Charlie Forte opened the polished doors of the Mission-style cabinet, not an original but a damn good copy, that held his store of liquor. Three years ago, Jessica, his wife, banned the piece from their new house. This was on the advice of the elfin interior decorator she hired\ after the record-setting advance Charlie received for his latest novel had settled into their bank account. The demonstrative darling, whose primary talent was to wave his arms like an Armani-clad sorcerer, said this handsome piece of furniture clashed with the “palate” he was creating for their living space.
Charlie determined “palate” was decorator’s newspeak. He feigned smelling his armpit and groused into it “It’s my living room not a effing atelier.” He knew he could have said artist’s studio or garret, but no one heard him and it didn’t matter if they did.
Nevertheless, he saved the piece, moved it to a corner of their three-car garage and gained a bargaining chip. The landscape “artist” decided to raze a derelict shed the former owners used to store tools. Charlie stood firm, declared the shed his new office and had it retrofitted making certain there was room for the cabinet. Initially, it held the banal accouterments of a writer -- pens, paper clips, reams of paper, toner cartridges -- but Charlie soon tired of shuttling across the hundred yards of manicured verdure, between his office and their kitchen, to refill his glass of scotch. Soon he duplicated his supply of libation in the style-challenged cabinet and it no longer clashed with anyone’s effing palate.
The piece added luster to his office and provided him with many sources of liquid comfort and courage. What would his choice be this morning, Charlie asked himself looking at his watch
for guidance. The time check was a habit that to this day, even at this early hour, persevered.
For him, the custom began when he was a radio sales executive in New York. Charlie, pushing bottles of gin and bourbon around on the top shelf of the cabinet, recalled how the group of top grossing salesmen would meet with the VP of sales Friday mid-day to hoist a few from the office bar. Just us boys having a few belts to celebrate our mastery of our universe before taking the 5:15 home to Westport or Scarsdale was the tacit motivation. Someone would calculate the six hour time differential and breathlessly advise the others “They’re having a nightcap in London,” giving all permission to drink.
The luminous face of his Rolex replied through its shock-proof face 9:53 A.M. Charlie rapidly did the math. “Oh, my God! It’s almost one in New York and nearly seven! Seven in London! Those buggers have been drinking more than two hours and I haven’t touched a drop.”
Before his hand could reach out and grab a bottle he was acutely aware this day time no longer applied to him. By day’s end time would no longer be his concern.
Charlie lived in what the real estate broker’s listing sheet termed “a contemporary fixer upper.” In the arcane parlance of Southern California realtors “fixer upper” applied to any house not looking like the penthouse in Trump Tower. All Charlie and Jessica saw during their initial visit was a one hundred and eighty degree view of the Pacific Ocean to the west and the spires of downtown Los Angeles office buildings to the east. Some fixer upper!
In the car returning to their soon-to-be former home they spoke constantly of the view and realized neither knew the make of the stove or refrigerator. “Who cares?” they spoke in unison.
Even though the advance on his new novel enabled Charlie to buy any house they desired, he still wanted a good deal as justification for this, or any other, expenditure. On the next visit he enhanced the “fixer upper”designation, poking here and there and clucking to Jessica about all the repairs the house required. His expression of discontent was not lost on the real estate agent who mumbled nervously about consulting the seller. Only Jessica knew this was patented Charlie behavior. No matter how glorious the circumstance Charlie was never satisfied be it a house or a wife or other female companionship.
Charlie’s need to be validated on his terms seeped into every sphere of his life, but specifically sprung from his first book deal. The publisher decided to identify the writer of its new acquisition as Charles W. Forte, not wanting any author in its catalog to be mistaken for a bartender or doorman. Charlie interpreted this inadvertent slight as diminishing his identity.
He adamantly refused to present himself in any way that diffused his true nature. More to the point he never had a middle name. Within days of seeing the offensive change in the galleys, Charlie sent the publisher a special delivery letter identifying himself as a “shambling, roiling mass of humanity with a drink in one hand and the other up the skirt of my latest quest.” Jessica was not asked to proof the letter. The publisher, seeing no need for a rewrite by the promotion department, used Charlie’s self-styled description on the dust cover of the book. Thus was a career and a reputation begun.
With the housing market in free fall, his low ball offer was accepted without a quibble. Half a dozen illegals recruited from Home Depot on Sunset Boulevard painted the house, freshened the landscaping and converted the former tool shed into his office. Net, net he saved a quarter of a million. Most importantly, he didn’t do any of the work. That was Charlie’s definition of a “fixer upper.”
If work was so ennobling, he thought, why not be charitable and let others have all the glory. He was aware that by now those who worked for a living had almost completed the first hour of their work-day labor.
Charlie experienced some guilt knowing he didn’t have a work ethic like millions of other people around the world. The phrase itself, more than his deficiency, was bothersome. Work ethic, he mused, was the application of a moral overtone to any activity that produced financial reward. This, Charlie cynically noted, usually was in disproportion to the amount of actual labor. To him it was another indication of how the language had been debased over the years. Most likely the concept of work ethic was spawned as a means of controlling the masses and became integral to the so-called Judeo-Christian ethic. He knew there was no ethic in work, only in action. Charlie didn’t work. He was a writer. Now, toward the last hours of his life he was clearly aware writing was the only activity worth engaging.
Long ago, Charlie ceased worrying about not conforming like the other ants in the nest. As a writer, he was immune to a life of rote. Unlike most writers, Charlie was successful, some would say very when they experienced the rarefied air he breathed. Don’t forget the view, either.
An eagle’s nest was shabby by comparison to his east-west vantage. Like most writers Charlie was self loathing. Often he wondered if one needed the other. I write therefore I hate myself. Not exactly cogito ergo sum, but it worked for him.
As for the success part, there was another reason. Luck. Not talent or creativity? “Pure Genius” one reviewer in Dubuque had proclaimed of his latest best seller “The Queen’s Jewels.”
Charlie didn’t know how genius was defined in the Midwest and figured the writer must have been stoned or wanted a piece of his ass, not necessarily a physical piece. Had Charlie been a more lyrical writer he would have substituted soul for ass. The essence of the chosen word was his
fear that anyone getting too close would become and emotional and spiritual tapeworm. Hence, ass, one of the components of his metaphorical arsenal, was essential to Charlie’s world view.
Pain in the ass in Charlie speak was an annoyance or temporary difficulty to be over come not just any pea in the mattress vexation, but one that was incessant like the din of gasoline-powered leaf blowers used by the omnipresent squad of gardeners who invaded every upscale neighborhood. Ever hear of a broom or rake? His internal scream. The answer he received was a passive-aggressive silence. He never heard a broom or rake, neither a nice shhh sound like a drummer brushing on a drumhead, nor a Zen-like reordering of the chaos.
Instead, just the obnoxious, smelly cacophony of leaf blowers. When the intrusive noise got too close to his office and disbursed his thoughts, Charlie would yell BASTA! out the door. If the gardeners didn’t understand much English, most likely Italian was also elusive. He hoped the sound of his voice would indicate displeasure, maybe even anger. Jessica said he could do the work himself if the gardeners bothered him so much.
Piece of ass. His standard and most useful definition was always a woman he’d love to fuck or a woman who was very attractive but unavailable who when free he wanted to fuck. Or, “piece of my ass” could mean, that someone wanted to achieve vicarious stardom by invading Charlie’s life. A fawning review could lead to an in-depth feature story for a glossy magazine, which would then propel the writer into greater fame and glory which might easily eclipse Charlie’s.
Long ago he’d posted virtual “no trespassing” signs around his emotional space. “Stand too close to the sun, you could get burned,” was his admonition when he felt the uninvited edging nearer his comfort zone. It was a warning that interlopers would be shot. Not dead. He never would physically harm anyone. But, there would be a penalty for entering forbidden territory. All transgressors received the same fate - banishment to Charlie’s custom built gulag for non-persons. Out of sight, no more contact. Done.
A slight variation in theme or circumstance, chiefly aggravating circumstances, and the meaning was shaded a bit. In this instance, Charlie’s ass reference was to some presumption that transcended mere trespassing. An attempt by a complete stranger upon first meeting, whether at a cocktail party or business meeting, to create a relationship of equals with him was usually the most obvious. I beg your pardon, Charlie invariably would say to himself while arching an eyebrow at the parvenu. I don’t do hale fellow, well met. Only Charlie decided who was his equal or his better.
He had several definitions for the phrase fucked in the ass. Principally it was a severe expression of being taken advantage of, being taken for granted. It was non-sexual abuse and the ultimate description of exploitation. All other expressions lost resonance and became inconsequential in contrast. When Charlie felt emotionally or professionally violated, the most personal and devastating destruction had been wrecked on his world.
Being taken for granted, used or exploited had been his betes noires since Charlie was old enough to reason. Not that he knew the expression at age seven or eight. All he could intuit then was a resistance to something he opposed or an admonition he thought unfair.
“We depend on you because you are the oldest,” some parental figure would proclaim thereby suppressing his natural instinct to act in the opposite way and also providing him with a dose of discomfort and resentment.
Years later, when he complained about the inequity of an early deal to his literary agent, the empty response in return was “bend over and take it like a man.” The implication was clear. He was being fucked financially and there was nothing to do but endure the exploitation until he was in a position to command a more lucrative contract.
Thoughts about the failure of others to reciprocate physically or emotionally ate at his innards and brought down his precious store of self esteem by several notches. Some called his focus on the failures of others to provide his required attention a form of narecissim. Perhaps it was. A gesture to satisfy him did not have to be grand. A phone call was perfectly acceptable. How white of me, he thought.
But, it was a thought of him that mattered. “Hi, thanks for this or that,” was always welcome. Just remember me! Goddamn it!
The second definition of being fucked in the ass was physical. Both to give and receive. There were times, and it was purely the occasional times (don’t get carried away with this concept) when he needed to be ass fucked. And not, underscore, not for all our readers, by a guy. Not a homosexual, homo, not a fag, faggot queer, pansy, sissy - he could go on but it was stupid to continue using references for a lifestyle that was not his.
Charlie was no fuckin’ lady! Plenty of ladies could attest to that. And there were times he wanted, would allow one or two of them, though not at the same time, to fuck his ass. These were women he learned to trust who were understanding, gentle, and who also liked back door pleasure.
There was that one, her name was...He shuffled names in his mind. Leah. A shrink. Imagine. She liked ass fucking. What were her issues? What did she tell her shrink? Did sexual preferences matter anyway? Only in one sense. Do not fuck children. Hear that holey father in Rome? Tell all your closet queens in their black dresses to stay away from the kids. You can diddle each other until the cows come home. You can diddle the cows, if that floats your boat. But keep your mutha (you can fuck them too) fuckin’ hands off the kids.
Charlie got really hot thinking about this, so much so that he wondered whether he in fact had been sodomized by a priest. Had he submerged any memories like that? Because his own sexual preferences were vast, he could surprise himself in these instances when he became an ass, frankly, about priests, pedophiles, and those who exploited the defenseless and weak.
Charlie was aware there were other forms of usage for the word ass, from barnyard animals to misfits and bunglers. He preferred his derivations. They were specific and personal. What Charlie wanted more than fame or the grandeur of his domicile was that he should have a personal impact on those who offended him. Not physical. That would entail actual contact in close proximity. He shuddered at that thought. Charlie wanted his pound of flesh with the only weapons he ever had. Words. That desire provided the essence of his latest novel.
He never would have expected to write something so intimate, even if a roman a clef. His high school English teacher, Mr. Donovan, counseled those of his students who wished to write the great American novel should write what they knew. Charlie resisted that advice. In class Donovan alluded to his novelizing for the last five years. The conclusion of his students was obvious. Donovan didn’t know much about his own life if it took that long.
All Charlie knew about in high school was whacking off. He could write a novel advising on hand lotion, softness of tissues, lurid magazines and conjuring images. Hell, Philip Roth had made it big with the story of his own whacking off with liver. From the family fridge. Charlie had more experience with the other. The only meat Charlie ever used was his own.
As a high school student, the main source of his Charlie’s life experience involved his family, particularly fights between his mother and father. These, however, did not generate any erotic heat, nor did his sisters. One time he got a glimpse of sister Maureen’s pink tit, nipples and areolae included, through the open side of her baby doll pajama top without her knowing. Having never seen a bare breast on a living female his reaction was natural. He recalled a quick rush of blood to his crotch but not a twinge of interest or desire then or since.
Charlie chose his life for the last novel of his life. After all the other books finally he wrote about something he knew better than anyone. Mr. Donovan was right after all.
Whew! Charlie shook his head to wipe away the geyser forming inside and about to erupt. Now for his choice of libation. He could start the day easily. A little vodka. Some tomato juice and a crisp stalk of celery. Healthy choices. His lair - the north forty he liked to call it though his property was only two acres - was well stocked with all the tools and distractions a writer needed.
The computer with its files for games and sites for porno was the chief deflection. Stacks of unread magazines the detrius of unrenewed subscriptions and shelves of DVDs, some still in shrink wrap. The possibilities for idleness had no limit. He contemplated a vapid use of his time, but his day was spoken for. Before proceeding he took a stiff taste of his drink.
“Charlie” he heard a woman’s voice call his name from the back door of the house and immediately placed his drink behind his flat panel computer screen. He knew she wouldn’t be fooled. Never was. Confrontation -- not in her genes. Her family communicated through words like “I suppose” and “I guess so” which followed, or were accompanied by the determined tip toeing and circling around any issue whether specifically unpleasant or vaguely banal. No radicals, no freedom fighters, or contentious firebrands in this group. They were as bland and anonymous as a white wall. Not like him, genetically inclined to verbally assault. To make demands and ask questions. Point fingers. “What the fuck? Who are you?” was his approach.
All of which meaning, if his wife really cared and not just said she did, she would haul at him about his drinking and the rest. It was a long story to be told in the next life time. If there was one.
“Charlie. I’m leaving,” Jessica, his wife, waved.
“See ya later,” he replied half opening the screen door, poking out his head.
“If you want to drink yourself to death, that’s your choice.”
“Don’t give me that AA bullshit!”
“I’ve given up trying to save you long ago, Charlie m’dear.”
Charlie struggled for a fitting response. “Ta, ta. Ciao bella. Arivedirty.”
Jessica walked off shaking her head. Charlie knew this was not a gesture of acceptance. She waved backwards over her shoulder in faux European style. Some might say it was her genteel way of telling him to go fuck himself. Charlie knew better. It was passive aggressive, not genteel. They did this every day, waved to each other and blew kisses back and forth. It was a ritual since the first of their twenty- five years of marriage. A sweet gesture, sweeter in the earlier years. Now, just a formality or worse. A rote response leaving no casualties.
What did it matter? The children were in college. The boy Matthew, was a senior at Stanford. Melissa, two years younger, was in her second year studying fashion at some institute in New York. Nice kids. When the absence of his emotion pierced the warmth of the vodka, he snorted liquid through his nose. Helluva way to regard your children, fruit of your loins, heirs to the future of the world.
You want the truth? They were nothing like him. Talented in different ways. Neither had his gift, if it was a gift and not a curse, of writing. He swore in moments of unkindness that neither could write their names without looking at their drivers’ licenses. Too harsh, maybe so. He cherished the word. They did not. For them it was a tool. Like a screw driver, something to use when needed and then forgotten until the next time. Were they a disappointment to him. No. One has to have expectations to be disappointed.
He married and in the natural order of fucking, the kids came. Rather, he did, then they arrived. Cute babies. Nice youngsters. Well raised by Jessica. But, he wanted to be the center of the solar system. Now, that’s candor. And about time. To continue, he didn’t like to share. Selfish? Another word he put in the same category as the work ethic concept. We’re all selfish.
When your world falls apart and you have to fight for a scrap of bread or drop of water, see who’s cloaked in Christian charity and defers. “Oh, no. You can have that crumb. I’ll starve.”
What his children saw in him, he didn’t know and never asked. He was their father with all the attendant familial and social baggage. No doubt they knew who paid for their clothes, food and tuition. Beyond that, so what? Curious, he thought, his children were not required to provide the same acknowledgment of him as business contacts and friends. Maybe that was his subtle penance for not being a more loving father.
Whatever the relationship with Matthew and Melissa, they were grown and would always have their mother. Besides, it was also too late for anything more to develop. During these times alone, he made a conclusion that would culminate by night fall. He was destined to deliver on that one promise to himself.
He watched Jessica disappear into the house and picked up his drink. More time for him to ponder his fate, but the morning’s lengthy dissertation intruded. The second word after ass in his arsenal was not exactly a metaphor, but a symbol. The word was breast not used in the same context at all as ass. He surrounded the word with reverence, as all the best writers poets, and painters Charlie loved did.
At the breast created the image of a child being nourished by milk from the breast of his mother-- or in some cultures, a wet nurse. Famous paintings hanging in all the major museums in the world contain images of Madonna and Child. The archetype transforming all mothers into virginal Madonnas, an image that was illogical to him on the surface. But, he understood how over millennia, cultures shifted from matriarchal to patriarchal. Virginity became a prize and a price to ensure legitimacy of progeny. More importantly, the assurance of virginity was used to strip women of their self worth and independence. Their value would be assessed only by males. He mused that all of those famous depictions of Madonnas by Raphael and Lippi and others were poles apart from the popular singer and serial adopter of children from Third World countries.
When he thought of breast he recalled paintings featuring a young child with a mouth full of teat. Sucking his ass off looking fat and happy. Perfect poster child for the “me”generation. Yeah, for how many generations? He spat out a voluntary laugh while taking a gulp and sprayed vodka laced tomato juice over the final draft of his latest book. Becky will chew his ass out for being a pig. Becky was his secretary and, contrary to unpublished reports, there was no fucking; he didn’t fuck her. He didn’t have to. She was a lesbian. A nice lezbo. One we all could co-exist with. She didn’t have WD-40 under her fingernails or hair under her armpits. Maybe she was a fem and maybe she was not and who gave a damn?
She’ll be pissed. It didn’t matter. Charlie planned not to see tomorrow.
Before he got to the denouement, as college professors, charlatan writing teachers and those who never wrote a word were wont to say. Before he rose to the tip of the rising climax, he needed to make absolutely sure this was the right decision (it was) and make all the necessary preparations for a successful denouement. Presently, he was delinquent in the latter.
He did know that the end would not be in a blaze of glory, but with a whimper. Like all those who didn’t immolate themselves or land with a splat, Charlie thought. Unlike them, it would be his choice.
Charlie blotted the tomato juice. Luckily Becky had stenciled the title on a thick cover, saving the text pages underneath from being stained. He read the first page.
“At least a dozen women knew he was married and fucked him any way. Only one of the twelve was married herself. A baker’s dozen. Most of the others were divorced but some had never trod down the aisle. They weren’t hookers or tarts. They weren’t coke addicted teens or college girls looking for a male scalp to attach to their feminist coup sticks. Au contraire dear reader. They were every day, salt of the earth women who seemed to want only a chance to express their sexuality. In the best manner: by having sex. And he certainly was a willing and grateful assistant.” Charlie stopped reading to see if he could phrase the opening paragraph any better.
Never put any text in front of a writer, he thought. He, or she, will always want to screw with it. It’s a moral obligation to improve what is in front of them. Surely, the Bible could be condensed. Too many characters and a rambling plot. Subtext up the ass. Did that concept, or even the word itself, even exist in ye olden days. Very possibly it was coined in Lee Strasberg’s method acting classes and then over used to indicate erudition by publishing assistants newly graduated from a Seven Sisters school while reading the slush pile.
A real writer might have fixed all that begatted mess. But then the Bible is either a very bad novel or comic book depending on one’s intellectual level and should never have been printed in the first place. There is the part all the chest thumpers believe was created by divine intervention. THE WORD OF GOD! Halle fuckin’ luljah!
And the world made in seven days. In spite of science, fossils, carbon dating: none of it mattered to the true believers, the stupid bozos. None of them had any interest in questioning the word of God, as they saw it.
Thousands believe that. Because? Why? They were TOLD to believe that. Didn’t anyone understand that a belief is only a thought one keeps thinking? By rote repetition they created “faith” and eliminated reason. Blind faith, some said. There was a contradiction of intelligence. Like those guys who walk over burning coals in a trance. Belief or idiocy? Charlie would rather be labeled a disbeliever and maintain his intelligence than deny himself for some life-after-death fantasy.
Charlie fixed another bloody Mary. The word “told” circled in his head.. No one thought about how the Word was handed down. Orally? Don’t tell me orally. All those abject illiterates. He stopped. Couldn’t be any illiterates cause there was no literacy to be ill about. He amended that thought with - all those abject unschooled bearded wonders whispering in each others’ ear the Word of God until Lo and Behold! Some lice-infested monk in a rat-infested monastery cell, pulled a feather from the ass of a goose and scratched out what? Word of God!
Wow! Charlie reined in his enthusiasm. He was on a roll and it felt good. It felt so good, he might even consider living. Impossible. He’d hurt too many people. Make that women. The novel was his last will and testimony. It was his signed, sealed and delivered confession. It would satisfy no one, but would make his wife a lot of money. That would be his lasting bequest. His contribution to the domestic coffers. An attempt at mea culpa that he hoped would be as heartily felt as what he tried to convey with the paucity of words at his disposal.
He needed something stronger and opened the cabinet. A bottle of framboise was the first he saw. Unopened. Strange to find a virgin liquor bottle in his cabinet. Brought back six months before when Charlie’s friend Abe returned from a sentimental trip to Paris. Visiting the places he remembered from the years as a student at the Sorbonne was a magical time for Abe who often interjected his reveries during their monthly poker game.
“Enough already with the voulez vous couche avec mois,” was all Abe had to hear and he shut up and dealt the next hand or more often he shut up and folded. The framboise was a gift from that trip. They vowed not to open it until Charlie’s latest opus was published. A fitting tribute would be drinking champagne with framboise. Together.
The bottle remained untouched because Charlie’s friend of twenty years was slowly fading away in a hospice somewhere in Tarzana. Of all places to watch death come through the door. Tarzana. A town named for a series of novels. Only in California. Edgar Rice Burroughs, who wrote the Tarzan books, was a long- time resident. Hence the name. Charlie saw Abe within the last week. When he called only the day before a nurse told him Abe was fast asleep, drugged presumably, breathing with the aid of oxygen. Charlie assumed Abe had a few hours left. They both did. Abe, thankfully, was unaware of his remaining time. Charlie counted the minutes, looking at the Rolex again, and the computer. 12:15 p.m.
They’d bid their adieus the week before. “See you soon,” Charlie said just before leaving. “No you won’t”, Abe, said with a chuckle. “Don’t bet on it,” Charlie fired back. It was similar to the same repartee they exchanged during a decade of poker games.
As was his habit, Charlie checked his horoscope in the L.A. Times. Charlie never read the prediction under his rising sign of Capricorn. He skimmed for amusement. “Jesus was a Capricorn,” Kris Kristofferson sang in a song. That’s where the similarity ended. Today he read: “...you have never felt more intense, passionate as you do now.” Further down he saw “...do not believe promises of love and money...” Now they tell me, he thought.
Thoughts of Abe slowed his need for a refill. Instead he picked another page from his book
“The problem with wanting intimacy with many women is you have to learn all their frailties. The ‘I am woman hear me roar crowd’ is probably sharpening their knives, ready to slice off my balls. After years of experience including much trial and error, as well as pain and anguish, he knew he was right.
“Is she resisting because of stretch marks or fat thighs? He wondered why many intelligent women tried to achieve the air brushed figures of magazine cover girls or perfume models. Others were reticent because they had herpes and were moral enough, out of concern for a potential partner, to resist transmission.
“A rare few had P.I.D., or Pussy In Distress, to the uninformed. Always some drip or itch or twitch to delay the act. Even without physical symptoms, whining permeated every sentence in these instances and those he could do without. Like driving a car constantly dripping oil, necessary for transport, but... He even had to contend with women reluctant and embarrassed, the garden variety he called them, by what they perceived were anatomical features he wouldn’t like - ‘I’m small up there’ - or ass cheeks that they covered with long sweaters fearing discovery and disgrace. Some would say he was a misogynist. They were wrong. He did not hate women.
“He loved them too much, truth be told. He hated their imperfections both physical and emotional. He hated his own imperfections even more. Good ol’ Henry Higgins in that old musical “My Fair Lady”. “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” Why should she? The question under review was the problem with women’s frailties. The answer is time.
It takes time to overcome resistance based on cellulite or P.I.D., stretch marks, whatever. He had neither time nor inclination wooing and cooing non virgins, many of whom had been around the block one or two times.
“They knew the score. It’s called nookie. I scratch your itch, you scratch mine. Maybe the words of a cynic. Or one who is a bean counter. To steal a phrase, he thought, a cynic is a romantic who has been rejected. An old high school joke intruded. Why now a remembrance of high school? Those were the years of the first erections and nocturnal emissions. The first thrill at the reveal of blossoming bosoms on magazine covers or, if lucky, a quick glimpse at a Playboy centerfold, flashed surreptitiously. High school was the crucible in which eroticism and cynicism blended. Some men never leave high school because it is too familiar and comfortable. Life becomes an extension of the jock or slacker, pothead or boozer world of high school with all future experiences viewed through those prisms.
“His mind was wandering all over the place. Back to the subject. The women in his life: how they wronged and righted him. How he always wronged them. Or felt that way because of his love for sex, but not for permanence. Just the thrill of the sex. Like a good meal. What was the wrong in it?
“High school intruded again. The joke about the ‘hereafter’. Clear as day it came rushing back. Four boys sitting across from each other at a table in the library. Under discussion was not the War of 1812, but the sexiness of women. All four virgin pud whackers together could barely justify the expense of purchasing a razor. They were seriously considering whether a naked woman was sexier than a dressed woman. The unimaginative chose naked.
He recalled the fair-haired girl he saw on the bus each morning, the one with the St. Agnes crest blazer indicating she attended an all-girls Catholic school. She wore knee socks and a pleated skirt that moved back and forth when she walked, like the rhythm in a hula dancer’s hips, and a white shirt that buttoned down the front for easy access he imagined. Did she ever notice his shy glances?
She was the model when it was his turn. Dressed women are sexier he hushed across the library table. The other three gave that serious consideration. The swish of a black cassock. Brother
Ralph, the proctor, fast approaching forced them back into the early nineteenth century.
“When they were no longer under surveillance, one of the four finally told the ‘hereafter’ joke. ‘Guy asks a girl if she believes in the hereafter. Of course she says. I’m going to heaven when I die. No, there’s another one he says. Oh? Yeah. “If you’re not here after what I’m here after, then you’ll be here after I’m gone.”
Charlie shook off a visceral grimace remembering, then slipped the manuscript pages into their proper order. God. Silly man, he said as he returned to the cabinet and reached into the back for a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black label. Ice from a mini fridge clinked into a heavy crystal glass was soon covered half way with Scotch. Usually he would drink JWB neat to savor the peat smoke vapor that swirled at the back of his mouth before each swallow. He had a long day ahead and needed the dilution of some ice melt to avoid becoming sloshed before his time
The warmth of the scotch always put him in a pensive mood. Maybe it melted resistance and opened blockages in his mind. What some called inhibitions, Charlie called demons. All those imps and minor league devils roamed through the pages of his new novel. He thought giving them life between hard- backed covers would expose them to the light of day where, if not expelled, the little devils could be scorched. What actually happened was beyond any expectation. Those demons grew stronger, as if the light were life giving. Better to have kept them bottled up. Gradually, they peeled away his defenses, the self esteem he had built upon sticks of straw, rotten straw.
He gave them life and they betrayed him. Brought him down. A familiar theme in his range of experience. Charlie had no choice. His decision was final. Let the world deal with his demons as they wished. Whatever works. Believe them or not. Cuddle and nourish them or burn the book. He’d be long gone -- by then a whisper on the wind, if that. The slings and arrows of outrage at his wandering ways would whiz right by him, off target.
Charlie felt a tingle in his head as the scotch now flowed freely in his blood stream. There was a job ahead, but he could relax for a few moments. He allowed himself to reflect on Marta, one of his failed quests. They didn’t “meet cute” as Hollywood script writers would refer to chance encounters with romantic overtones. Charlie was waiting for his clothes to dry in a laundromat off of Second Avenue. Marta was folding sheets he thought she was a maid or at least a nanny. Not the first oafish blunder in his life.
Marta cooly explained she was a masseuse, washing the sheets because the brother of her cleaning lady was sick. Charlie’s attempt to discern the origin of her accent was a second mistake. She gathered her linen and left with barely a nod. Charlie followed and before the light turned to green she gave him a business card. The look in her eye doubted he had lumbago, but she couldn’t deny Charlie’s perseverance. Over time she became one of his few failed quests. He didn’t count the women he wanted but was too afraid of rejection to try. Marta was not in his book, but remained in his head.
Marta ultimately revealed her lively and friendly nature. She was amenable to being his luncheon guest whenever he asked. There was always a wall he could not breach. Nothing overt, but an acknowledged shield of plexiglass, that she erected, between the two of them.
During one lunch, Charlie remembered, he decided to push the plexiglass back. They were half way through lunch when he surprised Marta by the direction of their conversation.
“You know over the years, I’ve developed a great deal of affection for you.”
“Uh....yes.” She raised her head, a look of trepidation creasing her face, waiting for the next mortar shell to come whooshing by.
“I mean, I’ve told you I am physically attracted to you.”
Marta nodded in agreement.
“Do you find me physically attractive, I mean, am I in that sense, desirable to you?” Here Charlie deviated from the plan, but his ego was trying to wrest control.
“Well...I mean...you’re not repulsive.”
Marta saw Charlie pause. Gee, thanks, he thought. She continued to eat.
“If you wanted to make love to me...” he started until Marta coughed so violently diners at another table rose from their seats ready to perform the Heimlich maneuver. Marta was fine. The surprising words as she swallowed a bit of salmon caused the reaction. She blew her nose and drank some water, before smiling back at Charlie. “I’m fine.”
Charlie watched the other diners take their seats before continuing.
When he spoke, Marta stopped eating. “Suppose you had a desire for me.” Her laugh was not motivation to continue. He tried to determine if she was made nervous by the subject or amused by a preposterous idea.
“I know it sounds preposterous,” Charlie felt in this type of situation some self effacement was required, knowing full well that he was also self-erasing. “Let’s say you were...wanted...had a physical and mental...desire. Hypothetically. How would you proceed?”
Marta cupped her hands together and held them in front of her mouth. She was not smiling, but giving the question careful thought. She was quiet for a few seconds before Charlie wondered whether she needed some help.
“Would you woo me until I made the first move. Coy gestures and giggles.”
“Charlie, be realistic. Me? Giggle?”
“Sorry, I forgot. No giggles. Or, would you be direct?”
“Do I have to spell it out.” Charlie admitted his heart jumped a little at her comment.
“Yes, please. I’m trying to understand your hypothetical premise. Massage, my work, is always with the concrete. My hands. A body. Real. Give me a moment.”
Charlie felt her slipping away and went for the quick strike.“I’ll give you a ‘such as’. I want to be your lover. I want to make love to you. You are the sun and moon and mars...” He purposely went schmaltzy to draw her out.
“It’s the sun, the moon and the stars. Not mars. You know I’d never use such a cliche.”
“I never said you would. Only an example. Give me credit for...”
She laughed and looked at him across the table, then gently shook her head.
“I’m not going to tell you, Charlie.”
He poured another scotch, then put it down on the desk. A large photo of Jessica book ended by smaller photos of Matthew and Melissa smiled at him. Knowing that he would never see them again did not bring any welling up of emotions. He took the back off Jessica’s frame and slid out another photo.
Sierra, the golden girl as she was known in those days, posing in a bathing suit on the beach on Maui. She wore a one piece that showed all that was needed to know about her body. Sierra never wore bikinis. First, that was not the image the advertising client wanted to portray. More importantly to her, Sierra didn’t like bikinis. She felt that suggestion was more evocative than overt presentation. He learned more about her much later when their relationship became physical.
He’d never forget when that photo was taken. They both had shipped out to Hawaii. He to oversee the print and TV commercial campaign for a soap company. Sierra would be the focus of the advertising. Tough job. There was Sierra on the edge of the bay. He trod across the sand in his blue suit, white shirt and rep tie, getting sand in his black tasseled loafers. A brief introduction, then back to a scene from the commercial.
Later, a treat. She joined him at the lunch break. “Mind if I join you,” she asked. Mind? He thought, blurting out something as exquisite as “it’s your funeral.” She laughed. Not in a condescending way, but understanding. “I’ll have some wry with that ham...” she responded, understanding self effacement. After that they were able to speak freely.
“I remember seeing your face on every magazine cover when I was in high school.”
“You must think I’m old enough to be your mother.”
“Hell, no. We were both teens then. That face. Gorgeous. Your eyes. Your smile. You were my dream girl, the perfect date for the prom I never attended.”
“Aww. I’m sorry.” It was genuine and she patted the top of his hand.
“It was hard over the years not to read about your boy friends, marriage...”
“Marriages and divorces, don’t forget. I sure don’t.”
“Now, here you are. Dreams do come true.”
“Maybe you’re not dreaming large enough.”
A day before the shoot ended, Sierra approached Charlie at the water’s edge. This day he was in shorts and obligatory Hawaiian shirt. His feet were bare and he let the warm water wash over them with the rhythm of the tide.
She leaned close to his ear to make sure the sound of the surf did not muddle her words.
“I want to be your lover.”
Charlie looked at the photo, kissed it and returned it, hiding it and the ten years they shared. Three drinks and the continued connection to a lost love were draining. His eyes fluttered until his inner voice reminded him of his task. “Why sleep now when the big sleep is waiting for you?”
Charlie was drawn to a headline below the fold of the Los Angeles Times. It read:
AN ANONYMOUS DEATH AT SUNSET AND LABREA. Some feature writer, whose name was unfamiliar as were all the bylines at the Times, except for sports writers, in this era of downsizing and salary buyouts, wrote a first- hand account of his recent experience.
The story began: “A 17-year old girl died on the south west corner of Sunset and LaBrea Monday morning while waiting for the light to change . She was on her way to class at Hollywood High about eight thirty.
“I don’t know her name. The incident was reported on Channel Four. The reporter showed skid marks on the sidewalk but her name was not revealed. Tuesday’s Los Angeles Times had no room to mention the incident. A bus accident in the Valley took up the space. Perhaps hers was one of too many tragic deaths in the city on any given day.
“Her death matters to me. I was at the Mobil station Monday morning ten minutes or so after eight. If not for a delayed delivery of personal checks and a slipped clutch, I would have been at home.
“For me, this is more an opportunity to ruminate on the existence of the ’what if’ factor in our daily lives, than reportage of a tragic event. And, once the role of fate is accepted, to finding new perspective and gratitude - no matter what the circumstances. This is also a story of entitlement.
“My wife Ginny was completely out of bank checks. She had been expecting refills for more than a week and was concerned they’d been lost or worse. On Saturday DHL called to inform us that they needed an apartment number to deliver the checks. I provided the information and was told the delivery would be made on Monday between 8:30 AM and 12:30 PM. One problem solved. Except.
“Driving Ginny’s car the previous Saturday I felt the clutch slipping. . She had noticed it as well, but tended to deny the need for immediate attention. At first we thought it only slipped going the limit on the freeway. A block from home we knew that mental trick wouldn’t wash.
“While the subway was an option, for an early morning meeting on Tuesday the car was more convenient - no surprise. Clearly the clutch, unsafe at any speed, was shot or soon would be. It had to be fixed on Monday.
“This meant I would have to take her car to Joe, our long-time and trusted mechanic, at the Mobil station on Sunset and LaBrea early enough so that I could walk the four plus blocks home and arrive before eight thirty to await DHL - not a problem since I work at home.
AND NOW THE REST OF THE STORY
“I took Ginny’s to the Mobil station, making sure I got there as close to when they
opened, about eight, as possible so I could walk home and be present for DHL My recollection is that I left about eight ten, which is a guess since that morning I never thought I’d have to remember the precise time. I exchanged pleasantries with Joe, who has professionally ministered to all of our cars for more than a quarter of a century. Joe told me they would check the car and call me with a report.
“Walking north on La Brea from the garage I stopped for some bagels, complaining all the way home that they now cost 75 cents a piece. Could it be the cost was actually an increase of sixty cents over the last fifty years? But I was home by eight thirty and DHL came by nine.
“I called to check on the car at three only to learn from Joe that there was an accident. The garage had been closed all day. The car was fixed but no one knew when I could take it home as yellow police tape bordered the corner of Sunset and LaBrea.
“What kind of accident could necessitate the closure of the only gas station at Sunset and LaBrea? It was a question of limited and narrow vision. How many times had I brought my car in for repairs and later drove it out again without incident. How many times had I filled up the car at the Mobil station and driven away unimpeded? Acts that are certainties. A known and frequent part of daily life with no need for questions or examination.
“At eight thirty a Mercedes came speeding - police say at a rate of between fifty and sixty miles per hour and most likely thru a red light, south down LaBrea. It struck an SUV traveling north, but making a left to head west, careened into the pedestrian crossing - that I had passed through on the way to the bagel shop twenty minutes earlier hit the curb, went out of control, struck a Hollywood High student waiting on the curb to cross the street and both threw and dragged her to the third exit of the gas station. Channel Four reported she was dragged fifty or sixty feet, according to police..
“The seventeen year old girl was killed instantly. According to some of the mechanics at the Mobil station she was from Thailand. The driver, who was arrested, and passenger in the Mercedes had to be extricated using the jaws of life.
“When I picked up the car about four a fire truck arrived to wash off the blood. I
got all the details from the mechanics I knew at the garage and then was able to leave, arriving home half an hour later.
“What does this mean? Not to sound morbid or overly eerie, but: Had the checks not been a week late; had the DHL driver used common sense and looked for our name on the front door; I could have taken my time going to the garage and maybe arrived at eight thirty or been in the cross walk at eight thirty instead of at home.
“Maybe the events of the day have no meaning, are just neutral. But at the end of the day,
an obnoxious expression, the most money the garage made was from Ginny's clutch, the young girl from Thailand met a tragic end and I will never complain about the cost of bagels That is my new perspective. Most importantly Ginny and I are safe. Fate passed us by. For that we have immense gratitude.”
Charlie pondered the impact of fate on his life and the lives of so many others. The Thai girl and the writer. However, the three drinks and the continued connection to a lost love proved to be exhausting his resolve. His eyes fluttered until his inner voice reminded him of his task. “Why sleep now when the big sleep is waiting for you?”
“Shut up,” he barked loud enough for anyone passing by to hear. Fortunately he was alone in back on the north forty. “If I want to sleep now, I will.” he did.
Charlie saw light at the end of a dark corridor. The light spilled from a slight opening in a door. Walls and door were painted grey, a blending he never would have seen if not for the crack of light. He opened the door to a painful brilliance. Shielding his eyes he took tentative steps until the light source was over his shoulder.
A large gathering of figures, not sure if actually human, dressed in a type of medieval clothing. A mixture of velvet and rags. Yet, surrounding the assembly were remnants of a modern age. Rusted heaps of Hummers and SUVs, smashed computer screens, a necklace of cel phones decorating the neck of a young woman.
A roar from the crowd got Charlie’s attention. He took hesitant steps while moving toward its center. When he saw that no one looked at him with concern or suspicion, he moved closer to the flat-bed truck, all four tires flat, serving as a kind of stage.
On the stage were two young men wearing miners’ helmets. Micro cameras replaced the usual headlamp miners wore. Their images were displayed on a giant monitor suspended overhead by wires from a large crane. When the cameras panned the crowd and their images appeared on the screen, they roared as one acknowledging their brief existence.
An explosion off stage silenced the crowd. Charlie didn’t think it was out of fear because a respectful hush replaced what had been the raucous noise of rabble. Half a tick later and the stage was pulsed by strobe light, each beat exhorting the crowd to higher states of frenzy.
The throbbing light abruptly stopped and a thickly build man of indeterminate age strode onto the stage. His arrival, long awaited by the crowd, was greeted by prolonged cheers presenting him with a vantage of humanity in molecular motion,
The ageless man had close cropped blonde hair and wore dark, wrap around glasses. Accompanying him, her palm resting on his suspended left arm, was a very thin woman seemingly years younger than the man. She also wore dark, wrap around glasses. Her air of superiority differed from his, which was one of strength and command. The woman affected the position of grande dame, a role more suited to someone older, but one she was not about to relinquish. Charlie could tell from her bearing they both felt very entitled.
The crowd roared and looked up at the monitor. The caption under a close up of the man on the screen identified him as August Channigo. The camera dissolved to a close up of the woman. She was identified simply as Augusta.
A voice from somewhere boomed over the loudspeakers. “The new age begins tonight with the joining of our leader August Channigo and his EQ.”
“EQ?”Charlie asked out loud. An older woman translated in a low voice.. “Equal Partner.”
“They will now sign ‘life passports.’”
Two assistants dressed in clothes that seemed to Charlie like those worn by court jesters in period costume movies approached the pair. August and Augusta were given old automobile license plates as well as a hammer and chisel. Each chiseled an X on the reverse side of the plate. Another roar of approval from the crowd.
“August and EQ now have the right to travel into each other’s lives and feel good about it. For those of you who were not deserving of an invitation, their wedding night is going to be spent inside a large white tent with rugs on the floor and nothing else.”
“Holy shit,” Charlie said softly not wanting more interaction with the others nearby, whoever they were. He moved through a barely lighted pathway that led to a large square. There he found another crowd. All dressed in grey unisex clothing similar to the uniforms worn in Maoist China. The crowd erupted. Charlie was swept along with others who took refuge on the top floor of a warehouse. Some of the faces seem familiar as if they are traveling companions. A Buddhist monk put grains of wheat on his bald head for a reason Charlie couldn’t fathom. Later he learned it was an act of respect and prayer for the monk’s bride, who is very sick. All the others put grains of wheat on their heads, including Charlie’s.
Gun shots whiz over the heads of the unsuspecting crowd. Someone below is shooting at them. One in Charlie’s group has a rifle, but doesn’t want to shoot for fear of being seen. Then, machine guns below fire a fierce and steady barrage.
Suddenly a freight train comes by. It is level with the warehouse roof. Charlie thinks if he can get to the train, he can escape. Perhaps they all can. Surprisingly other people are waiting for the train to stop so that their kids - seems like they are commuting from school - can detrain from a converted boxcar - by converted, an opening has been cut in one end not purposely built that way. Charlie can’t wait to get on the train and escape.
Charlie finds himself wandering around a strange city in a suit, polo shirt and sneakers looking for a job. No one knows if there are any. He meets other job candidates and concludes someone is hiring. The others are better dressed and groomed. He can’t imagine who would hire him.
Someone tells Charlie of a job and he enters a large furniture show room. No one is there. Only a few mismatched pieces of furniture remain. A large light bulb is in the corner. It’s the size of a mutant grapefruit. It glows. A young black woman enters. Charlie asks her about the job interview. She has no idea. She tells him her husband is the manager. But, because he “didn’t suck the bulb”, this morning, he has no information about jobs, either.
As Charlie bolted out of the chair in his office, his feet kicked the glass of scotch to the floor. It was too heavy to break. Charlie watched the glass send a trail of amber liquid onto a wine colored rug. and remembered choosing that color for such an accident. His eyes focused on familiar surroundings, glad to be shed of one of the weirdest dreams he’d ever experienced.
Maybe Sierra would know its meaning.
Charlie drove more cautiously than usual on the way to Sierra’s house. He didn’t want to get stopped for speeding, with alcoholic fumes belching from his mouth. At worst he’d go to jail for a time and his neatly-crafted schedule for self demolition would be delayed.
At best, if no liquor was detected, he could get a speeding ticket adding points to his already maxed out license causing its suspension. He might not be able to drive for six months or longer. As if!
Sierra lived out in the boonies, his name for Malibu. The dream gave him the perfect excuse to visit. A visit she didn’t condone and would cause her to be pissed. His ace was that Sierra loved to analyze his dreams. It was an exercise more for her development than his comfort. Funny how once a woman is through with a man, she crawls back inside her tortoise shell. No man will ever touch me again. Unless I want him to and he will PAY.
Sierra moved to the hills after her last and third divorce. All three husbands paid off well and she sought inner enlightenment at a Buddhist retreat near San Francisco. Returning to Southern California, she learned Tai Chi, practiced Chi Gong and delved into as many inner worlds as she could find. She loved Charlie’s dreams. They were rich in symbolism, had color and a vast array of characters. This was a period when they still were speaking and seeing each other as just friends.
“Just friend, lovers no more...” he sang part of the old Frank Sinatra tune. “...we laughed, we loved we cried and da, da, da, da died. The story ends and we’re just friends.”
The scenario Charlie had written to see Sierra one last time was different. He’d planned to be even more inebriated upon arrival, then take a handful of pills upon departure. After the visit, he’d drive fast down Malibu Canyon Road and then veer off into the canyon. If the fall didn’t kill him, being crushed in the mangled car would. For good measure he had a three-gallon Jerry can of gasoline in the trunk.
The last part was the best. It took a bit of effort and a lot of guile. Charlie made both Jessica and Sierra the beneficiaries of two new life insurance policies. Neither would know of the other and by the time they found out, the checks would be cashed. Like it or not they’d accept his largesse. One million each. The neatest plot he’d ever written.
He drove up a narrow, winding road past a colony of yurts, some horse corrals and a replica of Mount Vernon. That one. Home to Martha and George Washington. Accurately replicated in the middle of the Santa Monica mountains facing the Pacific Ocean. Disorienting was not descriptive enough, the site was someone’s idea of a very expensive joke.
Sierra saw his car snake up the mountain before she heard his engine. She met him before he stopped the car holding a copy of the manuscript for his latest book.
“You changed all the names.”
“To protect the innocent.”
“And, the guilty?”
“The guilty, too.”
“Why are you here? I’d have returned the manuscript the usual way.”
“I had an incredible dream a few hours ago.”
“Sleeping off your morning quaff, no doubt.”
“This isn’t another trick, is it Charlie.”
He relayed the dream about August and Augusta sitting on the hood of his car. Sierra had not invited him into the cottage and did not intend to have him as a guest, even if for a brief time.
She paid close attention to every word. Scribbled some notes on the back of his manuscript.
“Let me see what I can discover. Good job, Charlie. Very rich. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“Then, the next day.”
Charlie looked at the dusty ground and saw the thick root of a live oak tree poke out of the earth. He took a look around the cottage, the field stone entrance, clean white shutters. Picture perfect in every way. That was Sierra.
“I wanted to see you one last time, “ he said looking into her eyes.
“Oh, that again.”
“Yes. Again. For the last time.”
Angrily, she turned her back on him and returned to the house. He didn’t want her well proportioned ass to be his last image of Sierra. Running to catch one last glimpse of her ageless face, he tripped on the root, hit his head on a low cement garden wall and crumpled onto his head.
Sierra heard the footsteps and turned to find Charlie face down. “Oh, come on. Don’t be such a child.” He didn’t move. “Charlie. Charlie!” She turned him over and saw blood running from the corner of his forehead. Her hands fluttered about the wound, a spasm of inertia. She raced inside to call for an ambulance. That is when the songs began.
“Every time we say goodbye I die a little...I wonder why a little...”