it burn.” said Seth.
By the time we reached the blaze; we were only two more spectators in a horde of dozens, all slightly wonder struck by the roaring walls of flame that spread like liquid through the outside walls of the home. Like Narcolepsy, I stood transfixed in a state of slight awe at the fiery sight. It was nearly mesmerizing to watch the flame eat through the wood, loving it dearly and with an eerie lack of malice–there was only nature’s indifferent resolve and the crackling combustion of elements.
“Holy fuck man. Look up there on the roof!” spat Narcolepsy in an angry hurt tone, as if he was being cheated by a friend.
My eyes followed the trajectory of his pointing finger to an arching second level roof at the far end of the mansion. Frantically pacing the shingles was a golden retriever who’d apparently gotten out onto the roof through an open second floor window that since had begun to spit flames and black smoke; he’d made it out just in time. Narcolepsy squirmed as the dog desperately howled for help, the sound of which was easily eclipsed by the roaring
flames and ever approaching sirens.
“My god aren’t they going to save it?” he demanded.
“I think they’re preoccupied with getting the people out of there.” said a voice from behind; it was Tupelo and he stood studiously, stroking his chin and contemplating the fire with a small grin of curious fascination, as if the flames were a final spellbinding ingredient of his grandiose act–the man was pure unbridled vanity.
“Hey!” I hollered to a passing fireman, “You guys see that golden lab on the roof right?”
The fireman didn’t stop or respond; he only walked on, squinting toward the roof where the pooch still paced, safe for the time being from any flames.
“Where’s Cabrino?” I asked Tupelo and without withdrawing his mystical gaze, he motioned with his head toward where Cabrino was standing in the gutter of the road, speaking with two women.
Noticing that I was peering his way, Cabrino waved me over. When I shrugged at him he waved me over again, this time with some added zeal. I strolled over, feeling the heat of the fire against my back, fearing slightly in the back of my mind that the house would explode and wondering exactly how far the blast would throw me if in fact it did. I was however shaken from this notion by nearly being broadside by an emergency response team who used strong language to get their point across. Taking it quickly, I jogged the rest of the way across the street to where Cabrino was standing with the women.
“This is Shelly and Nadine.” said Cabrino, as if we were mingling at a cocktail party and in the same fashion the women extended their slender hands. Their hands were soft and their smiles where all lipstick and pearly teeth.
“Listen, there’s a dog on the second floor roof…I can’t fucking watch this.” I said, turning to point.
Squinting beyond my extended arm Cabrino shook his head, “Brother, there could be people in the house too.”
Nadine leaned her pretty face toward me so the luster of her red bangs nearly glistened in the flicker of fire. Her complexion was smooth and fair and her small jaw produced her words carefully as if she was in diction class, “You may be interested in knowing…that’s Eva Radcliff’s estate.”
“Who’s Eva Radcliff?” I asked.
“She’s a screen writer. Anyway, most fire deaths are caused by smoke…not fire…that’s what I read.” said Nadine’s cohort Shelly.
“I guess that’s better?” I asked, not exactly sure what her point was.
“I’m simply saying that–”
Her sentence was cut off abruptly by a sudden gasp that swept through the crowd of spectators in an awesome wave of disbelief. They stood in awe, silhouetted by the brilliant bludgeoned orange inferno that engulfed the entire west portion of the estate. In one corner of the yard, a group of firemen stood, waving their axes like marshaling wands,
trying desperately to gain the attention of someone. Scanning the engulfed facade of the house searching it’s windows for any signs of life, I could see only black gaping holes where windows once were, which now only billowed black noxious clouds of soot and smoke.
An officer ran by, listening to a crackle that came over his radio, behind him was a team of new firefighters fresh from their truck. What could any of them do though? The fire had taken hold of the west quadrant of the estate and the roof was caving in with horrendous volume, breaking the sound barrier and sending vibrations through the ground all the way to the street. The collapse created an explosion of embers and flame that plumed up into the starlit night; certainly the fire would consume mindlessly until there was only ashes left.
As another gasp sounded through the crowd of onlookers, a number of people began to transfix on the far end of the estate, pointing and aiming their cellphones at the blazing east quadrant. Through the spectators crowding the street, I could make out the firefighters in the yard waving their axes, obviously now directing someone. When I moved five feet to the right in order to see around a wide knobby tree trunk that concealed a portion of the yard, I was chilled slightly by the sight of a figure scaling a vine-weaved trellis that ran up along the east wall of the estate. It took only a second to recognize the tattoo splayed across the back of the climber–a large four leaf clover spanning from shoulder blade to shoulder blade; it was Narcolepsy and I couldn’t restrain a chuckle—he was going after the pooch.
One of the firefighters charged suddenly, reaching the trellis just in time to catch Seth’s shoe, which he customarily wore loose. The shoe, the left of a 500 dollar pair of designer runners, slid off easily and left the firefighter to the command of gravity, which pulled him and his heavy suit to the lawn, where he wriggled for a moment before rising to one knee and pushing himself back up. As he hollered at Narcolepsy from the base of the trellis, Narcolepsy climbed like a small monkey, lithe and agile.
With either experience or drunkenness, Narcolepsy moved up the trellis at an astonishing pace. Once he’d hoisted himself up onto the arching rooftop, he strode eastward, toward the retriever who’d resorted to cowering near the exposed brick of an antique chimney. With flames licking the air only a matter of feet away from his bare back Narcolepsy balanced with two arms extended, as if he were walking a tightrope. Carefully, his white sneakers stepped heel to toe as he approached the dog who relaxed into Narcolepsy’s arms passively. Lifting the dog and draping it across his shoulders like a scarf, he held fast to the dog’s front and hind paws as he carefully turned and headed back toward the trellis where the firefighters had managed to raise a ladder.
As if undertaking a concert ending encore, Narcolepsy glanced down at the dozens of cellphones aimed and filming his every move in amateur hold tights. Apparently tickled, he raised one arm, flashing his signature hand symbol; a fist with the index and smallest finger extended.
“Rock the fuck on!” he hollered though it was barely audible.
Everyone knew though; it was what he said at the end of each of his concerts and something Cabrino always criticized, citing it’s painful lack of profoundness and contrived reckless abandon that was signature of the mid 1980s. This instance was no exception; Cabrino turned to me and rolled his eyes, shaking his head with a grimace of annoyance.
“I’m glad for the dog…really that was a close one. But let’s face it…Narcolepsy would jump off a fucking bridge if it would get him on TV…and you know this shit is going to be all over the news tomorrow. This isn’t a man…this is a clown—a jester.” Said Cabrino.
“Sometimes you need a good clown though.” I chuckled as we both watched the firefighters grab hold of Narcolepsy’s torso and ease him and the dog down to the lawn when they were low enough on the ladder.
The Penthouse Killers
The Hotel Davenport was a towering five star property, sprawling across four city blocks and piercing the sky with a satellite antenna atop its 45 floor tower. The Hotel had been built in the 1920’s and boasted elegance and an illustrious past equally in all of its gold surfaces, sparkling chandeliers and plush burgundy carpets. In its heyday the Davenport had hosted brief residencies of royalty, celebrities and foreign diplomats. Always swarming with schools of international tourists, business class travelers and overly eager bellmen; the Davenport was a city unto itself; a city inside a city—the city of Angels.
I worked on the second floor which was home to a number of massive ballrooms where on any given night, galas, balls and receptions took place under the dim glow of chandeliers; a reign of tradition. Luckily the hotel Davenport was massive enough to make getting lost quite easy and also, if you’d made a blueprint of its hallways in your memory it made ducking management even easier.
Concerning hotel jobs, there were always two musts…two non-negotiables; plenty of absinthe and plenty of ducking out. The ducking was essential to keep an even keel psychologically and in fact had started after my second week at the hotel, once it became clear to me how loosely run the operation was in spite of its self-declaration of prestige and top line customer service. There was, I found, limitless room to disappear into and this vanishing act became a regular part of my routine.
For these unsupervised and unauthorized rounds of the massive structure. I kept in the inner pocket of my tuxedo vest, a flask filled with authentic, sugar cube percolated Absinthe. This allowed for a certain degree of mental agility in the wake of a particularly strenuous and disorganized five course served gala dinner—or a seven hour long cocktail reception the repetitiveness of which, if you let it—would surely drive you mad.
The second floor also housed in its east wing, an executive lounge, fully equipped with a fruit juice bar, indoor palm trees, rock fountains and every other symbol of serenity that could possibly be franchised for the sake of escape and drunken oblivion. The executive lounge was appealing mainly because I’d made a friend of Garrison, the night bartender, who would set me up with nicely poured G&T’s when I made my unauthorized visits.
I would sit with Garrison for sometimes and hour, knowing I wouldn’t be missed in the ballrooms as I wasn’t yet on management’s radar. It was a nice system; ladies would come in from the spa and mingle with Garrison and me, occasionally inviting us up later on, after work, to their plush suites for drinks, socializing and sometimes more. Of course it was all done under the guise of admiring the twinkle of urban sprawl that seemed to stretch out infinitely beyond the bay windows of their suites.
It was all part of a world traveler façade these middle aged, business class women had come to exude—in their minds they were globetrotting movie starlets…and who were we to disclose the truth? Who were we to crush that fantasy? Indeed, if anything, Garrison and I were the two key components that most preserved any of the Davenport’s old world charm.
Indeed, it seemed I’d found the perfect niche; the perfect job from which I could frequently escape. What made this phenomenon possible was that the supervisors where, as in most catering situations, painfully underachieved and compensating for past failures. They were usually wrought with OCD impulses and tending to more pressing matters. Their mental scope was narrow and their intellect was obviously stunted by constant and trivial concerns; a missing fork, a spot of spilled wine, an empty salt shaker, a wayward napkin—these matters plagued supervisors nightly. Some spent hours of their own personal time devising diagrams and charts in hopes of simplifying (even more) the process of ordering a vegan entre from the kitchen or the correct way to scrape the guests spit back food onto one plate when bussing a table. They were in over their heads and such pure dedication to details that the guests, in reality, didn’t give a squirt of piss for, left very little margin for the supervisors to chase down a wandering waiter.
Such conditions not only encouraged my unauthorized rounds—they nearly demanded that I roam. And roam I would, during which I would saunter the hallways sipping absinthe from my flask—the real thing; allowing the wormwood to take effect and open portals to the long lost—often cobblestone lanes shrouded in Parisian fog. It didn’t seem like much of a work detail, visiting colleagues on various floors and ducking out onto balconies for the purpose of taking a few puffs. It seemed nearly magical that I could be paid to wander aimlessly and abuse substances while doing so. That is until one day, while wandering through a burgundy carpeted, chandelier lit, tenth floor hall way, I came face to face with Denise; one of the ballroom supervisors.
Indeed, in such circumstances of nostalgic contemplation, it was nearly possible to hear the old Davenport ghosts whispering to me from their place in the past, that had been somehow allowed to prevail, virtually untouched in the long chandelier lit hallways that had been kept perfectly restored. In ways, the hotel held portals to another time and I found them easily, if only for short glimpses.
It was uncanny however dear reader; the odds of running into anyone from the Ballroom division on the tenth floor of the hotel were so slim they’d not even registered as a clear and present danger. They were so slim that I had stripped off my bow tie, loosened my cuffs and rolled them to my elbows. However, the most incriminating hotel policy infraction was perhaps the murky green absinthe splashing gently in the flask I held in my hand.
Upon seeing Denise step out of the elevator perhaps only twenty feet away, I pulled the flask from my mouth and slipped it into the inner pocket of my tuxedo vest, uncapped. As she approached, shock wrinkling her face into a pucker of disbelief; I sighed deeply, flashing her a grin…as if we were old friends who had run into each other in the supermarket one Sunday afternoon.
“Well, well, well.” I said, “How is my favorite supervisor?”
“Frank!” She screeched, baffled at the sight of me. “What are you doing up here?” She demanded, “Everyone is looking for you downstairs. Your tables are calling for wine and you’re…you’re…what are you doing up here?”
The line of questioning demanded a certain degree of lucid thought and with my mind being curled up very relaxed in my head as it was, I was at a loss for words—for perhaps the first time in my life.
I took a blind stab, “Ah you know—some broad asked me to carry a bag up to the spa for her; what was I gonna say? No?”
“Well, that’s not your job Frank! You’re not a bellman; you’re supposed to be in the ballroom taking care of your section. And where the hell is your tie.” she demanded, pent up aggression and sexual frustration getting the better of her.
“I took it off for a moment.” I admitted.
“Why on earth would you do that?”
“Well Denise, Readers Digest says that wearing a tie too often for too long can be detrimental to your sight.” I explained and I wasn’t fabricating this fact either. “Why are you up here anyway?” I counter-asked for the sake of distraction, thinking perhaps we were both ducking out of our responsibilities.
“Get back to the ballroom now or it’s going to a write up for you.” came her reply, issued with a stern finger that pointed the way to the elevator out of which she’d just stepped.
Certainly this put a kink in any plans I harbored of wandering freely through the hotel during my shifts from then on, for Denise had taken it upon herself to address the issue in a very public way—to make an example of me I suppose. The scene was a verbal lynching, with her minions in tow. They’d cornered me in the servery during my actual break; so the rest of the staff could observe and consider themselves warned. As they badgered me and declared a list of points illustrating my unsavory work ethic, poor moral character and social indifference; I sat still in a plastic chair, sipping from a Styrofoam cup filled with scotch and soda, nodding occasionally and adding in at the appropriate spaces in their tirade that I disagreed with their harsh judgements and that perhaps they should exercise a shade of empathy for the imaginary woman whose imaginary bag I’d carried to the tenth floor, out of dedication to our ‘collective team’ of course.
They thought about this for a moment…the collective team. It seemed I’d offered the correct defense, or at least one that couldn’t be so easily disproved…there was also the fact that the sad sacks of shit believed that our team really was collective and that all of us cherished the labor as much as they did. Indeed, dear reader, I evaded capture…but next time I was certain that I wouldn’t experience such good luck.
It seemed I was officially on their radar…a large red blip perpetually blinking in management’s peripheral scope. It wasn’t difficult to notice that I was being watched by not only just the supervisors in my division, but also the women in housekeeping, the front desk girls and Donata the Romanian barista, who in passing one evening, mumbled under her breath that ‘it must be nice getting paid to do nothing’. Of course this could have been a jab at the entire banquet division, after all, there was a misconception around the Davenport that the banquet division was the easiest job in the hotel—which simply wasn’t the case.
In fact, of all the jobs in the hotel, banquets was perhaps the most strenuous; pure grunt work—a notch below communism. If it wasn’t—I ask you; would I have gone to such great lengths to evade it? Being on the radar altered everything however, and it seemed an iron curtain had fallen over the banquet division, for me at least. If word of my wandering had spread through the echelons of hotel management, then anonymity was no longer an option; I’d now be noticed very easily wandering the carpeted hallways of the old building.
When I declare that the current situation was indeed a thorough drag, dear reader, I mean it with all sincerity. The Davenport, which was once my favorite, was now quickly becoming a grueling detail—a no fun zone. For three consecutive nights I was forced to remain in the ballroom for the entirety of my shift, which it’s probably needless to add seemed like an eternity. What’s worse, I was punished further by having to remain stationary during a succession of provolone laced wedding speeches given by friends and family of the bride and groom. And believe me when I say that they wallowed in provolone; they had it coming out of their ears. You’d never seen such a gang of phonies. It was hard to believe. Worse, it was hard to endure.
Eventually, I had to get away. I had to get away or I would have pissed in their punch bowl; every man has his breaking point after all. The only solace I could find during these marathon shifts was ducking into the basement locker room. It wasn’t exactly entertaining as roaming the hallways of the massive hotel, but there was a certain charm there between the cinderblock walls and rows of badly dented and paint chipped lockers. It was on one of these occasions that I was stricken with an idea of genius proportion. Perhaps it was the old ghosts whispering in my ear—lending their experience. I’d been sitting in a shower stall, having a good puff. As the smoke rose and wisped toward the overhead bulb, I came upon a realization. Truly this locker room was special. It was a beautifully sound proof and highly ventilated encasing of brick which I realized, because of its punch code lock, was a private haven from Denise or any of the hell bent snitches who made up the female element of the ballroom staff and who were either all in management positions or were ass kissing hopefuls. In fact, this locker room, sitting unmanned for the most part could, with time and a certain degree of planning, become a smoky poker room steeped in a fine brandy haze; a gentlemen’s lounge from the prohibition era.
It became clear to me that a game of poker held in the locker room wouldn’t have to halt or close as there would enough men on staff ducking management and taking unauthorized breaks in consecutive order to sustain the game for hours. I wasn’t the only one evading management…I was the only one who’d been caught. And certainly it would speed the hours of a shift knowing that our poker room was clacking with cards and chips only a few floors below. Also, there was a good chance that I could make a small fortune.
The catch would be however, the oath of silence from the brotherhood of this clandestine lodge. In fact there would have to be measures taken to enforce this secrecy as a plan like this once dreamed, could not continue anymore as only just that; certainly we would need to nurture it and protect it like a newborn. Such an operation could only exist under a cloak of secrecy; our own Anne Frank hiding in the floor boards.
In the following days I tended carefully to organizing the operation. One evening I spent 45 minutes in the locker room to gauge the traffic. I sat there, contemplating the walls as the Ritalin set in. In 45 minutes, only one man had entered the locker room. Indeed the locker room appeared to be remote enough of a destination for the plan to succeed. Beyond that, the spies placed sporadically throughout the hotel weren’t baffled by my absence. It seemed the instances of my wandering openly where more disconcerting to them than my actual absence. Each time I returned to the ballroom after a stint in the locker room, I wasn’t questioned or even looked at funny. In fact, they’d not even seemed to notice my absence; they were all too busy tending to pointless details and chasing meager gratuities.
Within a week I was incorporating meals into the routine, testing the room and finding it to be satisfactory dining quarters. Within two weeks I’d brought in a small vintage TV I’d found in basement storage. It seemed to be a product of the mid 80’s and as if fate was aiding me in my quest, I found to my surprise a remote control taped to the rear panel of the boxy TV. Along with that I also brought in a stock pile of D&G brandy, a fresh deck of cards, and a few colorful stacks of poker chips that Willem from the hotel casino had fronted me. Cigars came next and I began smoking one on every break, watching basic cable on the TV I propped in the corner of the room and sipping on the brandy while playing black jack with myself. It was quite a nice room, but a bit solitary—clearly it was time to enlist a group of regulars.
The first of this bunch I recruited by sheer accident. I’d embarked on a stealthy and quite risky mission to visit Garrison in the lounge for he had promised me a taste of 46 year old brandy that had been ordered and left by a guest the previous evening. I was forced to duck into the Bronze room to avoid being seen by Denise however, who on that particular night was an inferno of duress, ferociously clogging around the servery hallways in her platform boots, barking orders and criticisms high and wide; verbal whippings meant to hurry us into catching up with the staunch demands of another ultra-cheesy wedding banquet.
I had been on a roll and had managed to stay out of Denise’s sight for nearly an hour. It seemed I was making progress with ducking management and getting better all the time; I’d begun to master tactics of stealth and it was in this fashion that I’d backed into the warm emptiness of the Bronze room, concealing the generous sum of 46 year old brandy Garrison had set me up with in a snifter. I sat down on a table that neatly presented a coffee/continental breakfast station. As I sipped back the smooth wash of brandy, I took note of the saucers and coffee cups stacked three levels high in a giant pyramid. All of their handles were set perfectly at 4 o’clock; such accuracy about something so pointless was indeed the sign of an unraveled mind.
It wasn’t until I was nearly at the bottom of the glass that I realized I wasn’t alone in the room. There was a muffled voice emanating from beneath one of the long, velvet skirted tables and as I approached it cautiously, I took note of a grey cord running from beneath the table, over the carpet, along the floor boards and eventually up the golden door frame, where it finally connected to a touch tone phone fastened to the wall.
Reaching down, I pulled up the skirting, revealing a man I vaguely recognized as a fellow ballroom waiter. His name was Tyrone and he’d existed until then as an extra…a prop…a man that didn’t beg to be remembered—he kept a low profile and for good reason I now realized. He flashed me a grin from his place on the floor, lying flat on his back beneath the eight foot table.
“Hold on baby.” He said into the receiver before addressing me, “Shit man…thought you were Denise. What’s up man?” he chuckled in a thick Jamaican accent, extending his free hand for a fist bump.
After taking in hand his knuckles and shaking his fist, I dropped the skirting and returned to my place on the continental breakfast table. Slightly baffled, I drained the rest of the brandy which had existed 15 years longer than I on this earth. I had never seen such innovative methods; lying beneath a skirted and set buffet table right under management’s noses. I was so impressed with Tyrone’s tactical skills and stealthy instincts that I waited for him to finish his call. When he finally emerged from beneath the table with a grin a few minutes later, I immediately commended him.
“I say old chap, you’ve taken management ducking to a new level.” I said.
“What you mean man?” He smiled, “Under the table is the best place. They never look under there.”
“When did you discover this method?” I asked.
Tyrone pondered the question, gazing toward the ceiling and setting a long black finger across his chin, “Maybe three months.”
“That long? Impressive…quite impressive.” I said, eyeing the table again.
“Got to talk to my women.” He said smiling bashfully, peeping around the room for more to say about it but finding no more words.
“It certainly seems that way. Listen old sport, do you play poker?” was my next question.
“Shit man, I always wanted to.” he grinned.
After explaining the situation to Tyrone, we began frequenting the locker room during our unauthorized breaks and after a few days had abandoned wandering the upstairs rooms and hallways altogether. There, behind the safety of a punch code lock, we could now speak freely and frequently on our phones to potential booty calls without the threat of reprimand. Certainly we were both relieved to have discovered such an ideal setting to sip fine liquors, play some cards and enjoy a few good puffs from a punch holed Dr. Pepper can—all the while watching Judy Woodruff on channel 14—like civilized chaps.
“Ever play on a chess board man?” Tyrone inquired one evening as we sat in our respective chairs sipping ice cold beer while watching a Blackhawks game unfold on the small television propped up on a chair.
“Well, I’m not above it if that’s what you’re asking.” I said.
The next night Tyrone brought a chess board as well as a friend to the locker room. The man I recognized as an import from the laundry room. I’d seen him carting linen through the halls on many occasions but had never spoken with him. I poured myself a tall G&T and sat there with them as they contemplated their game.
“So, you work in housekeeping correct?” I asked Tyrone’s friend.
“Yeah, it’s ok.” He said in his heavy Parisian accent.
“You talk a lot with those housekeeping broads?” I asked.
“Not really.” He shrugged.
“They can never find out about this.” I said simply and cutting straight to the point, “If they do, we’re through—you hear me? Through.”
“But of course not.” He assured.
“So, how have things been?” I asked Tyrone after a long icy sip.
“Ah, I got busy with this thick lady in K-Town the other night man.” Tyrone said without breaking his pose of deep concentration.
I wasn’t sure if he’d meant this negatively and so I only nodded and sipped again. Indeed, it was clear to me then that we’d need to recruit a wider variety of members into our private locker room meetings.
The following week I made an executive decision to officially leak news of the locker room to other departments through discreet word of mouth. I decided to tell Schroder, a concierge from back east who possessed a synthetic professionalism that people often responded to. As concierge of the Davenport, Schroder had become a deal maker—the expeditor of one’s whims. He operated on a first name basis with, business moguls, celebrities, foreign diplomats and other such narcissistic douchebags, fulfilling their requests no matter how absurd or scandalous and always doing so with great discretion; discretion which we now counted on. I charged Schroder with the task of enlisting members throughout the hotel. Within four days, news of the locker room had spread to the right people. Cooks, dishwashers, valets, housekeepers, maintenance men, room service attendants, bellmen—they all began showing up, contributing to the pot in the center of the table; a mound of sweaty, green bills that made the games a touch more interesting.
On any given evening, the locker room would become a crowded, smoky backroom, clacking with cards and stacked with chips and booming with loud collective guffaws. The air was filled with palpable energy; thrilling sweats of anxiousness, brought on by the collective gambling rush crowding our crowded room, playing poker or black jack or placing bets on televised sporting events. In a few short weeks our quiet locker room had escalated into a full blown gambling operation. And with so many bets coming in, the numbers eventually grew a fourth digit. It was then that we realized the need to keep at least approximate track of these figures.
We enlisted in the mathematical talents of William O’Leary; the Davenport’s night auditor. Beyond harboring a weakness for gambling, William brewed his own corn-liquor and habitually quoted everyone from Darwin to Dali in support of any number of his useless theories on life. He’d travelled the world during his self-proclaimed prime, over land, sea and air. He’d nearly died of dysentery in an African jungle like Louise Ferdinand Celine and had subsequently sky dived over Barcelona. He’d lost himself to reckless abandon in Italy and had climbed mountains in Tibet; he’d caught syphilis in Bucharest and had been treated for it in Scotland. He got around O’Leary did. A legend unto himself, he was now married to an older woman he’d imported from his Midwestern hometown, along with her two daughters. In short, his life was over for the most part. So, it made perfect sense that William would want to add some spice to his otherwise lackluster existence. They all did—and perhaps they all saw the locker room as a perfectly viable distraction from their boring jobs and the inevitability of their own impending deaths.
I didn’t give a flying f— what their perceptions were; we were making a small fortune and that was the important thing. We were giving the casino on the main floor a run for their money, or so William would joke on occasion. We were on a roll and that meant two things; firstly, that it was all just a fleeting era as all eras are and secondly, that people would inevitably aim to sabotage our operation—for basic people exhibit basic behavior; it’s a natural fact. Furthermore there had always existed the element of whistle blowers, whether we chose to recognize it or not. In fact, the news of our gentlemen’s lounge was whetting suspicions in dangerous circles. And indeed the night eventually came when one of the night watchmen sauntered into our locker room during peak business hours.
I recall the moment well, for it was indeed cinematic; the way in which silence swept across the room and the way everyone stopped what they were doing or saying and froze, clutching fast to their cards or their drinks; smoldering cigars dangling from some of their mouths. Malcom the nighttime security guard stood at in the doorway with his flashlight poised to spotlight any one of us had we made a move. He peered around the room; his expression of stone eventually turning to a wide grin.
“Well, well, well, what do have we here?” he’d said, slipping his flashlight back into its holster.
Though I’d expected the moment since the start; I was caught off guard when it finally arrived and could only offer a single question.
“A focus group?” I offered.
My words, as well as a few chuckles from a few of my colleagues, dissipated in the heavy silence that suddenly cloaked the locker room. You could have heard a pin drop. It was anyone’s guess what would happen next…it was a standoff. It was then that Tyrone came from around the corner, from the urinals, latching his belt and holding a stack of green bills between his teeth. I was standing there, contemplating how the filth and pestilence seething within the microscopic folds and tears of the money didn’t register to Tyrone, when he held out his fist and bumped it with Malcom’s.
“You weren’t kidding man.” chuckled Malcom.
“No, I wasn’t.” Tyrone said, placing a cigar between his teeth before widening his eyes and letting loose a sinister chuckle laced with voodoo and black jack fever.
“Give me 40 in chips.” Said Malcom, handing O’Leary a twenty and two tens.
It was hard to believe, but within three nights, Malcom was a regular and making his nightly entrance with something of a hula dance as the guys would applaud and blow loud whistles. We’d all started to refer to him as ‘Teece’; a nick name I’d coined because of his uncanny resemblance to the famed TV chopper pilot.
It seemed like a new lease on the operation. Malcom kept us informed, assuring us that though there were some murmurs concerning the goings on behind the punch code door of our west wing locker room; he was in fact, ‘putting out the small fires’ by assuring anyone asking that indeed there was nothing of the sort transpiring in our locker room. Though there was gossip, there were no direct accusations or speculations, much less a plan of shutting us down. This new information seemed to broaden our parameters and put everyone at ease, at least for a while.
It was this cavalier air which prompted us all to step further across that line—the one separating personal recreation and risky business. Soon, liberties were being taken. It seemed everyday someone was showing up with an extra convenience, an extra vice. Vince from valet rolled in his own chair—a fancy leather sort with a kingly stature—he’d snagged it from one of the executive board rooms on the 14th floor. Walt from maintenance brought in a mini fridge from storage which would keep our wide selection of beer ice cold. O’Leary and a couple of the others had the diligence to carry in one of the old leather couches from the reception area on the 25th floor. Aside from a number of new centerfolds taped to the walls, I noticed one evening that a giant half-moon table had been rolled in from one of the ballrooms as well as one of the spare portable bars from the Emerald room. The half-moon was a perfect fit as a makeshift blackjack table.
One night, when I took notice of William and Tyrone setting up a cappuccino maker in the corner of the room, it became clear to me that we’d become too comfortable. We’d mustered the diligence and determination to carve out a better existence in the hotel for ourselves and had passed the point of no return and now perhaps saw no point in drawing limitations; the sky appeared to be the limit and so every limit was exceeded.
One night O’Leary stopped me in the hall during the Mayor’s 8th annual Save the Children Gala. He demanded I follow him to the locker room.
“Trust me—you’ll want to see this.” William assured.
“Just let me deliver these desserts to the shitheads at table 14—Denise is riding my ass tonight.” I informed him; however, this could not wait.
“F— the desserts man…” he chuckled, accosting my tray and handing it off to a junior server, “Drop these at 14.” He commanded, jolting the skinny kid into action, before pulling me by the arm into the elevator.
“Let me guess, you guys rolled in the Jacuzzi from the spa?” I chuckled as we descended floors.
“You’ll see.” said O’Leary, pouring out a tiny, perfectly white pile onto the top of his hand before snorting it off with a painful sounding squeal.
“What is that?” I asked of the powder.
“Crushed caffeine pills.” He replied with a chuckle.
On this particular evening, the locker room was packed beyond its capacity and thick with humidity and cigar smoke. A mass of bodies stood perfectly still, their heads rapt and their shoulders square. I too halted for a moment at the splendor of its majesty; a massive screen nearly the size of one wall towered over our makeshift lounge. Stand included, the screen stood perhaps 9 feet tall and was perhaps 12ft in width. The screen itself was slightly concave and seemed to wrap around the peripheral scope as unseen speakers boomed the sounds of a hockey game back at us with extreme volume—as if we were actually there, first balcony.
It had been pulled into our room from one of the boardrooms upstairs that was being renovated; this was risky and I voiced this concern to William who shot me a glare of amazement laced with his caffeine rush.
“Are you f—ing kidding me? Just look at this f—ing thing man!” he sang and gestured toward the enormous screen, “We’re gonna get Apocalypse Now going on this tomorrow night! Can’t wait man…can’t wait. Flight of the f—ing Bumble Bee is gonna hit you right in the chest out of these speakers.”
I stood there for a moment and watched as a Detroit forward blazed across center ice toward a building break away which resulted in an eruption of hollers, cheers and ear tightening whistles when the player tipped the puck through the opposing goaltender’s pads. The cheer was a sonic boom—easily heard in the staff cafeteria next door. It occurred to me then that it wasn’t only the gambling and the unreal amounts of money filtering through our operation on any given night. It wasn’t just the sheer success of the initial plan. Indeed dear reader, it was the right plan at the right time and the perfect fit only illustrated further what I already assumed; this was what legends were made of and like all legends, ours would come to pass in a blaze of glory.
And though we all hoped for some kind of break, for some kind of divine intervention to erase us from the suspicions of upper management; it wasn’t meant to last. In spite of Malcom’s assurances that we were in no immediate danger; quite suddenly it was all brought to a screeching halt. The locomotive force of our operation was halted in its tracks when one fateful Saturday night, the general manager made an unannounced appearance.
Mr. Q he was called. The Q was for Quade. He was a short man who I’d never seen dressed in anything but black blazers and black turtleneck sweaters. Evidently he had not a shred of mercy in him either and fired immediately any new staff members who’d not passed their 6 month probation period. He fired them on the spot and with a scolding sermon that went on for what seemed an hour.
He threatened to call the authorities, to have us all arrested…caned and thrown into the drink behind the hotel. He was livid—a man with a crusade suddenly…it was a shamefully sanctimonious display; a real drag. Quade went on, becoming more fired up, gesturing wildly like the caricature of a third world dictator. It wasn’t what the locker room was for apparently and according to his pleading tone of vengeance, we’d done more than breached the employee agreement—we’d apparently committed a moral crime as well. It wasn’t enough to lambast us all; the bastard was trying to get us to tear up, to break down and sob. I lit a cigar, feeling I was already in the shit house and had little more to lose.
“There is no smoking in this locker room Nero!” boomed Quade stepping over and tearing the cigar from my between my teeth.
I drained my glass and leaned back in my chair as Quade went on with his lecture. The words however were a drone of pointless drivel…a blowing of hot air. I could only focus on the financial consequences—and the looming dread of having to find a new job…of having to sit through often 4 interviews to secure a 5th and final sit down with any random hotel GM…most of which undoubtedly knew Quade. Easy come easy go, I thought, feeling if I was going to be fired myself; I wouldn’t subject myself to anymore of Quade’s sermon. I stood up and left the locker room with Quade’s threat nipping at my heels, “You walk out of here now Nero, you’ll never be allowed back in.”
Quade’s words haunted me as I drove westward down Wilshire; however, I just couldn’t sit there and digest his self-righteous lecture—especially if I was going to get the axe anyway. Swigging a mouthful of murky green absinthe, I dialed Garrison who hadn’t been present in the locker room when Quade and his henchmen had burst in.
“It’s a firing squad around here.” he said when I reached him and inquired, “8 people from banquets, 3 bellmen and 2 from valet. 13 got terminated tonight.”
“I think I’m one of them.” I said, in a long smoky exhale.
“No, you and O’Leary and also Tyrone can’t be fired.” Assured Garrison.
“How do you figure that?”
“You’re protected by your brothers and sisters down at Local 709. The shop stewards are already on this. They’re saying Quade was taking names, which he can’t really do. The guy is out of control they say…and you gotta think; he suffers from little man’s syndrome.”
“It would appear as such…still, I walked out in the middle of his sermon.” I said.
“I heard. Apparently now you’re on his shit list. Talk to the union tomorrow. The shop stewards were all looking for you tonight. A lot of people want to talk to you I guess.” said Garrison. Just great.
Up At the Villa
“I thought you were fond of his work?”
“Yeah, but there’s a difference between the artist and the man himself.” says Tommy and for the first time he realizes that this rule applies to himself as much as anyone else.
“This is a very grand conversation my friend.” smiles the dark man sitting across from him.
“I’m afraid you’re right, and I’m afraid I’m too exhausted for it.” says Tommy, leaning back into the sofa, relishing it’s softness.
“Perhaps another time then.”
“Perhaps.” says Tommy.
Remington can be heard coming down the hall just then. His chuckling resonates through the villa, seeming to grate directly on Manolo’s patience, causing the dark man’s jaw to grit slightly. He had been napping and has now emerged, revitalized and ready for mischief.
“Ah,” sighs Remington once in the room and fixing himself a drink. There is a roundness to his shoulders Tommy has always found comical and now even more comical as he is wearing no shirt so the roundness is emphasized, “So, lovers…how was it?”
“We got caught in the rain.” says Tommy, “Catalina and I have never seen rain like this.”
“It’s been some time since we’ve had this much rain.” states Manolo without looking at either Tommy or Remington. Instead his eyes fix on Catalina and he raises a brow. The bastard—and after Tommy had agreed in his head to play nice; to be civil. So, he thinks, sipping his drink, this is what being the better man gets me.
“So Manny.” says Remington, “I see you haven’t tired of Ms. Farnsworth’s hospitality yet.”
Manny sits, motionless. Sipping his drink, now glancing at Tommy, as if in Tommy’s face there is a mirror through which he can see Remington, who stands behind him, shirtless and watching the rain through the French windows…beyond which, midnight spreads, over the land. There is a moment of silence before Manny speaks.
“And you of entertaining us.” he smiles, showing no temper—though it is most certainly simmering under his cool exterior.
“Where is the lovely lady anyway?” asks Remington now, stepping around the sofa and taking a seat on the opposite end of it.
“She’ll be down soon. I assure you. She wouldn’t want to miss such great entertainment I’m sure.” says Manny.
Frowning now, Remington looks to Tommy, “Did you say something to soften our old boy up Tommy?”
“I hope I haven’t.” says Tommy, toward Manolo now. Who appears now to be an overgrown child, sitting there, silently stewing in growing rage. It makes sense suddenly to Tommy that Nancy should take this man on as a lover. And this fact depresses him. However, Catalina is beside him. Sitting, listening. Watching the men talk—doubtlessly bored with their banter. This game makes Tommy hollow inside.
“Everyone is just fine.” says Manny.
“Please Manny. Tell me you’re not all for the notes.” pleads Remington, “Please tell me you didn’t help her write them.”
“No. The notes were her idea.” says Manolo turning his head slightly in Remington’s direction.
“What did the notes say?” asks Catalina with an intrigued grin.
“Well, that’s really the question isn’t it?” says Remington.
“Here is one now.” grins Remington, unfolding the latest that has been balanced neatly on the counter top, “Dearest villa-guest, da, da-da, da-da…too noisy….da, da-da, da-da…cheap smells emanating from my half of the villa?” Remington chuckles now, leaning back in his robe, in effect, shaking the pitcher of lemonade he is sipping from directly, “da, da-da, please refrain from flushing anymore of my ‘rubber collection’ down the toilet? This is her finest note yet, I must say…mutual respect…da-da, da-da, da-da, perhaps you might enforce a simple rule, villa-guest, that your girlfriend removes her shoes before traipsing through the hallways at all hours of the night as the clicking tends to keep me awake?!…Jesus…” chuckles Remington, spitefully before biting down on the note and tearing it in two. He lets the pieces fall to the floor, before swaggering back to the refrigerator with a yawn.
“I don’t traips…” says Laura, rolling her eyes as she reads a fashion magazine.
“Ain’t that just the most dirlin thing you ever read? Little notes…ain’t she just dirlin…well tarnation, ain’t that just thee most dirlin little gal you ever did see?”
“Yes.” says Manny leaning over now, looking Remington directly in the eyes, “As I say. The notes were her idea. She didn’t like my idea.”
“C’mon, share. What was your novel plan? Did it involve a machete?”
“Well, I don’t think I’d say such things in the company of ladies.” says Manolo.
“Why not? You wear that obscene hairdo around town all day long.” chuckles Remington.
“You like it?”
“Oh, I think it’s impeccable. It reminds me of Mr. Quarts.”
“Who is Mr. Quarts baby?” asks Laura from her magazine, not bothering to look up.
“Why Laura my sweetness…my darling dear…Mr. Quarts was a guy who lived down the street from us when I was growing up…he had some type of mental syndrome and tended to defecate in public.”
“That’s silly hon. I like Manny’s hair-cut.” says Laura, finally looking up from her magazine to address the dark man, “I like your hair cut—it’s very avant-garde.”
“Oh Laura baby—that’s what I love about you most—your sick sense of humor.” says Remington warmly.
“Well I learned the truth from Lenny Bruce.” says Laura absently, returning to her magazine.
“You’re very kind.” says Manolo to Laura, perhaps not fully understanding her reasons for interjecting.
“She’s the kindest.” says Remington, looking directly at her.
They share this look and take whatever is between them with a chuckle before looking away from each other. Catalina slides her warm smooth hand into Tommy’s and sits silently, peering toward the window, toward the rain; he must protect her from all of them.
“You’re very quiet.” Tommy says to Catalina, who looks at him and smiles back before looking out the window again. Tommy wonders what she sees out there, in the darkness.
“What do you see out there?” he asks her as Remington and the dark man debate the accuracy of one of Nancy’s many notes.
“I see God.”
“What does he say?”
“He says that we should all forgive each other and get on with it.” she smiles, giving his hand a squeeze.
“Hey,” says Remington, having been listening to their conversation all along, “now there’s a plan. How about we play forgive and forget here? Nance…huh…how about some forgive and forget?”
There is a small dread that rolls into his stomach as Tommy turns his head toward a familiar voice, which is now, here in this humidity, somewhat unfamiliar somehow, much like his own voice on record.
He watches her move across the room clad in a flowing gown, her neck sparkling with glass diamonds. Her tan, not a shade darker or lighter than the last time he’d seen her, her hair tussled perfectly, her blue eyes grabbing him as they always had; Nancy the perfect, perfectionist.
Tommy watches her, remembering little things he has forgotten about her; things distinctly her. Like the robotic nature of her walk. From her mouth dangles a long thin cigarette which she lights with a match…she speaks as she shakes out the match, but Tommy cannot hear her. She is too high above him somehow, her words mouthing from the summit of a cliff but no sound carrying through…and from there the pace is set—Tommy hearing nothing while Nancy speaks volumes on any number of subjects.
To Remington’s ears a coy noise indeed…but to Manolo’s…not a sweeter sound is hearable. His apparent admiration for this Nancy disturbs Tommy and so he drinks another. Indeed, he is a circus clown…another of Nancy’s possessions. What good are they? He thinks, looking around at all of her possessions; the rented villa, the romantic scenery, the tragic art upon her walls, the rented man. It must be the rain thinks Tommy as he rises finally from his seat—unable to tolerate it any longer.
Of course he is met with a degree of resistance. Stay he is urged. But to stay is to die he believes somewhere in the back of his mind. Slowly, until there is nothing left…he must restore himself and this sanctuary can only be achieved in rooms away from her voice…that meticulous bitch with the proper nose. He could lunge across the table and throw a beating into Manny quite easily at this point—but then Nancy wouldn’t like the blood on the floor. He really should go…it wasn’t wise to see Nancy.
“But you’re such a bastard to leave us so early.” Remington points out.
Nancy goes on, to Manolo, despite Tommy’s interjection. This goes on until it is absolutely impossible for her to ignore the parting…Manolo speaks deeply…booming himself against the walls in a bonding tone. A tone Tommy repels in the corridors of his mind, imagining how nice it would feel to connect a hard right cross into Manny’s face…though the dark man might be a hero—a great friend…the type who might pull Tommy from a burning building; Tommy doesn’t know him…and realizes that it’s all relative.
“Perhaps we’ll finish our conversation tomorrow.” Manny says, sitting forward, yet not bothering to extend his hand.
“We’ll be leaving early tomorrow.” says Tommy, eyeing Nancy for a reaction. However, there is none for she is enraptured by the presence of Catalina. Her eyes move over the other woman, coming to an undisclosed conclusion…one she will never disclose to Tommy.
He wonders about this as he follows Catalina back to their room as in his current shape, he is positive he cannot find his way into the brightest of lights. All of the rum has somehow taken the dog out of him, rendering him directionless, led only by the intoxicating stream of Catalina’s perfume.
In the morning Catalina awakes sooner than Tommy and when he finally awakes, with the day nearing ten o’clock, he finds she is gone and in her place is a note. Scribbled with a looping, girlish hand:
I’ve caught a ride into town with Laura.
Will bring you back something from the market.
Love you inside of me
Tommy folds the note neatly, careful not to crease it unevenly; a perfectionist, just like Nancy. He rises with the slight dizziness of travel. He will need a few days to adjust. He lights up and has a few puffs, watching the smoke rings roll perfectly toward the ceiling…he is for some reason brought back to the previous decade. The year things had come together and left him dizzy with the success of it all. The year he’d spent under the sun in Los Angeles, nursing a bludgeoned heart by filling it with knowledge. Indeed, he’d read Celine everyday…and Miller every other. He’d escaped into those musty, dim worlds, vibrant with earth tones…where old world love lived among the forgotten ruins…pastel memories now come to him as he lies there, staring at the perfectly smooth, sandalwood ceiling tiles.
After a while without any conclusion, he brushes his teeth before shaving in the mirror. It is as he towels his face that he thinks of Nancy. Her appearance…the gown and her rented man…her unusual coldness. What was it with her? Why the charade? And why had he not gotten past her even slightly by now?
In the corner he has set up his typewriter. He has misplaced his earplugs however. It is as he is rolling the paper into place that he is interrupted.
“I’ve got some breakfast going in the kitchen if you’re hungry Tommy.” says Nancy, moving into the room suddenly and without invitation. She strides toward a chest in the corner and squats, as Tommy, still hunched over the typewriter, watches her, admiring her squatting form…remembering vividly how much she enjoyed assuming that exact position above his face as he lied beneath her—for sometimes half an hour.
From the chest Nancy produces a number of cleaning products and utensils; all packed neatly into a yellow pail. She checks it once, then twice, then three times…as if she’s missing something from her cleaning kit.
“You don’t knock?” asks Tommy.
“Well someone didn’t get their beauty sleep last night did they?” grins Nancy, rising now, as if to a challenge in her playfully competitive way, “Maybe you were up all night?” she adds, cocking a brow.
“What do you care?” asks Tommy, feeling wounded that she dares to suggest this had bothered her on some level.
Nancy merely smiles and moves toward the doorway, “She’s gorgeous…young but gorgeous. Bravo.”
She doesn’t touch what you do to me though you godam ninny, thinks Tommy…instead he chooses sarcasm, “Well, thank you for that analysis…and also, thank you for barging into my room unannounced under the ridiculous guise of housekeeping. You realize this is a working vacation right?”
“I am house cleaning today.”
“I thought making my life miserable is what you do.” Says Tommy coldly, tearing the paper from the typewriter.
“Fuck you.” protests Nancy placing a small, surprised hand over her suddenly wounded heart, “How can you say that to me?”
What surprises Tommy most isn’t her use of the word ‘fuck’, which he’s never actually heard her use. It’s the welling of tears in her eyes which he’s also never experienced—it’s either an act or the real Nancy for the first time. Nancy was always a sensible girl, and she kept her warmth at an arm’s length, as to make it hard for anyone to reach it. She was the rock foundation of the people within her world; she was used to shouldering the responsibility…the demands, the mishaps, the paper work, the planning, the organizing, the arranging, the mediations, the birthday parties, the Christmas dinners as well as the house cleaning. Perhaps Tommy’s comment was the last straw…that or it was the vision of Catalina that slashed through her composure.
“Yeah…fuck you. How dare you.” Sobs Nancy now, which is near surreal for Tommy to see…and he watches her cry with slight fascination.
“How dare I what?”
“How dare you say I do nothing but make your life miserable. Is that how you feel? That’s what you think everything I’ve done for you? After I abandoned the birthday party my family planned for me last fall—all so I could talk you out of one of your episodes? I must have been stupid. Is that what you think of me?” she asks, dabbing at a tear with the cuff of her shirt.
He steps up to her until they are close and he can smell the skin cream she uses on her face. He takes her face in his hands and presses his lips against hers…it is like a sip of water after a sweltering day on the dunes. “It’s been like torture.” he confesses pulling her in close and squeezing her tight, “I wanted to pistol whip that baboon last night—and I will again if I have to see him today.”
“What baboon…Manolo?” chuckles Nancy.
Pulling away so he can look at her, Tommy peers into her eyes, “Are you trying to kill me? Why would you do that to me? It was awful…it was just purely awful.”
“Manolo isn’t what you think he is.” says Nancy, her clear eyes unwavering.
“What, he’s like a tranny or something?” asks Tommy, perplexed suddenly by her cryptic statement.
“Get serious. He’s just a friend.”
“Does he know that?”
“We’ve had the discussion.”
“You’ve never fucked him?” asks Tommy.
“Not that it’s any of your business…but no, I haven’t.”
“Not my business? How can it not be my business?”
“Well…the little girl…you have the little girl now—she’s your business now looks like.”
“What? She’s twenty six…she’s not a little girl–she’s also not you.”
“She’s so well behaved though. Once again—bravo.” Says Nancy, the challenge rising in her again—something he loves as well as hates about her.
“You left what we had…you left me. You put my heart in a fucking blender.” Tommy reminds her, in case the months have made her forget.
“You’re not the only one who feels something here.” says Nancy, “Who am I to you anyway?”
“You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever laid eyes on.” says Tommy, left feeling hopeless by his honesty and the gloomy fact that not even the gorgeous, dark skinned Catalina compares. “I’m so fucked.” sighs Tommy as Nancy helps him remove her thin stylish belt.
The Hester Street Madrigals
For the third day in a row, he walks to Village Avenue with Amanda. Amanda, who during this final semester of high school has gone from particularly fun, to a girl of grandeur—and perhaps even more narcissistic than her mother; or step mother to be exact. On this sunny afternoon, the third of its kind, Amanda makes many indirect references; few of which Brody cares to decode.
Certainly Amanda’s poignant anxiousness must be a symptom of the looming, collective atmosphere—one which Brody feels is deliberately perpetuated by the students and faculty of West Point High. Or perhaps the atmosphere is of instinctual design, tailored and handed down by previous West Point generations who’d fed into the notion that graduation day is a major milestone in one’s life; a grandiose punctuation mark.
Funny, thinks Brody—in ten years—less in fact, they’d all forget each other’s names, become borderline obese, willingly spawn spoiled brats, become incarnations of their pretentious parents and perhaps most disappointing—never know the difference. West Point would then be nothing more than a distant buoy in the ocean of time marking a chapter of life to which one could never return or redeem in terms of time spent. Not he, not Amanda, not any of the students filing down the sidewalks and crowding the bus shelters on this sunny afternoon would ever get these years back. They would all become ghostly memories, blurred around the edges and fleeting.
In years to come, one might remember Mr. Robinson’s feces breath and feminine colored argyle sweaters, but his lessons in eighteenth century literature would eventually evaporate from context, like condensation from a shower room mirror. Likewise, one might remember Mrs. Shale’s stilettos and fishnets and how she just couldn’t quite hold all of that sex appeal back. However, her lessons in mathematics class wouldn’t help anyone land a rocket on Mars or even help calculate a tip for the country club waiters. One also might remember the shameless manner in which Mr. Sheldon would, while reading from a text, absently pick his nose; but one certainly wouldn’t recollect with any clarity his ramblings regarding the emergence of Europe.
All around Brody it seems the air is permeated by impending change, melancholic and manic all at once—a shifting of the poles that has pulled everyone’s world into orbit around the dark spectacle of adulthood; the bizarre nether region where one becomes directly accountable for one’s own actions amidst a carnival of potentially dangerous freedoms and the temptations of which.
“Listen,” says Brody when they are finally out in front of the Italian restaurant where Amanda works three nights a week as a hostess, “it’s not your fault you were raised in a house of mirrors.”
It’s a reference of his own which Amanda takes with a tilt of her head, unsure of how it correlates to her known reality; the disappointing PG13 drama she has become in these last months of high school.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she whines, further confirming her cluelessness.
“It means that I’ll see you when I see you.” smiles Brody content to spare her an elaboration.
“So you’re really not going to Cameron’s party with me tonight?” she asks with synthetic concern.
“The old chap isn’t having a party, he’s having a wake.” Brody says, noticing a small grey spider scaling the spine of the laminated binder she holds loosely at her side.
“A wake? That’s absurd.”
“No. Absurd is the fact that your restaurant has a red carpet out front.” Brody points out, amused by the lavish plush red carpet lined on either side by velvet rope and gilded stanchions, “Has this always been here?”
“Of course it has—but what’s that got to do with anything?”
“Listen, have fun at the wake.” He says backing away so he can frame in his mind perfectly, Amanda standing on the tacky red carpet in one of her stepmother’s dinner gowns.
At home Brody finds that he is to be coated and combed, turtle necked and pleated, all for the special guests his mother has invited to her latest dinner party—the third one in two weeks no less. Although Brody doesn’t mind eating dinner at the table, he feels as though dinner is always served under stage lights in accordance with a well-rehearsed script.
At dinner, Brody’s father is stoic as usual and as always his mother takes the helm, navigating with razor wit and stellar semantics through a labyrinth of empathetic criticism and hypothetical morality. She has invited the Prescott’s for dinner and of course they’ve managed to drag along their daughter Emily, who, Brody is convinced, is aware of little beyond the fact that she is the Emily Prescott—daughter of the Willington School’s dean, Treat Prescott. What irks Brody most about them is how many times in a night Prescott’s wife can speak her husband’s name. Tonight he’s lost count in the mid-teens.
Brody is unsure which Joan Prescott loves more; the sound of her husband’s name or the sound of her own voice speaking it. The name ‘Treat’ had at first seemed curious and perhaps a touch comical to Brody. After such repetitious use however, the name lends itself to Joan Prescott’s anti-appeal. The shrill manner in which she sheers through her consonants and vowels gives the name a double ‘s’, shelving it as if with lascivious, self-indulgent bookends—the horny old tart.
“So, Brody, I hear it was quite a game last Sunday.” Treat Prescott says out of the blue, turning the collective attention of the dining room table on Brody.
Looking up from his butternut squash ravioli Brody is glad to break from its rich, oily heaviness. After gently stabbing his fork into one of the large striped raviolis so it stands upright like a silver sword in the earth, Brody sighs deeply and rests his elbows on the oak tabletop, “Well, it was quite a treat.”
Though this anecdote brings a small smile to Brody’s face, the older man seems expectant, as if the statement should be followed by more. However, Brody is content to spare him an elaboration.
“Oh come now Brody, don’t be bashful—the pursuit of glory isn’t a crime—at least not yet.” says Brody’s mother with an encouraging chuckle.
“I couldn’t agree more. There’s nothing wrong with a little sportsmanship—it builds a strong, well rounded man.” Prescott tells them all with a knowing nod, “In my day a boy became a man, not by way of self-deprecation, but by way of brashness and a good fighting spirit…down there in the muck and mud…getting mashed up in a good scrum.”
“But you realize that contact sports cause post-concussion syndrome?” says Brody, “I’ve been lucky, so I’m quitting while I’m ahead. No college ball for me Mr. Prescott.”
“Oh?” says Prescott, raising his brows as if such information is strictly privileged.
“How can that be true?” asks Emily, squinting at Brody from across the table; a sexy and doubtlessly well-rehearsed expression.
“Well Em—you might ask a neurologist about the long term effects of repeated concussions. I can only draw upon our assistant coach ‘Tiny’ as an example. He’s an honest man, but not unlike Steinbeck’s character—the one who pets the rabbits too hard and breaks their necks.” Says Brody, leaning back in his chair.
“I think she’s referring to the part about no college ball for you.” Prescott says now, his tone more serious perhaps because of Brody’s abbreviation of his daughter’s name and the familiarity it had suggested.
“Simply put, it’s a meathead’s game sir…a meathead’s paradise.”
“You may not think so now son, but all of those team plays you strategized have already given you a good prepping for the game of life.” Prescott says, as if he’s stating a password for entrance to a private club.
“It was fun for a while…then it wasn’t.”
“Well, you have to have fun in life.” says Emily, enhancing her father’s awkwardness.
“What is it that you do Emily?” asks Brody, suddenly aware that he is only half interested and so only half expectant of an answer.
“Last year I started my own clothing line—we cater to professional women. We’ve been featured in the Mayfair Chronicle and Sea Side Weekly.” Says Emily with well-rehearsed diction.
“Clothing line huh?” Says Brody, clicking his eyes from Emily to her mother, who sits, poised with silent enthusiasm, the top of her thin, frilly cuffed wrist mounting her chin; she was proud of her daughter on many levels—and perhaps living vicariously through her. It made sense; their similar demeanor and shared hair style…Emily was quite simply, her mother’s protégé. Emily had her pressured it seemed, and she weathered them like a pro—not because of skill but because of necessity.
“I’m going to be part of a trade show in Manhattan next month. It’s going to be the opportunity of a lifetime.” says Emily, her large blue eyes hungry for the vast expanse of bright future ahead of her.
“Well, best of luck.” says Brody, “It’s a big world out there.”
“And you? If your plans aren’t football; to what are you going to apply your talents?” asks Mrs. Prescott, still poised with enthusiasm. Like her daughter there is a look of ravenous hunger in her eyes; a woman that would stop at nothing to devour her friends and enemies alike to get what she wants.
“All information will be given on a need to know basis.” says Brody, forking a carrot into his mouth and chewing it loudly.
“Well, we kind of need to know.” chuckles Brody’s mother from her end of the table.
Peering at her, Brody finds that there are many devices to her expression. For she fears social embarrassment and isn’t fond of awkward exchanges. ‘Fix it’ says her look, but Brody cannot; none of it can be fixed.
“I’m leaving tomorrow and I have a fair amount of packing to do…if you’ll excuse me.” he says before sliding his chair back from the dinner table.
“What are you talking about Brody?” asks his mother, shaking her head slightly.
“Yeah buddy, what’s this all about?” his father pipes in, suddenly waking from his trance.
“You really don’t know?” says Brody, looking at the Prescott’s now, taking inventory of each of them, “None of you know what I meant by that?”
“Not really.” says Emily, her expression made of pure blue eyed concern, “Is everything ok?”
“Of course not.” Chuckles Brody, feeling a tickle in his chest, “Has it ever been?” he asks them all before rising calmly from his chair. “In answer to your question Mrs. Prescott; I’m going to study magic. I’m really good you see. Let me demonstrate.”
As Mrs. Prescott watches Brody with a surprised grin, Brody leans forward slightly, gripping the table cloth carefully with both hands. In spite of his mother’s pleading expression and his father’s mustering demand to immediately abort any attempt; Brody pulls with the sum of his might, the red and blue plaid table cloth from the old oak table, causing a calamity of crashing, smashing and a splattery mess of water, wine and ravioli sauce.
“Now if you’ll all excuse me.” Says Brody in the dead silence that prevails.
Love Among the Ruins
I’d been lying on a smooth patch of sand reading Tropic of Capricorn as the sun beat down on my back. The rolling tide foamed thick and frothy along the sandy banks that went on forever—to the ends of the earth and into pestilent jungles and swamps where modern man had no business being.
The distant voices of frolicking beach goers barely cut through the soothing roll of tide that drown out their glee with infinite stoicism—the tide only knew to erode and push on, leaving its shape in the earth; the ocean is a woman, I mused, watching a lady bug crawl across the boxy black print that had been splashed against the page from a dead man’s mind. Oblivious to me, Miller and his literary legacy and the UV rays baking our sprawling beach and its inhabitants, the ladybug crawled on…feeling with its antennas.
Henry Miller had never thought about UV Rays. He hadn’t thought about the ozone layer. Technology hadn’t made it there yet. He’d thought mainly about writing and fucking and drinking. He’d once said that life is a game we play and had afforded himself an obligation to oblivion through the means of unapologetic artistic whimsy. What was my excuse? I wondered, laying the book flat with the pages skyward, and blowing with a good gust, the lady bug forth onto the baking dunes rippling up the shore toward the dry bluff, beyond which, the parking lot stored our cars. I watched the bug crawling, moving over the small peaks of sand like a ruby red dune buggy. It headed instinctively in the direction of the bluff. How did it know?
Cool droplets pattered my back suddenly and the weight of her inner thighs, made coarse by the gritty sand stuck to them, scratched my sides as her bottom sat down in the small of my back. Two cool hands, pruned by salt water covered over my eyes suddenly. Leaning forward with her stringy wet hair mopping over my shoulders, she whispered in my ear.
“Guess who.” said her voice in a close whisper.
“You wish.” said Mitzi.
I rolled over onto my back so she was sitting astride, looking down at me. She leaned down and looked at me closer, much the way I had studied the lady bug. After a few moments she straightened back up so the smooth, still wet flesh of her belly gleamed brilliantly in the late afternoon sun. She whipped her hair to one side and gathered it with two hands, pulling it over one shoulder. She folded the hair once and positioned it directly over me. She then wrung her wrists so a small cascade of sea water splashed against my chest.
“See, that water isn’t so bad baby.” said Mitzi, rubbing the water into my flesh with her nail polished fingers.
“Well, I guess we’ll both get flesh eating disease now.” I mused, focusing at a plane high above, which was from my point of view, a small silver spec at the tip of a long spreading jet trail.
“Sounds romantic.” she grinned, throwing her hair back over her shoulder, “What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking that I’ve been laying here watching you walking around all morning in that bikini…I think we need to get a room for a couple hours.” I said.
“You like this swimsuit huh? I got it 70% off at Beverly Center. Can you believe it?” said Mitzi.
“Sounds like a good deal to me. There’s a hotel across the highway where I can take that bikini 100% off.” I told her.
“What time is it?” Mitzi asked, pulling my wrist up toward her peering eyes that had become intense again, “Its only 12:15. That leaves us plenty of time to get into a room; if we go now.”
Mitzi, who found a quiet solace in organizing disarray, gathered up our strewn belongings from the warm sand, packing them neatly into the leather bag she’d brought. As I lay on my side, finishing my drink, I watched her in motion. I admired the long curvy lines she’d inherited from her mother and I was grateful that she’d gotten almost no resemblance from her father.
After all there’s little worse than meeting a beautiful woman’s father and spotting resemblances they share, for the recollection of which could pose a danger of re-occurrence in the wrong situation—like say while you’re in bed with her. Certainly, her father’s profile is the last thing you’d wish to see looking back at you over her shoulder when the lights are low. Mitzi Rosenberg only resembled her mother and her sister whom I’d only seen in photos. Her mother was still something of a looker at the age of 56 and taught Mitzi the importance of keeping fit…so the day was looking up.
Deciding to leave the car in the beach parking lot, Mitzi and I walked across the highway and checked into a fleabag motel and spent a couple hours with the drapes closed. Though the sand on the sheets had been an annoyance, Mitzi always put on a great performance, especially when she was being watched.
Still, the hollow remained afterward, the one which felt like dissatisfied hunger; only deeper. I wondered if eating would help fill the void…provide a few shreds of emotional comfort at the very least. Though Mitzi was a ball of energy on any given day and though she could speak volumes on any given notion; she was happy go lucky and skirted around any issues that might spark an intense conversation. I assumed she believed that if you didn’t look under the bed, the monsters weren’t really there.
After finding a restaurant that appeared to follow at least some regulated practice of safe food preparation; we sat comfortably at a table near the window, Mitzi cutting into her blueberry pancakes and I sipping tonic water. I peered out across the baking expanse of sand toward the water, upon which two colorful Waroos in the distance caught the wind on a high up angle, pulling two kite surfers along as if in slow motion over the white crested waves far out beyond the reef. I sat there for a moment, peering out at the Waroos holding steady just above the deep blue horizon. It was chilling to think we are only passing shapes in this world. Writing did something though; it offered a twist—the unexpected. I thought this, wishing I could discuss it with Mitzi—wishing that she’d have some answer, some method of deconstruction that could explain the unexplained; the grand comedy. However, Mitzi was the physical type and she did it well.
“So what’s your plan this afternoon?” asked Mitzi before sipping deeply from her tall pulpy glass of Tropicana.
“I’ve got to go to a wedding thing—more like an after wedding type thing.” I said, sighing deeply at the idea of attending a dinner with old friends.
“Oh, cool. Need a date?” she asked absently.
I didn’t answer immediately. Rather I watched her eat for a while and she ate casually, looking up at me occasionally and smiling, signifying with nods that the blueberry pancakes were above satisfactory quality. I chewed a slice of bacon while I watched her…trying to divert my mind from the fact that the delicious crispy strip had been actually shaved from the carcass of a once curious animal.
Beyond having been born extremely pretty, Mitzi was also an academic over achiever who’d passed the Bar exam the year she’d turned 28. I often speculated that because of her strict dedication to study, she’d missed out on a lot of college experiences that would have rendered her otherwise jaded.
Having isolated herself to a 6×10 dorm room study chamber for the entire duration of her college years (with the exception of class and chess club obligations), she’d by passed any grossly exaggerated social deaths or psychologically damaging scorched-earth break ups. She’d never been extremely intoxicated, or for that obvious matter, extremely hung over. She’d never smoked up. She’d never had a one night stand or a summer fling and felt used and dirty about it. She’d never felt the urge to deface her flesh with contrived tattoos or absurd piercings in her eye brows and nostril flaps. She’d been so uncool that she was in fact irrevocably cool.
When the waitress came around again, I ordered another tonic and more pancakes. Mitzi smiled pleasantly at the waitress, thanking her for me with her eyes and went back to her syrup soaked plate. I watched her for a few moments cutting perfectly triangular wedges from the pancakes which, when pressed with the knife, sent up small bubbles through the thick layer of syrup; like spores. Spores had owned this planet for millions of years. How boring. No writing, no reading, no singing; no nothing—just spores bubbling up through the slime.
“I don’t know,” I said, “I wasn’t told to bring a date—and it’s a crowd that I rarely see. They ostracized me years ago…but still want me around once in a while—just to make sure I’m not doing better than they are. What I do know however is that you’d find it miserable.”
“Why do you say that?” asked Mitzi.
“Because you’d be with me and I’m going to find it miserable. You’d also probably be bored silly. Thing about old friends is that they always remember you as you were when they last knew you.”
“What do they remember you as?” asked Mitzi.
“A fabulous disaster.” I chuckled.
“You don’t think you were?” asked Mitzi, surprising me with the sudden shard of insight.
“It was a long time ago. But as I say—it’s hard to live down a reputation. The whole thing sounds like a nightmare I know…and I just don’t want to tarnish your pristine virtue just yet my dear girl.” I told her, giving her my best Clare Quilty.
Mitzi leaned forward slightly, resting her elbows on the table. She interlocked her fingers and rested her chin on them, peering at me deeply; her eyes glowing with wonder, “I think it sounds absolutely wonderful.”
In the end, Mitzi decided not to join me. She had appointments all afternoon and who knows what else. I didn’t care about the what else because I didn’t quite love Mitzi; ours was a very formal coupling based solely on sex and outdoor activities—namely hiking. Still, once I’d arrived at the wedding after dinner, I regretted not insisting she join me. You see dear reader, I realized it was a date night; a tidbit that had been left out in the email invite. It seemed everyone but me had been informed to bring a date; even Jensen had brought a date.
Certainly Jensen had never brought a date anywhere in his life—yet there he was, guarding her with a heavy arm slung over the back of her chair as if she were a prison yard meal; thigh touching, hair smoothing, back rubbing…it was slightly nauseating—but more so, it was a curious phenomenon given the fact that Jensen displayed perpetually graphic angles of plumbers butt whenever he bent forward—which was for some reason quite frequently.
Indeed, I had been present during past discussions. It was a fact that none of them could figure out why Jensen would intentionally wear clothing three sizes too small and perpetually display his ass crack in this fashion. Furthermore, it sat as an unspoken mystery to everyone at the table how Jensen had gotten a date in the first place—that much went without saying. But there he was, in the flesh, fondling this strangely blinking bird who seemed to find anything at all hilarious enough to throw her shrill, piercing chuckle at.
There are instances in life, when horribly ironic moments are topped with a rancid red maraschino cherry. Jensen wasn’t the cherry on this evening. Indeed, not; the cherry this time was Shannon Hayward and her always pleasantly grinning boyfriend of 9 years Phil somethingorother. I knew Shannon well and had heard a lot about Phil and his many domestic blunders. As far as Shannon was concerned, Phil was on probation—indefinitely. To punish him, she flirted with an array of men; myself included. There had been a time, many in fact, when I believe Shannon was beckoning me with lurid invitations. There had been a lot of innuendo, questions like how I rated myself as a lover, friendly shoulder massages, quiet patios and restaurants she’d show me on quiet afternoons…not to mention crotch flashes of her red panties while sitting on a park lawn, during a smoke break in an afternoon badminton game. It didn’t stop there…in fact it stopped abruptly one afternoon weeks later.
A missed afternoon phone call attached to a hesitant voice mail alluding to coming over with a bottle of wine finally wised me up to how far Shannon was willing to go with it. But having not returned the call in the end—not believing that Shannon would ever really want more of me than my attention, I’d left the ball in her court—so that she might be direct for once in her life. So that she might make a confession—and seal the deal.
However, Shannon withdrew, eventually becoming absent; frightened by the reality of actually embarking on an affair. Still, in that time I’d acquired information. Not info I’d intentionally extracted—but info she’d given willingly…for whatever reasons. Allow me to elaborate.
She frequently complained that Phil didn’t compliment her on her appearance, that he’d lost the desire to go down on her, that he was too intellectual and therefore too tame, that he was going grey, that he never took her out anywhere fun, that he frequently reminded her that they were getting old and once they entered their forties it would be all downhill from there, that he had no mission in life, that he’d sucked the passion out of their lives with his apathetic surrender to the decampment of his youth…and her resentment grew. In another brief and sadly comical confession, she admitted to hurling at medium velocity, a remote control against his face, which left him with a black eye after painfully connecting one fateful morning when they’d been jousting about one matter or another.
I couldn’t help but feel a small shred of pity for the old boy; perhaps because of the remote control incident. That took self-control—to not pack his things and leave her—or at least negotiate some ground rules. Perhaps he was a better, more patient man than I. Or perhaps he was just a browbeaten pussy. However, no man is only one or the other, if he says he is—he’s a liar too. There’s a thin line between love and hate after all…and their whole mess only made me glad in a distant way that I’d never gotten in the middle of it.
Indeed, if you didn’t know anything about either of them, Shannon and Phil appeared to be terrifically, drunkenly happy with each other. And of course, when they’d arrived and he’d dipped her in front of everyone at the table, holding the position for a moment, peering down at her surprised, nervous grin with all the synthetic charm of a game show host—everyone applauded. I meanwhile checked his face and neck for fresh contusions and abrasions.
Though there were no such marks visible, I was positive there may have been small, Shannon sized bite marks on his calves and shoulders. I chuckled to myself at this as I greeted Phil with a fist bump rather than a handshake—in hopes of avoiding a head cold or flu. I then proceeded to endure a horribly long winded hour of their contrived social facade and public groping.
As I say, even Jensen was party to this. Jensen, who’d never brought a date anywhere, so of course was obligated to cling to his new found girl to the point of following her to the ladies room, where she might be seen without him and subsequently rendered ‘free game’. It was beyond him to let her piss in peace. I found it amusing.
Looking around the table at all of their pontificating faces gesturing, grimacing, giggling and slobbering with desperate enthusiasm; it dawned on me then, as I sipped a fresh rum and coke, that I’d never, ever retrieve the time I was wasting sitting among them. And it became clear to me that these couples were bored silly, and so gravitated toward other similarly bored silly couples, to form a sort of couple’s support group, for the sake of interaction based on the premise of flirtation and subtle innuendo with other significant others—which I suppose forms subtle jealousy, and in effect an instinctual claim of territory after the lights go out, later on in the sack with their originally assigned significant others—ground zero of their boredom; ‘hey, you’re mine baby—don’t you forget it.’
It wasn’t real love though. I knew that much. I’d had my shot with real love once and it was a warm sea of enchantment…then I’d set it free—and it never came back to me. However, at least I’d been given a shot. Some poor suckers never get a shot; they get a suitable mate with compatible features—then wind up at couples nights, twisting basic dynamics into complicated shapes and catching each other in jealousy traps. How boring.
When I was finally hopelessly bored and casually out witting Shannon’s man, I managed to offend a peroxide blonde purely by accident. I can’t recall exactly what I’d said, but evidently my words had rubbed her the wrong way. She’d made a quiet comment at first. I turned to her after nearly hearing her comment, and her eyes were staring back at me intensely, held tightly in the forced grin she’d been wearing throughout the evening, one threatening to crack the heavy layer of foundation that had been seemingly applied to her face with a putty knife.
“Say again.” I said.
“I don’t repeat myself.” she said.
“Suit yourself.” I said and went on bantering with Shannon’s man, who was surprisingly bright after all, though browbeaten and broken.
“Oh, you’re so cool aren’t you?” she cooed, as if she were a long lithe cat, purring for attention…throwing her generalized sex appeal at me like a hatchet. Rather than being cleaved in two by it however, I’d caught her hatchety sex appeal and held it there before us for a moment, looking it over, recognizing its shape and contours. I’d met this woman before…and I’d been meeting her for years.
“Are you for real?” I asked, turning to face the blonde.
“Oh yeah…so for real. You’re so like the coolest guy I’ve ever met.” she said.
“Well,” I said, raising my glass, “thanks for saying so.”
“I was being sarcastic.” said the blonde.
“Yeah, I got that.”
“Well, at least you understand something.” She said, stepping over the line of casual ball breaking; indeed, it seemed I’d actually offended her. I looked at her for a long moment, studying the hurt expression in her large blue eyes. What exactly had I said?
“Are you sure it’s me you’ve got an issue with…or is it someone else…your father maybe?” I said, drawing no immediate reply from the blonde woman I’d never met before; only a silent stare.
“Pretty much just you.” She said with a tone of loathing that seemed a bit extreme and quite out of place. How was it that I could conjure such disdain from a complete stranger in only a matter of a few minutes? Perhaps it wasn’t hate at all.
“Well, if it’s any consolation, I’m completely indifferent to you.” I admitted.
“Oh, bravo…that’s so Brando…but I thought bad boys are supposed to be sexy.” said the blonde with a hateful grin.
“Hey,” I said, “I’ve never claimed to be a great man…or a bad man…or a fucking sexy one and by the way—why do you care?”
“You know, I’ve heard about you from all of these very nice people…I’ve heard the stories about you. I got to say, I wasn’t impressed then and I’m certainly not impressed now.” said the blonde who was checked slightly by one of the other women who simply spoke her name in a cautionary tone. Leslie—the name didn’t ring a bell.
“You done?” I grinned, looking at her.
“No I’m not done. Why are you even here? Nobody here even likes you anyway.” She added, sitting back in her chair and crossing her arms, feeling she’d done her best and still hadn’t cut me up as bad as she’d wished to.
“I’m sure that’s true. But do you know what? I prefer to be hated rather than fake liked.” I said.
“How deep.” Leslie groaned.
“You’ll never know.”
“I already know about you.” she said.
“Maybe the problem is that you actually do believe the hype Leslie—and you really shouldn’t.” I said, offering her a small grin before draining my glass; piss on these pricks, I thought as the rum and cola went down with a sting. Rising from my chair I raised my empty glass as if to call a toast. “To Reeves, congrats man; I hope your new life with your new wife is splendid—she’s really a vision of loveliness—far out of your league old chap…I appreciate the invite. To the rest of you—you can all kiss my balls.” I said with a charming grin before setting my empty glass down on the table and heading for the doors.
I was strolling through the parking lot when I heard a voice calling my name from behind. For a moment I thought it was Leslie herself, having followed me outside in order to dig her nails into my face. When I turned to look however, I found it was Shannon and she was walking toward me slowly, hugging herself against the slight breeze and carrying a look of embellished concern in her eyes. She stood in front of me, perhaps flirting with the notion of leaving with me…something she’d never do, but longed to.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Wow, that Leslie woman really doesn’t have a handle on her alcohol.” said Shannon.
“I think there’s something else going on in her head.” I said.
“You think? Like what? Have you ever met her before?” asked Shannon.
“Never seen her before.” I shrugged, “I could care less what’s going on inside her head—probably not very much.”
I continued walking toward my car and Shannon fell into step beside me. We talked as we walked.
“Well, it’s too bad you have to leave so early.” she said.
“It’s okay. I’ve got to be out in Marina Del Rey soon anyway.”
“What’s going on out there?” asked Shannon.
“Probably not much.” I said.
“So mysterious.” She grinned, “A girl?”
“You guys…all you couples love the jealousy nights huh?” I smiled. We were at my car and with the lights of Burbank acting as a twinkling backdrop; Shannon leaned against the driver’s side door, taking a cigarette from her handbag. Placing it unlit between her glossy red lips, she looked at me good and hard.
“I miss our friendship—the laughs.” She said.
“Is that what it was; a friendship?” I asked.
“I don’t know what it was.” She admitted, for the very first time.
“Don’t light that.” I said as Shannon flicked the flint of her lighter, creating a small orange flame she carefully raised to meet the end of the cigarette.
“Why not?” she asked.
“Because,” I said, reaching up and removing the cigarette from her mouth, “cigarettes will kill you…plus, I’m going to kiss you. You ok with that?”
I reached around her waist and pulled her close, pressing my lips into hers. Hers were soft and tasted like lipstick and alcohol. Her body, tense at first, eventually relaxed, and she draped her arms around my shoulders and lifted a leg and ran the instep of her pump down the back of my calf; one of Shannon’s many moves I presumed—moves I’d never come to know. For I realized then that once I drove away, Shannon would smoke her cigarette, collect herself and return to the restaurant, giddy with a secret that she would take to her grave; she would never tell Phil and for that I was glad—glad all around that I would probably never see any of them again.
Once back in my car, with the taste of Shannon’s lipstick in my mouth, the night was alive and rolling by in lights. The movement of people; how profound. Los Angeles at night, layered in decades of oily, street stained history rolled beneath my wheels as I drove on, past alarmed and darkened boutique store front windows displaying things I didn’t desire. I drove on into the night that was crawling with oblivious summer lovers and roast baked vagrants with thousand yard stares.
I drove leisurely through downtown corridors, where the sounds of traffic echoed between the concrete parapets of skyscrapers and overpriced condominiums; wondering if there was something horribly wrong with me. For how could such a desert lifestyle, void of anything sacred, be understood by such a vast many while making little to no sense to me? Certainly it was I who was the out of touch one…the one lurking out on the fringes of collective understanding. And the question remained, had I changed, or had the world around me changed?
Back on Alexandria I took a quiet dip in the courtyard pool. It was late and everyone in the place was asleep. I floated on my back in the center of the pool staring up at the starlit sky. The moon was smudged behind a veil of air pollution and somewhere high above a helicopter was passing over. LA—she loved to lie awake with me…sometimes it seemed that she was the only one who understood me—unlike others; she knew what I needed, but gave me what I wanted instead.
When I returned to my suite, soaked and dripping chlorine pool water onto the kitchen linoleum I noticed a missed call; a missed call from S. The hollow in my chest was invaded by a sudden freeze of distress. Why would she do it? Didn’t she know I was trying to erase all recollection of her from my existence?
As I was coming out of the shower I heard the phone buzzing from the kitchen. Indeed, I’d found, after I’d dried off and pulled on a pair of jeans, that S had called two more times; perhaps something had happened. But I didn’t want to risk a call back. Rather I kept the phone in my pocket in case there was a fourth attempt. The fourth came a moment later and I answered it immediately.
“Hey.” I said.
“Frank? Hello?” said S.
“Yeah, I’m here.” I said, “What’s happened?”
“I needed to call.” Said S.
“You need to call…” I said, waiting for more.
“Are you ok?”
“Not really.” I admitted.
“Why? Why’s that?”
“You can’t understand.” I told her.
“Look, I had a dream earlier…you were in it…it was a very strange dream. I needed to check on you.”
“I thought we’d already established that you’re not an oracle.” I said.
“You established it.” said S.
“Calling me like this is really unfair…it’s unfair to me. It’s like opening a wound every time.”
“It’s not fair to me either, believe me, I know.” said S.
“You let me go.” I said.
“I had a child.”
“With your husband.” I clarified.
“You can’t understand.” said S.
“Is he there right now?”
“No, he’s in Phoenix on business. What are you doing?” asked S.
“I just came in from the pool.” I said.
“Is there still leaves and bugs in the water?” asked S, a pretty smile coating her words.
“Don’t know—it was dark.”
“Would it be too late for you to drive over?” she asked.
“Over to your place?”
I, didn’t answer; rather she let a long static silence envelope the distance between us. Not so much distance—I couldn’t help thinking. Echo Park was only a ten minute drive—I knew that well enough. And though the invitation threatened to provide a tremendous wave of relief to my midway state of mourning—the relief was like a bad drug that would leave me sick for days if not weeks; could love come in such an ugly shade?
“Are you on acid? This isn’t doing anyone any good.” I told her.
“Did you ever love me?” she asked.
“How can you even ask me that?” I demanded, wondering if she’d swallowed any pills.
“I just would like to know.” said S, surrounded by the eerie silence on her end of the line.
“Look, you want my end of it—my assessment? I’ll tell you, but you probably won’t like hearing it. For three years, I played the game. The sneaking around, the secret meetings, the signals and codes—calling your landline from a fucking pay phone on a daily basis and letting it ring just once, in hopes that you’d get the signal…or waiting an hour sometimes to realize that you’d gotten obligated to other plans with him and now weren’t going to make the plans we made—often a week in advance…and always looking over our shoulders in fear of someone we know seeing us together; who were we really fooling?”
“You knew I was married baby.” said S. in a pleading tone.
“Yeah, and for three godam years, I had to give you back to him every night. You think that was easy? It wasn’t I can assure you—and evidently; it didn’t make me any better of a man. You had the best of both worlds for three years S.” I said feeling very much like throwing the phone against the wall and shattering it into a thousand and one pieces.
“I want you here kissing my neck.” Said S quietly, deflating my anger.
“This is so sick. You’ve ruined me for any other woman by the way. I can’t seem to treat any of them right, no matter how cool they are.” I confessed.
“I don’t want to hear about them.” said S.
“So what is it you want?”
“I want you to tell me if you ever loved me.” S. said in a matter of fact tone.
“Why are you doing this to me?”
“I need to know.” said S.
“Do you remember that time you flew to Florida to see your sister?”
“Yeah, for the wedding.”
“Ok…at the airport, after your plane left…I remember walking back to my car and feeling this terrible dread…that your plane might crash and that I would be stranded in this world without you…it was a fucking terrifying notion. It wasn’t liberating…it was just this intense realization with an end of days kind of severity to it. Does that answer your question?”
“Yes.” Sniffled S, “Do you want to see me tonight?”
“It would kill me.” I said.
“So then what?”
“How should I know? I guess he’ll get back from Phoenix and you’ll live happily ever after, until the next time he leaves you alone.” I said.
“I’m sorry.” whispered S.
“Ok…I’m going to let you go. Promise me you’ll take care of yourself.”
“I’m doing my best. But listen…before you go, I gotta tell you the truth about something.”
“Truth about what?” asked S
“Nobody will ever love you like I do…nobody in this world ever will–not like I do.” I said before hanging up.
It was unfair to use the morbid truth as a parting statement; this was neither love nor war—it was goodbye, this time for real. And because speaking with S after so long had injected a strong dye into my clarity; I sat at the typewriter, making perfect sense of the chaos so that I might pull my sensibilities together and come to exist happily or at least contentedly without her. Looking over at my bed, the one she’d picked out for me to buy, I remembered the afternoons we’d spent on it. She didn’t live within my proximity anymore. She lived in Echo Park with a casting agent named Neil and evidently she preferred his last name to mine.
I turned on the TV and poured myself a Gin on the rocks. It went down with a cold sting. They were showing Altman’s Short Cuts on a late night channel and I was relieved to have found it. It was the sort of film that cleaned out the cobwebs—reminded you of something you were supposed to be doing. I was quite absorbed in the film too when my phone buzzed in my pocket, sending waves of radiation into my flesh. I didn’t recognize the number but answered anyway.
“It’s me…Mitzi. You’re not going to believe what happened to me tonight. My bag was stolen, all my ID…credit cards…cash. Nightmare. Also my phone…I’m using my friends phone—so glad you answered.” she said over a distortion of loud music.
“Where are you?” I asked.
“I’m at this rave in K-town. Listen, are you close? Can you come pick me up? I have no money…no phone…nothing.”
“What are you wearing?” I asked.
“Skirt, boots…sad girl face.” whimpered Mitzi.
“Ok, in that case, I’ll leave soon. Don’t worry about a thing…I got ya.” I said.
“Ok…calming down. Thanks so much.”
After giving me the address, Mitzi thanked me again before clicking off and leaving me alone again in my living room. I looked upward toward the ceiling where a series of scrapes left by the previous tenant cast long shadows in the lamplight. “Thanks.” I said with genuine gratitude and rose from the couch, lifting my car keys from the counter as I passed it on the way to the door.
Paul Hennessey had been a friend of mine for years by that point. Frequently, on nights when his girlfriend would leave the apartment and seldom return until the next morning, Hennessey would invite me to keep him company in his rent controlled den of paranoia and gothic themed décor.
It seemed the old boy had an ongoing complaint; that indeed, his live-in girlfriend Stacey was frigid and quite maladjusted—so he’d said. He had made a point, in his anxiety which was present almost constantly, to illustrate this fact by describing the situation; among other romantic tragedies, she’d moved her quarters into the guest room. Perhaps she was bored—or worse off; cheating with the ball capped scoundrel who called for her on a nightly basis.
Certainly Hennessey had made mention of the bastard—the one who pulled up out front of their shared apartment a few times a week, in a low riding monster truck, a Tap In ball cap and ‘fat ass beats’ booming from the thoroughly pimped-out stereo system. It seemed this ‘Chad’ character would whisk Hennessey’s girl away each time and not return her to the premises until well after midnight and in some cases she wouldn’t return at all. Of course it was grounds for suspicion…and Hennessey swore he was at his wits end with the situation. Though I urged him to throw her clothing out of the window and barricade the door, Hennessey was in many respects a gutless turd.
He was also a filmmaker. Indeed, he was a shit filmmaker, but none the less a film maker. One film in particular had featured an ex-girlfriend of his making out with a mannequin and afterward vomiting blood against the inside of a shower curtain. He was an occult fanatic and swore by ancient religions and hokey magics. Also, being a second degree Freemason he subscribed to the concept of clandestine brotherhood and indeed, ours had become a bond of clandestine meetings…steeped in liquor and the compulsion to regress. Abiding tradition, he’d not asked me directly to join the Freemasons; rather he’d hinted for a long while that it was my destiny to become a blue lodge member.
On this night, I’d brought Napoleon brandy. There is something about Napoleon brandy, for brandy is, even in its worst moments, the perfect complement to a world settled in lurking midnight fog, cobblestone walkways slicked with a dim street-lantern glaze…and while in the palm of a fearless brandy buzz, there always appeared above me, as a tangible and moving backdrop, a large proverbial Kafkaesque clock tower, swirling old world poetry the color of blood in its stained glass invitation; an invitation into the long lost.
Hennessey would often say, on some desperately drunken night, “Franky, I feel we’ve regressed back to the beginning of this century, back to the Masons Franky, back to the old dance halls, the smoky old cabarets Franky.”
“Perhaps.” I said as I loosened my tie—a genuine vintage I’d gotten from a shop in Atwater Village.
“Let’s have another drink.” I said knowing his misery wouldn’t clear on its own, “You need to get very drunk, very fast. Then we’ll talk about this situation of yours.” I told him.
“Franky, there’s nothing to be talked about. I just can’t leave her yet.”
“Even though she’s cheating with guy who drives a f—ing monster truck?” I asked.
“We don’t know that.” Said Hennessey swilling bravely from his glass. Tart Napoleon brandy. Hennessey had never swum in these dark waters before and was enjoying it so far. However, when drinking brandy, it is very important to keep a good pace for balance and I was afraid he was slipping behind the warmth of it.
“I’m sorry to be the barer of bad tidings, but you’re complicating the issue…your girl Stacey isn’t putting out for you because she’s given it all away to this Chad f— wad.” I told him with Frankness, “And by the way, what about the girl you’re using in your film; the Russian girl who looks like Thora Birch. I’ll tell you; if I were in your shoes, I’d give that Thora Birch doppelganger of yours a bit of the old Joe McCarthy treatment, just to make sure she’s not a Red…and then I’d take her out somewhere real nice. You’re silly not to.”
“That’s just it Franky…I can’t. I love Stacey’s torture too much…plus—she told me she’s getting close to trying something new. I certainly can’t back out now.”
“Trying something new in the parked monster truck perhaps.” I pointed out, unable to suppress a sigh of disappointment in the old girl, “As I’ve said, expel the contents of her closet down onto the front lawn of the building—barricade the door…let the chips fall where they may old boy—fall where they may.”
“It wouldn’t change anything.” said Hennessey solemnly.
“Then I’m done hearing about this. Unless you’re going to take the initiative and bird-dog some other, more receptive lass—who is at least into you—I don’t want to discuss it again.”
“You won’t; I won’t mention it again.” Said Hennessey, drunkenly, “But just one more thing I have to show you…something I can’t take anymore of Franky; look at this f—ing shit! Look what I have to deal with here!”
He reached for a powder blue bear that was sitting on the floor beside the couch. He gave the bear a squeeze cuing the mechanics inside to prompt a munchkin voice that sang an ill, creepy tune.
“She’s regressed too far back—her room is full of these.” He said, anger brimming in his voice now, “I mean shit Franky, look at that f—ing thing in the corner for instance.”
I followed the direction of his gesturing and noticed a cage atop a book shelf. In the cage was a hamster, peering out at us through the tiny silver bars. I felt bad for the hamster immediately, having to share living quarters with the likes of Hennessey and his maladjusted girlfriend.
“She never does anything. She won’t even clean that cage out. That little rodent in there shits and pisses itself for weeks before she’ll lift a finger. She’s totally indifferent, and ironically, she’s stopped shaving her legs.” He went on, “It’s getting grim; very f—ing grim.”
“The old girl has regressed has she? That’s almost interesting. Have another drink—there’s little else to do at this point.” I told him.
“I agree.” Hennessey mused as I poured him more brandy.
Now, with a man like Hennessey you must be very cautious, you must ease him into ideas that are of an extroverted nature. For instance, to get him out of his domain and into the van that night was especially complex because there were the scenes to consider. Where would we go? Who would we see? Of course I would assure him with a nod that everything would go as planned; but one never knew what would be encountered in a night; LA was always wonderfully unpredictable.
We drove west down Sunset, bouncing over the pot holes and cracked asphalt as ‘If I Should Fall From Grace With God’ blasted over the factory stereo in my van. By the time we pulled into the Dresden parking lot, Hennessey was stark and raving with a liver full of brandy.
“Why are we here? Why the f— are we here Franky? You know how much I hate this godam place.” Hennessey hollered trying his door that was still automatically locked.
“Let me park before you let things get out of hand.” I told him.
“Out of hand? Franky, you know better than that.” He said, finding the lock and stepping out of the van before I could park it. I’d have been just as well to leave the motor running however—for once we were standing in the doorway dear reader, gazing over the crowded dining room with no table vacancies, Hennessey took a turn for the worse and in him, at that moment, I saw the beginning of the end of our night…the blueprint of derailment.
“I think we’ve taken this too far Franky.” He said to me as Crystal approached us. She was slender, blonde and wrapped in a cream skirt and tanned blouse and she approached us heel to toe with the power of a race horse in her long strides. Beyond possessing a soft beauty, Crystal was a writer, or so she thought.
“Hey Frank, you didn’t text back so I wasn’t sure if you were coming. Our booth is full now. Can I buy you a drink? If you guys wait a bit a table will become available—I’m sure of it.” she said.
“I’ll buy you one Crys.” I said looking at Hennessey who was now peering around the dim dining room that was flickering with candle light at the center of which Marty and Elaine crooned ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’.
“Let’s get out of here…” He said shifting his weight uncomfortably. You see; to Hennessey, The Dresden was something you had to build toward…and it became clear to me that he would need more brandy if the night wasn’t going to crash and burn.
“Is he okay?” asked Crystal, who had seen Hennessey in this state before and so had become closely aware of it.
“Don’t worry about that asshole—it’s his birthday today.” I told her as Hennessey wandered toward the glass doors through which a number of people were passing…a pack of hipsters clad in skinny jeans and cardigans. Hennessey scowled into the ranks of this group, standing firmly in the middle of the doorway, so they had to move around him.
“Looks like Paul wants to go though. Why don’t you just let him go? Come sit.” Said Crystal.
“Your booth is full.” I reminded her.
“I can sit on your lap—I know how much you like that.” She teased.
She looked stunning, fresh and younger than she was. Her style was femme fatale and just then I realized who she bared uncanny resemblance to; a twenty something Tuesday Weld—that’s where I’d seen her before.
“I like the idea of meeting you later, when you’ve lost your posse.” I said.
“They’re not a posse.” She smiled, “They’re nice people.”
“Not nearly as nice as you.” I said.
“Are you being sweet or sarcastic?” she asked.
“I’m always sincere with you Crystal.” I reminded her.
“Then let’s meet later. I have a short story I want you to read. I really want to be there when you read it though.”
“I’ll be there.” I said and left her standing there.
Though I’d have liked to speak with Crystal longer; we left, on account of Hennessey’s jitters. After all, Crystal, who Hennessey blew all out of proportion in his mind, had been looking exceptionally femme fatale—the female was deluxe you could say—and I often told her this; in bed.
I didn’t have the heart though to admit to Hennessey that Crystal had shown up at 1557 N Alexandria one night a few months previous with the intention of showing me one of her short stories. You see dear reader, she was from Los Feliz; a child of privilege with little grasp on reality. She wrote freelance columns for local rags now and then for the cash—which she realized she didn’t actually need. Somewhere along the line, she’d discovered fiction—and now penned epic tales of love at first sight, the beauty of the ugly and the torture of being born beautiful and not being recognized for much beyond it. And though her stories lacked any real discipline–she was in love with words and about this, we could talk for hours. Her mind to me was a perfectly hungry canvas upon which I could splash grandiose portraits of retrospect.
Certainly it would have poisoned the air between Hennessey and me if I admitted to carrying on a moderately passionate affair with Crystal for months, in secret no less. Hennessey had blown her all out of proportion in his mind, elevating her levels no woman could live up to. He had nearly approached her on one occasion, driven speechless by her widely set eyes—which he believed suggested a deep passion on her part. Indeed, I couldn’t imagine bursting the old chap’s bubble by letting him in on the fact that in spite of her theatrics and wider set eyes, Crystal was fairly conservative. This all would have left him terribly disappointed, not to mention enraged.
“Franky.” He said once we were both strapped into the van and moving again, “I can’t express my disdain here. I didn’t want to go out anywhere tonight—I don’t care if it’s my f—ing birthday. Why must I do these things to myself?”
“Calm down you crazy f—.” I chuckled, swilling hard on the flask of absinthe as I turned out of the parking lot.
“No! Don’t tell me that! Take me home! I’ve grown tired of your cool f—ing indifference to the problem. Why is Crystal so nice to you by the way?”
“She’s a nice woman.” I said.
“Nice girl’s finish last.” Said Hennessey.
“That’s a lot of bullshit—nice girls are the ones who you want to open the door for—and not just to stare at their ass as they walk through it old boy—nice girls evoke chivalry godamit.” I told Hennessey, wondering if now was a good time to tell him about Crystal and I.
“I don’t want to hear about Crystal.” He finally said in a very morbid tone.
“Well…you asked, dick weed. Here.” I said, passing him the flask.
“I won’t. I refuse to socialize with a man of such questionable character. Your character has come into question now Nero…and to think, I vouched for you.” hissed the Lizard Hennessey.
“You realize that you’re not getting any younger Paul…the fact that it’s your birthday today should emphasize that. In fact, you’re only going to get older looking and more lizardly and ugly…not to mention that you’ll only become more of a prick than you are now.” I assured, “What’s it going to take to get you to have some fun tonight?”
“I would like Russian vodka.” he said quietly.
“Let’s pick some up then.” I said.
We pulled into Hollywest promenade and I waited in the van as Hennessey purchased a bottle of Russian vodka from the Ralphs. Once we were rolling again, I switched the CD to the Replacements ‘Tim’ album…it brought back fond high school memories and seemed to change the atmosphere. It seemed Hennessey was calming a bit too, but by the time we were pulling up in front of the Whisky a go-go, he was in an uproar.
“Franky…look at this shit…a line up! I don’t stand in line ups. It’s cheap Franky. It’s a cheap way to be.”
He was right. There was a long line up stretching around the outside of the building, trailing up the incline of Clark st. with no visible end. This would inevitably mean a large, humid mass of bodies inside—pestilence and airborne viruses. Though the idea had been appealing en route, it stood now as evidence of our fragmented planning.
“But look at this…mmm, nice.” Hennessey said as two skirted women separated from the line and made their way across the sidewalk, which brought them directly before my idling van.
I recognized them once they were closer. It was Gena Ross and her near mute friend Cassandra something or other. Perhaps I shouldn’t have tapped the horn lightly to draw their attention; perhaps not. But I did and within a few short seconds, they wanted in.
“Unlock the side door and let them in.” I told Hennessey who was sitting Lizardly, scowling from the passenger seat.
“It’s your car, you open it.” He snapped with reluctance.
I leaned behind Hennessey’s seat and rolled the door open; letting in a wash of street sounds and muffled music booming from within the club. When the two were seated behind us on the long seat there was nothing but questions to be asked. It was as if Gena had compiled a list over the months since I’d last seen her and she fired them off, one after another, as if it were an interrogation.
“How was it up north? Did you see Allison? When did you get back?” Gena sang mesmerized by the notion that I was indeed back and sitting before her again after all of this time. She had expected to never see me again after our last engagement.
“I’ve been back for a while.” I admitted.
“And you don’t call me.” She said swatting my arm from between the seats, “You’re such a brat sometimes Frank.”
“I’ve been busy, really.” I told her. It suddenly became clear to me that Hennessey had clammed up entirely.
“Guess who else is back?” She boomed and I could feel that she was gripping my seat with excitement. Hers was a sucking energy.
“I don’t know; any one of your thousand ex-boyfriends?” I finally answered.
“Hey,” She warned with that playfulness I was starting to recognize again, “be nice. You were lucky enough to be one of them.” She said, not realizing that she was wrong.
Gena was a woman I had been intrigued by initially, only to be intensely disappointed in the end by her vanity. She was a proper socialite and she knew how to handle being at the center of everyone’s attention. Her mind was that of a microbiologist, which was her chosen field, but in her heart she was a poetess, a wreck of possibilities. She identified solely with Plath, citing me as a Ted Hughes stand-in—subsequently adding that it was her opinion that Hughes had influenced Sylvia’s downward spiral. How dramatic. She also admitted to using the unisex bathroom at her place of work without locking the door—on purpose.
“Who then?” I asked.
“Ricky Eyes?” I said, a smile uncontrollably edging its way into my face.
The name brought back a lot of memories. We had parted ways, Rick and I, last on a gray dismal street in Montreal, the summer we’d both coincidentally moved there; he for love and I to write a novel. We had both unfortunately begun tending to the same woman—someone we’d both known for quite some time. Indeed, I felt almost terrible about the fact that an affair had mauled our friendship which was, by that time, nearly a decade old.
It was raining and he had been waiting outside of Clare’s flat one evening…waiting there beneath his umbrella in his most proper garments in the evening drizzle and there was the residue of a good bout of sobbing in his eyes, for he had taken note, on arrival, of my car sitting just outside the entrance of Clare’s building and in that moment must have accepted this idea with first, I imagine, rage, followed by a sentimental tenderness for both Clare and myself–for each of us had gone through thick and thin with him–Rick was a sap that way.
“Man, you look as if you’re going to a funeral.” I had said to him. His half smirk a friendly warning not to press this situation; it was serious this time.
What a mess it had been. Still, he made me promise to meet him for tea the next day at a cafe. Being the thespian he was, he showed up wearing black. He’d had a full day to cap his sentiment by that time and had sat there in his black threads, taking sharp swipes at me for an hour before Clare, the princess herself, had made a surprise appearance—the bastard had invited her—in attempt to prove something I suppose.
In a disgraceful show of contrived male competitiveness; he’d forced her to sit with us at our street side table, under the shade of the umbrella and made her choose. He’d demanded it. She’d cried…and he’d cried as well…and I’d felt ill having to sit there and bare the both of them carrying on like nerds from the high school drama club. In the end, after a twenty minute round of blubbering and babbling and blowing snot into Kleenex; Clare decided to leave with Ricky Eyes; because he’d cried perhaps. Who knew at that point? I sat there after they left and smoked a cigar and drank a bottle of wine, penning only one line the entire time:
“I could love a woman if she wasn’t a real ballet dancer, but I couldn’t love a ballet dancer if she wasn’t a real woman.”
Of course this was all in the past. At least as far as Gena was concerned. Ironically she had been the one who had introduced Rick and I to Clare who eventually lost herself to suicide. I’d heard about it through various conversations and each time felt less about it. So many men mourned her loss that I decided to hand my own mourning over to them to carry—along with her proverbial coffin. She wouldn’t have missed my sentiment anyway.
“He’s having people over tonight. That’s just where we’re going now. Screw this line up shit…I love the band but not the line-up. Okay, you’re coming–let’s move. Franky I’m so happy you’re here again!” Sang Gena—pulling my mind back to the present tense.
“Okay.” I nodded. “Okay, I’m game…I’ll go see that self-righteous shithead again.”
“Uh, Franky…” Hennessey suddenly piped up. There was great distress in his face suddenly, “you aren’t serious about this I hope.”
“Shouldn’t I be?” I said absently as I pulled the van out onto Sunset in a giant U-turn.
“Who are you again?” Asked Gena.
“I’m Paul Hennessey—second degree Freemason.” He nodded to her with the most polite distaste I’m sure he could conjure, “and you?”
“Wo.” Said Gena, leaning back in her seat.
“Wo what?” Hennessey said turning in his seat to meet her eye to eye.
“Oh she’s a funny one.” Said Hennessey…”Take me home Frank. I refuse to socialize with people like your friend here.”
“Pardon me?” she demanded.
Gena was quite patient, but she had her limits.
“Never mind, it’s beyond you.” said Hennessey.
“Frank, what’s wrong with your little buddy here?”
“Little buddy…” Hennessey scoffed out the window, with rage simmering in his tone.
“I don’t know, what the hell is the matter with you?” I demanded of Paul who sat next to me in silence, “Well?”
“Just take me home.”
“Pull yourself together.” I said.
“Frank, fine. I’ll walk.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You’ll come along with us. This is asylum talk.”
“I refuse to interact with these shallow and forgetful people.”
“Come on.” I said.
“I can’t.” He confessed.
“You can, and you will.” I assured.
“Excuse me, what did you call us?” asked Gena with a tone in her voice of authority, “Did you just call us shallow and forgetful?”
“Gena.” urged Cassandra, hoping perhaps to defuse a scene.
“No, I’ve been sitting here patiently; listening to this little twerp and his twerpy comments. What’s your problem dude?”
“Dude…” Said Hennessey rolling his eyes.
“You know what…” Gena started, but I didn’t let her finish. I turned the volume dial up so loud the windows rumbled. ‘Left of the Dial’ blasted back at us through the speakers as I drove at a casual pace eastward down Sunset. Once everyone had shut up and the music took hold and we crossed the threshold into Silverlake where Rick resided, I felt like abandoning them all and meeting Crystal who’d texted just then, informing me she was at Pehrspace watching a band. It sounded like a nice idea…but I was stuck with Hennessey, Gena and her sidekick now. Also, I was too indifferent at that point to change course.
Once we were at Rick’s parent’s house, a towering Victorian that his parents only used during the summer when they came back from Greece, I lost touch with Hennessey. He had set himself up on a velvet chair in the living room sucking from a glass of brandy, staring coldly at the outside world, not looking or talking to anyone. His own personal strike I suppose.
The place wasn’t crowded, but there seemed to be bastards in every room…and more of them coming down the stairs into the living room every few minutes…passing through, some in couples…some alone…some in groups…then some new arrivals. Ellen Green and a few of her friends. Ellen had pretended I didn’t exist ever since I’d called her one evening years before, declaring that indeed, I wished her to come over wearing nothing but chopsticks in her hair. Still, I wrote it off as her problem. Graham what’s his name showed up next…with his girlfriend—Michelle? I couldn’t remember…it was a long time ago that I’d seen any of them. And perhaps a lot longer I wished it’d been. Still, the mahogany surfaces and old-world velvet cushions made the burgundy rug very soft beneath sock feet. And though it was hard for me, sitting there among the pattering crossfire of Gena and Hennessey’s rising debate about whether a true nihilist would label himself as a nihilist, I eventually had to pull myself from the comfortable couch…toward the main level bathroom where I could piss in Rick’s sink, wash my hands and swallow a pill—in that exact order.
Rick I should mention was a gent; a real f—ing prince about our little mishap in Montreal all that time ago. The poor sap was in fact, good natured enough to take me aside when running into me in the hallway. He requested that I follow him down to the old man’s wine cellar for a private conversation. As he searched for the right bottle, he spoke in a hushed tone, though through the ceiling could be heard the muffled minglings of his guests set to the rhythm of The Smiths ‘This Charming Man’ and the warmth of the living room’s enormous expanse to which I longed to return myself. Though an impulse told me to vacate; I felt obligated to hear him out. Perhaps he would apologize to me formally. For the way he’d played dirty to win a now dead woman’s affections.
He stood there crouched over the labeled bottles, making up his scattered brain. I gazed at the bottles, each one holding the overhead bulb in a pin prick of light against the curve of its dark glass…and I imagined myself living on a houseboat in one of those bottles, on a calm sunset sea of merlot. Of course, this pleasant focus was shattered by Rick’s mention of an old but unforgotten name.
“I thought I’d see you at Clare’s funeral.” He said nonchalantly.
“Funeral’s give me the creeps.” I admitted.
“I figured that. But for a moment I thought you may not have gone because of me and that whole thing at the café in Montreal.”
“Rick, let me clarify something. You’d really be better off by not giving our little mishap too much credit. It was f—ed up, yes—however; I didn’t much care after a bottle of wine and then I wound up meeting this cute little Frenchie…Pauline…and let’s just say she helped me get over the loss for the following three weeks.”
“Well, I’m glad it worked out in the end old friend.” Rick said, and I detected no malice in his words. Indeed, perhaps the tides had changed…perhaps the thespian had learned something from his travels. Still, he couldn’t leave the subject…and it became clear that in doing so, he wanted still to tell me something.
“Well I’m glad I have your blessing dickhead.” I said.
“I’m just saying, Clare thought about you a lot.” Said Rick.
“How the f— do you know what she thought? How could anyone know what Clare thought?” I asked.
“I read her diary. Well, she left it out all the time and so I figured she wanted me to read it. There were a lot of entries about you.” He admitted.
“She probably knew you were reading it jackass…and you fell for it.” I chuckled.
“Cool…I won’t harp on the subject…but level with me…did you ever really love her? Clare that is. “ he asked, not facing me, but rather the bottles, with the pin prick of light smoothing over their glass.
“I don’t know.” I laughed.
“You don’t know?”
“I don’t really know anymore. I loved women after her…maybe it’s possible I did. What kind of question is that for one guy to ask another guy anyway?”
“C’mon Frank. You were in love with her and there’s no bad shades about that. It’s all fine and dandy–know why? Because it isn’t anyone else’s life but your own.” Said Rick nearly absently now as he reached through the grating to wedge loose another bottle. On his sweater I noticed a spider; it was crawling up his shoulder and nearing the white folded over collar of the shirt he wore beneath it. I wondered if it was a black widow or perhaps a brown recluse.
“You have a spider on your collar.” I finally said, just before it reached the skin of his neck.
He gently brushed it off and it scurried under the wine rack. We both watched it go into the darkness. Then quite suddenly, Rick stood up and spoke very seriously, “Listen, buddy, while I have you down here, I need to ask you something.”
“I knew there was more to this.” I said.
“Okay, I have a real problem.” He said…turning now, so his back was toward me…he walked a few paces toward a barred window on the other side of the small cellar. I could see this was serious, to him at least.
“Okay, this is delicate Frank. When I was in Japan I came into my own so to speak. You know, I was away from home, my parent’s money and the past, all of that garb…the foolish mistakes I’d made for all those years, the misjudgments, they were all gone suddenly…the whole year I wasted at school in London seemed to evaporate. The pain of losing Clare the way I did seemed to ebb a little—to give a little. Anyway, I felt free—as free as I could feel considering. I felt that the day could go on forever you know? I just didn’t want to sleep any of it off anymore. I was on the brink of something every day. I would stay up all night. I was an owl…an all night chemist! You know? So naturally when winter kicked in, I came to grips with my mortality. Without darkness there would be no light right?” Rick paused, looking at me and nodding, as if to spur in to agreeance.
“Obviously Rick…go on.” I said, wincing slightly at the pain of having to process his dime store epiphanies.
“Right…and so it was in a sort of philosophical state that I began obsessing about planting my seed—you really start to think about that when your own mortality comes into question. There was a certain logic to it all suddenly and in that moment, I’m telling you, I was wiser than I’d ever been.”
I nodded unsurprised by this coming from Rick, “You had an early mid-life crisis, and?”
“Gena was with me in Japan for a while.”
“I got her pregnant.” He said, leaving a vast cavern of silence.
“And?” I grinned.
“Well, there’s no easy way to say this…she went ahead and…took care of it; like in a clinic.” said Rick; tears welling in his dark eyes, “Those were real stormy nights man, I tell ya.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked.
“Well, you showed up with Gena and I just wanted you to know the backstory in case she wants to take you home later…I know you guys have a past and I know she’s really into getting back at me—for I don’t know what.”
I realized suddenly that I was faced with a desperate man; a man who had no concept of who he was. It was clear to me that men like Rick could suppress nothing; for his curiosity about Gena and I was more than he could bear—certainly because we’d shown up together. What it was in the old boy that irked me so, was the way he viewed women as property rather than people. I wondered if he could even tell one woman from another or if that even mattered to him anymore. There is no telling with a man lost at sea.
“You’re always going to be the same guy Rick. You’re never going to get over Clare either…and I guess I’ll never know what the hell it was she ever saw in jagoff like you.” I told him. I thought about it for a moment as he stood there under the small glowing bulb looking as if he were going to cry again, and I realized that in fact, it just didn’t matter to me either way.
Back upstairs there was trouble with Hennessey I found when I returned. He was perched on the edge of his seat gesturing wildly toward Gena who was sitting, laid back and cross legged taking swipes at him. Just swipes though. Had she wanted to, she could have gutted him. She could be mean, sharp witted, sharp tongued and ruthless when she wanted to be—what’s worse—he was a sucker for the abuse; a bad combination.
“Frank. Doesn’t your friend have a mute button on him somewhere?” Gena asked from the couch, drawing some nervous but obviously slightly rewarding laughter from the people strewn around the room, couples laying on each other and all sipping from their communal cups…enjoying the entertainment; people I had known at one point but to which now, I had little to say.
I felt slightly bad for Hennessey for he had become the object of this hostility and would be until Gena decided to stop the game.
“Give it a rest Gena.” I chuckled, “Can’t you see you’re breaking the poor guys heart?”
“Why are you defending him? Is this part of your man club code? Your fraternity pledge? Is that it?” she dug into me.
“I thought you were into making love not war.” I said.
“Perhaps you’re right. Perhaps, I should ostracize you for introducing me to this little worm of a man. Or perhaps I should ostracize you for not being there for Clare when she needed you most.”
I heard someone in the peripheral release a wincing sigh; as if Gena had just burned me with fire, but it wasn’t fire…it was only psychobabble.
“For Clare? What the f— is it with you guys and Clare? Can’t any of you just let her rest in peace?” Was all I said.
“Little worm of a man…” Hennessey exclaimed in disbelief unable to conceive of such cruelty, though still savoring it painstakingly. “You have some pretty polite friends Frank.” He added, shaking his head as if he were disappointed in me somehow.
“We’re friends aren’t we Franky? We are still friends aren’t we?” Asked Gena suddenly, and quite coyly swinging one of her long legs.
“It’s dull Gena.” I told her and there was a glint of surprise in her eyes.
“Am I being dull? I’m so sorry.” She grinned.
“You’re not though.”
“I’m about as sorry as you are for not showing up at Clare’s funeral.”
“It really matters to you for some reason, doesn’t it Gena? I think I know why too.” I told her as I rose to my feet.
“How would you know anything about me?” she asked from her place on the couch.
“I read it all on a bathroom wall I guess.” I said.
Silence…to this she said nothing. It’s not that she couldn’t have, it’s that she knew how much I hated her silence.
I left them all sitting there and strolled out onto the veranda, down the stairs and across the cracked asphalt toward my van that sat loyally and ready, shaded from the street lamp by an overhanging tree. I heard Hennessey behind me, muttering to himself about Gena’s rudeness and his regrets for being so polite about it.
Back at Hennessey’s abode, things got particularly ugly. Hennessey snarled as he stormed through his living room with all the controlled rage of a drill sergeant. “I should have let her have it, but instead I sat there like a gentleman…a nobleman…all because I didn’t want to insult your friend…who turns out not to be your f—ing friend! Why do I bother going out at all?” came his cry with a spill of his brandy.
“I couldn’t say.” I said taking a seat on the emerald green couch. “Anyway who cares who said what and did what? It’s not like anyone was writing any of it down. It’s not like any of it will be documented in a novel or something.”
“Oh you’re so f—ing insightful aren’t you? Frank Nero the writer. Pfft.” He raised his chin in disgust.
“I am tonight.” I nodded.
“I mean, listen, I didn’t want to talk to her…I didn’t care to be f—ing attacked by her! This tanned trollop with perfect teeth! But you dragged me in once again. I’m never associating with any of your old friends Frank. I respect your decisions, even if I don’t agree with them.” he assured.
“You participated so willingly in Gena’s usual bullshit.” I said, shaking my head.
“I thought she was beautiful!” cried Hennessey in his own defense, raising his shoe and slamming it down on the end table. He balanced this way and leaned forward as if to divulge some deep secret, “The mighty falcon of my heart knows that I’m through with all of you. I’m going to retire to my quarters for the next year. None of you will see me for a long time.”
“Don’t be so dramatic.” I said, “Sit down and have a drink you crazy bastard.”
“Franky…” said Hennessey sliding down onto into his chair, slobbering slightly with drink and unprofessed lust, “It’s true…I wanted her and so what…I would trade Stacey for her any day of the week…any day. I would trade Stacey for any other woman! Any other woman Franky!”
“Get a hold of yourself for chirssake. Believe me; you want to stay away from Gena.” I said wading out into my own glass of brandy and loosening my tie.
“With Gena, its all a rehearsal…and the irony is that no one could ever love her as much as she loves herself. Dig what I’m saying?” I said, “Anyway, where the hell is Stacey tonight?”
“Why are you so interested in Stacey? Why are you always asking me about my girlfriend?” Hennessey pondered gazing at me suspiciously.
“I’m only asking because I’d like to know if I should leave soon. She’s hates me in case you didn’t recall.”
“She hates me too, so what!” gurgled Hennessey flipping his head back so he could catch the last few drops from his upturned glass.
“Where is she? Out with Chad in his monster truck?” I chuckled.
“Oh, this is priceless Franky…she’s out with her little deliciously dopey sidekick, Anna. They’re having a sleep over tonight at Anna’s house. Isn’t that cute? All of the girls….isn’t that just f—ing clever Franky? A little cutesy sleepover…isn’t that just f—ing adorable?” he was snarling now with malice, searching the room for something to destroy.
“Sounds like trouble to me.” I chuckled, seeing the grand hilarity of it.
“Of course Franky. Let’s not get into that. Anyway, she’ll be back in the morning.”
To the theme of the Cure’s Disintegration, Hennessey and I discussed the matter further, eventually turning to the subject of Crystal, who I knew was at Pehrspace just then, grooving along to a band and drinking black market alcohol. I was slightly jealous.
“Why do you look so uncomfortable when I mention Crystal?” Hennessey eventually asked.
“Get the f— out of here…uncomfortable.” I said, dismissing the notion as asinine.
“Tell me the truth.” Said Hennessey, “Tell me why.”
“You want the truth? You really want me to tell you what you probably already know? How boring Hennessey—how f—ing boring.”
“Let’s not drag this out.” said Hennessey.
“Ok, this seems like a good time to mention it. I’ve been having an affair with her for…” I looked up at the ceiling trying to gauge an exact time frame—I owed Hennessey that much, “I don’t know…I guess a few months.”
“Oh, I see. You’ve been having an affair with the woman I’ve adored for two years and what’s worse—in secret; the whole while knowing that I adore her. The whole while listening to me go on about her. You’re not a friend. You’re a f—ing traitor. You really f—ed up this time Nero.” snarled Hennessey with fire in his beady eyes—this had been simply too much for him.
He punctuated the threat by lunging up from his chair and across the rug, hurling himself toward me, in effect throwing us both, in our combined momentum, over a large table in the center of his living room upon which a clutter of books, Cds, and candles awaited our tumbling fall. Inevitably, laying there on the floor, beneath Hennessey who was panting heavily and holding a look of mindless destruction in his eyes as he tried to strangle me, a moment of clarity surfaced through the absinthe; this new plateau of consciousness extended forth in its hand, holding in its palm a diamond; the birth of true enlightenment. This was all temporary—all of it.
“I should kill you now peasant boy.” Said Hennessey a string of drool hanging viscous and long from his mouth as he squeezed his Lizardly fingers around my neck.
On reflex, I executed a rusty, but effective scissor sweep, vaulting him with the sum of my strength so his head collided with a plaster wall—denting it terribly so a small pile of rubble fell to the carpet. Though this rung his bell it also managed to reset him, so he chuckled dumbly, holding up an arm, insisting I help him to his feet. When I obliged him and took hold of his wrist, he leaped forth, wrapping his arms around my calves so we both came to a crashing tumble against his stereo, stopping the music suddenly so an eerie silence prevailed…in the silence a voice suddenly told us we weren’t alone.
“If you guys are going to break up the apartment you should go outside.” It was Stacey and she had emerged from her bedroom. Hennessey and I were both stunned. I backtracked in my mind immediately, trying to remember what we’d both said while assuming we were alone and that she was across town somewhere having a sleep over with her dopey side kick Anna. Surely my surprise was obvious but I replaced the stereo carefully anyway, and took my flask in hand. Henry Miller was dead suddenly and Stacey had killed him with her pale, kill joy presence.
“Honey, you’re home.” said Hennessey as he rubbed the site of impact on the side of his head, “I’m bleeding,” he said, holding back his palm and finding it smudged with blood.
“That’s just great.” She said in the palest of skin and the reddest of hair I’d ever seen…a ghost in the flesh. “How much have you guys been drinking tonight?” she turned and asked me through her tussle of bed hair…
“Are you a cop?” I inquired as I moved across the room taking note now of her attire; tussled pajamas and cat head slippers. The sleep over had been obviously called off and she’d apparently been in the next room during our entire mess. I wondered why she’d laid there in her bed through it all only to emerge now? I was sincerely perplexed. How much exactly had she heard shut away in the spare bedroom by herself with only the darkness to aid in the imagery Hennessey and I had conjured in our assumed privacy? Everything obviously.
“Listen, Stacey, you shouldn’t take what you heard tonight seriously we were just goofing on you…shits and giggles…you know.” I said.
“I heard what I heard…and now I know. All I want now is for you to get out of my apartment.” She said in a cold tone.
“Fine.” I said, “But I’m taking the hamster.”
Stepping over Hennessey who was still laying on his side, recovering from the blow to his head, I reached up and lifted the cage down from the bookcase, easing the fuzzy critter down to eye level. He peered up at me, wiggling his whiskers; he had no idea how good life was about to get for him. Before I headed for the door, I stopped and looked down at Hennessey who looked up at me with a confused expression. “Happy birthday asshole.” I said before leaving him lying there with his soon to be ex-girlfriend standing over him.
Taking the stairs down easily and carefully, I pushed through the glass entrance doors out into the fresh air that would take me to the end of the night…I headed for my van that stood alone beside the curb as I text Crystal.
Windows & Doors
Crystal lived on Beachwood a few blocks north of Franklin. She never hesitated to inform people that she lived directly under the Hollywood sign. She’d grown up in Los Feliz and had returned to Los Angeles after a stint in New York working as an assistant editor with a magazine. She’d come to despise the job on account of it being a sports magazine and her having no intrigue or penchant for games of a physical nature; her games were all psychological, which I found comical on some level.
I stopped briefly at Gelsons to pick up something to drink, for I knew all too well Crystal’s weakness for bubbly drinks. I also picked up a couple bars of her favorite chocolate which she always craved after we finished. The bottle was heavy and cold in my hand as I buzzed her from the street below. As I waited for her to buzz me in, I felt a sinking sensation invade my core. Perhaps it was the old Hollywood ghosts whispering a warning on the late night breeze. The palms above were rustling and I was suddenly taken by an impulse to set the bottle and chocolate down, walk back to my van and drive back to good old 1557 N Alexandria where my piano waited—to lull me with deep watercolor tides of melody.
Crystal had gotten into the habit of competitive writing, which she said made one a better writer—that and influence. She believed that there was no difference between us and them—the giants of the craft. It was all circumstantial as far as she was concerned. For reasons of her own, she saw me as her superior prose-wise and because of it, I endured some of her most biting criticisms; which by the way, I didn’t ask for. Beyond that she resented the fact that I was slightly immune to her mind tricks, while every bastard in her circle of acquaintances threw himself at her blindly—possessed by her spells; they all wanted to marry her. However, she harbored true resentment for her father somewhere deep inside and this they could never understand. They had no concept it seemed of the fact that she’d make a terrible wife for all the reasons she’d make a terrific mistress. Still, I was more of a distant outpost to her…Pluto—or one of its moons…circling on the perimeter of her gravity at a safe distance, riding the balance between orbit and a crash landing impact.
Still, I pressed her little button again…the one naming the previous tenant…F. Audrey 407. I was buzzed up with swiftness this time. I assumed she’d been getting herself ready for me; fitting into the right outfit, applying her femme fatale make-up just the way I liked. She knew how to dress and she liked to look her best when I read her work—doubtlessly another installment of her fantastical dreamscape where I was Henry Miller and she was Anais Nin. Where we roamed the misty cobblestone lanes and took each other prisoner.
She expected me to take the role opposite her when all in all, I was only distracted in a frightening way by the scenery… it was the architecture—there were beautiful ghosts in it—but it was clear that Crystal wasn’t willing to venture further into those backdrops than she already had. She was more comfortable sitting on her $1200 Ottoman reading fashion mags and dead existential authors.
Though she spoke frequently about moving to Africa and digging irrigation ditches; Crystal wasn’t willing to part with her devices, her trust fund, her designer clothing or the Miata her parents had bought her for her 26th birthday. Though she had learned the art of flow—she lacked confession. She didn’t live it and so her writing wasn’t ruthless…her writing wasn’t inseparable from her being; one could definitely live without the other. However, she had a wonderfully round behind and a vast vocab.
The summer had soaked itself into the walls of her apartment and all of their ornaments with a heavy and thick humidity that hung close, like the oil of one’s own skin. Enclosed in this heat, Crystal sat loosely, sipping a chill-fogged glass of lemonade and gin; her drink of choice. Her apartment smelled of a certain musk; gin, skin lotion, an evening worth of her feminine sweat and scented candles which sat now, flickering on saucers in their small pools of glow…it smelled like woman in there and my eyes smoothed over her exposed knees.
“I brought this little guy for you.” I said, setting the hamster cage down on a table.
“Really? For me?” she said giddily, smiling hard and bending forward to kiss-kiss at the little fuzz ball; indeed, he had no idea how good it was going to get for him.
“He’s from a broken home…he needs a nice girl like you to love him.” I told her.
“He’s so sweet. What should I feed him?” she asked.
“How the hell should I know—look it up on that phone you can’t separate yourself from.” I shrugged.
“Hey, be nice. Anyway, I didn’t really think you’d be coming.” she admitted.
“I told you I would.”
“You’ve told me things before.” she smiled.
“Anyway, let’s see this short story. I’m anxious to see how badly you slit me in this one.”
“I don’t slit. I slice.” smiled Crystal.
“Hand it over.” I said.
“I want you to first sit down and get comfortable…want some lemonade and gin?” she asked.
“I brought some bubbly.” I said, “And some of that chocolate you always crave when you’re done with me.”
When she returned from her bedroom with the story, I felt very strongly like getting drunk. Certainly this would have been easy as Crystal was a great drinker with a wide variety of hard liquor and reckless abandon. However after gazing through the first paragraph of her story, I had other things on my mind. It became suddenly clear to me that Crystal was on to something. There was a spark there in between the lines that I hadn’t seen before; it seemed as if she was finally living it. It reminded me of my early works when I was perhaps 19 and dive bombing entire regiments with words; napalming the jungles of contemporary prose…or so I’d thought.
Usually the lack of discipline was clear in Crystal’s work. She wrote of love at first sight, the beauty of the ugly and how the ghettos had soul. She also believed that the best lovers were constantly at odds with one another. This time however, her work took no prisoners—and didn’t offer any flowery apologies. Her piece illustrated this quite obviously; a man and woman, two writers living in New England, who’d fallen for each other’s madness and talent in a frightening way—star crossed lovers—just the kind of complicated drama Crystal not only adored, but sought out.
Though he was cleverly disguised the man was familiar, waving like fine quills between the pastel oils her words conjured. He wasn’t for everyone to recognize though. He wasn’t spelled out as things usually never are but yet should be. He was disguised by Crystal’s coy pen and there I was, splayed out and cleaved to bits on the examination table. Every ounce of substance she had attained from my being, in those moments when I thought her blank stares to be harmless shades of daydreams…every of my confessions had been, in actuality, at her disposal for literary reasons. The realization came like a wash bucket of ice water against my face.
“Prone to storming out?” I asked.
Crystal gazed back at me from behind her femme fatale make-up.
“Well you are. Don’t look at me like that. You so are. You’re not going to deny it, are you?”
“You really think you know something about me huh?” I said, slightly amazed by her observant nature—and my ignorance for having thought she’d not had the slightest clue.
“Well I know that you’re prone to storming out yes.” she smiled.
“Come on Crystal…that’s an extraordinary allegation—extraordinary.” I said.
“Yes. I believe the last time you were here you stormed out.”
“Well, it’s nice that you’ve invested such thought in my malfunctions.” I said, setting her booklet down on the coffee table.
“I care about the world around me. I care about the people around me…”
“Aw, then maybe you should catch the Concord to Calcutta.” I said lighting one of her thin European cigarettes and leaning back in her ottoman.
“You care about me too Capricorn boy. I don’t care what you say in your arrogant little novels.” She said softly, reaching over and running one of her fingers from my chin down my neck and hooking it on the collar of my shirt.
“Arrogant little novels.” I chuckled, “Indeed my good lady, you’ve finally lost your mind.”
“You and your little arrogant novels.” Crystal nodded and laughed.
“You really think that? That my books are arrogant?”
“I’m being polite by calling them that.”
“You know, Crystal; It’s not wise to mistake one’s honesty for arrogance.” I told her, “Besides, I’m too damaged to be arrogant—what you see is something else.” I said, feeling better now that her perception was only hit and miss.
“You can’t hide from me.” she said, now standing and running her hand through my hair, pulling my head so it rested against her belly, “You can run—but you can’t hide.”
“You’re so nurturing aren’t you?” I said gripping her wrist with some tightness. I rose from the ottoman and gestured for her to move in the direction of an Elizabethan chair which she sat down in and stared at me with a crooked grin, knowing where this was now meant to go.
“I didn’t mean to touch a nerve,” said Crystal, “Stop pouting and come over here…and don’t be nice.”
I ran my eyes over her as she raised one leg over the arm of the stately chair and rested a finger between her grinning teeth. It was hard to resist, but was even harder to dismiss her story and its extraordinary allegations. Instead of joining her on the chair, I turned and gazed out of Crystal’s 4th floor window at the blinking city below that sprawled toward the end of the night. I could smell summer in the air. It was flowing in through the window she always kept slightly ajar. On the sill were two flowers in clay pots. I walked closer to the window, lifted one from the sill and placed it down on the hardwood floor beside the old water heater, then the other.
“You have to put something under it if you want it to stay open any more than what it is.” said Crystal as I lifted the window.
I gave the window such a good pull upward, it jammed in place. Leaning forward and out of the window I contemplated the street below–the clean summer air, a woman walking her dog, a taxi cab cruising by and flashing its brake lights…then I climbed out.
“Hey!” Crystal hollered, jumping up from her chair. She was at the window in a flash holding me by the wrists.
“Don’t! Do not! Do not!” she kept repeating, like a mantra as she gripped my wrists frantically.
“Let go of me.” I said, now hanging from her window sill with two hands along the outside wall of her building, “do you want me to fall? Let go. I’m not storming out…I’m just getting some air baby.”
From this perspective I could look directly up the wall and into the night sky that was speckled with a million points of light.
“I’m calling someone! I’m calling the fire department! I’m calling my father!” Crystal hollered frantically.
She raced to her phone that was sitting neatly on a white doily and clasped it in one hand as her other, still holding a long thin European cigarette, dialed frantically. I wasn’t certain who she was dialing, but seeing her so concerned conjured a certain degree of guilt; enough to draw me back into the apartment. When I was once again within the confines of Crystal’s room and sinking back down onto her Ottoman, I was attacked by a flurry of accusations.
“You’re f—ed up in the head.” she said firmly, stomping off into her bedroom and slamming the door.
“Oh…who’s storming out now?” I chuckled, popping the bubbly and swigging directly from the bottle. I rose and walked across her hardwood floor, opened her bedroom door and leaned in the doorway.
“Come on Crys, don’t be mad.” I said.
“There’s something wrong with you.” Crystal assured me.
“Don’t I know it.” I said, shaking my head, “I mean why the f— did I even come over here?” I said, stepping over and joining her on the side of her bed.
She turned to me and in a softer tone she issued a scolding; citing medications that could help me—one’s her father could prescribe. It was hilarity at its very best and I couldn’t help laughing, which only heightened her concern. She had had her doubts but now, she knew for certain that I was ‘mad as a hatter’.
“What’s a hatter anyway?” I asked before taking another long gulp of the bubbly.
“You really drive me crazy Nero.” she spat as she rose from the bed. Standing above me, she cupped her palms over her eyes in attempt at collecting herself, “Ok, that was f—ed up. Really Frank…what in gods name?”
“C’mon.” I said, reaching up and pulling her down into my lap, “I’m sorry…I really am. You just make me crazy Crys. You’ve been marinated in allure.” I confessed, moved slightly by her concern, even if it was embellished.
Crystal resisted of course, but eventually gave in and allowed herself to sit. With her buttocks weighing in my lap and her averted eyes peering toward a spot on the ceiling; she sighed, whispering to herself.
“Trouble loves me.” She said.
“Hey, where’s that old record you used to put on? XTC Black Sea.” I asked.
“I donated it to charity.”
“I gave them a box with a bunch of things in it.” said Crystal.
“Aw—that’s crazy. That’s the real crazy thing here. That record was something else. I would love to hear that record very loud right about now.”
“Maybe we can buy it back tomorrow.” she said softening up finally.
“Maybe you should forget all of this and just come live with me for a while.” I said.
“Over on Alexandria? Please.” Crystal grinned.
“So we move to Fairfax.”
“Been there done that.” She smiled.
“There’s always Glendale, you like Glendale…we could get a pad there easy—a love nest.” I suggested.
“I like shopping at the Americana, doesn’t mean I want to live there…get real.”
“Princess.” I said.
She leaned in and kissed me in her signature way, guiding my hand to certain regions. It was then that the buzzer sounded and Crystal made no move to answer it, which I found odd. Something in her froze as her mind worked away at unraveling a sudden dilemma; to answer or not to answer.
“Well, I wonder who that could be at this hour.” I pondered aloud.
“Probably a drunk visitor punched the wrong suite—happens all the time babe.” Crystal said; she wasn’t a very good liar.
When I lifted her off of me and dumped her to the side on a pile of cushions she bolted upward, moving surprisingly fast, trying suddenly to hold me back from the intercom that buzzed again, this time for a longer duration; whoever it was buzzing from the downstairs lobby was desperate. I could feel Crystal’s nails digging into the flesh of my bicep as I pulled her along merrily toward the intercom that buzzed yet again.
“Frank, seriously. Seriously! It’s no joke. Let me answer it.” She said now, all kidding aside.
I gave her a long hard look before pulling out of her grasp.
“Whatever.” I said, “I don’t really care what suitors buzz you in the night Madame Harrington.”
I left her there at the intercom and returned to the ottoman feeling suddenly disappointed. Perhaps I needed to push past Crystal, storm down the stairs and lay a good old fashioned shit kicking to the buzzer-happy bastard. Perhaps I needed another drink. Perhaps I needed to schedule an appointment with her father; the shrink with Stanley Kubrick’s beard.
She spoke through the intercom and a man’s voice crackled back through the small speaker; he addressed her as ‘gorgeous’ and told her to cue the lobby door.
“Just give me a minute Brad, I’m just getting out of the bath.” she said.
When he started to make a lewd comment, Crystal removed her finger from the intercom button, cutting his words off before they could confirm what I already knew. When she turned back to me, I was already rising from my spot on the ottoman; it was definitely time to go.
“Well, guess this concludes our evening.” I said, heading for the door.
“Please, not that way.” Crystal said, with a tone of concern.
“Can you go out the bathroom window and take the fire escape down?”
“What am I, a f—ing cat burglar?” It had me chuckling a bit…after all…
“Please, Frank, do this for me ok.” she was gripping my hand with both of hers now and one was still cold from the glass of lemonade…it was fitting, the warmth and the coldness of this woman gripping me at once.
“Why can’t I just walk out the door like a normal person?”
“Because you’re the other man.” she confessed, carefully, as if to remind me of something.
“And this going out the window thing is an unspoken guideline for ‘the other man’?”
“Something like that.” Crystal said breaking away and hugging herself.
“So just to clarify, Romeo downstairs—he gets to leave a building through the front door because he’s what—the main man and I gotta go through a f—ing window? I don’t understand the policies of the ‘other man’. Sounds like a raw deal; maybe us ‘other men’ need to form a union.”
“Please Frank. I thought it was understood.”
“To you maybe.” I said shaking my head.
“Hold on here…what does that mean?” Crystal asked, her energy suddenly changing.
“What if he’s the other man? What if that’s what I’m saying?” I inquired.
Crystal just peered at me, squinting her eyes and shaking her head, “Why are you saying all this suddenly?”
“Mabey I thought it was understood.” I offered.
When the buzzer sounded again, Crystal cocked her head with frustration, “Well, you better make a decision quick then I would say. Is this really what you want? For real?” she asked…raising her brows and tilting her head; an eerily calm gaze in her eyes—a bluff.
I looked around the room, with everything of hers in it…and knew suddenly that I knew the answer—or at least what the answer was just then.
“Not like this–.” I said.
I turned and headed toward her bathroom. She followed me and stood in the doorway, watching as I stepped into the tub then climbed out of the window above it. I stood on the fire escape for a moment giving Crystal a last look. She watched me from the small shag area rug with a hybrid look of concern etched into her face as if she might cry.
“You don’t look like someone who’s just come out of the bath by the way.” I pointed out.
“Will you call me?” she asked. When I didn’t answer, Crystal shook her head, as if I’d insulted her on a very personal level, “Are you going to call me?” she asked again. This time when I didn’t answer she turned and headed for the intercom that was now a solid buzzing. I stood there for a moment peering in through the window before finally making my way down the fire escape, knowing that I wouldn’t call.
I’d first seen Ariel at the resort, and if the truth be told, I’d thought little of her upon first glance. She was merely another face, another local girl they’d hired out of desperation. It was a fact that the Oceanic Resort and spa management team had painted themselves into a corner by way of apathy and had taken on the habit of hiring out of desperation, which, by the way, would perfectly explain how I’d gotten hired in the first place.
To me Ariel was yet another transient waitress with tight black jeans. On first glance Ariel was perhaps 24, she had long dark hair with undefined bangs which hung, almost always, over half of her face. Curiously the bangs didn’t conceal the side of her face which bared a rather large scar that ran from her brow, across her cheek and down to her chin. The scar was discolored and the stitch holes were forever healed into the flesh around it. She didn’t speak much, and when she did, her statements were blunt, awkward and spoken with an unraveling tone. She wore her apron very high and, as well as having slightly slouched posture; she had a signature way of peering up at you from beneath her perfectly plucked eye brows in a very psychotic fashion. That was my quick assessment of Ariel—at first anyway; another desperate hire who rode the Big Blue Bus into work each afternoon.
I say ‘at first’ because I was about to learn more about Ariel. It seemed on a daily basis, the women on staff were diligently collecting as well as sharing tidbits of information about Ariel. They were still undecided about whether they would befriend Ariel, or tear her apart limb from limb; women could be surprisingly vicious to each other it seemed. Though this verbal lynching of Ariel had been going on for perhaps two weeks, I was the last to hear about the wildfire scrutiny concerning her.
You see dear reader, for the most part, I was in a world of my own standing there behind the bar, mixing contrived drinks for the faceless, charmless droves of tourists that descended upon Santa Monica all hours of the day and night, all the while sipping my own bottomless dark rum and cola. In short I’d been hopelessly oblivious to the social dynamics and preferred it that way.
Bartending was a perfect break from the lounge piano gigs I took for the money. Certainly with the lounge gigs there was the pay, there was also the 20 dollar tips they’d give you for playing their girl’s favorite song, there were the lonely suburban divorcees who wore tight skirts and plenty of make up and ordered you drinks all night long…there were also some of their phone numbers passed on napkins, or matches or cardboard coasters; all printed on hotel stationary—in case you forgot at which hotel you’d encountered them…indeed the lounge gigs were easy all around, but I tell you dear reader; the bartending gigs were something I could do while diligently drunk—no one ever played piano worth a shit when they were diligently drunk. As a bartender you are a lone wolf…the man behind the man, behind the man. I loved the solitude. However, though I tried to avoid it, gossip always came to my bar on the glossy lips of bored and flirtatious waitresses…and they’d stand there with me for long durations, tearing apart the new girls they felt competitive about; offering commentary, criticism and speculation—all of which never made any sense to me.
Mostly I think they wanted to compare their notes to mine—they desired a man’s opinion to measure theirs against…for it’s a known fact—women seldom understand why men find certain women attractive, or not, and it’s because their suspicions about our motivations are founded on their estrogen based sensibilities—they can’t imagine the mentality of caveman instinct; the all-terrain state of mind…to be fair, they can’t be expected to fully grasp the often frustrating predicament it is to be partially navigated by testosterone fueled aggression and so cannot understand the arcane preferences that come along with tactical hunting genes—they cannot gauge where the manifestations of which originated; to them, our tastes seem often divorced from common sense, perhaps even reality. It’s easier to dismiss us a idiots with poor taste. Ariel was another example—my own personal example, and Ariel had them all stunned. For she flew under the radar—you didn’t see her coming until her intrigue was upon you; if you were observant enough to catch it that is.
There is a grand difference between fiction and literature, just as there is a grand difference between gossip and curious discussion. I tried not to listen to gossip—I tried to form my own opinion of people; none the less, Anabelle swore by her self-professed talent—psychological profiling. Ariel, she informed me, was a “mute”. Indeed dear reader—this was the tipping point; the moment I’d officially become intrigued by Ariel…and perhaps it was partly because of the severity in which my female colleagues appeared so threatened by her mere presence.
“A mute?” I’d asked, breaking out of my blank nodding stare across the ballroom toward Ariel who was pouring a cup of coffee for a guest with an expressionless gaze, “What do you mean exactly?”
“She’s soooooo strange. Her responses are all monosyllabic.” said Anabelle, squinting her heavily painted eyes with suspicion, “And you know what else? The other day, when she was leaving work, a few of us said goodbye to her and she didn’t acknowledge us at all, she just walked out…I mean, what kind of person doesn’t say goodbye? I mean that’s what a mute is, isn’t it?”
“Anabelle, you’re smarter than that. A mute is a person who can’t speak. Ariel speaks—probably she’s on edge because you’re all so threatened by her. And why do you all care so much about Ariel? What the hell is it with you broads?” I asked before taking a haul from my glass.
We were joined about then by Miles, the acting night Supervisor. I suppose it can be said that I liked Miles—he was from Pittsburgh and was a lot of fun to have around. He was an old school type of guy and wore a matching mullet—he idolized Springsteen, Melanie Griffith and drank Coors light—he was a snapshot of care free times—a beer commercial hold tight. He took nothing seriously and nothing ever cracked his wise-ass composure. He was the kind of chap you could pass many long hours on the job with, breaking each other’s balls, talking women, playing black jack and drinking company booze—you couldn’t expect anything more precision from Miles, but he kept things on an even keel; he was the type of bastard who’d do anything for a laugh. He possessed a casualness I found sometimes consoling in the often vicious sea of estrogen that made up our staff of skirted ballroom vixens.
“What are you guys talking about?” Miles asked, leaning on the bar with his signature grin.
“Anabelle was just telling me that she thinks that beard thing you’re trying to grow makes you look like a jerk off.” I laughed.
“Well, Anabelle has banana tits.” Chuckled miles, looking directly at Anabelle who squinted her eyes with a quiet, calm fury.
“Fuck yourself Miles…you may as well—nobody else would.” she said.
“Aw, it’s so cute how much you pretend not to lust after me.” Miles laughed, a good sport with bad timing.
“Ana here thinks Ariel is a mute.” I said.
“The new girl? She’s a little off…there’s something a little twisted about her—but she’s not a mute…she talks.” He assured, looking over his shoulder at Ariel who was pouring another cup of coffee, “She doesn’t say much does she…”
“Much? She doesn’t say anything at all. Not even goodbye!” scowled Anabelle.
“Something else about that one I find strange…” said Miles, turning back to us, “don’t you think she wears her apron a little high?”
Anabelle burst out in laughter, “She ties it right under her boobs right? Who does that?”
I looked at Ariel…who was now peering around the ballroom, looking for empty coffee cups to fill. There was something meek in her gestures, something warm in her eyes—at least the eye I could see. There was a quiet femininity about her and it was curbed by what I could only assume was some keen sense of personal awareness…Ariel was aware of things it seemed; but what? Perhaps I wasn’t looking deep enough–perhaps I knew I shouldn’t. Yes, there was her high riding apron to consider, but it was easily over looked–it would be the first thing to come off after all, if that is, she ever agreed to join me in one of the empty third floor board rooms, after hours.
“You guys are fucking awful.” I said shaking my head before draining my glass.
“Awful? Can you not see what a freak of nature she is Frank? Also she has that creepy scar running down her face; I can’t even believe she got hired. I mean, even if she offered to blow someone for a job here, the only loser who would accept it would be Miles here and he doesn’t even do the hiring.” Said Anabelle.
“Listen my word would get anyone hired here—as well as fired.” Miles said locking Ana in his sites.
“I think she’s really pretty.” I admitted.
“Pretty?” demanded Anabelle, “You’re kidding me right? Tell me you’re just saying that to be funny Frank.”
“Not a bit. Look at her…it’s so obvious…she’s got a super pretty face—like Gina Lollobrigida, nice figure, gold nail polish…deep stares—she’s all kinds of woman and you’re hung up on a fucking scar and the fact that she doesn’t talk to you. You know I saw her coming in the other day wearing a ‘Meat Is Murder’ t-shirt, I’m wondering if that’s just sheer chance…and where did she get that scar by the way? Mama Mia; that’s what I want to know about her above all—how’d she get that sexy scar?” I said.
“Sexy scar? Ewe. And what’s a meat is murder shirt? Sounds like creepy shit to me.” said Anabelle puckering her face.
“I mean Miles, you’re telling me she doesn’t look just like Gina Lollobrigida if you really look at her?” I said.
“I don’t know who that is, but…now that you mention it—I guess I wouldn’t kick her out of bed for eating cookies.” said Miles raising his eye brows in agreeance.
“Guys are so bizarre.” said Anabelle rolling her eyes.
“Maybe she was in a knife fight.” speculated Miles now as Ariel stared over at us all watching her from across the crowded ballroom.
“Your taste in women is definitely atrocious.” said Anabelle, sounding distantly wounded.
“It’s just refined is all.” I said.
Anabelle didn’t respond. Instead she stood for a moment staring at Ariel, watching her work, quaking on the inside with jealousy. When Anabelle finally walked away, I turned to Miles and inquired if he possessed any additional information about Ariel. Of course Miles didn’t know much more than I. Like me, he didn’t quite listen when the girls talked shop…but he’d paraphrased a conversation he’d had with Ariel in which he’d asked her why she wore her apron so high, and she’d answered that it was because her pants were ‘up high’. I peered at her again as she lifted an empty coffee cup from a table and proceeded to fill it—again with a stone expression. The apron was indeed high, as were her pants, but the effect created a beautifully tight package of womanly buns that wagged around firmly as she circled the tables. A moment later when she walked by the bar Miles shot her a smile and a nod, which she averted by turning her head away.
“Did you see that?” asked Miles, “She’s just shy…that’s all; just shy. Maybe she had a really fucked up childhood. You ever see that movie Carrie? Maybe her mom locked her in closets and shit.” Speculated Miles as we watched her nicely shaped rump wag away toward the servery doors.
I thought my intrigue with Ariel would be an isolated incident—that I would leave it where I’d found it. However, a few nights later, when I returned to the hotel for my next shift—I found myself standing behind the bar, watching them all eating…investment bankers from Fresno…devouring their individual portions of undercooked mystery meat. As my stomach turned slightly at the sight of them all gorging themselves and salivating at once, I noticed that Ariel was approaching the bar. Her apron was high riding once again and she was peering at me intensely from behind her neatly plucked eye brows. She was wearing black eye shadow and a thick coat of red lipstick. She stood there for a moment without saying anything; there was no doubting it now—she was definitely attractive.
“Hows it going?” I asked her. She looked to the left, then to the right…then back to me.
“I’m supposed to ask you if you need anything for the bar.”
“Maybe some company—I’m so bored. I’m the chairman of the bored.” I said.
“Okay.” she said peering at me blankly…as if she were a Stepford wife.
“It’s Ariel right?” I said as she joined me behind the bar.
“Yes—that’s what my name tag says.”
“Why is this your favorite job?” I asked her as I began polishing one of the wine glasses, which were usually always tarnished with an oily film and lipstick residue.
“It’s not.” she said.
“No? What is your favorite job?”
“Another place…I don’t work there anymore.”
“Cool…” I smiled, running my eyes over the scar that ran down the side of her pretty face. Again I wondered how she’d gotten it.
“A book store.” She said finally when I looked away.
“What a job…why didn’t I think of applying at a bookstore?” I said, “Getting paid to sit on my ass and read books—how rad is that?”
“It’s a bit more than that.” said Ariel, “But yeah, I got to read all the books I’ve ever wanted to read.”
“I got to read all of Bukowski’s books when I worked there. Before I worked there I’d only read two.” Said Ariel, catching me off guard.
“You’re putting me on. You read Chinaski? Which one did you like the most?” I asked, my pulse quickening slightly now, wondering how deep this all went.
“I really liked Post Office—but Hollywood was my favorite.” Ariel said, nodding and throwing a glance at me.
“The bathroom sink scene, with the towel…I nearly pissed myself laughing.” I chuckled, “True emotion.”
“Also, another good one…Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar. I read it a few months ago…then I read it again. It’s possessed me and I’m reading it…again.” She said, phrasing the last word with a whisper.
“A third time…that’s hot.” I admitted.
“Yeah.” Ariel purred, turning me on more than she probably estimated.
“So, can I ask you a personal question?” I asked her.
“You can, but I may not answer it.” She said.
“There are certain questions you can ask someone that will answer several questions at once—kind of like the questions the FIB might ask.”
“Trick questions?” asked Ariel.
“Not exactly…more like power questions. You probably won’t answer…but I’ll throw it out there anyway—here it is; did you cry for Heath Ledger?”
“Who is Heath Ledger?” she smiled, flashing two rows of perfectly white, perfectly straight teeth.
“That’s a bad question for you? Well…do you remember where you were when WHAM broke up?” I inquired.
“I wasn’t born I don’t think. Anyway, how much could the answer to that question possibly tell you about me?”
“Listen, maybe you’re right. Forget about it. Let me ask you something though; I saw you getting off the Big Blue Bus the other day…where do you bus in from?” I asked.
“I live Westwood with my mom…” said Ariel.
“You like Westwood?” I asked.
“It’s like living in a house of mirrors.” Ariel said, shooting me a sideways glance. “I did go to Fairfax High though—same high school Phil Spector went to.”
“Really? What a town.” I said with a grin of amazement.
“The girls here don’t like me.” said Ariel out of the blue—and so I ran with it.
“They’re threatened by you is all.” I said.
“Why would they be threatened—I never threatened any of them.”
“They’re threatened by you because you color outside the lines.” I said.
“They do too…I’ve never seen girls wearing so much make-up.” said Ariel, issuing a small shrug, “Guys like makeup girls I guess.”
“Sure, but it’s not all we like.” I said.
Ariel looked at me and brushed away the long lock of hair covering one side of her face, “If you say so.”
“I do. By the way, I think your scar is fucking sexy.” I admitted without any lead up, or indication; knowing full well that in doing so I was setting something in motion—and feeling indifferent about the consequences.
“No it’s not.” She said.
“To me it is.” I assured as I poured myself another shot of rum,
“I know a lot of guys—no one ever says that. I don’t know if I believe you.”
“What, you think I’m messing with you?” I grinned, tickled slightly by the insecurity and prettiness that simultaneously existed within Ariel.
“No, I think you’re probably just trying to fuck me.” she said peering out at me from underneath her perfectly plucked brows.
I didn’t see Ariel for a week after that. I wasn’t scheduled back at the hotel until the following Saturday. Indeed, when I finally did return to the resort the next weekend for my scheduled shift, I noticed that Ariel’s name had been crossed off the schedule list. However, she was still listed on the laminated sheet that included each staff member’s full name as well as their contact information. Ariel Granger 424 456 5678. I punched the info into my phone.
After my shift was over, I drove down Pacific avenue, with a half bottle of Appleton’s Amber in my liver and a wad of bills in my hip pocket; it had been a good night for tips and I felt like going out somewhere dimly lit for a drink—I had the Dresden or the Bigfoot Lodge in mind. I turned down the music and found Ariel’s contact and hit the dial button. After a few rings I was greeted by her automated voicemail message which instructed me to leave a message.
“Ariel, its Frank…Frank from the Resort. Was working there tonight. Wondering if you’ve quit, been fired or you’ve been abducted by the ‘makeup girls’ who loathed you for being prettier than they—call me…I want to take you out somewhere real nice for a drink—maybe the Bigfoot, would love to chat again.” I said and clicked off in time to avoid being spotted chatting on my phone by a cop on a motorcycle.
A few minutes later, my phone buzzed, signaling a text message. It could have been from anyone at that hour, but it was from Ariel and her message was short and to the point, “How did you get my number?”
“Magnum P.I.” I texted back.
After a few minutes another text buzzed in.
“Who is Magnum P.I.?” asked her text.
“Are you going to meet me or not?” I replied.
I drove on, surrendering to the notion that Ariel was going to a) overanalyze my advances and b) decide finally that the best plan of action was no plan of action at all. However, to my surprise, a text finally buzzed in.
“Not tonight…but I’ll be downtown and horny tomorrow.” said her text.
I wondered briefly if her text was pure sarcasm…but realized that in regard to Ariel; one could assume nothing. I wanted to reciprocate her to-the-point sincerity if that was in fact what it was.
“I’m here.” I texted, sending it off into space, where it would sit permanently in some server database—a record of my intrigue for Ariel.
The next night rolled around soon enough. The day had gone by quickly, as it always did in Los Angeles…as if time were travelling at warp speed. I’d spent the day in Glendale helping Gardiner pack up his world. He’d had his fill of cattle calls and desert heat and longed for the lush green Oregon valleys from which he’d come three years before. He was getting back together with his ex-girlfriend Samantha, who’d just become a veterinary anesthesiologist back in Eugene, and the plan, though structured and seemingly fool proof, clearly terrified the old chap to the point of panic attacks, one of which he suffered while I was boxing up his vinyl collection.
Indeed, he’d surrendered himself fully to the panic and had taken to locking himself in the bathroom for an hour, chatting with Samantha the veterinary anesthesiologist about the fine print of their new policy on life. When he emerged, his grey shirt soaked with perspiration and his face pale with the terrifying prospect of suburban bliss—Gardiner wandered out onto the front lawn, complaining of dizziness, abdominal pain and a deep burning in the center of his chest.
I was in the midst of collecting a check list of symptoms that may or may not have pointed toward a coronary when Gardiner reached out and grabbed my arm tightly, “Everything is going black—this is fucking it man…tell Christine I always loved her.”
“Who’s Christine?” I asked, this being the first I’d heard of her.
“She works at Banana Republic…at Citadel Outlets.” Gardiner managed to squeeze out before his eyes rolled back behind his fluttering lids and he fell suddenly limp, collapsing to the lawn face first and emitting a deep gurgle on impact.
It was a regular day, at least as regular as they came under the Aztec sun. A sprinkler chopped away at a long foamy jet of water, showering grass that had turned dry and brittle, a dog sniffed it’s way along the curb of the sidewalk across the street, a car drove by…a plane flew over…and I was at a loss—standing there above Gardiner who may or may not have been dying before my eyes. Christine who worked at Citadel? What about Samantha—his bride to be? I wondered.
I dialed 911 and explained the situation and after giving the pertinent information, I hung up and waved down the first person passing by; a mailman crisscrossed at the chest by two heavy looking bags.
“Hey, this man may be dying.” I said to the mailman who only grinned, “Do I look like I’m kidding? It’s for real man.” I said.
The mailman, taking a second look, took note of the unnatural position Gardiner had collapsed into and immediately stripped off his bags and knelt next to Gardiner, leaning down as low as possible to check for the sound of breathing. Hearing none, the mailman rolled Gardiner onto his back and tilted back his head, bracing the back of his neck with his gloved hand. The other hand, also gloved, squeezed Gardiner’s cheeks so his mouth popped opened. I stood there watching as the mailman leaned down and pressed his disgusting moustache against Gardiner’s open mouth…it was hard to look at but the hilarity suddenly struck me in a way that could not be contained and I was seized by a tirade of heaving chuckles…so much so my eyes burned with the salt of tears and my stomach muscles ached with constriction.
“What are you guys on?” the mailman demanded with an expression of distress.
“Sorry…I’m just freaked out man…that’s all.” I said, swallowing back another heave of laughter and collecting my wits.
“Yeah…sure thing.” said the mailman in a sour tone, dipping in to expend another blow of air into Gardiner’s mouth.
Gardiner had come to just then, as if he’d been awoken from deep hypnosis by the snap of a shrink’s fingers. He was disoriented, discombobulated and dumb struck by waking up in the arms of a mailman baring a John Oats moustache. Rolling away and onto his stomach, where he started coughing and gagging into the discolored, brittle grass, Gardiner demanded answers…explanations.
“We thought you were having a heart attack.” assured the mailman, rising to his hiking boots and raising his palms, looking surprised behind his moustache and expression of forced concern.
“You don’t give mouth to mouth for a heart attack you dumb fucks!” spat Gardiner.
“Actually yes, you do.” insisted the mailman.
“No you fucking don’t dumb ass—you don’t stick your sick moustache into someone’s mouth unless you absolutely fucking have to.” snapped Gardiner, pushing himself up into sitting position now so I could see the loose blades of grass and pebbles stuck to his sweat beaded skin under the glare of the high noon sun.
“I thought I did,” assured the mailman, raising his palms and backing away down the sidewalk, back toward the bags that he’d dropped to the concrete only a matter of minutes before.
“Ah, whatever…it’s okay…you were just trying to save my life…thanks man; any mail for me today?”
“I’ll catch you next time—I’m behind schedule now.” said the mailman, fitting the bags around him again.
“There won’t be a next time—I’m moving today.” Gardiner informed.
“In that case, let me check.” the mailman said, sifting through a pile of letters, none of which were addressed to Gardiner. The mailman glanced at me for a moment before turning to Gardiner and speaking in a confiding tone, “This guy was laughing his ass off while I was trying to revive you. The fuck is that matter with him?”
Gardiner turned to me, a wounded expression etched into his face—one he’d rehearsed for such situations when sympathy might render him a perpetual victim. “How could you man?” he asked, his face sinking into an intense expression of disappointment.
“I wasn’t laughing at you.” I assured.
“He was laughing like a mad hatter.” confirmed the mailman.
“It wasn’t like that man.” I insisted and I didn’t have to insist again as our entire discussion was broadsided by the squealing arrival of a fire truck, from which hopped down a stubby looking man with a Neanderthal brow line. He conferred with first the mailman, then with Gardiner, who assured them both that he was alright.
They were in the middle of this discussion when another response team squealed onto the scene. It was an ambulance; a pair of paramedics stepped out onto the baking concrete and approached us in an orderly fashion. They both wore mirrored sunglasses and got to work checking on Gardiner’s vital signs as he denied or confirmed their questions regarding what had transpired.
In the end, it turned out that Gardiner was diagnosed with dehydration and adding to that was an episode of hypoglycemia as well as, I assumed, the sticky residue of an afternoon worth of panic attacks. He was given a cold bottle of water and directed to spend the rest of the afternoon lying on the couch with a fan on him. Surrendering to the advice of the paramedics, Gardiner did exactly that, drinking half a 26 of whisky in the meantime and volleying into a 45 minute sermon about the importance of structure in one’s life and how that structure can be built on the foundation of a loving wife.
Apparently, having forgotten the message he’d requested that I deliver to his immortal beloved, Christine—Gardiner went on, painting a lovely oil portrait which contained wisps of fog and the distant, old world façade of the Hotel De Ville as a backdrop. Only it wasn’t his immortal beloved whom he’d French kissed—it had been a mailman baring a John Oats moustache, and so I listened to his line of drivel—perhaps because I’d laughed, perhaps because it was none of my business if he’d fallen madly in love with Christine—whoever she was. Still, it was my silence that gave it away to Gardiner and he paused, taking a break in his sermon to ask me a question.
“You think I’m full of shit don’t you?” he asked.
“Probably you are—but if you believe it then so what right?” I said.
“Do you think I’m kidding myself?” he asked.
“Am I Dr. Phil? How the fuck should I know?” I said.
“I remember what I told you—earlier before I went out…I remember, in case you think I don’t—about Christine…and I know you’re sitting there judging me…thinking I’m a shit because I’m going back to Samantha and I’m saying that I love Christine.”
“I may impale certain folks on a sword of hard truth now and then old boy, but I never judge anyone; that’s a shitty thing to do. But it’s telling…very telling, what you said when you thought you were going out of this world—you thought of this Christine broad…that’s as real as it gets.” I told him.
“You think? So what should I do? Is it a huge fucking mistake to go back to Eugene? Back to Samantha and that whole thing? Am I supposed to shit-can the weeks of planning and arranging Samantha and I have been doing?” asked Gardiner, exhausted by the events of the day.
“I don’t know…all I know is that if this Christine is the one you’re thinking about when your life is passing before your fucking eyes; you should really go to her man…go straight to her and tell her.” I shrugged.
“But what about Samantha?”
“You didn’t mention her when you were dying.” I said.
“I wasn’t dying.”
“You thought you were though.”
“Yeah, I thought I was.”
“And you thought of Christine—she must be one hell of a broad.” I said, “So, like, if you decide to go to Eugene…can you set me up with her?”
Gardiner’s face contorted into a shape of pure disgust, twisted by building rage and a titled stare of amazement that I’d suggest such a ghastly arrangement.
“Man…you really got it bad for her.” I laughed, snapping him out of his psychotic trance of jealousy.
“I guess so.” He admitted with a sad sigh, the realization becoming crystalline.
It was then that my phone buzzed. I flipped up the screen and saw it was a text from Ariel. Indeed, she’d not flaked out—she’d followed through and was informing me that she was going to a friend’s exhibit; modern art—a vague term. The following are direct quotes from our digital conversation:
Ariel: You’re welcome to join
Me: I will later – with a sick friend now in Glendale
Ariel: I want to meet you in a scuzzy bar later
Me: Can we meet in a bar that’s not scuzzy?
Ariel: Scuzzy bars turn me on
Me: I was thinking Cha Cha’s – that scuzzy enough?
Ariel: Hate that place
Me: El Cid? It’s not scuzzy but they have bands tonight and a nice courtyard where we can make out a bit.
Ariel: El Cid it is
Me: Where and when am I picking you up?
Ariel: I’ll bus it – let’s say between 6 & 9
Me: 6 or 9?
Ariel: both ;o
Indeed, dear reader, I wasn’t sure what to make of the semi-colon and the ‘o’ and so as Gardiner went on, describing how he’d met Christine, alphabetically citing every nuance about her that he adored, I was forced to interject.
“Listen old boy, you may know something about this…I’m not quite text savvy—and for good reason; but what does it mean when a chick texts you a semi-colon followed by the letter ‘o’?” I asked.
“Depends what the context is.”
“She said she’d meet me between 6 and 9…I asked 6 or 9 and she said both…then the semi-colon and letter ‘o’. That’s code?” I asked.
“It means she’ll probably blow you and vice versa…can I finish for fuck sakes? I’m pouring out my guts here and you’re fucking sexting? Or like, trying to sext.” spat Gardiner, chuckling toward the ceiling.
“Look,” I chuckled, “all this shit you’re talking right now—this parade of psychobabble—it’s not Freudian; it’s you being a pussy. In your assumed dying moments, you begged me to deliver a message to your immortal beloved—that you always loved her—your dear, immortal beloved Christine. You didn’t mention jack shit about Samantha.”
“Know what…you’re right.” Said Gardiner, pushing himself up from the leather couch that was already tagged with a paper baring the word ‘Free’ scribbled across it in marker, “I’m going there now. I’m going to Citadel now—they’re open late tonight…she’s always on closing so she’ll definitely be there.” He said as he rose and began pacing the house, collecting the articles of clothing he’d wear for the occasion, “I’ll go, I’ll tell her what happened and if she still loves me…I’m going to ask her to marry me—right there in the fucking Banana Republic.”
“That a boy.” I said, “No apologies—but maybe the Banana Republic isn’t the proper place….”
“It’s as proper as any and also, no fucking way any apologies. I mean,” he said as he pulled on a burgundy dress shirt, “why should I feel awkward for having made a huge error of judgement? Ok, I made a mistake…but that shit today…that shit out on the lawn…that cleared it all up suddenly. Only thing is–what if she spits in my face?”
“She won’t.” I assured.
“How do you know?”
“Oh man—you’re the biggest pussy I’ve ever met.” I laughed, shaking my head.
I parked on Sunset, just out front of El Cid. I sat in the car with the stereo turned up loud, waiting for Ariel. I watched the busses rolling up to the stop across the street, each time wondering if Ariel would step off. However, after a number of busses came and went and none of which contained Ariel, I dialed her—this texting shit made it all so impersonal.
“Hello?” she said after a few rings.
“Where are you?” I asked.
“Where are you?” she asked back.
“I’m where I said I’d be—out front of El Cid.”
“I’m across the street, at Circus of Books. Be out in a second.” she said.
Sure enough a few minutes later, Ariel emerged from Circus of Books carrying a white plastic bag. She was dressed in tight white jeans and leather laced sandals of the same color. She wore a tight Cowboy Junkies t-shirt and her bangs were pulled back and tucked beneath a white 1960s style head band. I watched her cross sunset and walk westward toward my van which was parked outside the entrance of El Cid.
I got out of the van to meet her. “You look so different in your real clothes…you look hot.” I said noticing she’d applied an extra thick layer of foundation, to perhaps conceal her scar which I found strangely alluring.
“I am hot…it’s so humid tonight.” Said Ariel.
“I mean you look hot…but I guess you probably hear that a lot so it probably doesn’t even mean anything to you anymore.” I said.
“I don’t get that a lot.”
“Come on…gorgeous baby like you? I’m sure you have a special contacts folder for the guys that chase you. Am I in that folder?” I laughed.
“I don’t have a folder…I’m not like the girls you’re used to I guess.” Ariel said, as if to remind me of something.
“That’s the best part about you.”
“Thanks.” Ariel said with a stone expression.
“So, are we going in?” I asked.
“No…I have a better plan.” She said.
“Like?” I asked.
“We can go to my place in Westwood. My mom is at a benefit dinner tonight…won’t be back till very late. She used those words, ‘very late’.” said Ariel.
“Whatever you want to do; I’m game.” I said.
Once we were in my van, rolling westward down Sunset toward her mother’s condo; Ariel answered some of my questions. She’d attended Otis College and had dropped out to live in San Francisco for two years—which she said had taught her more about the artistic process than any class ever could. She said her father wrote for a travel magazine and often sent postcards from the places he visited—he was never home. Also, she rarely dated. She informed me that her last boyfriend had dumped her because she was too ‘crazy’ in bed. She then interrupted our Q&A period to confirm, by pulling the box from the white paper bag, that the condoms she purchased where okay with me.
I smiled, looking at her sideways for a moment, “Really? So I guess we’re going to get that out of the way before we start our date? Or is the date over after that?” I asked.
“Guess we’ll see how you do.” said Ariel, surprising me…Frankly; I’d never have guessed…and certainly no one else would’ve guessed either that shy quiet Ariel was indeed something of a super freak.
Ariel’s mother’s residence was nicely decorated and color themed—to be more exact; it looked like a centerfold spread in some home-worship magazine. It seemed a touch odd at my age to be out on a date with a woman who still lived at home with her mother. Ariel was perhaps 25 years old—still young in many regards. There was a freedom in that—there was freedom in the fact that she had a few years left to make a lot of massive mistakes; the mistakes after all, though no more or less fantastical in the future, would only become systematically less harmless as the years wore on. These were the best years of her life and I wondered if she realized it.
She circled around the post-modern kitchen a few times, pouring us two glasses of lemonade before gesturing with a wave of her head for me to follow her down a hardwood hallway, at the end of which her bedroom lurked in a shroud of darkness. She disappeared into it, with me in tow, until we were both enveloped in pitch black…then a spark, a small orange flame from a wooden match…then a candle, then another, then three, then four, flickering in their warm pools of glow atop what I now saw was her dresser. As my eyes adjusted to the rooms flickering dimness, I made out the walls, which were covered in oil portraits Ariel had done.
“Hey, these are all yours?” I asked.
“They are.” said Ariel, opening one of the dresser drawers.
“Can we turn on a lamp? Can I see them?” I inquired.
“Why do you want to see them?” she asked as she fished through her dresser drawer.
“Call it foreplay.” I said.
“Really? I have something better than foreplay.” said Ariel, retrieving a small plastic bag from the pile of clothes she’d turned over to find it.
She brought over the bag as well as our two glasses of lemonade and joined me on the edge of the bed. I took one of the glasses in hand and watched Ariel pick a pill from the bag. She handed it to me and I looked at it sitting in the palm of my hand, it’s chalky, candy-like contours dancing with flickering shadows and dark mysteries. Ariel swallowed one herself and tipped her head back with a mouthful of lemonade. She peered at me with a grin. “Go ahead, it’s out of body.” she assured.
“Uh, listen babe; I don’t need any…aid here. Know what I mean? I’m good.” I told her.
“If that’s true then why did you say that looking at my artwork would be like foreplay?”
“Because it would be in a way—us being in your bedroom and all.”
“So will this.” she insisted, “Just trust me.”
“Sure…why the fuck not.” I said, pretending to pop the pill into my mouth, pretending next to wash it down with tart, chilled lemonade, “Mmmmmmm, tasty.” I grinned as I set the glass down.
Rather than actually swallowing the pill; I slipped it under her pillow as I leaned in for a kiss…a kiss which she seemed to take very seriously. Ariel kissed well, she knew how to apply the correct amount of tongue without it getting too slimy; she was a noninvasive kisser one could say. Beyond that, she knew how to talk the talk. I was wondering if she walked the walk as well when voices could be heard echoing through the hardwood surfaces of the condo; a chuckle, the screech of a chair sliding across the floor, a jet of tap water, the sound of glasses being clinked, another chuckle, then the distinct frequency of a woman’s voice emphasizing her tones in a dramatic way; Ariel’s mother had come home early—and she’d brought a guest.
“Fuck.” sighed Ariel, as if deflating rapidly through a sudden puncture wound in her enthusiasm, “It’s my mom and Gordo…her shadow puppet.
“Shadow puppet?” I mused.
“Guess this is her idea of a late night.” said Ariel, “We should go.”
“Guess it’s my place then.” I said, pushing up from Ariel and sipping down the rest of the lemonade which was surprisingly refreshing.
“Sorry.” she said sitting up too, “I thought she’d be gone longer. Sucks to be living back home.”
We waited until the coast was clear and Ariel’s mom had disappeared into the master bedroom with Gordo the shadow puppet before we made our grand escape, tip toeing through the living room and kitchen before slipping out the front door which Ariel closed very carefully and so silently it didn’t even click; I didn’t ask because I didn’t really want to know the dynamic between her and her mother. I really wasn’t interested in the mutual understandings her and her mother had refined during their time living together over the years; I simply wanted to get back to where we were before we’d been interrupted. However, fearing the lengthy car ride back to 1557 N. Alexandria might kill her mood, I pulled into a hotel on Wilshire; the Palm Court.
“Wait here, I’m going to get us a room.”
“Thought we were going back to your place.” said Ariel.
“It’s too long of a drive—and I don’t want to lose our groove baby.” I told her.
“Place looks expensive.”
“Perfect for your uptown ass then.” I grinned as I got out of the van.
“Hey, can you leave the music on? I love this guy.” she said, reclining back into the seat as Matthew Sweet’s ‘Sick of Myself’ banged through the speakers.
“You know it.” I said, leaving the van running and the music blaring.
I provided my credit card and two pieces of ID to the robotic woman behind the glass at the front desk. She looked at me very intensely as she compared the photo to my in-the-flesh appearance. After some computer work, she printed a paper and passed it through slot in the Plexiglas. The paper was an invoice that included a contractual agreement stipulating that I’d be held responsible for any damage to the room and furthermore that I understood that the hotel assumed no responsibility in the event that my van was vandalized on hotel property during my stay—which in actuality would last no more than 2 hours.
“Make sure you sign in all the right spots or the contract will be null and void.” she said with stern intent.
“You know something lady, such lengthy and in depth processing is a bit superfluous for people like my lady-friend and I who would only visit your pretentious hotel to drink absinthe and fuck.” I stated, peering intensely at the lady, searching for a sign of life; which wasn’t there.
When I’d signed on the dotted line and the card key was in my hand, I promptly made my way back through the lobby and out into the parking lot where I expected to find Ariel sitting in my idling van, waiting in the same spot where I’d left her, grooving out to 90’s indie rock. However dear reader—Ariel was not there and in fact, neither was your diligent narrator’s van.
I was perplexed and stood there under the exterior fluorescents, watching the Wilshire traffic course by. The squirrely bitch had jacked my van; it was hard to believe and quite unexpected. I took a moment to wrap my mind around it all. It occurred to me that, even if I so desired, I now couldn’t return to my apartment as Ariel had taken the keys to my entire life with her when she’d jacked my van. As far as the keys were concerned, for some reason, I’d never backed any of them up with spares. Luckily, my phone sat like a small weight in the back pocket of my jeans and to it I reached, dialing Ariel with little expectation of an answer. As I suspected, she didn’t answer; so I left a message.
“Hey, grand theft auto is a crime in the state of California. I’m going in—room 112. Don’t make me wait—waiting is boring.” I said and clicked off.
The room was small and smelled of old carpet and cheap laundry detergent. I opened a window and flopped down on the bed, staring at the ceiling and sipping from my flask, contemplating the best plan of action. Perhaps it was best to just lie there in contemplation. Perhaps this was the room in which a grand epiphany would call to me and send me into another flight of inspiration—the greatest yet. Perhaps it was in this room I’d create a masterpiece.
It suddenly occurred to me though that I’d overpaid for the room and if indeed I was going to be shenaniganed by the likes of Ariel; then I owed it to her, as well as myself, to inject a bit of my own home grown chaos into the small circus that was unravelling around me in a quiet way. Never underestimate the relevance of a paid for hotel room. And so it was in this fashion that a small surge of elation filled my chest as I rose, left the hotel and trekked back up Wilshire, reverse engineering the directions Ariel had given me to find my way out of her mother’s labyrinth-like neighborhood.
As I walked, a variation of possibilities surfaced in my mind. Of course, whether or not my van would be returned was a valid concern and one that was sinking in just then, along with all of its ramifications. After all, Ariel had swallowed a pill—a pill containing who knew what, which could induce who knew what effects; most certainly, operating a motor vehicle under the influence of anything other than grass was certainly a recipe for disaster. I was gripped suddenly by equations—the possibilities of which ranged from Ariel careening my van off of a Mullholland cliff and plummeting to a fiery death in the valley below to colliding head on with a bus in some busy Hollywood intersection. I imagined what the blood toxicology report would say and the interrogations that would follow. What had she been thinking?
Indeed, on foot the journey was a lot longer than I’d estimated and by the time I was climbing the steps leading back up to the glass entrance doors of Ariel’s building; the companionship between me and my absinthe buzz had ebbed greatly, leaving me nearly sober to contend with Ariel’s mother who answered my frantic buzzing with an irritated tone that crackled back at me through the small speaker in the intercom.
“Yes? Who is buzzing this late?” she asked.
“Listen, I’m a friend of your daughter Ariel.” I said.
“Ariel isn’t here right now.”
“I know…she’s joyriding in my godam van right now…without me—see what I’m saying?” I said into the speaker.
“I have no idea what that means young man…but I don’t appreciate being woken up in the middle of the night with rude language and asinine accusations about my daughter.” said Ariel’s mom.
“Listen, hairdo—I want to be perfectly clear here…if she doesn’t get back to me, or get back to you in the next ten minutes; I’m calling it in…and that’s going to be grand theft auto. Know what I mean sweet cheeks?” I said, my words trailing off into the abyss of silence created by Ariel’s mother’s contemplation.
“Ok, wait, I’ll come down—for godsake.” she snapped before clicking off.
I had my back turned when she emerged at the door behind me, clicking it open and stepping out onto the concrete in oriental slippers. She was clad in yoga pants and a tank top, her hair was tussled and her eyes looked weighted and red—however, she looked great—perhaps 44 years old, an older, somehow sexier version of Ariel—who would evidently age quite well…the apple hadn’t fallen too far. A few seconds behind her was Gordo, the shadow puppet. He was perhaps 50, overly attentive, doting, whiny and clad in a badly faded Sheena Easton t-shirt, which I assumed must have belonged to the Mrs. He pushed his spectacles up against his brow with a finger before souring his expression even further and volleying into a particularly whiny line of questioning.
“Who do you think you are coming here in the middle of the night, waking up total strangers? What kind of a man does that?” he asked.
“I never claimed to be a great man. Also, this really doesn’t concern you pal.” I assured him.
“Oh, it does…what concerns Pam most definitely concerns me.” sniveled Gordo.
“Really? So you really are a fucking shadow puppet.” I said, hitting him low and hard and watching the expected reaction take form on his face.
“Be careful how you talk to me.” sniveled Gordo.
“No, I don’t think I will.” I said.
“You can and you will.” Gordo retorted.
“Oh really? That’s just what I told your mother last night before I boned her.” I said.
“My mother is 83 and living in an old age home you asshole.” said Gordo.
“Look, if I didn’t know Ariel how would I know that she calls you Gordo the fucking shadow puppet?” I said, turning back to the mother, Pam.
“Well, knowing his name only proves that you know Ariel…there is no proof that she stole your van as you say.” Said Pam.
“I think the footage from the security camera in the Palm Court hotel parking lot will stand up in court pretty well Pam.” I assured her.
“She stole your van from a hotel parking lot? How does that work?” asked Pam.
“Well, it’s like this, when I went in to rent a room for us to use for a few hours; your delinquent daughter decided it would be a great idea to drive off in my van.” I said, watching her hard boiled, old-lady toughness, tighten into an expression of shock.
“Oh my god.” said Pam, shooting a glance at her shadow puppet.
“Maybe you ought to dial her up Pam.” I said.
“Already on it.” said Gordo, placing his sleek, wafer thin phone to his ear. After a few seconds he spoke, “Ariel? Where are you? We’ve got a man at the house who is claiming that you’ve stolen his vehicle…yes, he’s buzzed us…woken both your mother and I up…he’s not saying borrowed honey—he’s saying you stole it…you’d better get back here now…we’ll be out front…and Ariel—don’t speed…drive carefully. Everything is going to be alright.” said Gordo the shadow puppet.
After a moment of contemplating the police helicopters pattering overhead, Gordo turned to Pam and explained the situation, every once in a while, throwing an awkward glance my way; as if I was only a bystander and not directly involved with the unfolding mishap. It seemed Ariel insisted that she was only borrowing my van, which would imply that she’d first asked to borrow it. Could it really be framed as so in her mind? I wondered.
The three of us stood silently on the steps in the late night breeze waiting for Ariel to pull up. I’d expected some groveling, some begging perhaps—maybe a bit of bargaining, in order to sway me, your fair minded narrator, from calling the five-o on her delinquent daughter. However, there was nothing…no words, just sniveling glances from Gordo and sighs of impatience from Pam. Finally however, a sign of life surfaced…Pam, perhaps having had too much for too long of her daughter’s delinquent ways broke into shallow sobs, sniffling hard and leaning her face into one of Gordo’s flabby man tits; so the old sex pot did care about her daughter after all. I turned to them both and pulled my flask from the inner pocket of my blazer. I swilled hard before speaking.
“Listen, you can shit-can the tears Pam…I’m not going to call it in…I was never going to. I just wanted my van back—do you realize what that van and I have been through together? It’s family.” I sighed, peering at Gordo who hated the idea that I was consoling his woman.
“I’m sorry; I don’t know what’s gotten into Ariel lately. You know…she lost her father last year and since then things haven’t really been the same.” sniffled Pam.
“She never mentioned that. Guess that would explain why she hates Gordo here so much.” I said, throwing a glance at the whiny bastard.
“She’s had a very tough year…two years really, if you consider what happened in San Francisco.” said Pam.
“What happened in San Francisco?” I asked.
Pam looked at me with tears welling in her eyes and nearly spoke, but stopped short, shaking her head and issuing a wave of her hand, “Don’t even get me started.”
So…perhaps San Francisco had been a horror show for Ariel. It wasn’t hard to believe—there was a darkness in San Fran—much like the darkness in Ariel. Then she’d lost her old man; her world had unraveled and the sun had failed to rise—one never gets over losing a parent…one can only adapt and come to embrace in some manner, the new normal. Perhaps Ariel was still adapting.
By the time Ariel was parking my van out front of her mother’s concrete palace, I regretted trekking back to her place and waking Pam and her undeserving lover. I should have read it better…I should have caught the designs—the jagged textures of fresh emotional trauma within Ariel. Where had my powers of observation gone? Had I really become that out of touch with the basics? I pushed myself up from the railing on which I’d been leaning and strode toward my van as Ariel was fitting the gear shift into the P position.
As she did so, opened the passenger side door and eased down into the seat next to her. Throwing a confused stare my way, Ariel spoke in a wounded, malicious tone, “What, you want to lecture me before I get out?”
Glancing over my shoulder through the window I saw Pam approaching rapidly up the sidewalk with her shadow puppet in tow, “Drive.” I said. Contorting her face even further Ariel squinted at me, completely perplexed by my request, “Drive.” I repeated, this time with a grin, “Unless you want to get eaten alive by your mother and her shadow puppet.”
Ariel gave me one last glance before pulling the gear shift out of park and fitting it into Drive. She pulled away from the curb gently, leaving her mother and Gordo shrinking into the rearview darkness. The Mathew Sweet cd was still playing and for a few long minutes we didn’t say anything. After a while I turned the stereo down.
“Listen, Ariel…I have to tell you something.” I said.
“What?” she said, glancing at me as she drove carefully, her hands at 10 and 2, just as she’d doubtlessly learned from a private instruct0r Pam had hired.
“Baby, that Gordo guy is an utter fucking spaz.” I noted.
“Don’t I know it. So where are we going?” Ariel asked.
“Well, I do have the hotel room until tomorrow.” I said.
“You still want to do that?”
“We can do whatever you want. We can order pizza. We can buy a board game and a bottle from Ralphs and stay up till dawn playing it. We can find some old detective show on the tube and just hang out. Or just talk if you want. I don’t care…it’s your night.” I said.
“What did they tell you?” asked Ariel.
“Enough.” I said as the darkened Wilshire shop fronts went by my window.