In a three room apartment above a camera store specializing in vintage film camera sales and repairs, Timofei jiggles the file cabinet drawer. Locked. He uses the small crowbar that had popped the front door lock. He bursts open the file cabinet drawer. Small metal fragments bounce and clang off the hardwood floor.
“Wait! The keys. On the desk. You don’t need to…,” Wiz says, nodding toward the desk and the ring of keys, from the chair in which he is seated, bound.
“Shut up!”, Vasily says, slapping Wiz hard with the back of a surgical-gloved hand which prevents leaving finger prints. Spittle flies from Wiz’s mouth.
Timofei looks at the ring of keys, at Vasily who says nothing but smiles maliciously, and pops another drawer. And another. And another.
“I told you it’s not here. Michael has it,” Wiz says with a mouth full of mush. Jaw swollen to chipmunk proportions.
“And we said to shut up,” says The Mustache from the far corner of the room, without looking around, as he tears open boxes and clears shelves. Cameras and parts fly across the room. Vasily hits Wiz again, harder, on the opposite jaw. Wiz whimpers. Tears in his eyes.
The Mustache stands beside Wiz, Timofei and Vasily (who never talks), holding a Canon AE-1, debris strewn behind him. Click, click. click goes the shutter but there is no film in the camera. He lets the camera drop from his hand, the 50mm lens cracks when it hits the floor. “There’s nothing here,” The Mustache says. Wiz wants to, but dares not, say, “I told you so.”
“Hey! Look what I find,” shouts Timofei, digging through the file cabinet. “The little kike’s personal stash.” He rakes keys and papers from the desk and lays down four 8X10 color photos.
“A rump ranger. A tail gunner. Our boy is a peter puffer,” The Mustache says with a smirk, detectable despite the enormous bush obscuring his mouth. He pats Wiz on the shoulder.
“You want we to ride you hard before we kill you?” asks Timofei slapping the crowbar against his palm.
“Like the big buck in the picture?” adds The Mustache, “Is this your boyfriend Wiz?” The Mustache holds one of the glossies for display. “Untie him and bend him over the desk.”
Palms on desk, pants and underwear pulled down to his ankles, Wiz sobs. The thugs play with their belt buckles. Pretending. Wiz trembles. Urine trickles down his left leg.
“Now we know why they call you Wiz,” The Mustache jokes. The other men guffaw. “Let’s get out of here. One peep out of you, you little pervert, and we’ll come back and finish the job. We’ll shove this crowbar so far up your ass… Are you listening?” Wiz nods, his forehead nearly touching the desktop.
Timofei steps forward and whacks Wiz’s ass with the crowbar. A red welt appears instantly on snow-white cheeks.
“We’ll be back, sweetheart,” The Mustache says, pinching Wiz’s bruised jaw, Wiz winces but does not cry out. The thugs laugh and jostle one another and collectively blow Wiz kisses. They exit.
Alone in the makeshift office of his small apartment above Wiz’s Camera Shop, Bernie Wizniewski, Proprietor, stands frozen at his desk, tears blotting the pictures of men engaged in unnatural acts. The trickle of urine has become a torrent.
Pissing and bawling and quivering in his soaked shoes.
After Wiz collects and cleans himself, he sits with ice in a sandwich bag applied to the most damaged of his two jaws. His tongue nudging a sore, wobbly molar. The taste of iron.
“I’d like to kill Michael,” he is thinking, “for putting me in this situation.” First of all everybody told Michael to keep his hands off Lori’s little girl Cinda. Twenty years old or so but everybody still thinks of Cinda as a little girl because she has the mind of one. And Michael, so much older but, with no better judgement. You could talk Cinda into anything. It was shot with an old Super-8 camera that Michael and borrowed from Wiz. Wiz developed the film and transferred it to disk. It is shocking. Barely 10 minutes but more than enough to excite you or turn your stomach depending on your disposition.
According to Michael, only the three of them, Wiz, Cinda and himself, have first hand experience with the movie but its existence has, somehow, become well rumored. Surely Michael isn’t stupid enough to have bragged about it. Actually, Wiz wouldn’t put it past Cinda to talk. She’s the kind of girl who might take pride in such a thing. Such a very dangerous thing.
The political operatives want it for the damage it can do to Lori’s campaign, the mob for the blackmail money it can generate. Money and politics, two things as unseemly as what is on the disk. Nobody will believe there is only one copy, per Michael’s instructions. Well, two if you count the original film that is also in Michael’s possession. Wiz could have surreptitiously made himself a copy but it does not exactly cater to his tastes and he thought that not having a copy was better for his health. Now he’s not sure.
But there is one person who wants it more than anyone else, more than the mob, more than Lori’s political opponents, more than Lori herself. Cinda’s uncle Lars. Tic.
Tic crawled along the jungle floor through puddles of water as warm and viscous as the piss and blood running down his thigh. Rifle cradled in his arms like a newborn he inched to and propped his elbows up on a corpse as inconsequential as a log. He’d stopped smelling the stench of death long ago.
He took aim at the Gook sharply silhouetted against the bright full moon. The Gook turned as Tic squeezed off a single shot, ripping off the better portion of the face.
In real life or rather real death, the Gook collapses immediately but in the nightmare he walks toward Tic. Concave hamburger face. A featureless, mobile, mocking, animated corpse.
Bolt upright in bed, drenched in sweat, eyes wide with horror. The pillowcase and sheet are damp. Tic’s heart races wildly. He reaches for the rifle that isn’t there.
A recurring nightmare that never loses its effect like a movie you watch over and over even though you know how it ends.
Tic’s squadron was pinned, relentlessly shelled. The blast to the forward guard blew a soldier into two distinct halves. The trunk, arms and head lay a few feet from the hips and legs, the right foot twitching in a final death spasm. Corpse eyes alert and confused seemed to stare at his disconnected bottom half.
Can you be dead before you know it? Is Tic among the living dead? These are questions he asks himself.
In the days of execution by guillotine, the executioner would grasp the executed’s severed head by the hair, lifting it from the basket to stare into still alive eyes. The executioner’s face would be the dead’s last sight.What does a decapitated head think and feel at the final moment? Sorrow? Remorse? Hatred? Mere resignation? Confusion like the onset of a stroke? Does it see the faces of loved ones? All of these imagined emotions and experiences seem as tepid as jungle water, Tic thinks. There must be more to it. There has to be.
Tic quits the bed in sweaty boxer shorts and sleeveless t-shirt. In the bathroom he drinks a full glass of water poured as cold as it will pour. In his hand the pills from the medicine cabinet that calm the anxiety, stop the nightmares, prevent the hallucinations but render him numb. Uncomfortably numb. He puts the bottle back on the shelf behind the hinged mirror. Splashes his face with water. Dresses in jeans and boots and the leather jacket with the star shaped studs. He leaves the cabin and rides off on his Harley. It is 3:12 a.m.
The service road off to the right of the highway is gated. The lock has been broken for months. Teenagers enter through the gate, up the rise, into the edge of the forest to drink, smoke weed and fuck. A section of the public nature preserve has been sold off to private logging interests. The government says it’s a budget balancing necessity. Timber harvesting will begin in a few months. The locals are not happy.
Tic rides the Harley to the top of the mount. Pulls it around a big fir tree that will someday soon be coffee tables or bar stools. He looks down the slope opposite the highway. Through the trees and brush he can see the bright light in the parking area behind Michael’s house. Cinda’s Toyota isn’t there but that doesn’t mean she isn’t.
Tic had turned off the Harley lights when he entered the access road. He had a flashlight in the saddlebag but left it there, carefully scaling down the hillside under the bright light of the moon. He pauses when he reaches the railroad tracks. Looks down the tracks in the direction where the train will arrive in an hour or so. The freight train schedule is not precise. The route was on the verge of being decommissioned until the timber company came along and promised it new life.
Tic must be careful. Up the road, just a bit, lives a police-woman who knows him well and who wouldn’t at all care for, or be surprised by, his house calling and interrogation methods.
He is armed with only a Bowie hunting knife that he has with him always. Tic uses the Bowie to deftly spring the back door lock.
Tic finds Michael asleep in bed. Alone. A wave of relief washes over him.
In less than an hour Tic is scaling the rise back to the Harley with a video disk in his jacket pocket. The wind is treating the trees rudely. Clouds shun the moon. It has begun to rain. A storm is on the rise.
Jeanine was awakened by the train’s commotion. Trumpeting like an angry, wounded elephant. Something is wrong. Despite the early hour and grim weather it is her duty to investigate. She rouses Spence who now understands the downside of falling in love with an officer of the law.
The gale turns their umbrella inside out. They abandon it and struggle forward, unprotected, for a considerable distance, to the scene of the accident. They find a distraught train engineer and Jeanine’s neighbor, Michael… sliced cleanly in half at the pelvis by steel on steel. Detective Dexter and other officials will soon arrive.
Tic places the video disk on the kitchen table. He’ll deal with it later. Rumor has it there were several men involved. Another rumor says a large dog is the star of the show. Tic will not watch his Niece’s defilement. He has seen all that and more, live and in person, in a place far, far away where he was sent against his will and greeted without welcome.
He takes one of the numbing pills from the medicine cabinet hoping for sleep away from combat. Later he will go to The Lemon Grass, in the alley near The Delirious Dissident Bookstore, to see his beloved Kim-Ly. He will talk to her in her native language while he eats his favorite noodle dish. He will tip her extravagantly which she finally accepts after much patience and prodding. She keeps the money in an ornate box in her room upstairs where she lives with her family. He will tell her that he will soon take her away from all the corruption and violence and depravity. And after the months patience and prodding, she will smile.
But will not laugh.
They would pass in the hallway or in the cafeteria. She would smile, acknowledging him without actually looking his way. Furtive. Holding secrets of which he could only guess. After she had passed she would slow her gait ever so slightly knowing that he had turned and stood rock-still to follow her movement. He would watch her walk the way certain women walk, not exactly wiggling but undulating, like a body of water. A tiny but unfathomable ocean.
They found themselves together on a Committee charged with formulating a minor policy. Empowerment it was called. Participative management. Throw the dogs a bone. The farce mattered not to Audrey or Duncan, what mattered was the opportunity to look at each other for more than a few seconds on official company time. Sanctioned desire. They couldn’t keep their eyes from one another.
It was Audrey who first asked him to lunch. Not to the company cafeteria but to Baci, the Italian cafe down the street, where they could grab a table in the corner and begin their negotiations. Still a topic of gossip but away from the blue, flickering, unflattering glare of fluorescent office lights. Duncan wasn’t generally meek and retiring in the face of a pretty woman but the sight of Audrey left him dumbstruck, in a state of sensory overload, stopped up with unspoken and unspeakable words.
He had courted her during the Committee meetings with eloquent logic served up obliquely like a racquetball champion playing a corner, bouncing the messages off the Committee Team Leader. Audrey would return his volley with complementary, supportive statements and her devastating furtive smile.
Lunches were fruitful even though Baci had quadrupled Duncan’s daily lunch budget. Duncan refused to allow Audrey to pay her share. They went to the movies where they sat stiffly in the glow and watched each other out of the corner of their eyes. They were careful in the beginning, fearing they might break something fragile. Then dinner with the Pedroncellis, Audrey’s parents and her younger sister Anna who was perhaps prettier than Audrey but much less interesting. The family lived in the Italian section of the old, Near-North neighborhood. Her mother served salad and an enormous bowl of spaghetti and meatballs with garlic bread and Chianti. Duncan’s appetite brought him to the edge of impropriety. He had to take deep breaths. Study the faces of the small dark family. Allow them to catch up. Audrey and Duncan sat next to one another and she boldly squeezed his thigh with her small hand hidden under the table after he had said something witty. It sent a flutter through his groin. A caged bird was fighting confinement in his pants. After dinner the family settled into the living room with the television but Audrey wanted to take a walk in the cold December air where she kissed Duncan under a lamppost. Illuminated specks of snow floating in the air like stage props. He sucked in the warmth of her wet mouth while the frigid tip of her nose pressed against his cheek.
A few nights after the family dinner, he found himself at Audrey’s apartment near campus where she attended acting classes. Audrey shared the space with another young student who had conveniently excused herself for the evening. After a meal of take-out Chinese they grappled on the sofa and though Duncan managed to undress Audrey from the waist down he was not allowed to penetrate her since he had neglected to purchase a condom. She was without protection, a situation that Duncan had not considered conceivable. As an alternative, he spread her thin legs wide and with her cheeks on the edge of the sofa, drank as deeply as he could from his knees, feeling her convulsions. Looking up to find her eyes glazed and seeping. She whimpered and thread her fingers through his hair in a manner so frantic that it made him wonder.
It was these two moments, the wet kiss in the cold under the lamppost and young Audrey’s orgasmic tears while he took his pleasure between her legs, that seized his mind as he read her words over and over and over. Many, many years later.
The email on the social media site weeks ago, had read, “Audrey Miller wants to be friends with you.” Audrey Miller. Miller. He didn’t know an Audrey Miller. He had moved on to the dozens of other emails in his inbox.
This new communication comes through his business website in the comments section.
This is Pookie. Remember me? We worked together at Consolidated. I tried to friend you. How you’re doing?
Pookie (Audrey Pedroncelli-Miller)
He responds, using their pet names, though he knows not what to say.
Remember you? Are you kidding?
Duncan learns that Pookie has been divorced for over a decade, has an adult son working as an Engineer (she attaches a picture of a handsome young man with a complexion the color of coffee with cream). Pookie is between jobs, has recently had her house foreclosed and is living in a studio apartment in a small mid-western city. This information bursts forth, all at once, like water through a breached dam. Not a plea for help, that wouldn’t be Pookie’s style he knows, but rather like filings from a reporter at a disaster scene. Her picture shows an attractive, smiling woman in her middle forties without a sign of her current distress. He tries to assemble the jagged and incongruent pieces into a cohesive whole. She appears to be aging well and he wonders how she will react to his photo. Safely dry docked though he is, he knows he exhibits the rubbed-away effects of life’s constant friction.
He tells Pookie that he and Marsha are amicably divorced and leaves it at that, thinking the less he says about Marsha the better. The same Marsha who was astraddle Duncan and riding him hard to the finish line on that fateful Sunday afternoon when Pookie burst through the door.
A young man with more sense would have chosen a different fate. Would have married the beautiful young Audrey, procreated with her. Lived happily ever after. When Duncan met Pookie he was still frantically sowing wild oats, each field looking more fertile than the last though he had no appetite for the actual harvest. Within weeks of the betrayal Pookie had taken up with another man, a black man, the Manager of the Fulfillment Department at Consolidated. Though all of the fault lay within his sphere he was disgusted enough not to fight to win her back. Within a year Pookie was married. Duncan was transferred out of state, Marsha followed him and their respective destinies unfolded like the inevitable change of seasons.
Duncan sits where he can watch the airport concourse. The monitor say Flight 507 is on time. Duncan studies his watch and orders another beer. He needs to steel his nerves. In his best suit and tie instead of his usual sport coat and Dockers.
He has finished his second beer. Figures he shouldn’t have another, though he wants one. He had seen but dismissed the bleached blonde, dragging the black bag on wheels. Short and dumpy, not exactly obese but heavier than her frame should carry, wearing a cheap polyester two-piece outfit (flower print blouse and clashing striped skirt) a size too small. Audrey had easily picked Duncan out of the lineup at the airport bar. She sits down heavily beside him. He looks into her soft brown eyes and kisses the perfect lips as offered. It is Audrey all right, the same light in her eyes, the same delicate wrists. Audrey is in there, but in costume, like the amateur actress Duncan watched with pride in the community theater productions. She was good, said people who should know, and pretty enough to play the lead. She had a strong voice, lithe figure and expressive face but her ambition never measured up to her talent. Duncan hadn’t exactly bolstered her self confidence with his humiliating shenanigans.
Looking at the Audrey of today, Duncan sees her mother cradling the giant bowl of spaghetti and meatballs.
“I need a drink,” Audrey says.
Duncan orders beers and watches Audrey drink lustily, studies her gut bulging over the waistline of her skirt, the dark roots of her hair at the part. Her chipped fingernail polish. She had to remember how much he hates nail polish. Conversation lags after the initial pleasantries and he repeats in his mind, it’s only for a few days.
As they walk to his car, Duncan chivalrously dragging her bag behind him, she asks, “Do you mind if I smoke during the drive?”
“I’d rather you didn’t,” he says. They stand outside the car in the glaring sun while she sucks hard on a menthol light.
He settles her into the guest room.
Audrey takes a shower while Duncan tries to distract himself with paperwork brought home from the office.
They share a bottle of wine in the kitchen, Audrey out-drinking him by a wide margin. Duncan is relieved that the alcohol is making the conversation easier. He feels reconnected to the bright, funny girl he once knew. They go to dinner at a Mexican restaurant nearby, where they have chips and salsa and chicken fajitas and margaritas they don’t need. When they get home Duncan pulls vinyl records out of a milk crate. Plays their favorite old songs while Audrey silently weeps. He can’t help but think that this act of nostalgia has a touch of cruelty.
They drink more, talk about the old days, cry together and go to bed together. Duncan puts his face between Audrey’s thighs, closes his eyes. Tries not to think about the past, where she has been and what she has done and with whom. He doesn’t look up, knowing that if there are tears they are of a different nature this time.
As a man who primarily eats in restaurants, Duncan is aware of the paucity of his refrigerator and pantry. A few eggs, butter, milk past its prime, cottage cheese, Tabasco, Italian dressing, a jar of sauerkraut, left over split pea soup that should already have found its way down the disposal, cereal, cans of beans and Campbell’s soup. A disappointing meal in any possible combination.
After they get home and put the groceries away, Audrey offers to clean up the condo in exchange for his largesse even though the place is tidy enough and his cleaning lady will be in tomorrow. Duncan follows her from room to room trying to help rather than merely observe. While she changes the bed, Duncan dusts the bedroom table that holds a television, a clock radio and a small cedar box that he reacts to as if it materialized for the first time at this very moment. He opens the box holding his wedding ring, which he hadn’t known how to, or had the courage to, dispose of, an expired passport, cufflinks, two pair of ear-rings and a bracelet abandoned by Marsha and a Rolex watch she had given him on their first anniversary. Duncan never much cared for the ostentatious watch. It was heavy and dominant. Duncan goes to the kitchen and takes a sandwich bag from a drawer. He places the wedding ring, earrings and bracelet in the zip lock bag. He feels the heft of the Rolex in his palm.
“That’s a nice watch. Why don’t you wear it?” Audrey asks.
“You don’t know how to work it?”
“A different kind of complicated.”
Duncan places the Rolex back in the box.
“I’ll be back in a bit,” he says.
“Where are you going?”
“To run an errand. I won’t be long.”
Duncan takes the baggie to West Side Pawn where he knows the guy well enough to get a fair price. He returns with a little over $400. Letting go of more of Marsha felt good. He hands Audrey the money knowing she needs it desperately. She had confessed to borrowing the airfare from a friend. and arriving virtually penniless. As a loan, he says, until she’s back on her feet. She sits crying on the edge of the bed holding the money in her fingers with the chipped nail polish.
Duncan’s stomach roils at the pathetic sight.
After a day of working late, Duncan returns home to find Audrey on the sofa, dressed only in panties and bra, watching a reality television show. Tired and frustrated, he snaps at her.
“How can you watch that crap?”
“I like it.”
“How can you like it? It’s stupid.”
“Why? Because you don’t like it? I’m supposed to like everything you like? Why aren’t you supposed to like everything I like? How come it only goes one way?”
Duncan has no response. As soon as he goes to the kitchen to scrounge dinner, Audrey changes the channel.
She says she isn’t hungry but eats anyway.
The next day they talk and drink in his condo after a meal Audrey has prepared featuring an over cooked pork tenderloin, under cooked potatoes and mushy brussel sprouts. They drink beer and shots of Jameson whiskey as they come to terms with who they are, where they have been and where the hell they are now.
“I hated you, you know,” she says.
“I know and you had a right. Have you come to punish me?”
“I’m too busy punishing myself.”
“My failure, I guess. Failing further is punishment for my past failure.”
“Failure at what?”
“Not being good enough. Not good enough as an actress. Not good enough for my parents. Not good enough for you. Not good enough for Martin. You should have gone for Anna. She was the prettier one.”
“I thought about it. You know how I was then.”
“I know. And so did Anna. And thanks for the honesty. Why didn’t you do it?”
“Because I loved you. During that brief period we had together. You and your cold nose under the lamppost.”
Audrey smiles but says, “You loved me so much that you decided to fuck Marsha in front of me.”
“That wasn’t intentional. I shouldn’t have given you a key.”
“You would have fucked her key or no key. Without the key I just wouldn’t have known. You think that’s better?”Audrey stares at him, her face pinched.
“Yes.” Duncan laughs at his own honesty. “Had you not known everything might have turned out quite differently. More as I had intended.”
“What you intended isn’t relevant.”
“Fucking Marsha and loving you had nothing to do with one another. They were completely unrelated issues.”
“But you couldn’t apply the same moral code to me, could you?”
“You mean him? Are you talking about him?”
“Martin. The black man. The handsome, successful black man. I knew it would drive you crazy. That’s why I did it. That didn’t turn out as intended either.”
“What do you mean?”
“I thought you might change. React in a different way. That we could try again but while I was waiting for you I fell in love with him. He was a good man. A good husband. But I ended up driving him away.”
“Pookie, why did you come here?”
“For the show.”
Too much alcohol washes the conversation away, Audrey wants to have sex but Duncan says he can’t on account of he’s too drunk. A harmless lie, he reasons. Audrey takes a shower before bed. Duncan has a fancy shower without a tub. Shower-head as big as a dinner plate. It sprays water in your chosen configuration. Audrey likes the pulsating setting.
He hears her fall. Finds her on the shower floor with her legs splayed, head bowed as if in prayer. Like she decided this was the perfect time and place to take a nap. She has vomited and the chunks clog the little holes in the drain. The water is quickly rising. Duncan finds himself on his hands and knees, fully dressed, pummeled by the pulsating rain storm, trying to mash the puke chunks down the drain as Audrey awakens, crying. The smell brings up Duncan’s own bitter bile. He adds his own pork, potatoes and brussel sprouts to the stew.
Two days before Audrey is to leave. Duncan must fly to Milwaukee to solve a problem, in person, with a client. He apologizes to Audrey for cutting into their time together but, frankly, he is relieved. She will drive him to the airport and leave the car for him the next day when boards her own flight.
Duncan doesn’t find the car in the agreed upon place. Pookie’s cell phone is out of service. Exasperated, he hails a cab.
His car is not at the condo. Just as he decides to alert the authorities, he hears the garage door open. He greets a tipsy Audrey. The Audi has a big crease along the driver’s side.
“It wasn’t my fault,” she says.
“You weren’t cited?”
“Are you crazy? Call the cops and risk a D.U.I.?”
“So, you hit and ran?”
“No one was hurt.”
“Why are you still here?”
“Changed my flight.”
“There is nothing to go back to”, she says.
Duncan is furious. He lets Audrey have it with both barrels. Her irresponsible behavior. Her slovenliness. His overall disgust. During the tirade Audrey is silent. They pass a bottle of Scotch back and forth in an oddly civilized ritual during his monologue.
When the bottle and Duncan are almost empty Pookie steps toward him. Slaps him as hard as she can. Stunned and red-cheeked, Duncan can only stare at her in disbelief. She hits him again, this time with a closed fist. Duncan wraps his arms around her in self defense as she squirms and bucks. They fall to the floor.
Their mouths meet. Disparate passions meld. What has happened, now and in the past, has happened and nothing can be done about it. What remains is love long suppressed, given up for dead. Now unleashed by acts of violence, verbal and physical.
During their sexual release, a sex of wild self abandonment, Duncan understands that he still loves Pookie despite what she, and he, has become.
It doesn’t matter. When he rises from his sleep, she is gone.
Audrey’s departure leaves Duncan in a state between remorse and relief. She has abandoned her cheap clothes, travel bag, cigarettes, dead cell phone and a theatre magazine in the guest room. And a little more than $400 in cash.
Duncan tries to contact Pookie but his emails kick back. Her phone number is disconnected. he never had a postal address. She has disappeared without a trace.
A week passes. He donates her belongings, except for the theatre magazine, to the local Goodwill store. He puts the magazine on the coffee table.
Duncan regretted losing interest in the theatre after he and Pookie parted. The magazine on the coffee table is a recent edition. He flips through it absently as he sips Scotch after a long and unproductive day. An interview catches his eye.
Interviewer: With me today is Audrey Miller. Welcome to Stage Left Audrey.
Audrey: Thanks Susan. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Interviewer: We haven’t talked since Typographical Terror. Did you enjoy the role of Amanda?
Audrey: Very much so. Murder mysteries are fun in and of themselves but especially so when the hard boiled detective is cast as a woman.
Interviewer: Let’s talk about The Wanderer, set to open in the spring. April 4th, I believe, at The Imperial.
Audrey: That’s correct.
Interviewer: A middle aged woman, Norma, is cut adrift by a series of tragic events. Norma is a chain-smoking, overweight alcoholic. She doesn’t see a viable future so she tries to lock onto something from her past to keep her afloat. That something is a long ago failed relationship. A lost love. She can’t resuscitate the romance but learns enough about herself in the process to begin again. What about the part appealed to you?
Audrey: I could relate to it. As you grow older you realize that you’re like a fossil. “laughter” Time wears the fragile, soft part of you away but replaces it with other, harder substances. Also the challenge appealed to me. It’s a very challenging role for a woman who is used to playing romantic leads. I’m a little frightened if you must know but I have to adapt to what’s being offered to me these days.
Interviewer: You’re known for taking great pains to get into character. Obsessively so, I’m to believe. What are you doing to become Norma?
Audrey: First of all I’m not a chain-smoker or an alcoholic but I can fake those things. I’m also not fat so I’m working hard to put on weight. It’s not as easy as letting your hair grow. On stage it’s hard to fake being over-weight. There are no good special effects. Besides, I think to think like a fat woman you need to live in a fat woman’s body.
Interviewer: Audrey, I’m afraid you’re a purist. “laughter” You don’t look particularly chubby. You’re running out of time to fatten up. Are you going to make it?
Audrey: Of course I will. I just worry about taking the weight back off after the run of the play. I might get used to milk shakes and Twinkies. “laughter” Harder than even the weight is adopting the attitude. How to be convincingly angry and bitter and lost. But I know I have it in me.
“Seventy five cents? Last week you paid a dollar a pound”, Nate said to the grease-ball at the gun metal desk whose chair squeaked as he rolled forward, closer to the desk to look at the compu-tablet. Nate was talking to greasy Carl but staring at the machine to the side with flickering lights and display screen on top.
“Seventy five cents for a pound of words now. Supply and demand. Too much supply. Not enough demand”, Carl said.
“But these are good words. These are hand picked words.”
“A word is a word. It’s a commodity.”
“Excuse me”, said a man nudging Nate aside and heading for the machine. “Hello, Carl”, he said as he dumped words into the word-hopper.
“Hello, Ben”, Carl said as the display screen noted the weight and payout. Carl handed Ben the cash.
After Ben left, Nate said, “Hey! That was a lot more than seventy five cents a pound.”
“Lies. Ben sells lies. They’re worth a lot more. Americans can’t get enough lies.”
“Then my words are lies”, Nate responded.
“Put them in the machine. The machine will know. I think you’re lying. Hey! You’re catching on.”
“Excuse me.” A young woman squeezed by Nate and headed to the machine. Her perfect skin glistened with sweat. Her cotton sundress gathered at her ass. Her crack sucked at the fabric. There was a dark patch of damp material at her lower back.
Nate and Greasy Carl watched her sublime, moist back undulate, sway and bob through the room, throttling back for effect knowing she was being watched, and out the door. Then they surfaced, knowing they had drifted too far from shore.
“Carl, that was a lot more than seventy five cents a pound too”, Nate said.
“But did you see those words?”
“Were those lies too?”
“No but did you see the presentation? How they were packaged? They were even scented. Yours are in a burlap sack.”
“I thought all words were commodities, that words were words.”
Nate sighed. Carl’s chair squeaked.
“You could sell them overseas. Words are worth a lot more in Europe and Asia, for example”, Carl said with a hint of compassion.
“They’d be spoiled by the time they got there even if I could afford to ship them in the first place. Besides, they’re the wrong flavor.”
“Have it your way. Sell or don’t sell. We’re just wasting words. Words are cheap but they’re not free. I’ve got work to do.”
Nate dumped the burlap sack into the word-hopper. He said at the display screen in a defeated voice, “That’s not seventy five cents a pound.”
“Sixty five cents. Price just fell.” Carl turned the compu-tablet so Nate could read the charts and graphs tracking the word exchange.
Nate took his money and walked out into the glaring light. Searing heat. Everything – buildings, people – looked bleached. He felt the hot pavement through the thin soles of his shoes. Saw cardboard in a trash can. Tore off a piece approximately the size of the inside of his loafer to patch the hole in his sole.
“That’s my cardboard!” yelled an approaching man dressed in rags.
“Well. It’s my cardboard now motherfucker”, said Nate having taken all he could take.
“Chill dude. We’ll share.”
Nate threw the rest of the cardboard into the trash along with the empty burlap sack and walked away. After a few steps he thought twice about the burlap but saw, upon turning, that the bum had already taken the burlap and the cardboard.
A little farther was a hot dog vendor. A shiny metal cart with a blue umbrella. Nate bought a hot dog and a Coca Cola. The hot dog smelled like death. The Coke tasted like lies.
Around the corner, in shade cast by a building, sat a blind man. Back against the wall. His cane had been stolen. Coins in a cup grasped securely. He dared not let the cup loose. Anything out of sight was lost. From his perspective, everything was out of sight.
Nate dropped the rest of his money, seventy five cents, into the cup. Blind man shook the cup. A toothless smile.
Nate had a thought. He was going to the bridge. The Bridge of Sighs. A guy wrote a song about it once. Hopefully, he got paid.
A friend of mine and I somehow got on the topic of cars we have owned. I’m not a car guy now but I was when I was coming of age in rural Ohio where access to an automobile meant freedom.
I learned to drive in the fields on a farm truck with a bad clutch. My first car was a hand-me-down from my older sister, a 1962 Ford Galaxie 500 that burned so much oil I carried quarts around in the back seat. When I fired it up I held my breath until the cloud of blue smoke that enveloped me drifted away. My first “real” car was a 1965 Ford Galaxie 500 convertible. Convertibles are chick magnets for high schoolers. The car was old but in mint condition. I totaled it twice. I should explain. The first total was a “technical” total by the insurance company meaning that the car wasn’t destroyed but the cost of repair was roughly equal to the car’s value. So I bought it from the insurance company as a scrap and fixed it up.
The first total happened on two lane route 35 heading east. I was getting a blow job from my then girl friend. No one had told me blow jobs can be a little distracting for the driver. Realizing I was going to plow into the rear end of the car ahead I put the Galaxie into the ditch (rather than into the opposing lane). C. (my girlfriend) slid off my lap and under the dashboard taking out my 8 track player and either the Black Sabbath or Grank Funk Railroad tape we were playing (I can’t remember which). Romantic music is, of course, necessary for the perfect blow job. We were skipping school so there was all kinds of hell to pay. At least I had escaped with my dick attached.
The second total wasn’t nearly as interesting. Route 50 east of Chillicothe undulates in the hilly terrain. We would pick up speed and launch our cars over the rises, losing contact with the pavement briefly. It was exhilarating until I launched the car off the road and into a field. Not the one I learned to drive in. Because of these and more adventures and misadventures I would say that the Galaxie was my favorite, car but not the best, car I have owned.
After the second total, my car ownership privileges dried up for a while and I was stuck with limited use of my dad’s second car (he always had two), a 1972 Buick Park Avenue. The Park Avenue was a big, lumbering beast that had wonderfully ample front and back seats suitable for all sorts of recreation. It was like driving a sofa. Try parallel parking a 70’s Park Avenue. The car had ridiculously heavy doors. Once when picking up a date and, like a gentleman, handling the tombstone sized door for the young lady, I slammed her ankle in it. We spent the evening back in her parent’s house watching t.v. while her mother glared at me and the icepack on J.’s ankle.
The best car was the one I had in college. A 1967 Chevrolet Chevelle SS. Jet Black with a huge screaming V8. Not the most practical car for the Ohio State Campus. Fully restored it would be worth somewhere around $50,000 today.
My worst car was one of my early favorites. A 1970 Audi 100 that drove and rode like a dream but nearly bankrupted me. It needed a valve job at 50,000 miles and it continued to be in the repair of the month club until I unloaded it on some poor fool. I suspect that the mileage had been rolled back by the shady dealer I bought it from.
Most reliable car award goes to my 1979 Volvo 240. The odometer stopped working just short of 350,000 miles. I drove it for another year afterward. In second place was my 1965 V.W. Bug. It was so rusted it had no heat and if I grasped the mother-of-pearl steering wheel and wiggled my butt I could move the driver’s seat. Driving to work in the rain, through a big puddle, one day I was drenched from the waist down. The only time it failed to start was when I discovered the battery hanging by a single cable through the floor under the back seat. It had a six volt battery. I blew the lights all around by offering a jump start. I had bought the car for $250. I sold it for parts three years later for parts for…$350.
My subsequent rides have been mostly a series of Toyotas and Volvos. Reliable but uninspiring. I have long lost my car fetish but I’m faced with the need to buy one in the near future. Cars are, frankly, an expensive pain in the ass for a city dweller but unless you live in Manhattan or a city with excellent public transit (Cincinnati doesn’t qualify yet) a near necessity.
I don’t want a new car. I don’t even want a modern car. I don’t want a car that is essentially a computer on wheels. I want affordable vintage. Something not so precious and rare that I can’t treat it like…a car. I don’t care about power windows or power anything. I don’t really even care about air conditioning. I’ve been making a list of desirable cars. All would be prohibitively priced if in mint, restored condition but I don’t mind a little rust or tears in the upholstery.
1966 to 1972 V.W. Bug
1984 V.W. GTI
1972 BMW 2002 Tii
70’s era Toyota Land Cruiser
Early 80’s Mercedes 300D
Or a 1965 Ford Galaxy 500 convertible with an 8 track deck. Black Sabbath tape. And a blow job. While parked.
“I’ve got an idea for a t.v. show. The Working Dead. It’s like The Walking Dead but in an office setting. The zombies stumble around their cubicles dropping files and trying unsuccessfully to pour cups of coffee in the break room. At lunchtime they eat each other.”
“Zombies don’t eat other zombies, Dude. They want warm, living flesh.”
“Oh. Okay. Then they have a subsidiary company of living people they feast on.”
“Good for a couple of episodes. But what happens when the subsidiary all become zombies?”
“Well, see. They are a giant multinational corporation that gobbles up smaller companies worldwide in an effort to kill off all life.”
“Old news, Dude. Old news.”
Exit with a Smile
Play Russian Roulette with 6 bullets in the chamber
Agree to go first
Treat your suicide as performance art
You’ll miss the applause
There won’t be an encore
Find a Nazi to make of you
nice lampshades, cakes of soap
Donate your organs to be harvested
while you watch
with a martini
Shove a stick of dynamite up your ass
Light the fuse with the help
of a mirror
Try not to fart
Join Anna K. under the wheels
of a moving locomotive
after you’ve checked your bags
in the coin locker
Or with Sylvia, your head
in a cold oven
gas turned high
Take a nap in the car
purring in the closed garage
with Leonard Cohen on the stereo
Asphyxiate by drowning or noose
or dry cleaner bag
or face-up under the cheeks of a fat girl
who has trouble “getting off”
A shoving match with a vending machine
over a lost quarter
A high speed road trip
with a fifth of Jack Daniel’s
and a friend for company
Finish all your prescriptions
at one time
so they don’t go to waste
Don’t bother to consult the dosages
You won’t need refills
On safari among the big cats
slathered in bacon grease
without weapon, ammunition or remorse
A non-stop diet of cured meats and liver pate
washed down with diet soda
The long way home
Practice your high wire act
for the first time
while a little tipsy
carrying a shifting load
Tell your girlfriend she probably should
go to the clinic
to get tested
Fuck yourself to death
explode with multiple orgasms
That’s the ticket
Enter with a cry
Exit with a smile
Lori’s is a beacon in the night, as easy to miss as a fireworks display. A brightly lit ramshackle roadhouse a half hour out of town to the east. A big neon roof sign reads “Late Night Lori” in huge cursive red letters and “in all her glory” in smaller block lettering beneath. The parking lot is nearly full but Spence manages to squeeze the borrowed B.M.W. between a Dodge pickup truck and an old Toyota Celica with one fender of a mismatched color.
The bar is long, backed by an enormous tarnished mirror rippled like the surface of a pond. Navigate through the mismatched wood tables and chairs painted vibrant colors – red, green, blue, yellow, orange – to the bar where you stand western style. No stools to encourage malingerers. A place where serious, production drinking is encouraged. designed for frequent enough turnover to keep everybody alert and on their toes. A Wurlitzer jukebox is cranked loud but not too loud to talk over. A Tube’s song is playing.
Step right up and don’t be shy
You will not believe your eyes
The walls are cluttered with mounted and framed centerfolds of Lori in various states of undress. Vintage. When centerfolds were more art than smut. No full-on crotch shots. No spread eagle gaping vulvas. Just coquettishly posed Lori flesh. Big, juicy Lori breasts. Smooth, round mounds of Lori ass. Long, shapely Lori legs. Her nakedness often punctuated by a pair of heels.
Spence particularly likes the one on the beach in a straw hat. Lori holding a beach ball strategically at her waist. Lush honey-blonde shoulder length hair. Demure, almost innocent despite taunting nipples and fetching thighs. She looks like she can’t believe what she is doing. Like on a dare. An “am I doing this right?” expression. You want to protect rather than defile.
one in a million girls
she’s a beauty
Why would I lie?
The pin-ups are arranged chronologically. The ones from the tail-end of her modeling career show a more wizened, perhaps cynical Lori. Sprinkled among the centerfolds are photos of fully clothed Lori in the company of celebrities. With Ed Begley on a movie set where she made a cameo appearance. Arm in arm with baseball player Mike Schmidt. Having lunch with Dick Cavett. An endearing photo of Lori holding the hand of a child wearing a frilly dress and white socks trimmed with lace, her daughter Lucy presumably. Still shots from T.V. commercials for a soap manufacturer. An out of date poster for The Odd Ball charity event that Spence had attended several days ago.
There are also campaign posters. Lori is running for office under the slogan – Nothing to Hide – a playful jab at her centerfold history and serious corruption allegations against her opponent.
Spence finds a spot at the busy bar. A chubby bar maid with a pert nose, perhaps a former pin-up girl herself before the life-style and age took its toll. A smoker’s voice. A smoker’s skin. She’s looking like a strip of beef jerky but with striking green eyes and a warm, sweet, though nicotine stained smile.
“Lori isn’t here tonight,” the bartender says to Spence, the new guy, the stranger she had watched studying the centerfolds and photos. “Tourists always expect to see her but she’s not here tonight.”
“Okay. A beer then. What’s on tap?”
“Miller. Miller Light. Bud. Bud Light. Coors. Coors Light. Heineken.”
“A High Life, I guess.”
Spence turns his back to the bar, leans back and rests his elbows on the bar as support, surveying the crowd. Mostly regulars he’s guessing. A cluster of Yuppies in business attire, keeping to themselves. A group of construction guys in dirty jeans, work shirts and baseball caps sit at a large round table in the center of the room. They laugh too loud and ogle the female customers and servers who are badly outnumbered. A foursome is engaged in a game of euchre. “Stay home. I’m going alone,” a man says to his partner who lays her cards face down on the table and pumps her fist. An arched doorway leads to an open-air grotto that Spence will check out later. He doesn’t want to lose his spot at the bar just yet.
A young, pretty server with a very round tight bottom squeezed into black tights scurries about the room delivering drinks and picking up empty glasses. You could bounce a quarter off her ass, Spence thinks.
A man in a leather jacket with star shaped studs strides authoritatively to the bar. Under the unzipped jacket he wears a “wife beater” tee-shirt. Customers move aside without resistance to allow him access to the bar. A red bandana tied to his shaved noggin, jeans, boots and a wallet attached to his waist with a chain.
The chubby bartender puts a beer in front of “leather jacket” without being asked. Mug to mouth, he drains the beer without a pause, his Adam’s apple pumping vigorously. “Chubby” wordlessly refills his mug. Again, mug to mouth, mug drained, empty mug on the bar for a refill. This happens three times in quick succession. The barmaid enters the walk-in cooler at the far end of the bar and brings forth a twelve pack of Budweiser. Leather jacket tucks the beer under a burly arm and walks out the door. No money is exchanged. In a moment the distinctive rumble of a Harley. Motorcycle and rider must have been there, somewhere, when Spence arrived. He wouldn’t have missed it pulling in.
Spence catches Chubby’s eye and points to his empty mug. He’s down three to one against the biker. Chubby lays down a fresh mug. She is assembly-line quick.
“The big guy that was beside me,” Spence says to her. “That was impressive.”
“He put three mugs away in, like, less than ten minutes.”
“Tic gets thirsty.”
“So, that was Tic. I should have known. Sounds like a guy I should meet.”
“Tic is Lori’s brother. He’s a decorated Vietnam war hero. He’s here almost everyday at some point. If you become a regular you’ll meet him. But don’t expect to become buddies.” She walks a way.
Lori sits in the small office. Alone, having issued instructions to the staff that she is not to be disturbed. She should be working on the books but instead, after her meeting with her brother, she is in the endless thought loop that has dominated her mind for the last several days. Ever since the L’il Bruno incident at The Liz.
They paid her to take her clothes off. How easy was that? Stand. Sit. Recline. Bend-over. Try not to sweat under the lights. Nothing to it at all, really. Look at the camera. Smile sweetly but knowingly. Click, click, click of the shutter.
When the magazines came out she could hardly recognize herself. Like looking at a slightly prettier twin. A completely different, glossy, two dimensional person.
They wanted more, of course. But even at her tender age she was smart, she understood. She gave of herself freely, too freely, but in private and only to people who mattered. She would not do porn no matter the money offered and it was often substantial. She understood that what is scarce is valuable and what is plentiful is cheap. She would not become plentiful. She would control how much of her, and in what form, was in the marketplace.
The acting career never took off. She almost landed a stripper part in The Exotic Ones, but she could
t dance for shit. The trashy, cheap Ron Ormond horror-comedy film with Sleepy LaBeef. What interesting men, both Ron and Sleepy. She made another attempt with Swamp Thing which wasn’t quite a remake or even a sequel but was inspired by The Exotic Ones. That didn’t work out either. By that time she was getting a little too old and who could compete with Adrienne Barbeaux’s tits anyway. So she stuck with the gentleman’s magazines for as long as her body would allow.
It was Tyler who had helped her understand that she was a brand. The soap company certainly thought of her as a product although they bought her when she was nothing more than a Sears catalog model and dumped her as soon as she showed up in nudie magazines. The movie studios liked the naughty girl next door image she had cultivated and gave her bit parts in B movies but her lack of acting, dancing and singing ability stymied her progress into more meaningful films and roles.
Tyler was supposed to manage her career but all he managed was to drain her bank account and fill up her womb. The pregnancy ruined her figure and her career not that Tyler gave a shit. He wasn’t interested in Lucy’s arrival at all. He split soon thereafter and there was never a chance at reconciliation. His foolish lifestyle made that a certainty.
The little Alpha Romeo didn’t bounce off the galvanized steel guardrail the way a regular car would have but wedged itself underneath taking off the top of the car, the top of Tyler and the top of the floozy who was stupid enough to ride with him.
Lucy romanticized her father as she grew older. In her mind he was James Dean and she was James Dean’s daughter and that brought with it certain privileges and obligations. Lucy became as reckless as had been Tyler. She thought the rules didn’t apply to her. She lived in a world without consequences. Lori knew all about consequences. You pay for everything sooner or later. When the balance comes due you’re lucky if you can pay in installments without too much interest but you pay none-the-less.
Lori had hoped that Michael, the older man, the experienced man, might be a stabilizing influence on Lucy. But he is as much the opportunist and corrupter that Tyler was. He connected her with the crowd that saw only her exterior beauty. Lucy as object. Lucy used her beauty as a medium of exchange. Parties, drugs, gifts and money in the bank.
Lori was down and out, broke and abandoned with child when she met Arnold, her Impresario. Arnold offered to bankroll the roadhouse expecting nothing but a financial partnership in return. He inspired her to get involved in charities and politics. He found the late, ill fated L’il Bruno. He saved her life.
She had been distraught over the bear. Saw it as a disaster but Arnold had a different view. The newspaper and television coverage were free advertisement for the charity, the movie, the roadhouse, the restaurant and her political campaign. Almost any publicity is a good thing if you know how to spin it, he said. Contributions to the charity were rolling in. The movie would open to record crowds, Arnold assured her. People were asking about franchise opportunities for Bruno’s Beastro. She led in the polls by a wide margin.
It was Arnold who told her to consult with her brother about Lucy’s boyfriend. Tic would know what to do with Michael, he said. She knew that was true by the look in Tic’s eyes as he left their meeting earlier. It’s a weird, weird, warped, wonderful world. And she is only now learning how to live in it.
In the ballroom of the Elizabeth Hotel, nicknamed the Liz. Situated at the edge of run-down Near North and the adjacent, resurgently affluent Riverside District. Technically, The Liz is in Near North although the River-siders have claimed it as their own. The hotel is a luxurious, restored, historic Italianate structure comprised of what were once three separate buildings that share common walls, as was the nature of building efficiencies in the 19th century.
Large tables, each with six chairs with assigned seating, arranged on the perimeter, leaving an area in the center for dancing and performances. With Spence and Jeanine, in the far corner next to a portable bar, sit Officer Tommy Henkel (Jeanine’s police officer colleague), Tommy’s chubby and chatty wife Rhonda, George Miller, the owner of a successful local printing company, and his wife Maureen, a shy woman known for mumbling to herself. Balding George, whose remaining hair sprouts randomly on his scalp like tufts of grass poking through beach sand looks like a newborn chick. George is one of the communities leading philanthropists.
A cover band plays on the stage at the far end of the hall. The Passage (a makeshift band cobbled together for the evening) is led by front man, vocalist and rhythm guitarist, Stevie, with a mullet haircut and a high pitched, falsetto voice. They are fond of Journey and Cars covers. Their version of Anyway You Want It, to Spence’s mind, needs a ukelele since Stevie sounds vaguely like Tiny Tim.
“The lead singer, I think his name is Stevie, is ‘Cinda’s cast-off boyfriend,” says Rhonda.
“Cinda?” Jeanine asks.
“Lucinda. Lori’s daughter. She goes by ‘Cinda. I wonder if she’s coming tonight. Stevie still carries a torch. It could be awkward for both of them. He licks his wounds in public.”
“You mean Lucy,” Jeanine says.
“Yes, Cinda uses that name also. Strange girl.”
Wishing to gossip but not getting many bites, Rhonda continues. “Lucy is involved with a much older man,” she says to Maureen in a conspiratorial whisper meant to be heard by all.
Spence, Tommy and George go to the bar for drinks. Tommy isn’t drinking because he’s on-call at the police station. He’s in uniform and armed. Jeanine wants a gin and tonic and Spence orders the same, passing on the crappy Budweiser and Miller. The gin and tonics are expensive and watered down. Spence doesn’t mind buying, even though he’s counting nickels these days, because all the proceeds go to Lori’s charity and he is riding on Jeanine’s dime. He learned the tickets had cost $100 each. He wouldn’t have accepted Jeanine’s invitation if he’d known how much she would be out. But, anyway, she’s the one with the good job.
When the men return to the table with the round of drinks Rhonda is still spinning gossip. “We don’t know who he is but rumor has it that he’s got about three decades on Cinda.” Jeanine and Maureen are rapt in attention. The Mullet scans the room as he croons hoping to spot Cinda or hoping not to if she is with her new beau.
The Impresario, (Lori’s business partner, Rhonda explains) in tails and top hat, works the room with witty pronouncements and disparaging one-liners to roast the more prominent guests. A juggler rotates colored balls. A unicyclist wearing a jester’s hat weaves in and out of dancing couples. The cyclist can stay in place by alternating forward and backward pedaling, occasionally dipping toward the floor like the yellow bird toy that takes a sip of water out of a glass before bouncing upright.
Moon, a palm reader, stops at their table. She reads Jeanine and Spence’s palms as a couple, a dubious description of their new relationship. Moon is a fat, middl-aged woman with unnatural brassy hair. She wears a muumuu as big as a tent, inky blue satiny material adorned with moons and stars and the ringed planet Saturn. She traces the lines on their hands with a long, garnet fingernail. Jeanine and Spence will both live to a ripe old age, she announces, although Jeanine will outlive Spence. Not exactly going out on a limb, Spence thinks. Women usually outlive men especially if the man is a decade older. They are extremely compatible Moon assures them though they should be wary of external influences in the relationship. “True love is within their grasp but they will be sorely tested.” Jeanine blushes, squirms and avoids eye contact with Spence. Moon clasps both of their hands tightly and closes her eyes as if in prayer. She rises with difficulty from the chair she had pulled forward for the reading. Spence fishes a buck out of his pants and hands it to Moon. She refuses payment and floats away like a colorful barge down a river.
“I’m sorry,” Jeanine mouths silently to Spence as if she were responsible for the spectacle. She takes him by the hand and drags him to the dance floor for a slow dance. Nick the drummer takes over on vocals while The Mullet takes a smoke break, probably looking for Cinda. Nick’s voice isn’t bad, thinks Spence. He’s heard him before with another band called The Bangers.
Spence wraps an arm around Jeanine’s little waist. He extends his free arm for hers in the traditional dance pose but she throws both arms around his neck and pulls him close like a teenager at a sock hop. She’s a lightweight drinker and the weak gin and tonics are getting to her already. Her cheek rests on his shoulder. Her hair smells fresh and clean like after a rain storm.
“Thanks for coming. I hope this isn’t awkward for you,” she says.
“Only in the sense of the ticket expense. Let me reimburse you,” Spence says while hoping she’ll decline his offer. He suspects she will.
“Don’t be silly. I invited you. Please don’t be the chauvinist guy who thinks he’s supposed to pay for everything.”
“Okay but you call the shots. We’ll dance all you want and even have another session with Moon if you like.”
“If Moon thinks we’re a couple we probably should play along,” Jeanine says a little more suggestively than she would have liked so she quickly changes the topic. “These guys are pretty bad aren’t they?” she says referring to The Passage.
“Yeah but they’re better without the Mullet. What’s the deal with Cinda?”
“A child. 19 maybe 20. Always been a handful. We’ve hauled her in a few times.”
“Juvenile stuff. Underage drinking. Disorderly conduct. Shoplifting. We rarely actually charge her. Lori is important but she can’t control her daughter. The only person Lucy listens to is her Uncle Lars. He mostly goes by the nickname Tic.”
“I’ve heard of him. How did he get his nickname?”
“It’s short for Lunatic. Lars is a Vietnam war vet with violent tendencies. Well meaning but violent. He’d kill for Lucy and Lori. That’s not an exaggeration.”
“Lunatic. Literally moon sick, you know. The ancients believed the moon could drive one mad.”
Jeanine snuggles closer. Spence can feel her heat. “Hopefully Lucy is cleaning up her act. We’re going to stop treating her like a kid some day,” she says.
Jeanine had pulled Spence over months ago on his way home from Ruby. Ruby Cafe is only about eight blocks away from Spence’s apartment. He should have walked per his usual but, for whatever reason, he hadn’t that night. BWOOP! BWOOP! Lights in his rearview mirror. He waited for a long time until a small officer of the law, a female cop, approached his window with a flashlight large enough to serve as a weapon. The light shined in his eyes as he dug in his pocket for his license and in the glove compartment for the registration thinking all the while that he was throughly fucked. He didn’t feel drunk but most assuredly was in the yes of the law.
“What did I do?” he asked.
“You were driving too slow.”
“Isn’t slow a good thing?” he asked, not argumentatively. She didn’t respond.
The police woman with a blonde pony tail poking out the back of her police cap stared at Spence’s license for the longest time before the inevitable question, “Mr. Croft, have you been drinking?” Spence sat clutching the steering wheel like he thought you were supposed to wondering how she knew his name until realizing, duh, she’s looking at his driver’s license. Maybe I’m drunk after all, he thought. Thinking he had nothing to lose he answered honestly, “Yes. And I’m less than a block from home.” He pointed ahead toward home and looked at her but couldn’t make out her expression because of the glaring light. She said, “Ok. I’ll follow you,” and handed him his documents. The world is still full of miracles.
Spence drove slowly but not as slow as before with the cop car on his tail. Pulled to the curb in front of his apartment as did the cop, probably making sure he had told the truth because the address on his license was the previous one before he moved to Near North. Concentrating extra hard not to stagger or stumble he walked toward the steps but turned around and went back to the cop car with the window down and the pony tail inside and said, “Would you like a cup of coffee? I know I could use one.” The second miracle of the night when she said, “I’m due for a break,” and called it in on the radio. Followed him up the steps and inside the apartment which thankfully wasn’t in its usual condition having been tidied the day before. He brewed strong coffee in his parent’s old electric percolator he’d had since college. He poured cups while Officer Jeanine (he’d learned her name by then) looked around the way cops are probably trained to. Scanning for dead bodies or drugs or contraband.
Over coffee they talked about the neighborhood and how it was changing in some ways for the better and in other ways not but it was definitely safer now though there were still dicey pockets and one shouldn’t wander around alone at night especially if one is inebriated, she stressed. Jeanine was pretty but not beautiful in the way Spence was good looking but not handsome. He thought, however, that she looked silly in the uniform like she was going to a Halloween party.
Jeanine talked about being a cop because her father was a cop and while she liked the steady work and good pay she didn’t really have a passion for law enforcement and wished she had more time for her art. Spence reciprocated with tales of his life as failed musician and failed novelist but successful drinker and womanizer. He said all this because she’d opened up to him and he’d kicked the evening off by being honest and it had worked so far so why stop now.
The full moon bright through the kitchen window. He told her the moon is very gradually pulling away from the earth and was much closer and appeared much bigger in prehistoric times but scientists are divided on its eventual fate. None of it really matters because we’ll all be long dead by then and have more immediate concerns.
Officer Jeanine was finding all of this interesting and inspiring from an artist’s point of view when her radio cackled and she had to go because of a hit and run involving a pedestrian at the corner of Rubicon and Madison. She had overstayed her break anyway.
A few weeks later Jeanine pulled him over again while he was innocently returning from the grocery store and hadn’t had a drink all day and wasn’t driving too slow. This time, in broad daylight and without the giant flashlight, she approached the car with a smile and asked Spence if he would like to accompany her to a charity ball. He said sure why not because he was flattered. An officer of the law had never asked him for a date before. She wrote her phone number on a warning ticket and suggested they get together in advance of the charity event for a drink.
The met at the bar in Baci, a nice Italian restaurant in the Riverside District. Spence had to admit that Jeanine was much prettier in civilian clothing. Her hair was full and shiny when not hidden and smashed by the cop hat. She had been drawing pictures of the moon and stars, she told him, and she would show them to him sometime. Spence thought this was a clever way of suggesting an encounter in the intimacy of her home so he said he would enjoy it very much.
They met again to play pool at the Lap Dog Brewpub. She wore an alarmingly short skirt that showed all the way up her smooth and creamy, but substantial, thighs while she stretched over the table for a difficult shot. A view of panties and full bottom giving Spence a new appreciation of the tremendous variety of female terrain and charms.
That’s how Spence found himself at the Odd Ball with a woman he hardly knew but felt he had known all his life.
The Passage steps aside to allow Lori center stage. She thanks a long list of people who made the fundraiser for needy children a success. A unicyclist is pedaling from table to table depositing pledge envelopes. Jeanine puts a twenty in her envelope. Spence does the same with his, silently fretting over his dwindling resources. Lori points to a big thermometer poster that tracks fundraising results. The red is just short of the top of the thermometer. She recites the list of events that led up to the Odd Ball. Trotting for Tots, the annual charity marathon. Bikes for Tykes, the bicycle/tricycle give away for disadvantaged youth. Bids for Kids, the annual charity auction. Spence is into yet another pricey watered down gin and tonic. Jeanine has stopped drinking. When he is lubricated his imagination kicks in.
Yids for Kids, organized by the local synagogue. Dykes for Tykes, promoted by the lesbian community. Sots for Tots, sponsored by Alcoholics Anonymous. Spence laughs at his own witticisms, tearing up and shaking in his seat with Jeanine asking, “What? What?” Spence knows this is not an occasion for mirth but risks whispering his inventions into her ear. She puts her hand to her mouth and leaves the ballroom as if going to the restroom. He follows her, concerned, and finds her laughing in the hall. He realizes he is in love with a woman who can laugh at his silliness, big thighs and all, at least for the moment. He kisses her and gets that familiar jolt in the pit of his stomach. They reenter the ballroom together as Lori is announcing a special guest.
Through a door at the far end of the ballroom emerges a man wearing a safari outfit. He looks like a demented Boy Scout. Behind him a bear wearing a vest and a tasseled Fez. The bear, looking like a hairy Shriner, walks upright, ungainly on his hind legs. A small bear as bears go, Spence thinks, although he has never before been this close to a live bear. The bear appears to smile. Demented Boy Scout and Shriner Bear waltz around the room. Spence looks at his drink and all the faces at his table, making sure they are seeing the same thing.
Lori introduces L’l Bruno, the wildlife star of her soon to be released major motion picture – The Adventures of Billy and L’il Bruno. A share of the movie’s profits will be donated to her charity, she says. There will also be a restaurant named Bruno’s Beastro. Lori is an extremely ambitious woman, Spence is thinking.
The Impresario cuts in to dance with L’il Bruno. Boy Scout bows and steps aside.The Impresario and L’il Bruno waltz near a table next to the stage where Moon had been reading palms before L’il Bruno’s grand entrance. L’il Bruno sniffs at the air with his greasy bear nose and the smile erodes from his bear snout. Moon is the object of his olfactory attention.
L’il Bruno pushes the Impresario to the floor and drops to his natural four legged stance. Guests at the nearby tables scramble. Moon snags her muumuu on the rough edge of the makeshift stage as she attempts to flee. The muumuu is swept from her shoulders and falls, in a heap, at her feet like collapsing firmament. Mullet leaps from the stage to rescue Moon. L’il Bruno sees him as a rival and swats him aside. Guest race out the door into the hall.
Moon’s bare breasts hang like saddlebags, her thong of thin cords buried deep in her supple hips and the crack of her ass make her look like a trussed rump roast. She drops to the floor in a defensive position with her face down, hands to her head and her white moon ass high in the air. An unfortunate stance. L’il Bruno, thinking his celebrity status has earned him a prize, sniffs vigorously at the delectable bottom, preparing to mount.
The unicyclist, frantically pedaling away from the melee, head cocked to watch the bear, crashes into the wheel chair bound wife of a dignitary, burying his face in her lap. She screams and beats him frantically with her purse. L’il Bruno, spooked by the commotion, abandons his conquest and bounds into the hallway of panicked guests.
Jeanine looks at Spence with an alarmed expression. Spence stands with arms raised, ready to applaud. But doesn’t.
Officer Tommy dispatches L’il Bruno with two precise shots to the head at the entrance to Chez Simone, the hotel restaurant and the source of additional enticing aromas.
The Boy Scout, believing the execution unwarranted, weeps over the bleeding mound of fur.
Eventually, Jeanine takes Spence home with Steve Miller’s Abracadabra blaring on her B.M.W. stereo to distract her and calm her nerves. Not his home. Hers. She makes him take a handful of aspirin and drink a large glass of water. She strips him and wrestles him into bed. Spence keeps one foot on the floor to stop the spinning. Jeanine undresses to her panties and pulls on a tee-shirt that reads Isla Mujeres. Crawls in beside him. A train rhythmic on rails passes nearby. The last thing Spence remembers is Jeanine hovering and kissing him on the mouth, nose and forehead.
She listens to the train’s clack, clack, clack and whistle and looks at the waning, imperceptibly receding moon.