*As creative works of fiction, these pieces do not represent any residences, facilities, locations or persons either living or deceased — any similarity is purely coincidental and not in any way intended.
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 pressures 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.
A Case of a Mistaken Name
If I’m to be clear and illustrate the exact elements that culminated to create the perfect atmosphere for the following scenario, I will need to backtrack—far back; perhaps two decades, back to an era when most things meant more and technology hadn’t robbed the world of romanticism or attention span. It was the 1990’s and as I remember it, there were many evening lanes smoldering with sunsets, or there were wide open blue skies and a homesick yearning that was always accompanied by great Manchester guitar rock…it was the summer after high school graduation—a summer of love.
Indeed, the melancholy of leaving behind a legacy of dead poets and virtues of modern mercy at Coronation High School lingered in a delicious way and I’d spent that summer writing songs and performing with a band of outsiders who’d somehow earned a slight bit of local popularity. I’d also met a grunge loving college sophomore from Seattle. Her knowledge of intimacy was not only vast, but a fascinating education of sexual whimsy, to which I dedicated myself fully that summer.
Beyond the successions of suburban, end of days parties thrown by various classmates who would be leaving for ambitious destinations in the world; I had little time to notice a certain person who would, in the years to come, have a dramatic effect on me. Her name was Laura—Laura Lassiter and as I say, she didn’t beg to be remembered…she didn’t need to—there was a quiet energy about her and of course her uncommon beauty spoke for itself. However, I’d not noticed any of it at the time—being as preoccupied as I was.
There were passing hellos between Laura and I, there were a few packed car rides from one party to another, there were group conversations at which we’d both been present but never did we talk. There was a passing glance one evening after the fourth of July fireworks when we’d passed each other in the park. The glance was sticky and long enough that it had vaguely registered to me that she possessed a tragic type of beauty—something rare and lovely, though slightly troubling. She’d been flanked by her friends; a group of Sylvias—classmates from the Westlake Academy; a private school for the overly privileged and overly sheltered south side kids—it dawned on me then that Laura was one of the Sylvias and indeed part of that whole ‘Westlake’ thing. But I paid her little mind at that point.
The Westlake thing, I should mention, was made a thing by Laura Lassiter and her band of Sylvias throughout our high school years. They were beautiful femme fatales and usually clad in their School uniforms during the week. They were different from the majority of the all-girl student body and quite an equation; though for the most part beautiful, the Sylvias were misfits—outcasts; the kind of troubled girls mothers worried about their sons falling for—they liked their boys bad and their weekends rough and tumble; a detour from their Catholic values I suppose, but deep down the solid values were already instilled.
There was a tragic air about them however, and they often behaved as if they were acting in a Fellini film. They loved Ingmar Bergman…they loved Lenny Bruce…they lusted after dead authors and tragic poets, adored Kubrick’s earlier work, played the most depressing Smiths selections at their parties and in their cars and they expressed their angst and Catholic guilt through macabre humor and existential perversion…they laughed to us about the bulimia lines in the school washroom just after lunch hour and how they were frequently subjected to harsh mental/emotional punishments for being insubordinate and twisted. They really were an intriguing and sexy bunch.
On top of this, the Sylvias were, perhaps because of their non-co-ed upbringing, unpracticed in proper male/female interaction and in effect they were prone to romantic mishaps, social disasters and public drunkenness. We all talked the talk about the girls of ‘Westlake Academy’, but few of us walked the walk. I walked the walk…I got directly involved with these good hearted bad girls; I was one of the few…it could be said that we saw eye to eye on some levels. Though I consecutively dated exactly 4 of Laura’s classmates, having developed a severe weakness for the Sylvias of Westlake; I never dated Laura Lassiter herself.
Laura, like the others, exhumed fringe styles from the 1960s and wore her Deneuve-like beauty in a haunting fashion. Her hair was a flowing blonde mane that made up perhaps 1/3 of her visual body mass—nearly a spitting image of Deneuve in her April Fools film. I’d noticed her in the mall one afternoon, carrying her mother’s Chihuahua, she was feeding him ice cream from the cone and humming a long lost tune. As I passed, Laura had stopped, fluttered her lashes and tried to form words…I stood there waiting for her to speak as the dog ravenously ate away at the ice cream…I asked her if the cat had gotten her tongue…however Laura didn’t speak, she only smiled and curtsied slightly before moving on.
I’d admired her round behind as she’d walked away…but hadn’t really given it a second thought aside from the encounter being too short. Beyond residing behind a veil of mystery, sadly, Laura Lassiter was quite troubled and suffered terribly from madness—daylight nightmares and scary voices telling her scary things…a condition which it was said she only haphazardly medicated. Of course at the time, I knew little about her condition—I’d learn more about it much later, a number of years after graduating. Indeed, there was no shortage of Laura Lassiter stories that could be reiterated if you sought them out—that is if you dared ask any of our mutual friends of which there were many. It seemed people loved to gossip about Laura…and after hearing a number of initial stories—a portrait began to form—one of impossible design which made no sense—like Penrose stairs.
I learned of Laura’s illness a few years later…we were all into our 20s and seeing less of everyone. During a chance conversation, another Laura report came across my desk. Again I was intrigued, but this time something more happened. The story was one told to me by a good friend who lived with his parents across the street from the Lassiter home. In a rather nonchalant manner, he explained to me how one night at approximately 1:30 am, he was awoken by an intent wrapping against his bedroom window. Indeed, he’d found on waking that it was Laura and she’d come across the street in the middle of the night without bothering to dress…that is to say that he found her standing in the snow in her sock feet and pajamas, looking lovely as hell and terrified all at the same time as the snow came down all around her.
As the story went, she explained in a panicked tone that there was indeed a kill-crazy taxi cab driver stalking her through her bedroom window. She insisted that the driver had dropped her off earlier in the evening and had kept returning—to peak through her window and watch her undress. In a dire tone, she insisted that the cabby was still there and that my friend accompany her back—to have a look.
As the story goes—as it was told to me; my friend dressed and slung one of his father’s hunting rifles over his shoulder and accompanied Laura across the street, back to her parent’s lavish residence. Once inside she’d led him through a labyrinth of hallways until they came to her bedroom. Certainly I was expecting the story to end in a torrid bout of fucking. However, my friend informed me that when they were standing in the close confines of her bedroom, Laura became terrified, pointing toward the window, “Do you see? Do you see him? I just saw him again.” pleading for Jack to look out the window. Indeed, my friend had readied his rifle and approached the window carefully with Laura in tow. When he reached the window, opened it and looked out however, he’d seen nothing but a perfectly smooth bank of snow in the place where Laura insisted the cabby had stood only seconds before, allegedly staring at her through the frosted pane.
It was one in dozens of circulating Laura Lassiter stories, but it was the one that affected me most. Instead of remaining removed and objective; my heart went out to her–poor thing…perhaps cursed for being too lovely of a creature. Beyond the immediate wave of sympathy I felt for Laura, I also felt a pull of magnetism…it seemed the jagged ugliness inside of her, the one that directly countered her lush beauty, awoke a very male instinct in me to comfort her…take her in my arms and make her better again. The instinct had been foreign to me up until then—as I’d never experienced such a thing. It seemed my heart responded to Laura in ways my sensibilities couldn’t understand.
Perhaps it was ill advised…perhaps it was a dreadful habit to get into…but for the life of me, I couldn’t stop inquiring about Laura. Indeed, I began subjecting our mutual friends to pop quizzes regarding Laura and said friends spoke without reluctance…telling their tales with a fond tone—as if missing Laura by remembering her aloud. I could delve into it all here and now, the stories; the time she was called to the office at Westlake and subsequently used up three lipstick cartridges covering Father Sanders office walls in dark rouge poetry when, on account of speaking with a visiting parent, he’d left Cassandra alone in his office for 20 minutes. Or the night she’d torn off her clothing while strolling in the park with friends and subsequently ran off into a wooded area after which nobody saw or heard from her for days, or how she used trust fund money to travel alone to remote third world lands, into which she’d go missing for weeks on end, without so much as a phone call to friends or family. She’d been tracked down once in the Far East, wandering the streets barefoot, unveiled and asking the locals where she could find fire—or so I was told. I could get into it all, the entire collection of installments from the Laura Lassiter saga but to do so would surely fill a novel and then some—indeed, Laura was in many respects, a book with far too many pages.
I believed that if I could sit across from her and listen closely to her without distraction, perhaps a clue would present itself…a clue that might lead me to a key—a key which might open a door somewhere; so that I could solve her, or at least distract her from herself with laughter and some very involved sex or whatever it might take to clear the sadness from her big blue eyes.
Eventually, after some debate, I’d called for Laura one evening and her sister Cassandra had answered…I’d never met Cassandra; she was a number of years younger than Laura and I. I’d been prepared to ask Laura if she’d join me for a bite to eat…I’d been prepared to hear it all…I’d been prepared to witness a delusion in progress. However, her sister relayed to me that Laura herself had gone to Europe three weeks before and hadn’t given an estimated date of return—if any date of return was even planned—Laura was known for her vanishing acts and one never knew when she’d appear again. When Cassandra Lassiter asked my name, I’d bid her goodbye and hung up, knowing that I’d been too late and there weren’t many things worse than getting involved with a tragic beauty whose restless mind pulled her in twenty different directions at one time. There was also her other personalities to consider—the ones that seemed to surface at random. I chose to see her unexpected decampment as fortunate and in short I gave up on the idea of Laura Lassiter.
As the passing months blurred into vague generalized seasons of retrospect, Laura Lassiter also became a vague apparition, fading into the past easily enough. Though I assumed I’d never run into her again, she crossed my mind once in a while…and rather out of the blue. Should that have been the end of the story? Most certainly it should have dear reader…but the Laura thing didn’t quite end there; there are a few more installments, crucial to the telling of this story. For one, I did finally run into Laura again, and by complete chance—ironically just as I was forgetting about her nearly completely.
I had run into her at a dinner party I’d attended with a girl I’d been casually seeing. I was more dragged to the dinner party than invited—my then girlfriend Clare insisted I accompany her in spite of my initial refusal to attend. I had done everything I could do to get Clare to grant me the night off…for I could think of nothing worse than spending an evening surrounded by her flat humored girlfriends and their boring, effeminate boyfriends who all aimed so carefully at hipness and pseudo-intellectual pontification. Still, Clare assured me that if I didn’t attend, she’d impose sexual sanctions…perhaps realizing that sex was the only thing we had left in common and not very good sex at that.
Needless to say I’d dressed in a blazer and attended the dinner party…and I can’t tell you how shocked I was when I rounded a second floor corner in search of the bathroom and came face to face with the Laura Lassiter, a woman in which only a few years before I’d invested so much thought. It had been longer since I’d actually seen her and I was taken aback by her sudden presence. I suppose I remembered her in the dance floor spotlights, illuminated brilliantly as she grooved to a band all those years ago. The framed recollection was immediately erased by her sudden appearance and pretty, nut of a face.
On seeing me, Laura offered a smile and a warm greeting. She stood there looking tussled in haphazard, rugged clothing and a freckly tan across her forehead over which golden locks of her hair hung, covering slightly one of her eyes. She’d been in South America and had just returned, she told me this when I’d asked where she’d gotten the tan. Though she was dressed more for hiking than a dinner party, she looked marvelous and earthy and made her overdressed counterparts pale in comparison.
During the actual dinner, I sat across from Laura, basking slightly in the soft texture of her voice…the feminine way in which she sipped her water, the adorable way she made sure to never place an elbow on the tabletop, her large blue eyes and the dark coronas of her long curled lashes. She was every bit as beautiful as I remembered her…and hopelessly mysterious—a perpetual enigma. What can I say? Though Clare was sitting next to me with her nervous hand on my lap, I was climbing the nape of Laura’s neck with my eyes…wishing to whisper three words into her ear, “Be with me.”
Later in the evening after the bullshit conversations had subsided and people started to mingle and mill about; I found Laura in the kitchen and asked her if she would walk to the liquor store with me. I told her there was something I needed to tell her. She was in mid conversation with a few guests but obliged me easily, walking at a casual pace beside me on the nighttime street that was glazed slightly with lamp light and the warm blue glow of the full moon…there was something uncanny about the evening, perhaps the magnetism of the moon, messing with our tides…or perhaps it was running into Laura after all those years.
“You know Kristen told me a lot about you…more than I should probably know.” said Laura of her Westlake classmate…one which I’d dated for perhaps six months before she one day stopped calling me without explanation.
“Good stuff I hope.” I said, knowing otherwise.
“Some good…some baddy bad, bad.” said Laura, shaking her head with a grin.
“Well,” I said, “I never claimed to be a great man.”
“I’m sure you’re just fine—Kristen is a dramatist. So you’re seeing Clare. How is that going?” asked Laura.
“She hates her father.” I said as the car tops and darkened lawns passed by.
“She’s a real sweet person.”
“Ah, she’s a pain in the ass.” I said, lighting a smoke.
At this, Laura leaned her head back and let out a gargantuan chuckle; a chuckle slightly out of place—for I’d not meant it as humor. The truth remained—Clare Forester was a ginormous pain in the ass and there was no reason to pretend otherwise.
“She’ll be pretty even when she’s 40.” Laura said of Clare, “She has a smart figure don’t you know…and her skin is so fair.”
“So will you…” I said, “…be beautiful when you’re 40. Like Deneuve, you have this very rare beauty…really it’s very rare.”
“Thank you. That’s probably the nicest thing I’ve been told in a long while.” said Laura.
“Don’t thank me…thank your mother’s genes. Hey listen,” I said, interrupting our small talk, “the reason I asked you here…” I said, not knowing how to word it all, “The reason I asked you to walk to the store with me is because…I wanted to talk to you about some shit.”
“I gathered that…what’s on your mind?” smiled Laura…she was shorter than I and I looked down my shoulder at her beautiful, tanned face. She seemed much different from the afternoon I’d seen her with her mother’s Chihuahua in the mall. Perhaps I’d encountered an alternate personality in the mall.
“You know…I called your parent’s place one time…a few years back…I got your number from Jack.” I said, “I’d hoped to get you on the line, but your sis told me you’d gone and moved to Europe.”
“Paris.” said Laura, “A land full of love and art and death and birth…it all meshes together there right before your eyes you know…and it’s hard to find the ugliness…but it wasn’t for me…I was back in under 4 months…you should go there one day.”
“I’ve never been off the continent…I don’t fly.” I admitted.
“That’s ok…no one will make you fly.” said Laura softly, “Do you know Balzac died when he was only 51 years old?”
“No I didn’t…that’s young.” I said.
“Maybe there were no more novels left in him.” said Laura.
“Also, health care was terrible back then.” I suggested.
“So why did you call for me anyway? If you don’t mind my asking.”
“I called for you because I wanted to know the truth about you…for myself.” I said.
“Oh…” said Laura, dragging out the word, understanding suddenly my issue. Doubtlessly she’d heard it all before, from dozens of other men who’d fallen for her tragic allure.
“Yeah…it was that kind of thing.” I nodded, “Go ahead, roll your pretty eyes.”
“I wouldn’t dare. What would you have said if I would have answered instead of Cassandra?” she asked.
“You can say it now don’t you think? Or is it so naughty?”
“There was a lot of naughtiness yes…but…I wanted to rescue you I think—if you can believe it.” I said.
“From what?” Laura asked, tilting her head.
“I don’t know.” I said; disappointed slightly at my inability to articulate what I’d have been able to dictate in volumes only a few years earlier.
“Some can’t be rescued.” she said easily and after biting her lip in contemplation she stopped walking, turned to me and suggested we sit down on a soft looking lawn belonging to a towering darkened Victorian, one overhung by trees, “But we should definitely have a long talk.”
“It’s about time.” I nodded.
Laura sat cross legged, balancing her pretty face in her palms, listening to me explain the entire thing—the times we’d passed at parties, or concerts or restaurants, in the mall…and had smiled and said hello and I’d never thought to stop and talk to her…the times people had spoken of her and the stories had gone through me, in one ear and out of the other—and how it had all changed rather suddenly one evening when Jack had told me about the imaginary cabby she’d seen lurking outside her bedroom window. I told her that hearing about it had affected me.
When I was through, she assured me that it had all happened a long time ago. She told me that I should see Bertolucci’s ‘Sheltering Sky’. She told me she had once wandered three days through a jungle in the Amazon searching for a holy place…she told me that she’d once had her food drugged at a hillside retreat and had suffered hallucinations…she told me life isn’t what we all think it is…she told me that she was game for most anything that made life more interesting. She then filled me in on her travels since the old days; cliff side bus rides in third world country roads, filthy hostels and hard shanty floors, epic hikes, international flights, the airports in between, hitchhiking on foreign lands, encounters with ancient artifacts and desert sunsets. I sat and listened, fascinated by her words and her lovely face and the boundless adventure in her. We spent the following two weeks together—two weeks I wouldn’t quite forget.
After two weeks of absence, I returned to my life. When I finally saw her, I made the mistake of explaining the entire situation to Clare, the sort-of girlfriend I’d left at the dinner party two weeks earlier to fend for herself socially—something she hated to do. Indeed, Clare had first thrown a fit, then had thrown a plate at me…she’d stormed into the bathroom and locked the door…she’d cried…she’d called me a pussy through the tears, citing that she was livid that while she’d sat alone in awkwardness for the rest of the evening; I’d been a ‘total pussy’, lying on a lawn stargazing with Laura. She said she was sickened by my desire to spend two weeks falling in love with Laura Lassiter. The notion sickened her for more reasons than she realized though—for she’d come to know me as her rock base…a solid unmovable foundation upon which she could build her fortress of anxieties. She hated most that I could be softened by the allure of another woman—especially one she considered to be ‘crazy insane’. It made no difference to me however if Clare, a cocaine addicted, ex-Sears catalogue model/now Sears hairdresser, ever wanted to see me again; I had been willing to sacrifice what I had with Clare for two weeks with Laura Lassiter—even if it did render me a major pussy and a suddenly single one at that.
Laura on the other hand left the next day for the Mediterranean; she’d only been in town for a month and I’d caught her halfway in. When we’d finally parted ways in the early morning sun she’d handed me a small paper upon which she’d scribbled in dull pencil, her personal phone number at her parent’s residence as well as their proper address in up in Vancouver, in case I wanted to send her ‘letters’. When her visit was over and she had to leave town again, I asked if I’d see her again. Laura looked back at me over her shoulder—she nodded and said yes, but something wasn’t right about it. I felt something was wrong, like the way animals can sense an approaching earthquake. The image stayed with me; Laura looking over her shoulder with a sad smile—in my mind it’s framed as a haunting, black and white snapshot…it was the last time I’d ever see her.
Sadly, I’d been told shortly after that Laura had, in a hopeless act of surrender, committed suicide—she’d done it overseas; so I’d been told by a number of mutual friends. I knew that she’d had enough of the monsters that plagued her and she’d finally decided that she wanted out. The news left a small hallow in my core. She had her reasons, no matter how ill and tortured—there came a point when she could no longer stand the voices and the sinister laughter and the cabby’s outside her window. She’d checked out, leaving behind a slew of unanswered questions and the memory of a beautiful and deeply troubled woman who’d been a book with too many pages for far too long.
Time went on, the years melted into the past and everyone seemed to forget about Laura Lassiter. I thought about her from time to time, however—thoughts of her were mauled by the ugliness of suicide. I’m sure had she gone on existing somewhere in the world and all was well as it should have been, the memory of her would have eventually dwindled into a distant but fond recollection. However, shit didn’t go down that way. Over the years it became a dark piece of conversation and pretty much anyone that ever knew Laura never wanted to mention her anymore and eventually, she joined the endless leagues of the forgotten. However, her saga was documented in the historical annals in my mind and once in a while, I would return to her and her tragic mystery—the one no one ever solved. And a mystery it was indeed. For the details that were offered regarding the weeks leading up to her suicide were for the most part vague and ever evolving, which made knowing what had really gone down and why, nearly impossible. There were certain people who knew definitely, however, they were people who wouldn’t wish to talk about it…people who’d rather forget. I decided to join them.
I will jump from the 90’s now…I will take you ahead, into present times. Long gone is the romanticism this world once knew in the 90’s. If you didn’t live through it dear reader; you’ll not understand the mentality, the stranger than fiction romance, the telepathy we had…therefore I won’t waste time attempting to explain it. I will say however that back then, there was still a sunny disposition that lined the warm summer lanes of our minds. The adventure was real—originality a goal. But I will pull you into the now—into the pre-apocalyptic gloom…the mass paranoia…the true lack of originality…a time when true romance is encased in a mausoleum of technology and seen as an archaic design…a give me convenience or give me death mentality…a time when otherwise sensible people cling desperately to silicone umbilical cords…web-heads–hooked on an internet connection; immaculate distraction.
I stayed pretty much the same—refusing to let go of certain ideals…true to my origins for the most part…writing novels even though nobody bought novels anymore and releasing albums even though nobody ever bought albums anymore. I split my time between Vancouver and Los Angeles, playing rock shows and seeking out antique literature. I’d arrived back in Vancouver after a lengthy stint in East Hollywood…I was still adapting, and perhaps I had that thousand yard stare living in East Hollywood long enough will give a man. My face was sunbaked, my hair a wiry mess…my faded leather jacket felt for once not warm enough. I was minding my own business—not looking for any trouble. However, I was about to be accosted by a total random mind-fuck; perhaps of my own design. As we walked, I glanced at a passing sign pasted to a lamppost. It was like any other sign…among the many pasted on top of each other and half torn away. The piece that was still attached to the pole bared a list of names, performers I assumed. I didn’t recognize any of the names, but I recognized one—Cassandra Lassiter; it jumped out at me as I walked by. I stopped, backtracked a few steps and peered at the poster to make sure I’d seen the name right; I had…indeed, it was Cassandra Lassiter.
This will make sense only if I state now—the grand point of this piece: Laura had a younger sister named Cassandra. I’d spoken with Cassandra a few times on the phone when calling the land line for Laura many years before. Could it be Laura’s sister? I wondered, giving it a last glance before walking on, toward the arcade we couldn’t seem to find. As my friend talked, I listened absently. I was distracted, contemplating Laura’s sister Cassandra, thinking of how terrible it must have been for her; certainly such an experience would deconstruct anyone’s psyche and perhaps not reassemble it in working order.
Later that evening, when I returned home, I spent a few hours writing…during a break, I decided to visit Cassandra’s page; it was inevitable that I would—though I told myself otherwise. I found her profile photo section which seemed to be a photography portfolio. There were many photos of Cassandra herself and it was easy to believe that she was indeed the blood sister of Laura Lassiter. Like her sister Cassandra was striking, possessing that rare allure reserved for Bond girls and vintage European actresses. It wasn’t only the perfection of her lips, or the inexplicably sensual gaze in her eyes, or her soft, cream complexion; it appeared she was full of classic cinema…a showboat full of ruffles and girlish poses…but from a different era…a long lost era–an ultra-female. Another photo depicted her dressed for Halloween as Dorothy Vallens; the queen of cool…fascinating.
It seemed futile but I browsed on, searching for a clue, an inkling…any sign of Laura…a shared photo, a memorial, a birthday snap, a family portrait—some acknowledgement or mention of Laura’s existence; there was nothing…there was however a picture of a banana sitting on the roof of a VW Bug; something didn’t make sense. Perhaps Laura was a never spoken about subject. Perhaps losing her sister to suicide had been too much to conceive—like staring into the sun. Perhaps Cassandra didn’t wish to post photos of Laura because she didn’t wish to be plagued by questions she’d inevitably have to answer or deflect; maybe it was better to remember her sister quietly and privately…on her own terms.
By that point, I hadn’t thought of Laura in quite some time; however, seeing her sister’s name on a poster, caused many questions to resurface. I realized that certainly if anyone could shed some light, it would be Laura’s sister. I tossed the idea around for a while before I eventually decided to message Cassandra—or rather I decided to message Laura’s sister, who I was certain Cassandra was. I wasn’t certain how I planned to segue into Laura…I just knew that if I didn’t message Cassandra (especially after such a coincidental occurrence of glimpsing her name on a random poster) I would wonder about it forever. Regarding the actual message itself—I figured it would be fitting to send Cassandra a selection of prose I’d written long ago—a selection her sister had found amusing. When I didn’t receive a response…I assumed Cassandra had visited my website, recognized me as an old friend of Laura’s and didn’t wish to see anyone from her sister’s past. It made sense and I left it at that.
Perhaps a month later, I had a drink with an old friend from the old red letter days. We spoke once in a while. He’d moved to NYC several years before and had gotten married, fat and old after suffering a near rupture of his pancreas. He’d traded his alcohol addiction for a money addiction and spent every waking millisecond eyeing the prize; gambling, investing, starting business ventures—distracting himself from the inevitability of death—as we all were. He placed value in material possessions; things he was only renting but didn’t realize it. He’d taken up golf and cigar smoking and had turned the woodshed on his property into a man cave. His wife meanwhile, who’d he’d married fresh out of high school had gotten stodgier and frumpy after pushing out two kids who looked nothing like Ryan…one had to wonder.
Though he’d gotten boring, he still had a hell of a sense of humor. When he was in town, we’d meet for a drink and reiterate the days of old, coming to no new conclusions. Ryan was one of a handful left who knew all about Laura Lassiter and the Sylvias of Westlake Academy. At some point in our conversation, I mentioned Cassandra Lassiter, inquiring if he knew anything about her.
“Cassandra?” said Ryan, with a contemplative sigh, “Yeah, I remember her…I used to see her around the neighborhood with Laura now and then.”
“Crazy thing…I happened upon her by sheer chance…by sheer accident.” I told him.
I reiterated the chain of events that had led to the accidental find; the passing poster bearing her name. The one I’d seen at random and by sheer coincidence.
“What’s her story these days?” asked Ryan, gesturing for the waitress.
“I have no idea…but I bet it’s fascinating.” I told him.
Ryan, squinted at me with a look of amazement, tilting his head curiously before pulling out his wafer thin phone, “Let’s see…” he said, typing in Cassandra’s name. After finding her profile he viewed her photos, scrolling down, squinting curiously at the small illuminated screen. His expression turned to a grin and he looked up at me and smiled, “This isn’t Laura’s sister.”
“That’s preposterous.” I said.
“That’s not Cassandra Lassiter…trust me.”
“She’s the only one that comes up when you search her name man…and she’s based in Vancouver. What are the odds that it isn’t Laura’s sister?” I countered.
“I don’t know, maybe there’s a variation on the spelling?” said Ryan, now texting, “I’m texting Lena…she knew the Lassiter sisters…she’ll know.”
I sat, watching Ryan drink a non-alcoholic beer, wondering what the point of drinking near beer was, as I sipped my soda water. Neither of us got drunk anymore and it made me think of how much more fun Ryan was when he was a blithering drunk. By the time he was chatting up the 20 year old waitress with the piercing giggle, Lena, his wife was calling back. A picture of her heavily made up face appeared on the screen of his phone as it buzzed against the table top with her call. He eventually answered and nodded as she spoke, raising his brows, glancing up at me with a grin…savoring the suspense he was creating. I rolled my eyes. When Ryan was through with the call, he set the phone down and sighed deeply, grinning and squinting back at me…
“So?” I said.
“Well…like I said—the woman you think is Laura’s sister is not—it’s a case of a mistaken name.”
Just then, Ryan’s phone lit up, buzzing against the table menacingly. He picked it up, raising his brows and did some maneuvering, “Lena sent me a link to Laura’s sister’s profile—her actual sister.” When he’d found the link, he tapped it and gazed at it, holding the phone at an arms-length as if to get a better angle of the enlarged profile picture, “Now that’s Cassandra Lassiter.” he said, handing me the phone.
In the photo stood a woman with her two children, a vast and sandy beach in the expanse beyond their shoulders. Her face was hard-shadowed by high noon sunshine…her hair was suspended in time, blowing in the ocean breeze. Her smile was wide, happy and full of motherhood. Indeed, she looked like a regular soccer mom—a very pretty soccer mom, but nonetheless, a mom of soccer. There was no Dorothy Vallens in her at all…and though I was surprised, I realized that this was Laura’s biological sister. Her name was in fact spelled differently than the Dorothy Vallens doppelganger I’d mistaken her for; hers was two S’s short…. Casandra Lasiter—as opposed to—Cassandra Lassiter, but two letters made all the difference.
Somehow the photo of Casandra and her children huddled barefoot on the beach quelled my need to know; whatever happened with Laura was over and long buried…and it all became so clear so suddenly at the sight of her actual sister. The last photo I looked at was a shot of Casandra hammering a nail into a wall, smiling widely over her shoulder…she wore a tank top, shorts, her skin was tanned, her blonde hair hung over one eye slightly, similar to how Laura wore hers; she was happy. I closed the page, knowing I would start to forget about Laura and Casandra and why no one could save Laura from herself…beautiful, troubled Laura—a perfect mystery that no one ever solved and no one ever would.
Do You Get It Now?
I’d dated so many different types of crazy I’d come to expect it. I’d begun to think there was no other way. There was Kate who cut herself to get back at her father…there was Lacey who perpetually sought escape because the stillness of stable life made her want to tear her skin off…there was Genevieve who broke up with me eventually because I wouldn’t agree to tie her up, slap her across the face and choke her out during sex–I just didn’t see the fun in that…there was Simone who puked after each meal, so that her teeth turned a strange color and though she was skinny as a rail at the end of our relationship; she believed she was monstrously obese…there was Sonya who daydreamed about suicide regularly and eventually started attempting it—I heard years later that she eventually achieved her goal…there was Charlotte who was a sex addict. I caught Charlotte one evening with one of her flings…she’d expected me to be out of town that weekend and when I arrived at her apartment to surprise her with ice cream and let myself in with my own key—I found her sitting on her couch in the nude with some bearded guy I didn’t recognize; evidently they’d fucked. Though I wanted to beat the ever loving shit out of the bearded guy…he jumped up and locked himself in the bathroom…I on the other hand grabbed a 5 Iron and smashed in the screen of my TV—the one they’d been watching…it was my TV after all. I never saw her again…though she kept calling and emailing for months afterward, professing her sincere regrets and apologies; I guess it didn’t work out with her and what’s his beard. I felt I’d lost faith in womankind at that point…what’s worse–I was okay with that…I felt I’d come to an understanding in life and was better for it.
The universe had other plans though. Her name was Nazaneen and she was March born…a Piscean beauty with a loving gaze as deep as an ocean. She was from across the mighty Atlantic and she dressed in flowing dresses and gowns…she wore diamonds, emeralds and 24 Karat gold. She often said there was no real gold in Canada—not like the gold from her country…she’d say this with a sweet little smile. She was always joking very innocently with me. She was little…5’2 perhaps…100 pounds…a tiny little thing with lithe cat-like movements and I was a bit awestruck by how suddenly her curious little form walked into my life.
We started with dates…I’d take her to White Tower on Robson Street and we’d sit there for hours, drinking tea and ordering when we were hungry. I listened with fascination to stories of her home country and how she worked as a biochemist in a lab. She loved more than anything to talk about love. She was obsessed with Titanic and had proclaimed she’d seen the movie perhaps ten times. Why not? She would ask. Does such love not exist? I would shrug…though I didn’t believe so.
During these conversations she told me about her family; an utterly foreign portrait of lavish luxury. She’d grown up in an estate with 14 bedrooms…she’d had a room for reading, another room for drawing, one for playing music, another for her wardrobe and one of course for sleeping. She brought photos of her family once and I saw something in those old photos that I’d not seen in her since I’d started dating her. There had been a glowing happiness in her eyes that just wasn’t present as she sat across from me at White Tower sipping her tea. When I asked her about this, she looked away and told me she would one day explain herself to me. It was a curious thing to say.
We continued seeing each other…in spite of the fact that she had a husband. I couldn’t help myself. Something was happening to me. I didn’t know what…whatever it was I’d never experienced something like it before. It seemed I couldn’t be at ease in a day until I was sitting close to her…listening to her funny stories and watching her little mouth eat things from the end of a large fork. I could sit and watch her eat for hours. Though I realized I was relinquishing something hard won…it seemed Nazaneen outweighed my desire to remain self-contained.
When the weather was nice enough I took Nazaneen to Centennial Beach in Tsawwassen. We spent some intimate afternoons on the beach, lying close and watching the tide come in. She would sit in my lap and drape her arms over my shoulders and say, “If someone would have told me a few months ago that I would be sitting on this beach with the man I truly love—I’d have not believed them.” She would usually cap such statements with an innocent vulgarity and a giggle…which would always make me laugh. Indeed, Nazaneen was a character. She was also a leader. Among the people from her country who formed a small community in Vancouver, she was considered their leader. Nazaneen was put in charge of organizing events, socials, community meetings and helping new families who’d just arrived in Canada. Though she was tranquil and ultra feminine; there was a fearlessness to her…a selfless bravery that reached out to those in need or those who were oppressed in some way. I was beginning to see that Nazaneen was as much of an idealist as she was a humanitarian. Her strong opinions were articulated with crystal clarity and on occasion she would share her thoughts with me about western women. She often chuckled when telling me about seeing women on the street, dressed scantily, so their cleavages were in full view and their asses were half exposed…she chuckled about their visible thongs and loud abrasive voices, likening them to tribes women of the Amazonian jungles…she was struck with further hilarity by their accompanying men who were all too proud that everyone was observing their half naked girlfriends…she would tisk her tongue and laugh.
One night I met Nazaneen downtown and she insisted we walk along the coal harbor sea wall. It was out of character for her because not only was it quite late at night…but also between us was an unspoken understanding that we should not hold hands in public…especially downtown where many of her friends lived. When I met her, I saw right away that she had a black eye and her cheek bone was swollen…the corner of her mouth was swollen as well and her eyes were red and irritated from a long bout of crying. She fell into my arms in a puddle of heaving sobs. I didn’t know what to do. I just squeezed her, having never encountered such an absurd situation. We sat in silence for perhaps a half hour, until she finally stopped crying. When she was more composed she explained the entire ugly truth to me…there on a bench outside of Canada Place. She explained how her husband beat her brutally every other week. She explained how he’d bitten her on her leg and his teeth had broken through the skin. She explained how he’d once bit through her lip…knocked loose one of her teeth, bruised her ribs with shin kicks and had broken her orbital bone once with a hard knuckle right cross. I listened in my silently building rage as she explained how he’d thrown her out of the house the previous New Year’s Eve…and how she’d had to walk seven blocks in her sock feet through slush and snow to reach a friend’s place. She went on and on…the stories were endless…the memory of the horrors bringing back her tears.
When she was through, I could see that though she was exhausted, she’d purged herself at least a little. For the next three nights she stayed with me and in spite of her bruises and scars, we lived like lovers…happy to be with each other…requiring nobody else…we were in our own private little safe zone. One she needed so badly. She’d left her cell phone at her house and so there were no calls from her husband demanding that she return, as she said he often did when she left him to stay with girlfriends after he’d beaten her. We watched movies, went to the market, she prepared traditional dishes for me…I pretended to love them all…we took long baths together…I read her Hemingway in the bath…she loved to curl up beside me and listen to me read. We drove out to Hope and spent an afternoon in the mountains…for the first time in her life, she smoked some with me…and wound up laughing hysterically…we walked across the road and ate ice cream at the Dairy Queen. She pursed her lips and told me to lean forward—as if for a kiss. I did and immediately felt the cold press of her cone against my nose. Funny Nazaneen. Those days were magical. However, that weekend, when I returned from work, I found she’d gone…she’d returned to her husband and left me a long note explaining why. She cited duty…and the fact that her marriage had been arranged by their families. It was a partnership and somehow his beating her was her fault. She ended the letter with a declaration of love for me and signed her note with a kiss of blood red lipstick…her small lips leaving an sad and adorable imprint.
I didn’t see Nazaneen for perhaps a week after that…I didn’t even hear from her. I started to wonder if her bastard husband had found out about us and had killed her. It was starting to drive me a little nuts and so I decided to walk up the street to a payphone and call her cell phone. When a man’s voice answered, I hung up. I’d nearly said something…but had I said something, I’d have not stopped. I knew where she lived because she’d gotten into the risky habit of having me drop her off only two blocks from her house at the end of our evenings. I got the feeling that Nazaneen liked the thrill of taking such a risk—or perhaps deep down she wanted her husband to discover us. For a few days I contemplated calling the police anonymously and having them check on her…however, when my concern became nearly unbearable, she finally called my cell phone.
She’d called from a payphone and so I’d not recognized the number…however, I’d had a feeling it was her and I answered immediately. She told me she’d worked things out with him and had been busy working at the laboratory. She told me that her mother had gotten sick and that she was contemplating flying back home to visit her. I told her I needed to see her and she took a bus to my house later that day. She was dressed nicely…wrapped in one of her silk dresses, wearing leather boots and toting her Gucci purse. She looked tired and severe and as always, her long black hair was combed out impeccably. She wore diamond earrings that dangled brilliantly, catching the sunlight in sharp sparkles. Her eyes were cat-like…peering up at me with intensity in spite of her weariness.
I took her to my bedroom and we spent the greater portion of the afternoon in there. Afterward she asked me, for the first time, about other women. Did I have any? Certainly there must have been someone. She suddenly wanted to know the things she initially assured were rightfully none of her business. She admitted that it was not fair of her to ask being that she was married, but she couldn’t help it…she’d thought about me the whole week…wondering if I was with a crazy Amazonian girl with tit cleavage and a high riding thong…we laughed—but now I knew.
After perhaps a week, Nazaneen and I resumed our routine, basking in each other and falling deeper into whatever the hell it was we were falling into. Love? I suppose, yes. However, it seemed to embody more than a single word could encompass. It seemed there was more to it than simply falling in love. It seemed there was a fair amount of healing taking place and it baffled me how much we navigate by subconscious…how much a part our subconscious plays in the unwitting decisions we make…the people we seek out. Of course I could easily chalk it up to her womanly curves, her silk dresses, her deep gaze, her warm snug vagina and her small kissing lips…I could chalk it up to biology…however, it seemed we’d subconsciously sought assured mutual healing in one another.
It was around then that I cut all ties with any other women in my life and dedicated myself fully to a married woman. It wasn’t the smartest play, but I wasn’t exactly a master of the smart play; I rolled with life and made the plays I thought worked best…or depending on the situation, the plays I thought worked worst. In the case of Nazaneen, our involvement increased mutually, as if we were walking into a dark tunnel together…never knowing what was around each corner and neither of us caring very much. In fact, we’d started getting reckless.
I’d taken her to the aquarium one afternoon, to see the whales. Nazaneen loved the ocean…it appealed to her Piscean fluidity and we strolled casually through the corridors, stopping at the large windows to take inventory of the various forms of captive sea life. At one point, she turned to me and asked me to marry her and pressed her lips into mine very deeply. As we stopped kissing Nazaneen peered around my shoulder and turned pale, as if she’d seen a ghost. When I turned, I saw a woman approaching…it was her good friend Rozhan. I’d seen Nazaneen in photos with Rozhan. Their husbands were great friends; this was bad.
I stood there stupidly as the two talked. Rozhan’s baby started to cry and the women chuckled before Rozhan walked off toward the women’s washroom.
“Fuck.” I said.
“I think this is ok.” said Nazaneen.
“How is this ok? This is extremely not ok.” I insisted, “She probably saw us kissing.”
“I don’t think she did.”
“Did she seem like she did?” I asked.
“I think Rozhan understands my situation.” said Nazaneen.
“And if she doesn’t? What if she tells her husband and he tells yours?” I asked, “He might try to kill us both.”
“Then I’ll sacrifice for us both.” said Nazaneen, and something in her eyes told me she was stone serious; she was willing to die for this affair.
“That’s preposterous. You need to leave the guy. How long are we going to keep this shit up? Sneaking around like this?” I demanded.
“If I leave him, will you marry me?” she asked.
I stood there…not knowing exactly how to respond…it was a big question.
“See…you have nothing to worry about then.” said Nazaneen, gazing up into the whale tank with a sad grin.
Though we went on with our day and eventually found the sun again…the question resonated in my mind like the echo of an unfamiliar sound. For the next few weeks I contemplated what she’d said…her question of marriage and my feelings regarding the institution. Needless to say, I brought the subject up to Nazaneen a few nights later as we lay on my lawn looking up at the stars.
“Did you really mean it when you asked me to marry you?” I asked her.
“Of course…I’m not a scared cat like you.” she giggled.
“It’s scaredy cat.” I said.
“It’s a word? Scaredy?”
“Not really…it’s slang.”
“It’s slang…” she mocked my accent with a chuckle.
“Maybe I am a scaredy cat…maybe I’m scared of the things you make me want.” I said.
“I know you are…but my love—your heart is brave. Don’t sit under the tree waiting for the apple to fall…you must climb up and take it from the branch.” she said.
“You’re the apple in this analogy?” I asked her, turning to face her.
“If you marry me, you’d never have to worry…we could live anywhere we wanted to…you have no idea how rich my family is.” she said.
“You think I’d marry you for money?” I laughed, “You’re crazy.”
“I’m not saying for money…but we’d not have to worry…I could have your baby and we wouldn’t ever have to struggle. We could go live in Rome…or New York City or Barcelona.”
“You want to have my baby?” I asked, a bit dumbfounded.
“Yes.” she said, “I’m baby crazy…I think all day of having a baby…I want one so bad. I want yours.” said Nazaneen.
“Why?” I asked.
“Our baby would be creatively brilliant like you and beautiful like me.” she smiled.
“I see you’ve really thought this out.” I told her.
“You’d be an amazing father. I know it.” said Nazaneen…once again startling me with an insight.
As the weeks went by, the topic of her having my child was a reoccurring one…she insisted that she would leave her husband if only I would commit to marrying her, move in with her and get her pregnant. It struck me as odd that for all the insanely dangerous predicaments I’d gotten myself into in my life; I was more terrified of having a child than perhaps all of them put together. Yet, men of what I deemed to be lesser gumption than I were making such decisions every day. Indeed, this forced me to analyze exactly what it was about starting a family that startled me so much. Was it that I feared I’d be a failure as a father as my own father had been to me? Was it that I would eventually see a marriage to this wealthy woman as a cage with golden bars? Or was it simply that I enjoyed my personal freedom too much and feared that marriage and a family would be the death of my artistic prowess? It wasn’t an easy call and so I decided that I’d never figure it out and so it was a waste of time trying; the chips would inevitably fall where they would.
A few weeks later I was sitting at my piano, composing a piece…I was deep into it and wandering out into a clearing, one bathed in brilliant enlightenment; this was my addiction. I was formulating the melody with nuances in the chord structures and making great headway. There is a delicious feeling one is winning a battle of some kind when creating something memorable…something bordering on brilliance. In those moments I can grasp the high such an accomplishment brings…perhaps artists were nothing more than addicts.
It was then that my doorbell rang. I hadn’t been expecting anyone and curiously I answered the door. Standing behind it, I found Nazaneen. She stood, looking up at me with tears in her eyes. One side of her face was swollen so badly it was pulling at the flesh around the corner of her eye; it was chilling and I led her inside. I took a pack of frozen vegetables from the freezer and wrapped it in a wet face cloth. When I joined her on the couch she had composed herself. She explained how this time he’d gone berserk and had held her by the neck and punched her repeatedly in the face until she fainted. She’d woken up on the floor a moment later to foot stomps to her belly.
I got up and started putting on my jacket.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“I’m going to go over there.” I said.
“That’s a bad idea.” she said.
“You think I’m afraid of this clown? This guy has no fucking idea…” I said.
“I don’t think you’re afraid…I do think you’re better than that though.” she said quietly.
“Yeah well…maybe I’m not.” I said, heading for the door.
Nazaneen jumped up from the couch and took hold of my arm.
“Stay here…don’t go there.” she pleaded.
“I’m going.” I told her.
When she saw that I was decided on the issue she let go of my arm and took a step back, “Men and their conflict.” she said, her words brimming with anger—the first of it I’d ever seen.
“What are you saying?” I asked, “How do you expect me to react?” I demanded.
“Just love me.” she said.
I stood there looking at her lopsided swollen face for a moment.
“What are you worried that I’ll rearrange his face? You worried about him?” I asked.
“No…I would hate to think that you did something very foolish because of me.” said Nazaneen.
I never wound up going to see her husband. I never did. I took my jacket off and joined her on my couch. We watched a movie and fell asleep. We’d go on to spend another two and a half years together, sneaking around, saying goodnight a couple blocks from her house…me calling her landline from payphones and letting it ring once. Numerous people saw us together as well…it got to the point where I was certain the guy knew about us—but didn’t care…as long as her affair didn’t disrupt their social standing in the community. It was known that he had many affairs of his own…of which Nazaneen knew, but didn’t care. I was positive he knew.
In the end it didn’t matter. Nazaneen had come to my place one afternoon and in a fit of tears confessed to me that it was the happiest day of her life as well as the saddest. She’d found out that she was pregnant with her husband’s child…but she knew what that meant and I did too. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t livid…why I wasn’t angry. I guess I was happy for her—she’d finally gotten what she wanted in the end…to be a mother. I’d gotten something out of it too…a message from womankind – “Do you get it now?”
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, flower children—high on dopamine; love junkies. Vancouver was full of them. It was a huge contrast from the hard, sun baked streets of East Hollywood from which I’d recently returned. In LA everyone was too busy hustling, aiming for professional achievement and self obsessing to soften up as much to stand around in the streets and cafes, cuddling and being desperately soft…as if possessing a constitution as delicate and fragile as a dandelion puff. A contrast indeed.
Inside, the place was silent…aside from a girl with an acoustic guitar crooning on a makeshift stage that was situated in front of an old coil water heater. I looked around the room…the place was full…guys brandishing tender beards, held their campfire girls close on couches and love seats…more pairs were sitting cross legged on the floor hugging each other, or leaning against walls in spoon position, all with drinks in their hands; it was a date night. 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 tumble dried…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.
As the singer 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 wood-grain 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 the Sugar Plums from London England…and 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 the Debbie Harry doppelganger 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.
“That piano loves your voice.” she said.
“Well…” 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.
“Yes, the bird who’s a dance instructor—do you do the tango? What a fright she was…fucking utter fright.” She chuckled.
“You don’t know the half of it…I met her at this grease stained little restaurant on Keefer last week and she tells me that her and her husband have an open relationship.”
“That works out good for you no?” she said, rolling her eyes in a sexy way.
“I don’t know. If I loved a woman, I wouldn’t lend her out. No godam way.” I said.
“Probably he doesn’t love her.” inferred the Debbie Harry Doppelganger.
“Guess not. Anyway, 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.
“Michael Gross?” she laughed, “I guess that night was ill-fated for everyone then?”
“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.”
“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.
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 band mate 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 dedicated to a club…a small picture-perfect social coterie that distracted him from the hard truths of life…that offered him some form of standing in a social hierarchy; I never understood men like him.
“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 at Balthazar.” 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…I’m English.” she said.
“Love your sexy accent.” I said, squeezing her close.
“Really, you’re not coming? I think you should.”
“You go ahead.” I said.
“Ok…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.
Out Here In the Middle Of Infinity
“Look, I like fruity tasting drinks…but peach cider just isn’t Lex wine coolers…no matter how you dumb it down–it’s important that you get this right.” said Garner rolling her eyes.
The vaguely familiar woman to whom she spoke, smiled blankly, as if her smile were involuntary and required without question. Her energy was conventional and polite. Her smile peeled away her lips, so her stark white teeth were revealed; interesting, I thought, falling away from my phone and all of its ramifications.
“I don’t need to write any of it down.” she chuckled, “I have it all here.” she said, pointing with a meek finger to her temple.
“I believe you. Just making sure.” said Garner, a cruel tone mildly flaring her words. What was it between these two? I wondered, coming to the conclusion a moment after; Garner was a bully—there was nothing more to it.
“Just to be sure, I’ll chaperone…” I intervened, climbing to my feet and feeling the flush of the booze lightening my head.
“I don’t need a chaperone.” said the woman, clearly insulted by my offer yet maintaining her grin.
“The wrong word perhaps; I’ll ‘accompany’ you.” I offered.
“I can manage.” she said, moving away, toward the study door with a meek strut of pride; a show for the guests no doubt. I followed suit.
I caught up with her in a softly lit hallway lined with paintings no one ever took the time to admire and gilded candle holders that grew out of the dim white walls, holding in their bases, small yellow bulbs, glowing in pools against the faint flowery white design of the wallpaper.
“Hey, I think you misread me back there.” I told her, causing her to turn and face me. Alone without an audience, her mood was changed now; made severe somehow by the warm yellow glow of the hallway bulbs.
“Did I?” she said with the same full bodied Spanish accent, “Was I really mistaking you?” she was looking up at me with a soft air of defiance, squinting her dark coco eyes at me, opening a vast canyon of silence between us that threatened to be unfilled.
“Uh, yeah.” I grinned finding it all a bit dramatic, “I’d like to join you if possible. I need some air. Not like the air outside is any better…but you know what I mean.”
“The air is for everyone, but my company isn’t.” she said again with defiance.
“Okay,” I said, “am I missing something here? Why all the uptight?”
“Listen Mister,” came the Spanish accent again, thicker this time, “you were very disrespectful last time and I can’t forget it. But if I forgive you, I will only forgive you once,” she said stepping forward and crossing her slender arms across under her petite pert looking breasts held snug in her blouse.
“I’m still not sure what you’re saying—forgive what?” I said.
“Don’t mess it up.” she shrugged, as if it were the simplest thing in the world.
She’d punctuated the statement with a cautionary grin that hadn’t seemed to be hiding, as if a sudden break in storm clouds had let through a spring of rays.
“Forgive me for what? I’ve just met you now.”
“You’re telling me you don’t remember the last time? At the Echoplex?” she asked, placing now her hands on her hips.
“The Echoplex…” I pondered, letting my eyes brush over her lithe figure. There was a cloudy association somewhere in my mind, perhaps a few moments of clarity coupled with the quiet alarm of having been so intoxicated that the events were fragmented and many of them in fact missing.
“Oh boy…what did I do?”
“That’s okay; I will love reminding you now that you’re sober…or soberer at least. You said to me, that I was looking like Penelope Cruz’s sister if Penelope Cruz had a ‘less attractive’ sister. Ring a bell?” she was enjoying this, and I had to allow her to.
“I said that?” I winced, shaking my head, “I can’t really remember any of that. But for the record, I’ve never really thought about Penelope Cruz.”
“Well that makes me feel much better now.” she oozed with sarcasm and a flat tone of disappointment before turning and striding away from me down the hall. I followed after her.
“Listen, I’m really sorry. I don’t recall that at all.” I admitted.
She stood there, silently staring at me for a moment, her face frozen with stone seriousness. Indeed, I wasn’t quite sure if she’d attack me with a barrage of fist and knee strikes or simply break out in a bout of laughter. Both energies seemed to exist simultaneously behind her intense Latin gaze.
“You don’t even remember my name.” she said.
I took a couple steps forward, holding her in a gaze of my own and addressed her. “What’s your name?” I asked with some shame.
“Marlena.” she said.
“Marlena, I really don’t remember you. But it seems I owe you honesty more than an apology. You’re much prettier than Penelope Cruz—ask anyone…they’ll agree.”
Her eyes dropped, and her lashes fluttered. Ah, a woman deep down. Ladylike and touched by my words, recognizing in my voice a tone of authenticity.
“Hmm, a sweet talker too.” she nearly whispered as she hugged her arms around herself; a defensive stance.
“Sweet talk? It’s not really my style.” I admitted.
“Oh no?” she smiled pivoting with her arms still crossed.
We continued down the hall until it came to an end and then I was lost. For Walters’s inherited mansion was a white walled labyrinth. One I seldom ventured out into. As we descended a softly carpeted stair case in the dark I could hear Marlena’s ring sliding down the oak handrail, wondering if it were in fact a wedding or engagement ring; I’d have to check once we were back under the light. But just then, my footing required focus in the darkness…and I followed carefully behind her to the bottom of the stairs where her form stood still, faintly outlined by the white tile floor.
“Why does he keep it so poorly lit in here?” I asked aloud.
The flick of her pocket lighter splintered a spark into a solid unflickering flame that illuminated the soft curves of her face, setting two specks of light aglow in each of her heavy dark eyes.
“It is our torch.” she giggled and turned to lead the way.
I followed in the darkness behind her, in the trail of her mild perfume…and eventually through a door that led into an even darker mouth of space, carrying in its warm air the faint smell of burned motor oil, gasoline rags and leather upholstery. Walters was a collector and the sudden flood of overhead light gave a fluorescent flicker to the shine of his collection; 3 fine automobiles he never drove, gleaming with impeccably polished finishes.
“You’re not thinking of driving one of these are you?” I asked.
“Why, are you against a joy ride?” Marlena asked, using the touch tone controls on the wall to set into motion one of the garage doors so it ascended with a mechanical hum.
“Depends what you mean by joyride.” I told her.
“Which one shall we take.” she smiled, “Maybe this one?” she said, running her hands over the finish of the car, presenting the automobile as if she were a fawn eyed, big titted game show hostess.
“It’s a handsome car, but I’m not sure Walters really drives these things. What if we crash it?” I asked Marlena who was moving toward another.
“I’m a great driver.” She smiled, displaying the sleek car in the same game show fashion.
Before I could grin, Marlena had turned and was heading toward a few bikes hanging from the far wall of the garage.
“You are taking me so seriously. I’m only kidding. It was my plan to ride one of these bikes. You like to pedal?” she asked, checking I guess to make sure, now that we were being friendly, that I was game.
“Ah,” I sighed, remembering the dawns I’d chased down on two wheels, “it’s one of my solaces actually.”
I helped Marlena with the bikes, lifting them down for her. After which she’d flashed me a comical expression of surprise. She stepped over and squeezed my bicep, raising her brows a bit, “Macho man huh?” she grinned.
“You like that shit?” I asked as she squeezed; flexing a bit, in case she did.
Her laughter came with sudden and shrill force, unbridled and projected with her entire body. The hilarity was too much for her and she let out a shriek; Spanish girls are not afraid to laugh. She kicked another shriek up high, toward the skylight and sat against the hood of one of the cars, rolling back on it, kicking her feet slightly and covering her mouth with two hands, smothering herself in chuckles.
I just grinned, watching the waves of laughter seize her lithe form so her stomach rolled like the smooth back of a crawling caterpillar, wondering in the back of my mind if her heaving would, in effect, dent the car’s hood; such a lovely dent though it would be.
“Which one do you want to ride?” I asked still grinning, as her laughter slowly subsided.
“I don’t care. The smaller one.” she specified, wiping away tears carefully the way women do, from the lower lids of her eyes.
“They’re both the same size.” I said, tripping her button again so she fell into one final convulsion of laughter, letting her knees fall loose so her thighs spread wide. I stood there smiling, envying her slightly, not remembering the last time I’d been filled with such a hysterical tickle of hilarity.
“They’re both men’s bikes.”
“Do you know that in Spain there is only one kind of bike? There is no male bike or female bike. There are only bikes.” said Marlena, rising to her feet, back to business, but her joints were loosened up now, so her gestures were wider, more expressive, “A bike works the same for both men and women right?”
“It should.” I said.
“So what is the difference?”
“Well, I think here, as far as I know, a woman’s bike is smaller and the cross bar is lower.” I shrugged.
“So the man’s bike has a higher cross bar? Fantastic, so the man can bang his grapes if he slips off the seat? Sounds pretty backward to me.” marlena chuckled, clapping her hands together.
“Good point.” I said, moving with the bike toward the sliding garage door.
We walked the bikes out onto the dark asphalt and mounted them and then rolled slowly toward the gates of the property with the close humidity of night all around us. Marlena found the switch to a small headlight somehow in the dark and the small bouncing beam guided us down the sloping driveway, through the iron gates and out onto the street that was dark but blotted in yellow pools of light thrown down by widely spaced street lamps.
I took in the breeze as we gained speed, enjoying silently Marlena’s curves that were caressed in soft angles by the lamplight. The pavement, surprisingly smooth, took our tires nicely as we coasted along with the slight turns, past the gates of other likewise estates populated by others who felt their worth was governed by tangible assets.
Indeed, I took hold of my wits, trying not to conceive the unimaginable volume of the earth, the brain twisting concept of the notion. Like a tadpole attached to a massive blue whale–I was along for the ride, that’s it. We all were; Walters and his vampires and the rest of them back up on the hill, the mind fuck crew–walking the tightrope together, toward the end of time, working, eating, drinking, fucking and sleeping—then repeating; how bleak it all seemed. I sped up, bearing down on the pedals a few good times to match Marlena’s momentum.
The smooth asphalt slope as glorious as it was ended eventually, straightening as it merged with another wider, more used road that was riddled with potholes and coarse patches of wear. It was a public road that ran alongside the ocean’s edge and we coasted along its winding length for quite some time saying nothing and taking in the majesty of the night. The moon in the eastern skies, lightly smudged behind a veil of air pollution illuminated the star speckled dome of night with a dim yellow glaze that sat like gold dust on an incline of peninsula tree tops in the distance; Malibu nights.
“There is a strip mall just beyond that bend.” said Marlena.
“I’m in no rush.” I assured her, “So how do you know Walters?” I asked.
“From work.” she said, smiling back at me from the cushioned perch of her box spring bicycle seat.
“The show you mean.”
“Cool…and you’re one of the head writers?”
“I’m not one of the heads…there are a lot of heads.”
“How many heads do they have?” I asked.
“Too many; you can cut one off and another will always emerge.” she laughed.
“An evil entity.”
“Do you enjoy writing for money, or what?” I asked her, watching the street lights caress her smooth face in soft moving shadow.
“If you’re asking me if I’m artistically satisfied, I will tell you only that I receive nice paychecks.”
“So it’s about the money.” I nodded.
“Not completely. But there are many restrictions you must understand. They aren’t paying me to give them Dostoevsky.”
“Dostoevsky…” I mused, “He’s in the academy of the overrated no?”
“You don’t believe that.”
“I don’t know…I’m asking.” I said.
“Have you read much Dostoevsky?” she asked.
“Not really. I just couldn’t get interested; I had the same problem with Joyce—although I did make it through fifty odd pages of the Dubliners—I just couldn’t bear to continue.” I confessed, “I would read a bit, then get bored and pick up Mailer or Updike or Carver—guys who really spoke to me—guys who’s writing jumped off the page.”
“But its Dostoevsky—who jumps off the page better than him? He was a brilliant force—to stand the test of time as his books have.”
“He was just a guy though. He took morning pisses just like any other guy. What makes him so special?”
“Oh, you’re trying to charm me now?” she grinned.
“I’m just saying that to love every legendary author, to say you connect with every legendary author is a bit unrealistic don’t you think? I mean, if everyone is unique in exactly the same way, then nobody is really that unique are they? Like you see these guys out there who’ve put together these really contrived book collections. And they throw little wine and cheese parties to show off their contrived book collections…but it’s not just book collections with those kind of guys…it’s contrived everything…like an intellectual template…no surprises, no grit, no fire—Hemingway would call them all pussies I’m sure…where have all the real people gone?”
“Oh, sounds so promising and optimistic.” Marlena laughed.
Indeed, Marlena had been right. There was a strip mall around the bend and its lights came into view suddenly from behind a giant wall of hedges. Mostly, it was closed, aside from a scuzzy old wall-banger pub and the off-sale attached to it at one end; a conglomerate entity hell bent on sending us off into the night with as much booze as we could possibly carry. Pablo’s off sale blinked its cold beer and wine lettering in neon blue and red back at us as we coasted toward it…a distant beacon guiding us over the cracked asphalt of the sprawling and vacant, midnight parking lot.
Inside there were choices. More than I was willing to, or at distantly least, able to handle all of a sudden. The booze soaking in my core may have been crying out for more…but I’d learned better…considering in nauseating retrospect the ghosts of hangovers past…I palmed a cool, heavy bottle of champagne. After all, champagne was harmless. Senior citizens and adolescents sipped it at weddings and anniversaries after all—it kept an even keel…without too much keel.
I sauntered toward the counter, peering out the barred windows toward Walters’s bikes, which stood, leaned against a green metal garbage can, their collector chrome parts reflecting the blue and red neon blinking of the sign. We hadn’t locked them for lack of a lock, and with absent concern, I studied the transparent reflection of my face in the window. It suddenly tightened into focus; we are luminous beings…drawn right from the stars. The other half an earthly husk…a mortal coil.
Turning to Marlena who was studying a waist-high display of glittery, pre-poured, pre-packed shots of various flavored liquor, I slid my arm around her waist and pulled her close.
“Let me ask you a question that may tell me a bit about who you really are; if you could turn into a vampire with me tonight, for real…like if we ran into one outside and he offered to change us both into children of the night…would you?” I asked her.
“A vampire?” she pondered absently, still scanning the display for something suiting her girlish taste.
“Don’t you know I’m a Catholic? No…way would I do that.” she said.
“Ah, where’s the romance?” I whined.
She looked at me square suddenly, squinting her heavy Spanish eyes. “You think living forever and sucking people’s blood is something romantic?”
“Well, Lenny Ashcroft has been doing it for eons…it works for him.”
“How do you know that I’m not a spy for Ashcroft?” she smiled, “How do you know I won’t tell him and you’ll never work in this town again.”
“Hey baby, I may never work in this town again anyway.” I said.
“You’re cute when you get scared.” she giggled, her tongue beckoned me by peeking slightly through the dark pink hollow between the rows of her ivory white teeth as she smiled and I desired to wrestle her tongue with my own; a primal instinct I suppose…and a strong one at that.
“Look, I’m not cute; women like me only because I rarely wear underwear and when I do it’s usually something unusual.” I told her, “You’re cute.” I said. “And you’re the right kind of cute.”
“Oh, sweet talking me again huh commando?”
“Not judging; just saying…” I said, holding up my palms.
Perhaps it was Marlena’s way of showing me her comment had been purely in jest, for she brought the conversation back to Lenny Ashcroft, specifically his wife Naomi Ashcroft, and how Marlena had wound up, by chance one afternoon, on a waterfront condo sofa in Marina Del Ray, as one of two friends helping Naomi pick out wall paper patterns for her daughters new bedroom.
Naomi had sat sulkingly with a small dog in her lap, flipping through the charts and applying to each a creative vulgarity after which she’d drank too much, insulted Marlena and threw up half chewed martini olives into the bathroom sink; all in all, an enlightening evening.
I shook my head, slightly dazed by the notion. The people running this world were only people after all. It was a scary thought; top officials, NASA engineers, big business moguls were all just people; people who insulted their friends and threw up martini olives in bathroom sinks.
Marlena was grabbing my arm suddenly. Not to prod me into immediate action, but more so to warn me of imminent danger. When I followed her line of sight, I watched calmly, in a nearly perplexed state as two teens made off with Walters’s collector bicycles.
One was sleek and light on his feet, hopping the seat like a runaway stallion, his Lakers jersey set rippling by the wind of sudden momentum. The other was a short kid in a crookedly set ball cap beneath which was tied a bandana. His forearms were stained with tattoos and he peered back at us as the two casually pedaled away.
“Hey!” hollered Marlena causing the boys to pick up speed, “Hey those are our bikes!”
I stood for a moment, still perplexed, still wrapping my mind around the audacity it took to not only steal an unlocked bicycle; but to also pedal away in such cavalier fashion. Indeed, it was hard to believe.
Marlena suddenly broke into a dash out onto the asphalt, and across the parking lot toward the fleeing boys and I of course followed suit. However, it was my intent to rationalize her out of pursuing two possibly armed felons.
“Marlena…stop.” I hollered after her.
“No way Jose! It’s illegal!” she hollered back at me.
Her speed was remarkable and explained perhaps her lithe form. She knew how to run and exceeded at a doubling rate my steady uncommitted strides. With the ground pounding back up at me through my heels and consecutive joints I found a nice rhythm and watched in the bouncing distance the two thieves’ bunny-hopping the curb running the perimeter of the parking lot.
“Stop them! Stop them! They stole our bikes!”
I could make out Marlena hollering through the pounding of my joints. But to whom she was hollering I wasn’t sure, for the parking lot was barren; or at least seemed to be.
When she stopped her pursuit and I caught up to her, I took closer note of one dim corner of the parking lot, where a small cluster of cars were situated like a small bluff in a grand cement clearing. From this small cluster, three bodies ran toward our thieves.
“They’re gonna make it.” I said, meaning the three men in pursuit.
We watched silently from our panting spot on the asphalt as the three men, sprinting at full speed, connected with and tackled our bike thieves. One fell flat, taking the bike with him between the grip of his thighs, and the other was scooped from the bouncy wide seat with such precision the bike rode on for a while by itself before collapsing to the asphalt, delivering it’s scraping sound through the distance with a split second delay. Quickly, we resumed our jog toward them.
As we ran, I thought about the champagne and how it would, from such repeated shaking, become a bottle rocket, whose cork could, under such pressure, surely puncture the epidermis. I unbagged it, peeling the foil from around the cork as I ran, “I’ll cork the mother fuckers.” I chuckled as the scene came into clearer view.
Where the men had tackled the bikesnatchers was a cavern of shadow, created by the jutting overhead branch of a poplar that blocked the already dim lamplight from above. As we moved closer, now close enough to slow to a hurried stride, I saw that the two men were pinned to the asphalt across the florescent orange parking stall lines in uniform fashion, side by side, facing west, each with a knee in their back and their arms held behind them tightly at the wrists by robust men in black, unmarked golf shirts.
Closer still, I noticed a handcuff shaped glint flicker from the belt of one of the crouching men as he moved to help restrain the lanky kid in the old school yellow Lakers jersey. The blip crackle of a police radio confirmed the men, explaining fully their motives for the tackle and salvage. It seemed they were a plain clothes unit, holding an unofficial briefing in the parking lot; a brilliant stroke of luck…the eye in the sky.
One of the cruisers rolled to a halt just behind us with its lights afire, strobing against the coarse surfaces and moving bodies, red and blue, blue and red. In the strobe, I could make out the holsters latched to the officer’s belts. The powers that be had granted these men a license to kill, and assumed in them the discretion of knowing when and when not to make that decision.
“So, what happened here?” asked one of the uniformed officers. He seemed to be speaking to me and I cleared my throat and scratched my head…feeling it was important to word things right.
“Well, basically, we came out of the liquor store and found these gentlemen riding away on these bikes.” I said.
“Are the bikes yours?”
“No.” interjected Marlena, “They belong to our friend.”
“Does this friend know you have the bikes?” asked the officer crossing his arms now.
“This friend have a name?”
“Larry Walters.” said Marlena.
“Larry Walters?” asked the officer.
“Okay, and your relationship with Mr. Walters is…”
“I work for him.”
“And you sir?” asked the cop, clicking his eyes toward me.
“He’s an acquaintance.” I said.
“Okay, but he doesn’t know you’ve got his bikes?”
“He’s just at the top of the hill. We went for a beer run and decided to use the bikes.” I offered for the sake of clarity.
“Had you been previously drinking?”
“A bit.” I confessed.
“You know, operating any vehicle while intoxicated not only can carry a fine but its also very dangerous.” the officer said sternly in my direction.
“We thought we were doing the responsible thing by taking bikes rather than the car.” said Marlena.
Another officer approached us at that point, requesting our IDs.
“So when we call Mr. Walters, he’ll confirm that you two were using his bikes to pick up alcohol?” he asked, laying a small snare.
“Not exactly.” said Marlena recognizing it a second time.
“Can you explain that?”
“I don’t know why I should. Who is on trial here anyway? Us, the victims, or those thieves?” she demanded with a small fist rested in the divot of her waistline; she was a firecracker alright.
“No one is on trial, yet.” said the officer stroking his chin slightly.
Their demeanor changed after they’d spoken to Walters on the phone for they’d let us go a moment later. Cutting us loose into the night from which we’d come, handing back into our possession Walters’s collector bicycles which we decided to walk along side of us for a long while as we dissected the event, trying to find possible reason in the act of random crime. Eventually I uncorked the champagne and we passed the bottle back and forth for a while, Marlena holding the colored foil neck with a lady-like grip as she sipped from it carefully, savoring the ripe bubbly taste of the fermented grapes.
After a while walking, we decided to sit down on a smooth sprawl of grass at the mouth of a dog park. We sat, leaning against a rock finishing the champagne and talking more about LA and how it was beyond either of us to understand why anyone would ever want to leave her.
“What are you thinking about?” Marlena asked after a long smoky exhale.
“Of course really.”
“Well, I guess I’m wondering if maybe I’m my own worst distraction.” I confessed, peering up into the night sky which sparkled dimly with constellations whose names I didn’t know.
“Even the planets have each other to keep from getting lonely out here in the middle of infinity.” Marlena smiled before taking another drag.
Though the man doesn’t claim to know everything, or even a great deal about art; he cannot help staring across the room, at the wall, across which sprawls a monstrosity of earth tones…smudged…for effect he assumes–with a squint of harsh criticism. And as he sits, sipping his dry gin, he imagines how much better the painting could be. And directly after is sure that wherever one finds comfort; one also finds pain—tempestuous oceans of it…and fearing the glass is draining him, rather than the opposite–he sets it down. Wondering where Salina is.
“Salina.” he calls over his shoulder, “Salina old girl…I’m getting tired.”
She calls back after a moment from the bathroom…and the man has the notion suddenly that she is pinning up her hair…
He is wrong however and when she emerges from the darkened hallway he wonders now what she’s been doing in there…being that her hair isn’t pinned up…and her clothes haven’t changed. She hasn’t slipped into something more comfortable it would seem. There she stands, this Denison of 555 Belmore Place, wrapped snug in her silk oriental print dress, her high heels still clacking about the hardwood…no doubt driving the tenants below mad.
“Here…sit down.” says the man patting the cushion beside him, “You’re making me nervous.”
“Just a minute. I want to make a cocktail.”
“Not really…it’s more of a cranberry, Perrier, vodka sort of thing.” she calls from the kitchen–the woman gets around pretty good on two feet. To maintain her, could be disastrous.
“I couldn’t help noticing this painting.” calls the man after another sip of his gin.
“The one above the fireplace.”
“Oh yeah?” she calls, absently…
“Yeah.” He says and is not urged to elaborate. Who cares anyway? Certainly not her…and so why should he?
When she returns and is beside him on the squeaky, slippery, black leather couch; she sets down her pink, carbonated beverage on the glass coffee table and commences to remove her heels. Carefully and with a wince of relief tightening between her brows.
“That feels good…what did you notice about it?” she asks.
“That it takes up a hell of alot of wall space.” says the man, “What made you buy it?”
“I thought it was cool.” she shrugs.
“What else do you think is cool?”
“Um…” she says, relaxing into the cushions now beside him by folding her legs underneath her in a seemingly uncomfortable fashion as women often do, “Coffee Crisp bars, Persian cats, potluck dinners…”
“Go on.” says Jack.
“Are you waiting for me to say piano singers?”
“The thought hadn’t crossed my mind…I’m just curious. Do you write desperate poetry? Do you masturbate in bathrooms at parties with the door unlocked?”
“Just asking…I knew a girl like that once.”
“Sorry to disappoint you.”
“Oh, come now…you haven’t disappointed me yet.”
“What was her name?” asks the woman.
“Anabelle the poet.” grins the woman. “Did you date her or something? Define your definition of ‘knew’…you knew her how? In the biblical sense? Or did you just stumble upon her in a bathroom at a party?”
The man chuckles.
“I just knew her…it’s hard to explain.”
“So where is she now? Where is Anabelle the poet now?”
“She writes a column in Z-magazine. In the literary section. And she mocks things she doesn’t understand. She once told me that Updike was a fraud.”
“John Updike. A remarkably gifted writer–super accomplished too…a staple in American literature…perhaps less relevant than Hemingway, but for sure just as gifted. She mocked his style of describing textures and colors…complexions and so forth. I mean, Mailer thought of Updike as a brilliant painter for this very reason…and this dame tears him apart because she didn’t like his wordiness–can you fucking believe it?” the man is chuckling about it by now…remembering her now.
“Do you know what I can’t get out of my mind?” she asks him.
“No tell me.” the man says…turning to her slightly on his cushion and causing a squeak that jarbles his nerves slightly–like small nails on a chalk board.
“That woman who stole our cab.”
The man nods…and he is unable to recall the woman; the perpetrator of Salina’s mind.
“I mean, who wears what she was wearing?”
“It’s hard to say.”
“Not for me…I’d say she was a farm girl.”
“Really?” Jack smiles widely…finding this cute.
“Well, yeah…it’s obvious…she doesn’t buy by the wardrobe…it’s by the piece. So nothing matches…”
“The poor thing.” he grins…
“She can’t be that poor…her boots were for sure Italian…but hello–the pin striped 80’s skirt ruined anything she was going for…unless she was going for Sheena Easton on heroin.”
“It’s hard to say.” shrugs the man…finally draining his gin so the ice cubes cool his lips.
“And what about that guy she was with?”
“What about him?”
“He was practically humping her against the mailbox before they stole our cab.”
“But there was plenty of cabs.” says Jack.
“He was icky.”
“He was probably her pimp.” he says, moving closer to her ear which smells of shampoo, perfume and the distant scent of her evening sweat.
“Probably.” she says, “Hey, know what I like a lot?”
He smooths his lips over her ear whispering closely, “Diamonds.”
And it works.
Eventually all of the Pellegrino I’d drank made its way through me. I excused myself from the table and as I walked across the plush burgundy carpeted floor towards the men’s room, I wondered about Mcgillis and Summer. What the connection was between them—how he’d known we’d be at the Hotel Frontenac that evening, at that particular time…sitting in that particular corner of the lounge; perhaps Summer followed closely to a specific regiment on Thursday nights. Perhaps Summer was a creature of habit.
The men’s room was marble and gold…elegantly framed mirrors and monogrammed tiles…a chandelier overhead sparkled as I passed beneath it—class…a velvet sofa…gilded taps…classical piano piped in through unseen speakers…it wasn’t the sort of room you expected gents to be spraying piss and dropping shits in day in day out and it made me wonder who would actually consume one of the unwrapped mints sitting in a crystal bowl near one of the sinks.
Indeed, I unzipped, stepped up to the large urinal…ah, relief…piss against baby blue porcelain…it was the civilized way of doing things; an electronically triggered flush system and an attendant offering you a towel after you’ve washed up. The attendant was an old man with droopy puppy dog eyes and a head of finely combed silver hair…he beamed a smile back at me professionally when I slipped him a five…he knew how to accept a tip…and you have to admire a man who can accept a tip gracefully in a pisser.
“Thanks dude.” I said.
“Indeed sir—it’s my pleasure.” he replied with a slight and charming bow.
Though I badly wanted to tell him about the dangers of leaving exposed food in the vicinity of a bathroom, the airborne germs and all—I decided not to for two reasons; one—I didn’t wish my five dollar tip to take on the shape of payment for his having to endure a more than likely drawn-out food-safe lecture, and two—Mcgillis was suddenly pushing his way through the bathroom door, swinging it open with some gusto so it creaked loudly.
Grinning his drunken, sweet-boy grin, like the spoiled rotten, mean spirited prep school prick that he most definitely was.
“Watch this guy gramps,” he told the attendant, patting the old man’s shoulder with some weight, “he may try pissing in the sink.”
The attendant merely looked at me, furrowing his brows with suspicion.
“I’d never try that with anyone present.” I assured.
Staggering across the tiles and taking his place before one of the baby blue urinals, Mcgillis balanced himself with a hand against the wall as he unzipped. In the close silence of the room, he suddenly pushed out a monstrous and wet sounding flatulent before splashing a bladder full of piss into the poor urinal. The attendant peered over his shoulder at Mcgillis with an expression of distaste before looking back at me with a questioning stare as if to ask me who Mcgillis was.
“Random sick fuck?” I offered with a shrug as I finished drying off my hands, trying for a simple explanation.
The attendant only shrugged and extended his hand to accept my linen hand-cloth which I expelled into the wicker hamper myself. As I was pushing through the door, Mcgillis muttered a drunken comment.
“I suggest you keep your mind off of my property.” he slobbered.
“Say what?” I asked, turning around to face him.
Mcgillis stepped down from the urinal’s marble platform, his discolored prick and balls dangling from the fly of his black dress pants.
“What the fuck dude?” I asked as both the attendant and I turn away in disgust.
“I’m pretty sure you heard me.” Mcgillis said. When he opened the taps, the attendant and I turned back to him, feeling it was safe to do so.
“You really are a sick fuck aren’t you?” I said, addressing him through the mirror.
“She’s my property.” said Mcgillis, popping two of the E.coli mints into his mouth.
“Um, sir…just one mint; one mint per guest.” said the attendant who stood rigidly with his hands behind his back.
“Beat it.” Mcgillis said to the attendant, who only looked back at him with a puzzled expression. “I said beat it gramps!”
“You can’t ask him to leave, dickweed—he works in here.” I said.
Mcgillis pushed himself up from his leaning position against the sink and drunkenly stepped over to me. It wasn’t until then that I noticed how old Mcgillis was; early forties. I could really see it between his plucked brows…where he held his wine in a perpetual expression that begged the question ‘who me?’ His face was gaunt…there was dandruff on the shoulders of his jacket and even more curious perhaps–and it took me a moment to digest it–he was wearing a layer of thick black eye liner.
“I’m going to make this as clear as possible for you Nero—I realize you’re learning impaired when it comes to Summer,” he said turning to the sink to finish washing his hands and continued, looking back at me through the mirror. “Summer and I have an understanding. Sometimes she strays from that understanding but it never lasts too long…you catch my meaning? I own her ass.” he said…drying his hands on one of the towels the attendant was supposed to have handed him.
I didn’t respond; I was perplexed and still contemplating the eye liner and what it meant…it made little sense to me. Perhaps he felt the eye liner was theatrical…I could only speculate.
“Why are you wearing eye liner?” I finally asked.
“Do you know what I’m telling you?” he asked, ignoring my question.
“You’re telling me that Summer is lost in the deep dark woods without a compass.” I said.
“That’s what I’m telling you.” he said tilting his head as if studying my reaction.
“That’s preposterous.” I told him
“That’s it!” he suddenly shouted, spinning around and stalking toward me. It seemed he was actually going to go through with it, “You’re fucking dead…” he said winding up his fist theatrically, with his layer of thick black eye liner. Biting his bottom lip with what appeared to be a deeply psychotic rage, he swung at me—it was a drunken haymaker and easy to duck and as I did, I shoulder checked him into a nearby table upon which sat a vase. The table had been placed there for decorative purposes and now sat upturned, the vase smashed and Mcgillis lying in the debris. When he scrambled to his feet and turned to me, his face red with savage rage, I saw his eye liner was smudged.
“Let’s not do this man.” I insisted, “You’re drunk and you’re going to get fucked up.”
“I eat punks like you for breakfast.” he snarled, stalking toward me with ravenous violence searing in his eyes.
I readied for his attack, thinking of how I could be doing better, more productive things. However, it seemed Mcgillis was fully intent on an all-out brawl in the marble and gold pisser of a five star hotel–over a chick who’d grown to hate him.
He put up a guard with his bony forearms and started to circle to the right. He threw a few drunken feints and nearly fell over…he then ducked out again, this time circling to the left. I was waiting for an obvious opening…but it wouldn’t come to that. When his back was facing the attendant I was utterly surprised to see the blue sleeve of the attendant’s tunic suddenly slink around from behind and tighten up against Mcgillis’ trachea…a choke hold against which Mcgillis fought hard but could not break.
I eased up and watched in slight fascination as the sinewy old man vaulted Mcgillis into the tile wall, against which Mcgillis’ palms squeaked desperately. Releasing his hold on Mcgillis suddenly, the attendant sent a barrage of body shots into him from behind…into his kidneys, causing Mcgillis to spin around so the unending barrage of blows pummeled into his ribs. I stood there perplexed, loosening my tie as the attendant unleashed on Mcgillis…elbows…fists…knees…thuds…cracks…curses…old man grunts…it was hard to believe and nearly as hard to watch.
All at once, as if a voice had called the attendant back into the realm of sensibility, he relented, stepping back a few yards as Mcgillis stumbled backward into the wall and slid to the floor, in a crumpled pile of blood and mascara.
“You didn’t have to go that hard man…he’s drunk as shit.” I told the attendant.
“Shut up and help me pull him into the fucking stall.” snapped the old man.
I shook my head…speechless and leaned against the sink…it was hard to believe…Mcgillis was down for the count…the old man had made sure of that. And seeing my bewilderment at what had just transpired, the old man went on without me, shaking his head.
“Godam pussy generation.” muttered the elderly bathroom attendant as he pulled Mcgillis into one of the stalls.
From my angle I couldn’t see inside the stall…I could only see one of Mgillis’ leather shoes…convulsing with the flushing whirlpool of piss water which now immersed his face, washing away all the blood and mascara down the immaculately white porcelain toilet.
I contemplated interjecting, but after witnessing the devastating shit kicking the old man had laid on poor Mcgillis; I stayed put, watching Mcgillis’ leg convulsing. I shook my head, lighting a smoke in spite of the non-smoking signs; never piss off a bathroom attendant—they are a different breed.
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 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.
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.
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 ladies?” 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 Boston and was a lot of fun to have around—he idolized The Clash, Melanie Griffith and Blue Ribbon beer—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 the 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 complicated 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 fohawk thing you’re trying to grow makes you look like a total jerk off.” I laughed.
“Well, that’s only because Anabelle wants my dick.” 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.
“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 and he doesn’t even do the hiring.” laughed Anabelle.
“Listen my word could 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 a dick.”
“Not a bit. Look at her…it’s so obvious…she’s got a super pretty face—like Gina Lollobrigida, shapely hips, red lips, 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 around 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, 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.
“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 now I’m reading it…again.” She said, phrasing the last word with a whisper.
“A third time…that’s hot.” I admitted.
“I love her.” 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 investigators and psychiatrists 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, glancing up at me from beneath her eye brows.
“That’s a bad question for you? Ok, let’s try this one; 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?”
“More than you could imagine. 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 in 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 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.
“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 number into my phone.
After my shift was over, I drove up San Vicente, heading back toward Hollywood. 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, 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) over analyze 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 Gardner 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, he flopped down onto the couch and began reiterating their conversation.
About 15 minutes into this, 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 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…if you you want.
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 Gardner went on, 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 woman 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.”
“Know what…you’re right.” said Gardner, pushing himself up from the leather couch that was already tagged with a paper baring the word ‘Free’ scribbled across it in marker, “I love her and I’m going back to her…even if her family hates me.”
“That a boy.” I said.
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…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, 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—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.” 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 50 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 55, 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.” I assured him.
“Oh, it does…what concerns Pam most definitely concerns me.” sniveled Gordo.
“Really? So you really are a 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.
“Look, if I didn’t know Ariel how would I know that she calls you Gordo the 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. 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.
“Listen, 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, I 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 now?”
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.
The Dukes of Marpole
My cohort was getting out. It was that simple. And he’d voiced his reasoning to me as we sat in our routine spot…on a picnic table just outside the supermarket at 70th and Granville, upon which junkies and transients scratched initials and non-profound one-liners.
“So…I’m moving at the end of the month.” he stated, peering far off at nothing in particular. He rested his sleeve in a dribble of bird shit that had splattered against the wood of the table; I didn’t bother telling him as it was too late now. I nodded and took a bite of my submarine sandwich that had been made grudgingly by the sandwich girl behind the counter at the supermarket deli.
“This sub isn’t so great.” Hawthorne muttered squeezing a lob of cream cheese from between the too dry Ciabatta buns.
“You have standards now?” I said, taking note of his sandwich…it didn’t look so bad and I’d seen the bastard eating from questionable street vendors on occasion.
He’d abandoned the buns and had begun to eat the meat in between by peeling it loose from the mayo and dangling it down into his mouth…right there on the bench as the cars and people went by…as if he were eating the buttered shavings of a dead rat. I watched him do
this–thinking about what he’d said.
“Where to this time?” I asked.
“I was offered a job in Medicine Hat. I think I’m going to take it. Plus, you know…I’ve been very disenchanted these last few months.” Said Hawthorne, “I came here to fall in love, be a stunt man in the movies…buy a house maybe…have a few kids—meet a nice girl. But when I finally met a beautiful dancer who I thought I’d marry; she gave me cold sores, dick infections and then…and then she broke up with me and started banging a stock broker like a week later…and then I lost my job at the furniture store.” he paused to lower another strip of smoked turkey breast into his mouth.
“Can you believe it? A fucking stock broker?” scoffed Hawthorne.
“Better than a broke stalker I suppose.” I shrugged, taking a bite of my own sub—not bad…not enough bacon though, “She gave you cold sores and dick infections?” was my question. For he’d used my cups, utensils and bathroom on occasion; that’s how at home I’d allowed him to feel in my house…never suspecting he was harboring disease.
“Yeah. I got sores in my nose too. It was nasty.” he said, squinting against the mid-summer sun which had left us both slightly sun burned…
“In your nose?” I asked. After all, it was hard to believe.
“Frank…” my cohort said, his perpetual grin fading a shade or two, “that wasn’t the half of it. My prostate was burning every time I took a leak…not only that but I came down with a strange rash around my chin. And I know it was from her because she’d had the very same rash around her chin for weeks.”
“Sores, piss burn and rashes huh?” I asked, sliding to the opposite end of the bench, which caused my cohort to display a wounded expression, “I’m gonna sit over here.” I told him.
“Man, don’t be a dick.” he pleaded, as if I was in some way obligated to shoulder his neurosis and recollection of ill-fated oblivion.
You see, as always; I’d only been guilty of being a solid friend. My ground floor window was always open and he’d taken it literally…rolling up on his bicycle around noon every day…wrapping on the window before pushing it open, wedging himself in and hopping down onto my
living room rug…like a stray you’d fed a few times that had now made itself at home.
It didn’t have to be noon however…any time seemed the right time for him to wedge himself through my living room window. And I might add here and now
for good measure that he had nearly caught Denise and I a few times—and so I’d taken to latching the window and drawing the curtains when Denise dropped by for some fun. Indeed, I’d had to Hawthorne-proof the windows and doors.
It seemed our friendship was a matter of convenience…for Hawthorne also lived in South Vancouver—our very own version of Brooklyn; a neighborhood which subscribed to absolutely nothing…the most unpretentious neighborhood in town. Indeed, it had become highly convenient for him to harass me at any hour of the day as he lived only a few blocks away on Oak Street in a condemnable suite, seemingly built for dwarfs by dwarfs, with impossibly low ceilings and counters.
He wasn’t without his uses though. Indeed, Hawthorne was a laugh riot—if you could see him from that angle. Most people didn’t. However, his asinine and perhaps completely unintended comedic genius was perpetual.
For instance, he would approach women at random, in the market, on the bus, online at the bank, at the 7-11, the liquor store…wherever he found those perfectly symmetrical ladies that caught his eye; he’d approach them and somehow talk them into joining him for a drink in his miniature suite that stank with decades of deep fried prawns and burned tobacco; it was hard to believe, but stranger things have happened.
Hawthorne cited above all else that he possessed extremely high standards regarding a woman’s physical appearance. One could say he was obsessive compulsive about their aesthetic imperfections—that something as unnoticeable as an unmatching arch of a woman’s eyebrows could turn him off to the point of going completely limp—situational erectile dysfunction. On one afternoon in particular Hawthorne had called me and in a frantic tone had demanded that I get there immediately and help settle an issue for him—an issue that was tearing him apart inside—the poor bastard. I’d been on my way out the door anyway and decided to stop by. When I arrived, he met me at the door looking as if he’d seen a ghost. He was pale and his forehead was beaded with sweat. He was nibbling his fingernails and looking at me with an expression of dread.
He stepped outside onto the steps with me, closed the door and spoke in a hushed tone. “Man, I picked this girl up at Granville Island this morning. I thought she was the most beautiful girl I’d seen in this city—and you know this city is full of beautiful girls.”
“I don’t know if I’d go that far.” I shrugged, again not seeing the mystique of clones.
“Yeah, well…unless they’re crazy, you’re not interested.” he said, dismissing my comment, “Trust me, this chick was gorgeous—I’m a Gemini—I have an eye for detail. We spent the morning just walking around Granville Island…sharing…”
“Sharing what?” I laughed.
“Sharing the warm sunshine, sweet baked goods and a beautiful afternoon…I was totally intoxicated by her beautiful face…she’s got a perfect face—you’ll see that right away…and from what I could tell, a perfect body…you know, I couldn’t believe I found such a perfect girl.”
“So, what are you bitching about then?”
“I’m not so sure anymore. I mean, I’ve noticed something and it’s freaking me out now…like enough to just call the night off with her. I mean, they have to be perfect looking or I can’t…I just can’t…I can’t get into it.”
“Well…you know what losing your boner for a beautiful woman really means.” I chuckled.
“Come on man, don’t be a dick.” he pleaded, “Just tell me something—tell me if you think her earlobes hang a little too low. I think she probably wore a lot of heavy earrings in her life and they ruined her earlobes…her earlobes just sort of wobble there…and it’s got my dick in a sling.” he said, looking panicked.
I chuckled as I followed Hawthorne back into his tuna can basement suite.
Inside his date sat attentively on the edge of her sofa cushion, clutching her glass that tinkled with ice cubes. She was dressed in a white t-shirt and black skirt. She wore a white pearl necklace and black bangles around her wrists. Her hair was pony-tailed down one side of her neck and her face was painted nicely with makeup—she was hitting on all 8 cylinders. To me, dear reader, her earlobes looked perfectly normal. They held in their smoothness two matching diamond studs that glittered like twin disco balls when she moved her head.
I sat across from her on a lawn chair Hawthorne had unfolded for me, not possessing more chairs beyond his sofa. As Mazzy Star’s Fade Into You played on the stereo, I listened as I puffed, watching the smoke rise toward the overhead fixture in long bluish wisps. When Hawthorne was through babbling and reciting escapades from his 6 month stint in Toronto, his date Nadine spoke to me, snapping me out of my absence.
“What is it that you do Frank?” she asked.
“Depends on the situation really.” said I.
“What does that even mean?” she asked, squinting her eyes into a quiet grin and shaking her head slightly, as if she were fascinated by my boredom.
“I do what I say and I say what I mean.” I said.
“Doesn’t everyone?” asked Nadine with her amused grin.
“Not everyone.” I said, blowing a few smoke rings and watching them turn inside out as they moved up toward the light, until the awkward silence threatened to smother Hawthorne and his date, “Take Hawthorne here for instance.” I said, causing Hawthorne to shift on his cushion.
“What about Hawthorne?”
“Well, he’s very elusive…he eludes the point.”
“Ok, now you’re just being comedic.” Hawthorne chimed in, hoping to hell I wouldn’t disclose his dilemma.
“Elusive Gemini man.” giggled Nadine, “What point?”
“He’s being preposterous.” said Hawthorne, waving me off.
“No…what point is he alluding?” Nadine demanded, with less of a smile.
“Well, apparently, according to Hawthorne here, I harbor a penchant for crazy women. That may or may not be true…but our good host Hawthorne here has it even worse.” I said.
“How so?” asked Nadine.
“He has a penchant for perfect statues—Pygmalionism.” I said after blowing a few more smoke rings.
“I didn’t say you had a penchant for crazy women.” assured Hawthorne.
“What are you guys talking about?” said Nadine, looking suddenly alarmed.
“Well, our benevolent host here called me over to his fine abode today to confirm or dispel his suspicion that your earlobes hang too low.” I explained, glancing to Hawthorne who was frozen in a grinning wince of shock, “I think he’s mad though…you’re quite perfect looking.”
Of course there had been a very long moment of uncomfortable silence. However, once his girl had thrown a subsequent and rather silent tantrum—at one point calmly standing on his living room floor, pouring out the remainder of her drink onto his leather couch as she stared back at him with an intense expression of hurt; she stormed out, surprisingly bidding me farewell and voicing her appreciation for my forwardness. Once she was gone, Hawthorne peered at me with an expression that begged the question “How could you do it?”
I just shrugged and blew a smoke ring, “Solved your problem didn’t I?”
Indeed, the best policy I’d ever encountered is social indifference. It is, no doubt, a subtle form of heroism—the perfect concoction of sincerity and existential oblivion; a stoic victory in which there is no score, winner or loser. Perhaps one could argue however that Hawthorne was the big loser, having let a total looker slip through his fingers. I thought he’d lecture me with his usual complacency. He didn’t however—he merely spread a towel over the couch to soak up the spilled drink and sat cross legged on the floor staring at a far off place.
“It’s better that she left—I just couldn’t stand looking at those earlobes of hers.” he quietly confessed.
After another drink, Hawthorne did in fact lecture me. This time the lecture detailed the importance of solidarity among cohorts. His grand point being that I should have studied Nadine’s earlobes and texted him my opinion later, after I’d left. A discussion ensued through which we came to the conclusion that we would agree to disagree and subsequently decided to venture out into the city. We wound up in Kits, rolling westward on Broadway, searching for a place to eat. We decided on the Red Spot restaurant which was coincidently celebrating its 70th birthday with free cake, face painting for the brats and a dunk tank. The orchestrator of this event seemed to be a man dressed in a chicken suit that was crested with the Red Spot’s logo.
It was a hot afternoon, perhaps 30 degrees and as we approached I wondered about the man in the chicken costume. Was he a PR person sent from Red Spot headquarters or was he a dishwasher who’d been coerced into donning the chicken suit on such a sweltering day—punishment for perhaps being the lowest man on the totem pole—perhaps he was a professional chicken mascot who made his living touring across the country, appearing at various Red Spot events.
I was contemplating this as I watched Hawthorne jog up the sidewalk toward the man in the chicken suit. When he was a few feet away from the man, Hawthorne wound up his leg, as if he were going to boot himself a victory field goal—right up the chicken’s crotch. Of course he stopped short…but the chicken flinched in such a dramatic way, he fell sideways over a flower pot, scraping his beak against the cement on impact with the sidewalk.
There may have been a vulgar retort—there may have been an all-out brawl, if it wasn’t for the volley of laughter that followed. Apparently the children assumed it was all either part of a scripted performance, or indeed the proper way adults interacted with a man dressed in a chicken costume. The chicken sprung to his feet, straightened his beak in a cartoonish way and bent over and wagged his fat, padded chicken ass at Hawthorne, drawing another roar of laughter from the kids. It dawned on me then that this man in the chicken suit was not only un-phased by Hawthorne; he was apparently a professional thespian—a method mascot. He’d incorporated Stanislavski into his chicken bit and wasn’t going to let his composure be broken by the likes of Hawthorne.
Later, as we dined, Hawthorne seemed to have forgotten about his mishap with his Kentucky Fried date. Indeed, it seemed he was onto bigger and better ventures. With jovial enthusiasm, he confessed to me his latest interest…or goal if you will. It seemed Hawthorne was brimming with new goals and personal projects on a weekly basis. That is to say that his goals evaporated in the wake of ever forming new ones and so on and so forth—until they all bled into the same goal—one of personal validation for god knows how many past mental traumas. Hawthorne never spoke of his upbringing and I assumed it was for good reason. However, he did frequently assess his goals aloud.
I listened absently as he went from the punch
line backward…declaring first his intent to become an actor of porn. He’d then elaborated, citing with conviction how his interest had initially budded and eventually taken the shape of motivation; in which he’d attained the
contact information of a porn agent from a wannabe stripper he’d picked up in a seedy Granville St. watering hole.
The poor old chap had flooded his burger with a tremendous amount of condiments, so it oozed with thick dark-orange goo. To make matters sloppier, he dipped it in his side order of gravy…glazing the seeping mess of slop with a thick coating. When he bit into the burger the orange slop ran down so he was dripping at the chin as he explained the benefits of landing a job in the local porn industry. I just nodded occasionally, eating a plate of fries and ketchup, wondering absently what the odds were that some prankster had dosed the bottle of ketchup with liquid LSD administered from an eye dropper. Not likely, I speculated—but not altogether an impossibility.
Eventually, Hawthorne became forlorn when addressing the most pressing of his concerns. What if he couldn’t perform…what if he couldn’t maintain wood while filming? After all, if he caught even a slight glance of a minor imperfection in his costar, the entire shoot might be compromised. He stared through the window, out into the street where cars and buses and people were going by. He shook his head, imagining the scenario with distant dread, chewing a French fry with an intense contemplative stare.
“I mean, if the chick isn’t perfect looking; it could ruin everything.” he said very seriously, “I mean, what if she has a pimple on her ass? That could ruin the entire shoot man…then my career is down the toilet. Dude, what if I go soft?”
“How should I know? Pop a Viagra if you’re so worried.” I suggested with a shrug.
“Viagra? I wouldn’t put that shit into my body man.” Hawthorne scoffed as he bit off another chunk of his greasy burger…insulted that I’d mentioned it, “After Lacey, I can’t settle for just any girl. She really ruined me for anyone else.” swore Hawthorne, sipping the gravy now from the side bowl.
“Come now old chap…certainly there are plenty of Lacey’s in this town—certainly you can hook yourself another.” I assured in an attempt at consoling him, “Why not just go to a strip club and meet another stripper?”
“What does that mean?” he inquired, “It wouldn’t be Lacey man! I love her.”
“What do you love about her most? The pus dripping sores or the dick infections she gift wrapped for you? Or maybe it’s the rashes? Ah, the rashes were a nice touch, old man.” I said, sipping from my flat soda.
“Can’t you see it? She’s lost man…she didn’t think she deserved my love.” Hawthorne said.
“That’s hilarious man. But really…what do you miss most about this damsel who’ll undress? You’ve never mentioned it…what are the top five things you miss most about the lass—that you can’t bring yourself to live without? Let’s hear it…state them now.” I said, thinking this ought to be good.
“Ok…that’s easy enough. I would say number one, her V…she had a perfect one…so perfect I can’t even imagine another one. Two would have to be her backside…she has this amazing dancer’s ass…really you could bounce a quarter off it. Three…that would have to be her breasts…I don’t think I’ve ever experienced breasts that large and firm at the same time. Four, that’s easy, her face and her make-up…she wore her makeup like a porn star and had these long porn star type lashes…she used to flutter those lashes at me. Number five…I’d have to say her legs…her legs wouldn’t quit. Now do you see what I’m saying?” Hawthorne said, satisfied with the points he’d offered.
“But these are all physical attributes old boy. You see that right? I mean in that case—if her personality doesn’t enter into it—you could just order an escort with Lacey’s exact measurements. Maybe improve on some points as well. That might do the trick no?” I chuckled.
There was a moment of silence in which my cohort’s eyes glazed over with a fine realization; enlightenment, if you will—as if an epiphany had struck him dumb…or dumber. In slight awe of this realization, he stared at me, an orange droplet of burger goo waiting to drip from his chin and onto the table. “Holy fuck man.” Said Hawthorne, “I could…I could order an escort who’s even hotter than Lacey.” said Hawthorne, now chewing on a French fry with renewed zeal, “Then, Lacey’s hold over me would be broken for good.”
“Listen man—I was only kidding…plus you can’t afford an escort.” I pointed out.
“Don’t be a dick…and yeah, you may have been kidding…but it’s a brilliant tactic…”
“You’ve been eating retard sandwiches again haven’t you?” I inquired.
“Nope…I’ve just had myself a life altering realization.” Hawthorne assured, tipping back the bowl of gravy one last time to guzzle down the rest of the thick brown slop.
Of course, I wasn’t surprised by Hawthorne’s plan—even if I had suggested it as a goof—a bit—a stabbing mockery. For Hawthorne was a master at connecting dots…and he’d connect them into constellations of intrigue; glow-dot shapes glued across the ceiling of his damaged mind. This instance was no exception. He was thoroughly willing to invest his effort and money into finding a Lacey upgrade in an escort agency line-up. And fairly speaking—who was I to question it? It seemed the old chap was willing to try anything to admonish his sensibilities against the Lacey spell he’d, by and large, created himself. It was classic Hawthorne.
Indeed, the very next evening, he’d conjured the courage to dial an agency. He’d even written a list in pen—as to order a perfect replica of Lacey Miller. I sat on his pleather couch, sipping from a frosted glass as Hawthorne patiently ran through his list to the receptionist; skin tone, hair style, eye color, lip fullness, waist slenderness, leg contour, pubic sculpt, lashes and makeup, clothing style, breast shape, etc. The list went on for what seemed an hour. After which the receptionist reminded Hawthorne that the agency wasn’t a custom car dealership. Hawthorne simplified his list—imploring the receptionist to keep in mind his preferences as this was a very important ‘date’—for psychological reasons.
“Hello? Hello? Godamit!” he said into his phone that was now empty. Surprisingly it seemed even the agency harbored a moral criteria. It seemed Hawthorne couldn’t even get a date with an escort—it was classic Hawthorne indeed.
“Don’t laugh man.” whined Hawthorne, citing unprofessionalism on their part.
“But how can’t I?” I asked, draining my glass and lighting a wood tip Black & Mild.
“Why do you smoke those things in here?” Hawthorne asked; forlorn as usual and massaging his temples.
“To cover the permeated odor of deep fried prawns.” I simply said, tilting my head at the old boy. For it seemed he really wasn’t his usual self—it seemed being unable to find a Lacey surrogate was a crushing blow to his psyche, “Let’s go down the street and get some oranges.” I insisted.
As we made our way down 70th toward Granville, Hawthorne peered around the streets and darkened apartment windows with edgy intent.
“Has Lacey ever called you?” Hawthorne asked me out of the blue, casting at me a suspicious eye.
“Why would she?” I asked.
“Maybe you’re fucking her behind my back too.”
“Yeah, coke heads are my thing now…plus, I’ve been planning to contract sores and piss burn for weeks now…thats way up there on my list of shit to do this month.” I chuckled, “Are you on acid?”
“Ah, you can’t understand.” He said with a dismissive wave of his hand, “And she’s not a coke head…she only does it in social situations.”
“Well…in that case.” I said as I went through the oranges in the bin that were mostly half rotten.
We chose ‘Ping Pong’ market on Granville…a questionable choice but all the same, a viable option—given the lack of markets in our district. I purchased a few oranges, having been told by the market man that they were a real find, very juicy he’d said. At the time I’d given him a suspicious look, but decided to chance it anyway. Hawthorne bought a hard looking kiwi and had asked for it to be bagged. He swung it around his wrist and back as we walked. “What is the meaning of this?” he asked.
“Writing.” I said.
“Is that true?”
“What else is there?” I asked.
“Music?” suggested Hawthorne.
“Certainly, but writing comes more naturally…it’s like breathing…and if you take away the writing—you’re left with only the madness.” I said, sighing deeply, wondering why the fuck it was that Hawthorne always had to take the spontaneity out of life.
“You’re going to write about this all aren’t you? My situation? I bet you will…and I bet you get it all wrong.” said Hawthorne.
“And I’ll call it—The Pygmalionist.” I said, running my hand over the sky as if to spread out the letters like a deck of cards.
“You’re in love with statues old chap…and you have every right to be.” I told him.
“No way.” said Hawthorne, removing his Kiwi from the bag and biting into it. His teeth barely punctured the skin. “This thing is like a rock.” he said, making a sour face and throwing the kiwi back into the bag. He then swung it like a lasso, gaining momentum fast before hurling the bagged kiwi high and wide so it lifted as if from propulsion, eventually descending quickly down onto the top of a passing bus.
“Nice shot.” I said.
“Not bad. Give me an orange.” he said.
I handed him the bag and he took out one of the oranges…using the sticker as a target he bit directly into the orange, chewing it with zeal—peel, sticker and all. I noticed the orange was slightly brown on the inside.
“How can these guys be so dishonest?” I mused.
“The market man…he said they were very juicy.”
“They are.” said Hawthorne with a grin as the brownish orange juice gurgled from his mouth and down his chin.
“It’s not rotten, it’s over ripe.” said Hawthorne, taking another bite, peel and all.
As we made our way back down 70th toward Hawthorne’s place his phone buzzed. It was the agency and the receptionist apologized for having been cut off. She confirmed that she’d found an escort that matched closest Hawthorne’s requested specs. In response to Hawthorne’s adamant badgering the receptionist assured physical perfection…it was a guarantee. After relaying to her his personal information and address, Hawthorne hung up and looked at me with amazed disbelief. There was something else there too…a mad glaze of potential victory that curled the edges of his lips—lips that were now prone to herpes legions.
“They’re sending over a lady named Candi…Candi with an ‘i’.” said Hawthorne, “I can’t believe this is actually going to happen. I mean, this is going to be monumental. The receptionist assured me that Candi is perfect…perfect to a tee. And you know what? I can already feel Lacey’s hold on me diminishing…as if it were a black magic curse.”
“Black magic curse…” I chuckled, “Well, I hope it all works out for you.” I said, bidding him farewell at my corner.
“I’ll keep you posted.” Said Hawthorne, walking off with a proud bounce in his step.
We sat there in silence for a while watching the show. Greg rarely talked. It wasn’t that he couldn’t articulate his thoughts—it was that he was perpetually marinating in a bottomless dose of morphine. I wasn’t certain if the morphine was prescription or not…I only knew that Greg frequently took Sampson on walks for the purpose of injecting morphine into his arm in the dog park at the end of the street—this much Rena had confessed to me. During a commercial break, Greg turned and looked at me, his eyes glazed over with morphine and the psychosis of a drab routine.
“Can you hear that?” he asked me.
“Hear what?” I said.
“That scratching.” he nearly whispered, pressing the mute button on the boxy remote control.
I listened for something but heard nothing, only they cars swooshing by on the wet streets outside, “There’s nothing.” I said.
“There is though. Step over here.” said Greg, motioning with his hand for me to join him at the living room wall.
With a fair bit of reluctance I joined Greg at the wall and following his lead, placed my ear to the smooth egg shell plaster. The scratching sound was audible but just barely. It seemed hard to believe that the sound would even register to Greg, a man of perhaps 60, who’d spent his youth riding motorcycles, listening to loud rock music and shooting dope.
“Ok…so what is it?” I asked.
Greg moved his head away from the wall and whispered, as if someone might hear, “It’s a squirrel in the wall.”
He stood there, peering down at the wall, motioning with his hand to wait for it again…and so we did…Greg and I, standing in Rena’s living room, waiting for the squirrel to start scratching again. When the scratching sound returned, Greg nodded, “He knows we’re onto him.” he said, “But I’ve got just the thing.”
He disappeared down a darkened hallway and emerged a moment later holding a bottle of after shave and a syringe—a syringe from his personal stash I assumed. As he filled the syringe with the aftershave I took note of his hands, which were steady as a rock. I’d heard stories about Greg in the past…through the family grapevine…about how he had migrated to Vancouver from Toronto one sweltering summer in the mid-1980s…how he’d lived wild, took every drug under the sun, occasionally partook in bar fights and had damaged his liver so badly with death-proof whiskey, the doctors hadn’t given him long…also, I’d heard that he’d carried a railroad spike in his pant leg for protection in the old day…and that when he met Rena he’d been living in a van with three wolf-dogs.
He was a bad boy…and as effective as kryptonite to my aunt Rena’s ‘better’ upper middle class judgement. Beyond that, there wasn’t a soul in our family who approved of him—perfect incentive for a woman like Rena. Though she had been warned…she had fallen for Greg all at once…she’d fallen for the wolf in him…and, as she’d put it so eloquently—the moment of her realization had come all those years ago when, while in mid conversation with her at the local pub one fateful night, Greg had climbed onto their table top in order to holler at the band:
“Play Born To Be Wild, right fucking now!”
He’d screamed it and had punctuated his demand with a blow of conviction, thrusting his skinny fist into the air…he’d been wearing a studded wrist band to boot and to add fuel to his fire, he’d also been wearing a half t-shirt, that is to say, one that is cut halfway, just below the chest. I could fill in the blanks…the assumed mullet, the incidental mustache…the leather jacket…the jailhouse tats…it all went hand in hand with Greg who’d mellowed considerably since the old days. It was difficult to picture now however…he was old, arthritic and plagued by noises in the walls; life is bigger than us all in the end.
“Hey, let me ask you something…do you know what the number one squirrel repellent in the world is?” he asked me.
I just stood there looking at him, “I can only speculate.”
“After shave…” he finally disclosed with a knowing nod.
“I see.” I said.
After the syringe was full of blue aftershave, Greg climbed up on the chair, balancing carefully—I imagined him doing so in a half shirt and studded wrist band and still couldn’t see it. With intense concentration, Greg pressed his ear to the wall again, and again…until he found the perfect spot…there it was. He marked the spot with a small pencil before climbing back down onto the rug.
“He’s directly below that mark.” Greg assured.
“Stealthy.” I grinned, drawing no such grin from Greg who was too focussed with intent.
“It won’t kill him…it’ll just give him the message.” said Greg.
There was the problem of matter though…Plaster and wood…how did he plan on getting the needle into the wall…I pointed it out to him. There was an easy solution…he returned a moment later with a hammer and a long nail…next, he carefully drove the nail through the plaster…it took a few swings of the hammer—one of which missed entirely, gouging a horrendously large dent in the wall, however, in the end, the nail breached the center space of the wall and I watched Greg fit the syringe into the nail hole with great concentration. Once the syringe was fully immersed, Greg slowly emptied the aftershave into the wall, turning to me and flashing a toothy grin, “Only a matter of time now.” He said.
Greg climbed down from the chair and waited with his ear to the wall, “It stopped.” he finally said when the scratching could be heard no more. Satisfied with his method, Greg sank back down in his chair and sat very still, watching Miami Vice with the mute button on. I returned to my place on the couch and we sat for a while in silence, watching Crocket and Tubbs shoot it out with drug dealers in an abandoned warehouse. After perhaps ten minutes like this, the scratching returned.
“Ah, shit.” sighed Greg, “Guess I’ll have to dose him again.” he said, rising from his customized chair and repeating the process with the syringe. Again, he injected the blue aftershave into the living room wall…this time however, the scratching didn’t stop, “He’s a stubborn sun of a gun.” mused Greg with a shrug, “I can do this all night.” he smiled, repeating once again the process of injecting the aftershave into the wall. He’d used a half bottle of the stuff and the living room was starting to smell like a Eurotrash nightclub. As we both listened for the scratching to stop, a voice boomed from behind us both, cutting through the mellow silence.
“What the hell did you do to the wall?” came my aunt Rena’s demand in a gasp of shock. Indeed, the wall was badly dented, punctured and stuck with a syringe of aftershave, which Greg removed instantly, causing a dribble of the blue liquid to run down the outside of the wall, “What am I seeing here?” said Rena, in disbelief.
“Honey, listen, it’s perfectly explainable…” said Greg, “There’s been a squirrel in this wall for weeks…maybe not the same squirrel, but they come here…to this wall and they scratch, all day and all night long…I think they’re trying to dig through the floor, or maybe through the wall…to gain access to our bedroom. I’m using the aftershave because it’s the best squirrel repellent in the world.”
“What the fuck are you on? Did you shoot morphine tonight?” demanded Rena, stepping over to the wall, “Of course you did…and look what you’ve done. It’s ruined…you’ve ruined the wall…it will never look the same again…you realize that don’t you?”
“Don’t worry baby, I’ll use some filler and paint over it tomorrow.” Greg assured.
“You’ll never get it to match…it will never look the same…and every time I sit on the couch and look across at you I’m going to see that godam discoloration of the wall and I’m going to want to yell at you every time I see it.” Rena assured, livid at the notion of having another of Greg’s obviously evident blunders at such close range.
She placed her ear to the wall, hearing nothing, “What scratching?” she said.
“Exactly…it’s not there now because I took care of it.” said Greg, leaning over and placing his own ear to the wall again.
They listened to the wall in silence for a minute until the scratching started yet again, drawing a groan from Greg. He began to fill the syringe with another load of aftershave when Rena stepped away from the wall shaking her head.
“You’re a moron Greg.” she said, “A godam moron!”
“What are you saying Rena? I’ve almost got him…one more dose ought to do it.” Greg sighed, resigned to having his balls busted yet again, by the woman he’d once lusted after enough so to pull her from a 15 year marriage and claim her as his own.
“I’m saying you’re a fucking pin-head!” Rena spat at the man she’d fell so hopelessly for once upon a time; a man she’d left the father of her children for.
“I know you don’t believe that Rena.” said Greg, returning to the comfort of his chair, taking a long sip of orange juice before reclining and closing his eyes.
“Oh no? Well, Sherlock…if you had anything other than pins in your head, you’d have realized that the scratching you’ve been hearing for weeks is the heating vent in the floorboard…it’s a repetitive clicking…not random scratching you knuckle head.”
“Really?” said Greg, rising from his chair, this time pulling the bureau away from the wall to expose the heating vent…indeed, once exposed the clicking of the vent was audible and as Rena said, a repetitive clicking. On the upside, the air blowing through it smelled of Aqua Blue.
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 asked, 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 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.