When I tell people I work in advertising, the most common response is, “Oh, like Mad Men?” Yes, I tell them. Exactly like Mad Men. I get a similar reaction when I tell people my father was in the mafia. “Like Goodfellas?” they say, or “Like The Sopranos?” I’ve had numerous conversations—all of us have—where the most readily available access point is television or movies. Even historical events are more impactful with a cinematic gauge. For instance: “D.B. Cooper hijacked a plane in the early 70s, then parachuted out, mid-flight, with all the cash. Just like the ex-presidents in Point Break.”
Life makes more sense to me after its been embalmed and dressed up by screenwriters and makeup artists. When I hear of a shark attack in Cape Cod I wonder if the mayor and the police chief are at odds about closing the beaches. When an American is held hostage in the middle east, it frustrates me that the president never deploys a squadron of 1980s action heroes on a search-and-rescue mission. Make-believe is simply more palatable than the real thing. Maybe that’s why I initially chose to pursue a career in movies. And maybe—most likely, actually—that’s why my movie career was a meteoric failure. Making movies, as I discovered firsthand, is not as cinematic as it seems in the movies.
Now I work in advertising, a field I chose based on simple logic: TV commercials are like movies, only much, much shorter. Therefore I can enjoy a similar kind of creativity with only a fraction of the effort. That logic proved false. I spent all of Thursday writing billboard copy for the Tallahassee Bureau of Tourism. Nine hours racking my brain for a cute and clever headline to accompany a cartoon of four alligators on a water slide.
Lately my job has consumed much of my time, so it seemed appropriate to look back on where it all began: my first day in this business, when I was greener than major league grass, before I realized there was more to advertising than presenting illustrated concepts to a conference room full of suits, like the opening scene of Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
Let’s go back to the summer of 1999, after I returned to Boston from an eighteen-month tour of duty in Los Angeles (read Easy, Massachusetts... for more on that). I was living at home with my parents, waiting tables at night, partying until sunrise and searching the Boston Globe’s Help Wanted page every day in search of a new career, someplace that would hire a 24-year old with a year and a half of experience and a portfolio of college newspaper film reviews. Every day I would scan past listings for jobs I had never heard of, vague and ominous positions like underwriter or controller or estimator. I saw lots of openings for pharmaceutical sales, auditors, restaurant managers, analysts, machinists, even drivers, but nothing for “Entry Level Ad Agency”. Then finally there it was, tucked away at the bottom of the generic PROFESSIONAL section. In bold lettering. Calling out to me.
CHAMPIONSHIP ADVERTISING, a sports marketing firm, is looking for ambitious, motivated self-starters to join our team. Exciting opportunities! Earn up to $1,000/wk! Applicants will be screened by phone. Call 781-XXX-XXXX.
Sports marketing? I saw myself standing behind a camera yelling “cut!” while Pedro Martinez held up a stick of Right Guard deodorant. I called the number immediately and left a message with Angela, the receptionist. Two hours later, while I was in the backyard smoking a joint, dressed in my Terrycloth robe, the phone rang. I ran inside and answered. A woman introduced herself as Susan Bowen from Championship Advertising. She sounded husky but purposeful, as though her Boston accent was girded with nude-colored pantyhose and caked with Maybelline foundation. I imagined the Route One version of Mary Tyler Moore.
First she asked about my experience as a producer’s assistant in Los Angeles. Then she asked if I had a car. Then she asked how soon I could start. I told her I could start right away. “Okay,” she said. “I just have one more question.” It sounded like she was shuffling papers, looking for something. “Oh. Right. How would you describe yourself in one word?”
“Hm,” I said, rubbing my lips, my fingertips smelling like cheap marijuana resin. “I guess…in one word…I’d have to say…um…” I had no idea what to say. What would she want to hear? I scratched my head and looked over at the mirror in my mother’s living room. There I was, at four in the afternoon, unshowered, wearing a robe and boxer shorts, tufts of bedhead sticking out like a missile silo, my eyes watery and bloodshot.
“In one word…I’d say I’m ambitious. Yeah, ambitious. Or maybe smart. No, ambitious.”
“Well congratulations. Why don’t you come in tomorrow at nine, and we’ll see how you do in the field?”
“Do I have the job?”
“Looks good so far. Come in tomorrow, meet some of our staff, sit in on a couple meetings, and we’ll take it from there.”
She gave me the address to the home office in Woburn, along with directions from I-95 (in the time before Google Maps, people often gave directions). I thanked her, hung up the phone and fist-pumped my reflection in the mirror. Then I realized I forgot to ask about health insurance, which I need due to my chronic bowel disease. I also forgot to ask about starting salary. And vacation time. And what exactly the job entailed.
No matter. I’ll find out tomorrow.
Since I didn’t have any close friends in the area (by “area” I mean the United States), I celebrated alone that night, at Golden Star, the Chinese restaurant in Newtonville. There were always one or two regulars there I could saddle up next to and chew the fat with. And of course Huey, the skinny Asian bartender with the fu manchu who looked like a Gremlin salesman. Sitting at the bar that night was Roy Carbone, a city worker I knew from the neighborhood. In front of him were two packs of Marlboro Reds, five Keno tickets and a bottle of Bud Light. The beer bottle’s label was peeled off and torn into a pile of tiny shreds that sat next to his ashtray. “Hey guy,” I said, slapping Roy’s back and sitting on the stool next to him.
He turned slowly to me, squinting through a plume of cigarette smoke with eyes that were set far back in his square head. “Do I know you?”
“It’s Danny. Pellegrini. I used to work at the restaurant next door.” I had hung out with Roy about sixty times over the past three years. What I should have said was “we snorted a gram of coke in the alley behind Pizzeria Uno last Sunday”, but I thought that might have been too forward.
“Oh yeah,” Roy said. He reached out to shake my hand. His fingers were thick and shaky, like four Jimmy Dean sausages on a frying pan, popping in their own grease.
“How we doin’ pal? You alright?” I said. He didn’t answer. Instead he took his last cigarette from one of the packs and brought it slowly to his mouth, lighting it with a trembling match. Once it was lit he started tearing apart the empty pack, ripping off a paperboard panel, tearing it in half, then in quarters, and so on, until finally there was a pile of red and white shards next to the shredded Bud Light label.
I pulled out seventy-three bucks—my entire nest egg—and set it on the bar. Then a flash of prudency hit me and I tucked a twenty back into my pocket, just in case. I bought Roy another beer and ordered myself a Dewar’s—a taste I had acquired from my father’s liquor cabinet. Huey dropped off the drinks with a nod.
“I got a new job today,” I told Roy. “Advertising.”
Roy exhaled smoke across the bar. He swallowed forcibly for a moment, as though fighting the urge to vomit all over me. “You want a job? Go up Church Street, up the fire station. Go see Dicky Iacuzzo, ya know, Joanie’s father. Tell him I sent ya, tell him you wanna take the firefighter exam. He’ll take care a yas.”
I nodded and tapped my finger on the rim of my rocks glass. “That’s an idea,” I said.
Roy went on, mumbling about how he was going to kill someone named Tommy. I drank my glass of Dewar’s and watched the Red Sox game on the TV above the bar, thinking about my new career in sports marketing.
Roy and I were the last ones to leave Golden Star that night, at a few minutes past one AM. I had drunk six Dewar’s and bought three of Roy’s beers. We also split an order of Teriyaki chicken and Peking dumplings. I spent all of my money, even the emergency twenty I was saving for gas.
I threw up twice on the walk home. When I finally got to my parents’ house I laid down in the front yard, smoked a cigarette and stared up at the moon. And that’s where I woke up, four hours later, to the smack of the Boston Globe landing on the front walkway, right next to my head.
* * * *
The traffic on 95 was slow moving. My head felt like it was in a vise grip. I was queasy and on the verge of heaving, as though my stomach was an oil drum, sliding around the back of a van, filled with watery refuse that spilled over the rim at every bump in the road. With every gag reflex came the burn of cheap scotch and the taste of Chinese mystery meat. Even with the air conditioning on full blast, I was brined in sweat. My neck was slimy underneath my shirt collar, my armpits and tailbone were damp, my ass crack felt like it was leaking. Droplets of melted hair gel trickled down my forehead and stung my eyes.
The hangover would wear off soon; the glory of a career in advertising, however, was infinite.
According to the site map in the office park’s lobby, Championship Advertising was located in suite 3C. Suite 3B was Frigotelli European Tours, and 3D was Dr. Arne Silver, PHD, child psychologist. The names of the neighboring businesses were stenciled in raised gold leaf lettering; Championship Advertising was written in black Sharpie on a piece of white paper that was taped over the previous occupant. A wave of nausea came over me. I rested my hand on the site map and took a deep breath to steady myself.
I arrived at suite 3C, my shirt sticking to my torso after walking up two flights of stairs thanks to an elevator that was OUT OF SERVICE. The smell of Golden Star’s barroom—a mixture of carpet mold and cigarette ash—seeped from my pores. The door to the psychologist’s office opened and into the hallway came a young mother and son. The boy was sobbing, his head hung. His mother held onto his shoulder and gently stroked his hair. I glanced at her as she passed by, and saw that she was crying, too.
A swell of diarrhea rose up from the pit of my stomach and then quieted. I knocked and walked in to the offices of Championship Advertising.
The reception area was the size of your standard tollbooth. I introducing myself and was told to wait in Susan Bowen’s office at the end of the hall. On the way I passed by a half dozen cubicles and saw two men and four women, all in their twenties, all gaunt and ratty-looking. They stared back at me but said nothing, as if a small part of their brains said “help us” while a much larger part said “indoctrination”. I arrived at an office with SUSAN BOWEN on the door, written in Sharpie and scotch-taped over a placard that read STORAGE.
A moment later Susan walked in with a young woman in tow. “Hi, Danny. Susan Bowen. Nice to meet you.” We shook hands. There was a rip in her pantyhose and a lipstick stain on one of her front teeth. The smell of makeup and polyester was so pungent I almost gagged. She gestured to the young woman behind her. “This is Kate. You’ll be shadowing her in the field today.”
Kate and I shook hands. She was roughly my age but dressed like she was in her seventies, with a double-knit blouse, knee-length skirt and boxy high heels that were a size too small, making the tops of her feet look like loaves of bread rising out from two baking tins. She had puffy, chipmunk cheeks that were spotted with constellations of acne. It looked as though she had just ate 100 mg of prednisone for breakfast. My stomach churned, the gastric juices tickling the back of my throat.
“What exactly will we be doing today?” I said. And then, as an after thought: “In the field.”
“Well, Danny, Championship Advertising is a direct marketing firm. We present local businesses with the opportunity to connect with and support some of our hometown professional sports teams, and in doing so gain awareness on a much broader level. For instance: last month PepsiCo hired us to promote a sweepstakes among local real estate offices. The winner got a one month free billboard on one of the Fleet Center’s loge sections.”
“Wow,” I said. “That sounds exciting.” It did. Sort of.
Susan continued. “Today, of course, you and Kate will be working on a different initiative, but you get the picture.” She turned to Kate and nodded. “All set?”
Kate nodded, and the two of us were off, into the field.
* * * *
“Do you mind if I turn this down just a bit?” Without waiting for an answer I reached over and lowered the volume on Jammin 94.5. “It’s a little early for Brittney Spears.”
“Sorry,” Kate said. We inched along 95 in her Honda Civic. “And sorry about the air conditioning. I’m gonna fix it once I get the hundred and forty bucks.”
I nodded and leaned my head against the passenger side window. The glass was hot against my temple. I felt faint. The edges of my vision blurred.
“What’s that smell?” I said.
She sniffed the air. “It could be exhaust. There’s a hole in the floorboard. I need to fix that, too.”
It definitely wasn’t the exhaust. Something smelled sour, like spoiled milk. I looked toward the back seat and saw a menagerie of empty McDonald’s containers. One of them had the crust of a cheeseburger still inside it.
My mouth filled with saliva. I rolled the window down and leaned my head out. Kate asked me to roll it back up—apparently the sounds of the highway distracted her.
“So, where are we going?” I said, trying to be cheerful.
I waited for Kate to say more but instead she picked her nose and flicked away the debris.
“What are we doing in Billerica?”
She pointed at a three-ring binder wedged between the two front seats. I picked it up and opened it in my lap. Inside were sheets of pre-cut coupons, clipped together in packets. I flipped through one of them. The copy and images and limited-time-only deals whirled past my eyes, but two things stood out:
Subway and Domino’s Pizza.
“What is this?” I said, unable to hide my shock and horror.
“This week I’m meeting with businesses to discuss enhanced value lunch opportunities.” She nodded toward the binder. “For $19.99 a month they get premium access to Subway and Domino’s Pizza’s benefits program.”
I opened the packet again and examined one of the coupons: One large, thick crust pizza with any choice of topping, two large sodas and a bag of Lay’s potato chips. All for four dollars.
“There’s seven hundred and ninety dollars’ worth of food in there. We’re selling it for two hundred and forty. We’re giving these businesses over five hundred dollars.”
I was speechless. Kate interpreted it as awe.
She went on. “I know what you’re thinking. Commission, right? What’s our end? Six percent. Well, I get six percent. But you will too, once you’ve completed your training and built your own client list.” She turned to me and smiled with a sinister overbite.
Suddenly it was hard to breathe. I looked out the window. We had gotten off the interstate a few minutes before and were now on a rural highway, in a remote area, far away from anything.
* * * *
The main commercial street of Billerica looked like a quaint Cape Cod neighborhood after a nuclear holocaust. The sidewalks were sorrowful strips of dying grass. The businesses looked like residences: one-story, flat-roofed houses set back from the road, their windows barred and front yards overgrown with weeds. The late-morning heat approached ninety degrees, causing the air to hover in waves and turning the horizon a sickly pink, the color of a faded scab.
Kate and I walked along the sidewalk of dead grass. She eyed the offices for prospective sales while I struggled to stay conscious. I was dehydrated. My clothes stuck to me, especially my boxer shorts, which were crammed into my butt crack like a sumo belt, chafing my scrotum. I walked peg-legged in an effort to minimize the pain.
“Let’s try this place,” Kate said, pointing at one of the shitholes on our side of the street. We turned up the front walk.
“Can I ask you something?” I said. “What does any of this have to do with sports?”
She sighed, opened up her binder and held it in my face. I looked at the top sheet of coupons. Printed underneath the Subway logo was: “The Official Sandwich of the Boston Red Sox.”
“Does that answer your question?” she said.
“Yeah,” I said, my right hand unconsciously forming into a fist.
“Okay then.” We reached the door. Kate rang the doorbell and we entered into the foyer of Russian Dental Associates. A woman with a surgical mask around her neck quickly approached us looking alarmed. “Is everything okay?” she asked in a thick Russian accent.
She seemed relieved once Kate explained our business there. I half listened as Kate fumbled through her sales pitch, repeatedly referring to the binder, gushing about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a yearlong membership to a fast food chain. From my other ear I heard fax machine transmissions, drilling, and some screaming.
“Ma’am, as a premium member you not only get great deals on all Domino’s Pizza and Subway products, you also get all food made to order. Like, if you want extra cheese, or extra mayo, all you have to do is call this toll-free number and create a…hold on…” Kate flipped through a few pages in her binder. “…a custom profile.”
I felt like crying. The woman shook her head. “No thank you. No. We not interested.”
Kate held up a finger. “Also there’s a cookie of the month club…”
“No. Please. I don’t have time for this. Please leave now.”
Kate nodded, thanked the woman, and we left. Outside, on the front walk, she was resilient. “Okay,” she said, clutching the binder against her chest like a schoolgirl, marching upright. “It’s okay. One down, forty-nine to go.”
I dropped my head in my hands.
Next up was an animal hospital. Before we turned onto the front walk a pickup truck drove by. A half dozen guys, shirtless and sunburned and drinking cans of beer, were packed into the back. They honked and whistled and shouted at Kate.
“Yeah, sweet ass! Wanna jump in the truck with us?”
I looked at Kate. Her hair was frizzed out from the humidity and trails of sweat streaked down her face, navigating through the zit patches on her cheeks. “I’m used to it,” she said. “I just ignore it.” She marched up to the animal hospital’s front door.
As soon as we walked through the door my stomach turned over and leapt into my throat. The hospital was one dingy room filled with cages. The stench of raw animal assaulted me; I had never smelled anything like it. Animal food, animal feces, animal entrails, animal cadavers…all mixed together to form a potpourri of infirmed wildlife. A man in a white smock came out from behind a row of cages, adamantly shaking his head. “No. No. You were here two days ago. Please…”
That was all I heard. Before Kate could respond with her irrefutable sales pitch, I was outside, in the front yard, vomiting.
Two down, forty-eight to go.
“I might be coming down with something,” I told her on the way to our next stop, a pawnshop called Billerica Buy & Sell. “I’m gonna hang out here for this one, get some air.”
“Okay,” Kate said. She looked confused for a moment, then promptly turned on her heels and marched toward the pawnshop, determined to close the deal.
I walked to the corner and leaned against a mailbox. The noon sun drilled into me. I peeled off my sport jacket and undid my necktie. My shirt was soaked. For a second I thought I would die right there, in Billerica, on a Wednesday afternoon.
Three black men in a ’64 Chevy Impala convertible pulled up at the intersection. The driver was a muscular man with a doo rag and sunglasses. He turned to me. I nodded hello. He smiled.
“You are one pathetic motherfuckin’ white man,” he said. “You have yourself a lovely day now.” The Impala drove off.
A few minutes later Kate walked out of the pawnshop. She shook her head and clicked her tongue. “Not interested,” she said. “Oh well. You wanna grab some lunch?”
“Where are we gonna get lunch around here?” I said, monotone.
She shrugged. “McDonald’s?”
I convinced Kate to drive me back to the Championship Advertising headquarters. She was weary, citing the mid-day traffic as a potential hazard. I assured her there would be no traffic in that direction at this time of day. I was wrong. Construction had closed down two lanes and it took us an hour and forty minutes to get back to Woburn. With the return traffic, she wouldn’t get back to Billerica until close to 4:00. I apologized for the inconvenience and wished her luck, then slammed the door shut. She drove away, the tailpipe of her shitbox Honda Civic scraping the pavement behind her.
* * * *
Today I’m sitting in an air-conditioned office, in a dark, private editing suite, with no manager breathing down my neck and no weekly quota to meet. I call composers and tell them I need a music track, something “uplifting and approachable, but still unique and with a bit of an edge.” I make videos that depict a world where everybody smiles, where they show product in motion, where their flaws are retouched and where they casually share the frame with glaring brand logos. I write copy about people who feel great and look slim. I help sell the tools that will equip you with living the happiest, most fulfilling life you could ever imagine.
Is it like Mad Men? Not exactly, but it’s not terribly different, either. And that’s not the point, anyway. Make-believe is not a gauge for reality. I need to remind myself of that whenever I get frustrated and existential at work, those times when I regret leaving the movie business, or the disappointment I feel when I argue with a co-worker and our banter lacks the machine-gun tempo of All The President’s Men. The best we can hope for in this life is happiness. And the only gauge for happiness, like it or not, is misery.
So if you ever find yourself stranded in Billerica on a sweltering July day with no hope and no quarter, think of it as an investment.
The Greater Fool
“It’s because you were late, you asshole! This is your fault. Go to the store and get some paper towels. You’re cleaning it up.”
I can say nothing to this. I got to Bill’s house at 6:55 this morning, twenty minutes past my permissible 6:30-6:35 window. As a result Bill’s 15-year old chow shepherd, Lucy, shat all over the front seat of my Jeep on our way to the park, which, from Bill’s house, is a six-minute drive. The dog rides on Bill’s lap, with her ass pointed in my direction, so the shit poured down into the center console, splattering all over my emergency brake, vanishing into the folds of my gear shift, and filling up both of my cup holders.
I was late because I spent the night at Maggie’s and I underestimated the drive time to Waltham from Jamaica Plain. Also because I didn’t want to get out of bed. I held onto HazelEyes83 for dear life, dopesickness setting in, the Suboxone in Bill’s padlocked medicine box howling to me like Dracula’s wolves.
“It’s okay, baby. It’s Danny’s fault,” Bill says, consoling his dog. We are stuck at the traffic light just before the park. Two asshole deejays quack at each other on the classic rock station. The dog’s usual sickly odor (due to a baseball-sized boil she’s had on her hindquarters for the last year) gives way to the ripe smell of diarrhea that permeates throughout the Jeep. The summer sun rises in front of us. The temperature ticks upward. I am trapped in a microwave oven with a diseased baby diaper.
Good morning, world.
I am at the park for one hour, most of it spent cleaning dog shit from my Jeep while Bill reads the newspaper and his dog limps around, feebly trying to chase squirrels. Complicating things is my bladder, which, after two large coffees, is about to burst. The park is humming at this hour with commuters walking to the train station, so urinating behind a tree is out of the question. I decide to relieve myself at Bill's mother's house, when I drop him and his dog off.
Then I decide against it when I pull into Bill's driveway and see Johnny, his younger brother, sitting on the back steps. Johnny has not spoken a single word in over twenty-five years. The youngest of eleven kids, Johnny was born four months premature and as a result now looks like the banjo player from Deliverance. I am frightened of Johnny. Whenever I see him he stares at me and hums to himself. He sleeps in the attic above Bill’s bedroom, collects disability and spends the better part of his life on the back steps, chain-smoking Newports and drinking Hawaiian Punch.
“Are you gonna come in and piss, or what?” Bill says to me as he picks his rickety dog up from my passenger seat. I look toward the back steps and see Johnny, staring at me, his face peeled back into a ghastly smile, revealing a set of teeth that looks like a decorative corn cob: alternating squares of yellow and brown.
Without saying a word I shift into reverse and back out of the driveway.
Twenty minutes later, as I get off the Mass Pike at the South Station exit, I pay the price. Dearly. I clutch my penis in the hopes of forming a manmade tourniquet, cutting off the blood flow and by proxy stemming the rising tide of piss that rushes the dam. I rock back and forth and stomp my foot on the floorboard. I imagine myself kayaking through a river of cranberry juice. I turn off the asshole deejays on the classic rock station. I pray to God.
I get lucky with a green light at the West Broadway Bridge, granting myself a brief psychological reprieve. The rapids calm. I’m gonna make it. Only one more light to go and I’m home. I don’t even need to make it all the way upstairs. I can piss next to my garbage cans, or even lean out the side of my Jeep, if necessary.
Up ahead is the final traffic light, and it is yellow. I floor the gas, swerving around an elderly man in a Buick LeSabre. He honks at me. Come on come on come on. There is a stretch of empty road between the traffic light and my Jeep: one hundred and fifty feet of bare asphalt. All that stands in my way is time. If I make this light there is a chance. A chance to preserve a small amount of integrity in a morning filled with shame, degradation and bodily fluid.
The light turns red and the cross traffic moves. I hit the brakes, clutching the steering wheel and rocking forward with the momentum. A few drops of urine trickle out of me. I am numb from the waist down. I know I will not make it, like the astronaut who slowly drifts toward the space station, his oxygen level depleting, watching as the bay doors close without him. I send a final message to ground control. Tell my wife and kids that I love them.
A sense of peace comes over me. I ease my grip on the steering wheel and take a breath. The Buick LeSabre pulls up next to me at the light. The old man sticks his head out the window. He is missing teeth and wears a baseball cap with the name of an aircraft carrier on it.
“Got a hot date, sonny? Christ almighty. Must be nice to be young and stupid. If I had half a mind I’d get out of this car and go kick the crap outta ya! Slow down, ya fuckin idiot!”
I turn and look at him and smile. Then I piss down my right leg.
* * * *
Ever since HazelEyes83 told me about her STDs I feel closer to her. Our relationship is comfortable, in a good way. The excitement is still there, but certain pretenses are gone, like when I worry about my breath or feel the need to tousle my hair perfectly or try and speak intelligently on things like AIDS awareness or Japanese horticulture. I can be myself with her and I can tell her anything (except that I steal her Xanax and that sometimes when we have sex I think of Queen Latifah). Her herpes have made her less intimidating and more approachable. The irony is not lost on me.
“Sometimes it’s easier when both people have it,” HazelEyes83 muses as we lie next to each other in bed. “I see it all the time in the clinic. A husband or wife has an STD, a lot of times the partner wants to get it from them as soon as possible. It saves a lot of stress and worrying. And in a way it unites them.”
“Right,” I say, staring at the ceiling, discreetly moving my hand under the bed sheet and down to my penis, feeling if it’s any warmer than it was twelve hours ago.
“That’s how I got it,” she says. “My college boyfriend, Clay Ryder. He was a bull-riding champion from Odessa. A real cowboy. I thought we would get married, but you know, we were young and stupid. Anyway I guess we figured it would just be easier if we both had it.”
This was the first time I’d heard of the convenience of having herpes, as though it were a membership to Amazon Prime. And who the fuck is this Clay Ryder? I picture HazelEyes83 line dancing with a slim, baby-faced dude in a Stetson and a pair of over-starched Wranglers. Next I imagine her bent over a pipe fence in some corral with her flowered dress pulled up while Clay Ryder is behind her, grunting as tobacco spit trickles down his chin, his Wranglers bunched down over his cowboy boots. The picture is so clear I can practically smell the horse manure.
I shake off the image. “Huh. So what’s he up to these days?” I say, hoping he’s either married and selling tractor equipment or perhaps skinned alive by a Mexican drug cartel.
“Oh, we’re still in touch. On Facebook, mostly. He’s engaged now, but he’s gonna break it off.”
“He told you this?” I say.
“Oh yeah, Clay and I are close. I still love him, you know, because we shared that thing. I’ll always love him.” She turns away from me and falls back in her pillow, closing her eyes. A wide grin blossoms on her face. “Mmmmmm, Clay fucking Ryder!” She giggles and rubs her feet back and forth, underneath the bed sheet. “Hot damn!” Another long, slow sigh. “Now I have to use the ladies room.” She pulls the sheet aside, gets out of bed and walks to the bathroom, picking her thong underwear out from her pasty white ass as she crosses in front of me.
Once the bathroom door closes I go to the silver tea tin, take out her Xanax bottle and pour five into my palm. I wash two down with my iced coffee and pocket the rest. Then I open her laptop. I delete every document and folder on her desktop and then drag most of her applications into the trash: Google Chrome, gone. Firefox, gone. Microsoft Word, gone. Spotify, gone. I close the laptop and flop back down on the bed, put my hands behind my head, and wait for the Xanax to kick in.
A moment later the toilet flushes and HazelEyes83 comes out, gets into bed and curls up next to me. “We should probably still use condoms, though. Don’t you think?”
“Definitely,” I say.
* * * *
There have been other instances throughout our brief romance that have warranted a head scratch, random roadside flares warning me of potential hazardous conditions up ahead. Last week we had dinner at some farm-to-table joint in Jamaica Plain, one of those all-natural, over-priced restaurants where the flatware is made of recycled sandals and the menu features personalized biographies of each grass-fed livestock. As we sat outside on a bench, waiting for our table to be ready, I rested my head against her shoulder. “I’m leaning on you for support,” I said in an attempt at cuteness.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” she said, deadpan.
I expected her response to be followed by a laugh or a wink or a coy smile, some sign that she understood my playful double entendre. Instead she stared straight ahead, her hands gripping the edge of the wooden bench, her face cold and blank. It was as though some supernatural entity had momentarily seized control of her. I waited for urine to stream out from between her legs, like the little girl in The Exorcist.
Another roadside flare occurred a couple weeks earlier. Late one night at her place she took me through a photo album dedicated to her two-year teaching stint in Nairobi. I nodded along as she pointed to elephants and tigers and exotic birds. Then she identified her co-workers, most of them young white women either hiking with backpacks or posing with natives at the local watering hole. The next section featured several images of a young, well-dressed Afrikaans man. HazelEyes83 dragged a finger along one picture in particular, the man sitting in a café, wearing a fedora and a linen suit—something straight out of Casablanca.
“That’s K’ontiki,” she said, closing her eyes for a moment that felt a little too long. “He was my lover. We were going to move back to the states and get married after my contract was up.”
“What happened?” I said.
“I found out he was married, with two small children,” she said.
“Ooh. Sorry to hear that.”
“It’s okay. The culture is different out there. He loved me very much, and I love him, still, to this day.”
I chewed on my lip. My left hand unconsciously formed into a fist. “Have you heard from him lately?”
“Yes,” she said, dragging her fingers across a different image, this one of K’ontiki standing with his chest pushed out and one foot rested up on a boulder, as though posing for a Captain Morgan ad. She brought the photo album up to her face and gently kissed the image. “Oh K’ontiki, sweet K’ontiki.”
A few pages later we came to her students, young African women with shaved heads and smock dresses, all with brilliant white smiles, some photographed outside carrying baskets over their heads and some inside adobe huts, hunched over wooden desks, enrapt in lessons of math or science. The pictures were moving, hopeful and optimistic, temporarily relieving me of my desire to blow K’ontiki’s head off with a large caliber rifle.
“These are your students? Aw, that’s wonderful,” I said. HazelEyes83 said nothing. Her head hung down above the photo album, her stringy, orange hair covering the side of her face. “Maggie?” I said. I thought maybe she had fallen asleep.
And then came a long groan that became a painful wail that became a desperate gasp for air. Teardrops hit the photo album. “Maggie?” I said again, frightened. “Jesus, what is it?”
She clutched the photo album to her chest and violently shook her head. “No, no, no, no NO, NO, NO!”
I reached out and touched her shoulder and she twisted away from me. “Get away from me!” She stood up and moved to the corner of her bedroom, her back against the wall, and then slid down to the floor, still holding the photo album to her chest as though it was an algebra textbook. She sobbed spastically, taking in high-pitched breaths and letting them out in choppy moans.
“Maggie, what’s wrong? What did I do?” But she didn’t answer, just buried her head in her arms and cried. “Look at me, Maggie. Please.” Then the heaving stopped, and her shoulders slowly rose up as she took in a long, steady breath. And then:
“GET THE FUCK AWAY FROM ME. NOW.” Not Maggie’s voice; something else. I backed up a couple steps, afraid that she’d lift her head from her folded arms and her face would be different, her eyes glowing white, her mouth pulled back in an evil clown smile, revealing rows of yellow fangs.
“Okay, okay,” I said. I backpedaled out of her bedroom and exited the house. From the front porch I peeked into Maggie’s bedroom window. She was still in the corner, sitting on the floor, her face still hidden by her folded arms. And next to her, on top of the bookcase, was her silver tea tin, stronghold to her Xanax prescription. I hadn’t had the opportunity to steal any that night.
The following day she called and apologized for what she called “a transient psychosomatic relapse”. She said it happened sometimes whenever she looked at her Africa pictures while sitting next to a white male. I told her I understood, thinking that she might benefit from a fifteen-minute phone call with Dionne Warwick’s Psychic Friends Network. “Are we okay?” she asked. I thought about the Xanax and said of course.
* * * *
After thirteen months I have finally extricated myself from Bill. No more early morning Suboxone, no more Page Six gossip about Prince Harry naked in a hotel room, no more screaming over late arrivals, no more gridlocked traffic on the Mass Pike, no more foamy dog shit in my cup holders. I am a free man, thanks to Hector, the El Salvadorian drug dealer whose number I got through a former colleague. Hector delivers a package of five thirty-milligram Percocet directly to my house every morning, and sometimes a gram of cocaine to my office in the afternoons. This new regiment is slightly more expensive—nearly two hundred dollars per day compared to fifteen bucks for the Suboxone—but, when you think about it, you really can’t put a price on freedom.
The new regiment also enables me to spend longer mornings with HazelEyes83, who, since mid-July, is officially my girlfriend. I think. We haven’t had any explicit conversations on the subject, but she did inform me that we had a “planetary connection” and that, in astral terms, we spend most of our respective energies in both the fourth and fifth Vedic houses, which is apparently a good thing, except when Jupiter is on the descent, during which time all communication between us is forbidden. She also told me that no one has physically adored her as much as I do, at least not since her therapist, Dr. Shepler, back in 2008.
What’s more, HazelEyes83 turns thirty today. To start, I’m celebrating with breakfast in bed. I have just returned to her place with Challah French Toast, a Portuguese omelet, turkey bacon, fresh-squeezed orange juice and two iced-coffees, all from Sorello’s, her favorite breakfast joint. I stop in her kitchen and divvy the food onto plates, laying everything out nicely onto her roommate’s antique tray. Then I pour half of her OJ into the sink and replace it with Absolut vodka, stir it up, even garnish it with an orange slice. I pop a Percocet in my mouth and then carry the tray into her bedroom, nudging the door open with my foot—a gesture I have dreamt about for my entire adult life.
HazelEyes83 is still asleep, snoring like a foghorn, burning off last night’s liquor. I set the tray down on the bedside table and kiss her cheek. She comes to, smiles, then yawns into my face, breathing a gust of wind at me that smells like my kitchen trashcan when I change the liner. I hand her the orange juice and vodka. She takes a sip and her eyes light up.
“Happy birthday, sweetheart,” I say.
She arches her eyebrows at me.
I correct myself. “I mean, happy celestial birthday.” According to the Wiccan calendar, HazelEyes83’s birthday is in early February. This winter she’ll turn three hundred and four in witch years.
HazelEyes83 takes another sip of her vodka/OJ. “You’re so wonderful to me.” She sets her morning cocktail on the table and touches the side of my face, studies me for a moment. “Are we in love?”
“Yes,” I say.
“Come here.” She holds open the bed sheet for me. I disrobe as she wraps the sheet around me and pulls me in. I reach for the condoms we keep in the top drawer. HazelEyes83 grabs my arm.
“No,” she says. “It’s time for our blood to become one.”
We have sex without protection. The ritual has begun.
Ten minutes later we are done. She flops onto her side and resumes her snoring. The breakfast gets cold and coagulates. As an incidental bonus, the Percocet kicks in.
I spend the afternoon shopping for HazelEyes83. I stop at the florist in South Boston and pick up a dozen long-stemmed red roses, since blood is apparently the theme of the day. Then I drive to a boutique in Newton Upper Falls called Moon and Sixpence, where one can buy handmade jewelry, dried herbs, ancient spell books or, if one is so inclined, candles that ward off evil spirits. I am immediately overwhelmed and paranoid by the macabre trinkets that adorn the tiny shop: the faces in the half-moon clocks leer at me as I pass them, the bead curtains sway on their own, the ceramic cherub statuettes shake their heads pitifully at me. I begin to hyperventilate, so I ask the kind old store clerk if I can use her restroom, to which she says of course. Once inside I splash cold water on my face and do four bumps of coke, just to straighten out.
I leave the shop with an antique ukulele, a quarter ounce of sage, forty dollars’ worth of candles and one vintage ring, silver with a line design etched onto its crest. The store clerk explained the ring’s meaning to me but I was so preoccupied trying to control my heart rate that I couldn’t pay attention.
I return to HazelEyes83’s house later that night bearing gifts. Sarah, the roommate, has organized a party, and there are twenty or so people there by the time I arrive. Most are outside on the back patio. I walk through the party holding the flowers in one hand, the candles and ukulele in a paper tote bag and the silver ring in my pocket. People look at me as though I’m lost; a time traveler from an era of chivalry, transported to a college dorm room.
I ask a few guests where Maggie is but nobody’s seen her recently. After a half hour I get tired of holding the gifts so I leave them in her bedroom. While I’m there I snort two more lines. I walk back out to the patio, pour myself a beer and sit at a table, where I attempt to engage in a conversation about rock climbing. Finally, after another thirty minutes, HazelEyes83 enters the backyard with a strange man. My face gets hot and my heartbeat drumrolls. She gives the man a peck on the cheek and rubs his back. She has not seen me. I get up from the table and approach them.
“Hello,” she says, singsong, almost a self-parody. She puts her hands on my face and kisses both of my cheeks, Mafioso-style.
She introduces her friend. Rob. I shake his hand without looking him in the eye. HazelEyes83 makes some qualifying statement about him—how they know each other, where he lives, some bullshit—but all I can think of is where they just came from and what they were doing.
“Can I talk to you for a second?” I ask her. HazelEyes83 says okay, giving me a look of total bewilderment. We walk to the side of the house.
“Who is that guy?”
“Rob? I just told you. He’s a friend. We were talking.”
“Talking, huh? About what? Fucking?” I sniff and rub my nose. My eyes blink, my teeth grind, my face contorts, all on their own will.
“I work with him. His girlfriend of four months just left him and he’s devastated. He needs me right now.”
“Needs you? To what, blow him? Is that what he needs?” Sniff, grind.
“I care about him, you self-centered asshole. The hell is wrong with you?”
“I know, I know. You care about him, and you care about your students in Nairobi, and the fucking cowboy who gave you herpes, and the fucking African guy, who you probably gave the herpes to, and your roommate, and all your drinking buddies, and that chick from that ridiculous fucking show you watch on Netflix, and the spotted owl, and the humpback whale, and the starving kids in China, and everything in the world except me. Yes, I know. You care. What an amazingly fucking selfless human being you are.
HazelEyes83 takes a deep breath, then calmly says: “You are out of control. Please leave, and don’t ever call me again.”
She turns and walks back to the patio.
Breathe, Danny. Breathe. I just need to take a walk and calm down, boil off some of these substances. Maybe I overreacted. Maybe I should cut her some slack. Maybe she deserves a second chance.
I can fix this.
Halfway through my loop around the block and I’m feeling better. Not calmer, but at least clearer. My paranoia is replaced with anxiety, a compulsion to rectify the situation with HazelEyes83, to submit, to apologize, whatever it takes. I walk faster, driven by the urge to atone for all my sins, to let go of pride and ego and cleanse myself. I imagine the reconciliation: HazelEyes83 sitting alone at her 30th birthday party, suffering, heartbroken, hopeless. She can’t take it any longer and goes to her bedroom to cry, and there I am, sitting at the foot of her bed, holding the flowers in my hand. I tell her I’m sorry and that I never want to lose her, that she is the best thing that ever happened to me and all I want is to make her happy. She comes to me, tells me she loves me. I take out the ring with the weird Pagan design on it and slip it on her finger. We live happily ever after. The end.
Coming up on her house my heartbeat pulsates in my neck. I can hear the music and the laughter from her backyard. To confirm my prophecy, I cut through her neighbor’s front yard and sneak up to the shrubs that separate the two properties. I expect to see HazelEyes83 forlorn and distraught, possibly being comforted by friends. The image will move me to full compassion. I will save her from the pain, and in doing so I will become the man I have always wanted to be.
I squat behind the shrubs and spy on the party. The image is not as I expected. HazelEyes83 is dancing to a Jimmy Cliff song with a group of people on the patio. She throws her arms in the air and yells “Happy birthday to ME!” Then she pulls her dress up and jiggles her pasty white ass back and forth. The rest of the party cheers her on. Someone comes up behind her and grinds against her. That someone is Rob.
* * * *
The inside of the house is empty, so I don’t have to worry about making any noise. I can take my time and do this right. First I open the silver tea tin and take the Xanax bottle and the Valium bottle. I toss them into the tote bag, along with the flowers, the ukulele, the candles and the sage. Then I put her laptop in the bag. Her Africa photo album goes in there, too. Then I spit on her pillow. And then I leave, tote bag in hand. But I forget one last thing. I walk back into her bedroom, take the silver ring out of my pocket, and place it gently on her bedside table.
Good night, Goddess of Stars.
“Mr. Pellegrini? You can come with me.” The nurse leads me into an exam room and hands me a questionnaire attached to a clipboard. “Is this your first time being tested for STDs?”
I shake my head.
“Alright, then. Just fill out this form as completely as you can. I’m going to run your insurance card and I’ll be right back.”
The room smells like bleach and fresh linen. I stare at a poster advocating mammograms. Another poster offers a toll-free number to help quit smoking. I look at the adjacent wall, where a third poster asks if anyone I know struggles with prescription drug abuse.
My cell phone vibrates in my pocket. It’s not HazelEyes83. It will never be her again. And that’s fine.
The text is from Bill. We haven’t seen or spoken to each other in six weeks. I read the text.
My dog died. Today is the worst day of my life. You around?
I write him back immediately:
Sorry to hear that. Yes I’m around. At the doctor’s. Will come by right after.
As the nurse returns to the exam room with a syringe and a cotton swab, I think about something: love is a highly flammable thing. It may explode. You may get burned. If it does, hopefully you have a friend like Bill, someone you can turn to, someone with a prescription to numb the pain.
I am a lucky man.
Waltham Commons, Sunday, 6:35 AM. The morning after. I’m on my usual seat: a stone bench next to a war memorial plaque. I’ve watched the sunrise from this seat every day for the last thirteen months, sipping coffee and waiting for my narcotic du jour to kick in. Bill, the sex offender, wanders the park with his dog, a mangy chow shepherd named Lucy. The dog chases squirrels. I chase pharmaceuticals. God knows what Bill chases.
At this hour there’s no traffic. The stoplights go from green to yellow to red, purposeless, like little league games without any parents in the stands. Even the convenient stores haven’t opened yet. The loneliness meter spikes.
A skeletal homeless guy appears out of nowhere and asks me for a cigarette. His skin is tighter than a snare drum and marked with scabs. I tell him I don’t smoke and he asks if I have a lighter. Again I tell him I don’t smoke, so he asks for exactly one dollar and eighty-five cents, bus fare to his mother’s house in Braintree. I’ve heard this rap a million times. Ten bus fares to Braintree can get you enough crystal meth for two days of jitter-filled tweaking. Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe his face looks like that because he had an allergic reaction to some skin cream, or maybe he just treated himself to a chemical peel. I tell him sorry, nothing I can do. Help is a foreign concept.
The depression meter spikes.
It’s now been forty-five minutes. The Suboxone doesn’t work anymore. Hasn’t worked in months, but that doesn’t stop me from needing it. I reach into my pocket and pull out two yellow tablets: forty milligrams of Xanax, mementos from my date last night with HazelEyes83. Some guys get a good night kiss; I get a handful of benzodiazepines.
I could have gotten more. I could have done things to her unconscious body. But that’s the dark place talking, the woodshed in my mind where certain tools are kept, tools for harvesting savage things. I don’t use those tools, but they’re there. Usually they’re dull and covered in spider webs. But sometimes they gleam.
HazelEyes83 could be dead right now. The only sign of life when I left was the bubbles of spit popping in the corner of her mouth. Something could have happened between then and now. Asphyxiation. Heart failure. Alcohol poisoning. Maybe I should have splashed cold water on her face. Slapped her cheeks. Maybe I should have stayed with her, kept watch until morning when she finally got up to vomit or fumble through the medicine cabinet for the Tylenol. Instead I let her fade, like I have so many other times with so many other things. I emptied half her Xanax and Valium into my pocket, kissed her forehead and tiptoed out the front door.
Hm. The tools may be rusty, but the light in my woodshed is always on.
Now the guilt meter spikes. I pop the two yellow tablets in my mouth and wash them down with hot coffee. Fifteen minutes go by and the meters return to normal. Until I hear Bill’s voice:
“Look at this shit. Like this kid doesn’t have the best personal trainer, right?”
He approaches me, holding the NY Post open in front of him. He leans down and shows me a four-color picture on Page Six, a paparazzi shot of Ryan Gosling walking in SoHo, wearing a tank top and sipping a juice drink. The actor’s shoulders and biceps are sculpted and massive.
“Right?” Bill says again, angling the paper toward me. I nod quickly and look away. Then I look back at him. He stares at the picture. His mouth hangs open and his eyes glaze over. His sagging belly heaves in and out with each amorous breath.
The meters spike up again. I feel nauseas.
This is my world today. I once had a window into my former world—a world of friends, family, lovers, summer barbecues and winter vacations—but now it’s reduced to the size of an eyehole. Sometimes I try and look through it but the view is too small, too fisheye, and I give up, resigning back into the present moment: a world that spans the Waltham Commons, the Home Depot parking lot, and Bill—registered sex offender, drug dealer, key holder to all.
I watch him stare at the picture of Ryan Gosling. Then I notice a rock on the ground. The rock is the size of my fist, one of its edges flat and sharp. Not a single person is in view. Not a single car on the streets. It would only take one swing to the back of the neck.
The tools in my woodshed gleam.
I feel a vibration. A text message. I take out my phone, swipe and unlock the screen. (3) texts from Maggie, aka HazelEyes83.
Hey. Just woke up. Ugh.
I’m sorry about last night. I blew it, I know.
If you feel like it, would you maybe come by today? We can just talk or maybe go for a walk. I feel terrible about this. I really like you. I’m sorry. Hope I see you again.
I read the last text three times. I look back at Bill, who has wandered away with his dog, the NY Post folded up and tucked under his arm.
The nausea goes away. The bulb in the woodshed flickers out.
The happiness meter spikes.
I text her back.
* * * *
She waits for me on her front porch, smiling pitifully, her head leaning to one side while her mouth reaches in the opposite direction. It’s as though she’s balancing her face and brain in an effort to smooth out her hangover. I walk up the steps. The smell of patchouli oil is gone. Today her house reeks of guilt. The closer I get to her, the heavier the stench.
She wears a silk, floral print shirt with rolled-up jeans and fur-lined Ugg boots. I’m no fashion expert but I’m guessing the boots don’t quite go with the 85-degree June heat. Then again I’m sure her point-three blood alcohol level is having its way with her internal thermostat. Her face is bloated, especially her mouth, which puffs out as though it were underwater, breathing through a snorkel. A film clip runs in my mind: her trapped at the bottom of the ocean, eyes peacefully shut, her wispy red hair swaying upright like strands of tropical kelp. I shake off the image. She opens her arms. We hold each other.
I’m sorry, she whispers, pulling me in tight. I tell her it’s okay. She sobs. A warm tear hits my neck. It’s not okay, Danny…it’s not okay…it’s NOT okay… I wait for a director to yell “cut”. HazelEyes83 lays it on Gone With the Wind style, complete with the swoon and the clutching and the deep breaths sucked in through her teeth. She pulls away from me and wipes her eyes. “You’re a good man,” she says. “A decent man. Thank you for not taking advantage of me.”
I don’t know about decent, dollface. I think about the two Xanax I downed at the park, and the other two that are currently waiting for me in my pocket. I think about the sex offender’s incontinent dog shitting foam all over my Jeep’s passenger seat. I think about sitting in the Home Depot parking lot, the engine idling, one eyeball on the digital clock, waiting to cop my evening dose—the only time I ever get butterflies in my stomach.
Until now, maybe.
“Let’s go inside,” HazelEyes83 says. And we do, hand-in-hand through the foyer and into her corner bedroom. The scene of the crime. I case the room quick: an area rug over hardwood floor. A white longhair cat curled up on a cushion below the window. A poster of some minimalist artwork promoting the opening night of a play or a wine tasting or a music festival or some bullshit. A pushpin board displaying a collage of faded color 4x5s. A twin-sized bed with a taut white comforter and goose down pillows. The room is dressed with innocence, not a trace of residual shame from the night before. I guess that’s why God invented daylight.
We lay down on the bed and I put my arms around her from behind. Spoon position. Her hair smells like shampoo, her skin like moisturizer, the comforter like detergent. Cleanliness all around. She holds my hand.
“Do you hate me?” she asks.
“No,” I say. What I don’t say is that I only hold a certain amount of hatred, and it’s all reserved for me. “Do you always drink that much?”
“Never,” she says, quietly, cinematically. Dress rehearsal time. “I don’t know what happened. Maybe it was the heat. Maybe I was dehydrated. Maybe I’m a little under the weather.”
“It could have been anything,” I say, and for a second I believe it. I want to believe it. Optimism comes easy when you’re laying in bed next to an attractive woman on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. But underneath the downy white comforters and the Polo shirts and the chivalry and the dehydration there’s a brutal, slithering truth. I know it because I’m chained to it myself. Because I recognize the lies. Hell, I spent years perfecting them.
“Why’d you come back?”
I take a moment. The answer is easy: because anywhere is better than the Waltham Commons at six on a Sunday morning. Because I’m lonely. Because I’m scared. The same reasons anyone comes back.
“I came back because I like you. I want to get to know you.”
“I’m a hot mess.”
I kiss the back of her neck. “Don’t ever change,” I whisper in her ear. Now I’m the one laying it on, full Hollywood.
“Can we just lie here for a while? I might doze off, but I want you to stay. I want your arms around me.”
“You got it.” I give her shoulders a squeeze and press up against her back, and for a quick beat I get that Good Feeling, the one that often comes when you hold something close and tight. I want to make a story out of this, and I want it to end well. HazelEyes83 may be a hot mess, she may be a devout alcoholic, but in a fucked up shooting gallery of meteoric sand pebbles, she may be exactly what I need. We don’t know how these things are supposed to go down in the celestial universe. It’s Love that calls the shots after all, not us.
“Danny…I like you, too. I really do.” This after spending a combined total of forty-five lucid minutes with me. Ah, hell with it. Let the moment happen. I’m just not used to a woman saying she likes me. It’s like contemporary rock music; I’m sure I’ll warm up to it eventually.
I land another small kiss on the back of her neck. Silence for a while. Her breathing gets long and steady as she slips into sleep. I rest my chin on her shoulder and let myself rise and fall with each breath. I could sleep right now, too. Maybe it’s time I start letting go.
“Mm…really like you,” she says, but only a soft moan. I lean over and kiss her cheek and my eyes freeze on her nightstand. The bottle of Xanax, its label turned squarely in my direction, as if to say I call the shots around here, not Love. Go fuck yourself.
“I really like you too,” I say. Just a whisper of the truth, but it’s something.
* * * *
Today is a good day. My big sis hooked me up with second row seats to the Sox-Devil Rays game, right behind the on-deck circle, and I’m taking Maggie, the girl formerly known as HazelEyes83. Tonight, under the lights of Fenway, in between eight-dollar cups of Bud Light, we will declare our love for each other. We will commit. We will have The Talk.
It’s been twenty-four days since our disastrous first date and twenty-three days since our providential recovery. We took it slow at first but have now slept together together twice, both times at my place, both times with her spending the night. And both times with me making up an excuse for why I had to leave at quarter of six in the morning and return at eight. The first was driving my mother to the airport for an early flight. The second was helping a friend install a new water heater, a perfectly legit errand to run at dawn on a Sunday. I’ve only a couple valid lies left in my arsenal, a precarious place for a master of deceit.
I have decided to come clean with Maggie and tell her an abridged version of the truth. That since last summer, when I had most of my colon removed due to a fierce Crohn’s Disease flare-up, I have been addicted to opiates. (Truth: I have been addicted since my first root canal in 2003.) That in an effort to mitigate the withdrawal of coming off the Percocet I started taking Suboxone, an opioid antagonist designed to keep addicts like myself “clean”. (Truth: the perks stopped working so I switched to something cheaper and longer lasting, though far less euphoric.) That rather than confess to my doctors about my addiction (and risk them blaming themselves for over prescribing) I found an illegal source who only allots me one per day. (The second part is true; my illegal source will sell me one whenever I drive him and his dying chow shepherd to the park for an hour.) That I am weaning myself off according to a timetable I gleaned from WebMD. (Truth: I have tripled the daily dose over the last year.) That I plan to be completely free from the drug in one month. (Truth: I’ll deal with one month when it comes; let’s just get through today, for Christ’s sake.)
I will omit the part about stealing two of her Xanax every time I visit her house, how I whittled the prescription so low that I just took the entire bottle a week ago and then planted the idea that it was Sarah, the bitter bitch of a roommate, who probably stole them out of spite. Like the calculating dope fiend that I am, I cautioned Maggie about confronting her, suggesting instead that she let it lie and just call in another refill. I then thoughtfully found a new hiding place for the prescription—inside the silver tea tin next to her candles.
It’s like a weight has been lifted from my chest. Ah, sweet, virtuous freedom.
It’s the bottom of the fourth, the Sox are up by two, and I’m ready for my admission. Maggie has her fifth beer in one hand; in the other is a game ball that David Ortiz flipped to me during warm-ups. Well, he either flipped it to me or the nine year-old kid standing next to me, but I had the reach. Maggie is buzzed and happy. Now is the time to tell her. Pedroia flies out to end the inning. I put on the hangdog mask and spill the beans, just as I had practiced. Except I forgot the part about falling in love with her. Shit, that was the lynchpin.
Maggie places her hand over mine and kisses my cheek. “I’m so glad you told me that,” she says. Then she takes a deep breath and sighs it out. Her smile vanishes as she looks out at left field. She bites her lip. “Actually, there’s something I need to tell you, too.”
Curveball. I stare at her, imagining the worst. Husband? Pregnant? Convicted felon? I already know she’s a drunk. What else is there?
“You can tell me anything,” I say. My bowels loosen.
“I have genital herpes,” she says. “And hepatitis C.”
My hand slides off her leg. I look up at the American flag. It waves valiantly in the summer breeze.
Sweet, virtuous freedom.
TUNE IN NEXT TIME FOR THE TERRIFYING CONCLUSION…
The Dogwood is just another bar in Jamaica Plain. Even at 4:00 on a Saturday it’s filled to capacity with artists, musicians, hipsters and vegans. An asshole symposium. And I’m just another asshole, sitting at the far end of the bar, dressed like a cabana boy in a white polo shirt that’s two sizes too small, feigning interest in a playoff hockey game on the TV and drinking 20-oz Bud drafts as fast as I can, whatever calms my nerves and occupies my mind as I wait for yet another online date to streak across the atmosphere of my pathetic love life and then fizzle and burn out just as quickly.
That’s dating in the modern world, baby. A shooting gallery. A billion meteorites the size of sand pebbles flying past each other, poking holes in the universe.
* * * *
Normally at this time I’m sitting in a Home Depot parking lot, counting the minutes until 4:00, when a registered sex offender named Bill clocks out from the customer service desk and I drive him back to his mother’s house to cop a $30 dose of something: Percocet, Suboxone, Xanax…whatever’s in season. I’ll ingest anything, so long as it blocks out reality’s hi-def signal. Today I planned ahead and met Bill before work, at 6:00 AM. But the buzz wore off two hours ago and the daylight has since flooded back into my mind. Cue the 20-oz Buds.
At 4:18 the door opens and in walks HazelEyes83. Fashionably late? Maybe, but her dirt-covered muumuu and orange clogs sap the fashion right out of that sentence. We shake hands and I notice grime underneath her fingernails. Immediately I go into detective mode, connecting dots, drawing conclusions. Was she held in some sort of captivity, trying to dig her way to freedom? If that’s the case, at least we have one thing in common.
She opens door number one. Her name. Maggie.
Maggie’s tall, almost at eye level with me. Her hair is long and wavy and red, but not the kind of dark crimson you find here in the northeast; hers is bright orange, untreated, unbrushed, a thin wisp of bangs curling down over a pale forehead. Like a schoolgirl on a playground, complete with the muddy knees. I look her up and down, trying to be subtle. She notices and giggles, acknowledging the smears of dirt on her arms. “I was gardening all day,” she says.
And drinking, I think, after catching a whiff of gin mixed with tooth decay. Not that I’m one to judge; it isn’t even 5:00 and I’ve already taken six extra-strength Vicodin, smoked two bowls, drank four beers and snorted half an Adderall. And I still feel sober.
We grab a two-top in the corner and order drinks: another Bud for me, a Long Island iced-tea for her. Food comes eventually, but it’s just a table ornament. She outpaces me two-to-one on the cocktails. I ask where she’s from, you know, the accent. Texas, she says. What’s she doing up here? Grad school. Public health. Boston University. Work-study. She talks about her two-year stint in Nairobi, teaching math and science to teenage girls. She talks about the African sex trade, about oppression, about human rights, about AIDS, about feminism in the face of political tyranny. I can tell by the look in her eyes that she wants to do some good in the world. And I can tell by the amount of alcohol she drinks that she’s seen her fair share of the bad, too.
She hands it over to me. “So what about you, Danny?” I shrug. Advertising, bowel disease, reruns of The Sopranos, a Siamese named Bootsie. What else am I gonna say? That most of my waking life is spent chasing down prescription medications? That a typical Saturday night consists of me getting high, putting on spandex biker shorts and lip-syncing "Paradise City" in my one-bedroom condo? The most exotic place I’ve ever traveled to is Daytona Beach, and the hallmark of my philanthropy is a twenty-dollar monthly donation to the ASPCA. My idea of a summer getaway is taking the top off my Jeep and doing seventy-five down the Mass Pike. Christ, I’ve got nothing to offer this girl except takeout dinners and Netflix.
After two hours and four more cocktails we hit a lull. She chews her lip and looks around the bar. I drumroll my fingers off the table and click my tongue. I’m ready to throw in the towel when she says, “My roommates are having some people over later tonight. Would you like to come by?”
It’s the first good idea of the night.
She smiles and excuses herself to go to the ladies room. As she gets up she touches the back of my hand, then drags her fingers along my forearm.
Maybe I’m not such an asshole, after all. Maybe this tall redhead feels the pull, the action, the spark, whatever the hell it is. Maybe our meteorites are on the same orbital path. I can’t take the credit, though. Shit, the Long Island iced-teas did all the heavy lifting.
I pay the check and walk her to her car, a tiny late-model Honda that’s covered in bumper stickers. “Come by around nine?” she half says-half asks, wobbling on her clogs, grabbing my shoulders for support. I tell her yes, I’ll be there. She makes a yay sound and breathes a hot gust of fermented tequila in my face. Then she leans in and kisses me. A long, clumsy one.
She gets in her car and backs out of her spot. She taps the bumper behind her and scrapes the rear panel of the car in front of her, but she makes it out with an abrupt lurch, almost hitting the cars parked on the other side of the narrow, one-way street. She swerves back into a straight line and drives off. I notice two of the bumper stickers on the rear of the Honda--Obama/Biden ’08 and the Grateful Dead dancing bears—and then the car is further down the road, moving cautiously slow, straight past a STOP sign and through an intersection without even tapping the brakes.
* * * *
Back at my place I take a quick shower, brush my teeth, smoke a bowl, douse my genitals in baby powder and then I’m back on the road. I stop at Al’s Liquors and grab a twelve-dollar bottle of red. If the movies have taught me anything, it’s never show up empty handed.
I cruise down Columbus Ave., through Roxbury, back to Jamaica Plain. Even with the warm spring air and the classic rock blasting from my car stereo my palms still sweat and my stomach rumbles. Only bad things lie ahead, I think. I can’t help it. In the past, J.P. has meant only two things to me: Dominican drug dealers and second-hand music stores. And I haven’t bought a record since ’98.
If there’s any place to turn over a new leaf, this ain’t it.
I turn onto Centre St. and check the directions on my phone. I’m close. I don’t need the map to tell me that; I can feel it in my colon.
I park my Jeep and run up some steps. And then: ding-dong.
“You came,” Maggie says, swaying by the front door. She sounds surprised even though we’d been texting for the last twenty-five minutes.
She takes my hand and leads me through the first floor of her house, an old Victorian she rents from two middle-aged lesbians. The place reeks of patchouli oil, like a white boy’s dreadlocks. I could smell it all the way from the sidewalk.
“Everyone’s out back,” she says, squeezing my hand.
We move through the kitchen and out through a screened door to a back patio, where three people sit around a table. I case the area, one sweep: Teva sandals and bare toes. A bag of Drum tobacco and an acoustic guitar. Love beads and a Guatemalan tunic. A ponytail and wire-rimmed eyeglasses. A girl with blonde hair and sleepy eyes, wrapped in an afghan, curled up in a lawn chair. It’s like I just went backstage at a Mamas & Papas concert. I hide the bottle of wine behind my back, wishing I hadn’t brought it.
“Did you bring us something?” Maggie asks, nodding toward my hidden arm. I pooh-pooh the Yellowtail Pinot Noir and hand it over to her. She gives me the grand thank you, clutching the bottle to her a chest like it’s a goddamned Academy Award, and sets it on the table, next to a liter of Ruble vodka, some store-brand cranberry juice, three candles melted down to nubs and a half dozen red Solo cups, some with cigarette butts floating in them. The bottle of wine stands among these things like a tailored suit at an inner city bus stop.
I get the introductions. Ponytail and the sleeping blonde are a couple; the other chick is Sarah, Maggie’s roommate. Sarah picks up her patio chair and moves it closer to me, making an awful screeching sound as the cast-iron legs drag along the brick surface. “So Danny,” she says, closing her eyes and carefully taking the final drag of a cigarette. Her hand trembles. A long plank of ash falls down on her lap. She doesn’t notice. Her head lolls around in its socket and she painstakingly swallows some air. “Um, so Danny, can I ask you something…personal?”
This girl is so hammered it’s revolting. She reminds me of a dying horse. I feel a sudden pity for her. I want to put a bullet in her temple and end her misery.
“Sure,” I say, looking around at the group.
“Well,” she says, leaning over the side of her chair toward me. I pull back, afraid she might puke. “I read your OK Cupid profile. I read it. And, well, just to be sure, you’re thirty-seven, right?”
“I am.” I don’t know where this is going, but in preparation I get a visual on the vodka and an empty Solo cup, just so they’re within arm’s reach.
“Then how come, in your profile, which I read, it says you’re looking for women ages twenty-five to thirty-five? Hmm? I mean, why not thirty to forty? Or, I don’t know, thirty-five to forty?”
I reach over to the table and pour myself a cup of warm vodka and drink half of it straight down, getting a quick taste of homelessness. The vodka burns my throat and chest.
“Good question,” I say, stalling. I look to Maggie for help and find her, squatting in the bushes behind the patio, peeing. She smiles and waves to me like I’m a parent, watching her get on the bus for her first day of kindergarten. I turn back to Sarah. “You know, I never gave that much thought, actually. I guess I just figured since women are so much more emotionally mature than men, that maybe I should go down a few years, try and be on the same level.”
The awkwardness hovers around us like a rotten stench. The candles on the table die out, sending thin plumes of smoke spiraling into the air.
Fast forward twenty minutes and ponytail is knee deep into Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote”, strumming and tapping his Yamaha acoustic, eyes closed, quivering his lips over each word, his face and neck twitching with each inflection, his shoulders rolling every time he holds a note. He looks like Gordon Lightfoot with a mild case of turrets. You just picked up a hitcher…a prisoner of the white lines on the freeeeeeewayyyyyyy…
At least he pulled us out of the awkwardness. I look at Sarah, who’s resting her cheek on her fist and slowly stretching her mouth all the way up to her ear. I look at the blonde, still asleep, hasn’t moved since I got here. Maggie sits upright, her hands in the air, snapping the fingers on her right hand while the left twirls a plastic Solo cup around and sends small waves of vodka splashing over the rim.
The song ends and Ponytail segues into spoken word, strumming slowly between a G chord and an A minor while reciting a poem about a lonely Venezuelan coffee bean farmer. “I call this ‘Calloused Soul’”, he tells us. Maggie tilts her cup back and finishes her vodka, though most of it trickles down her chin and neck. She laughs so hard she falls out of her chair. Lying on the ground, she informs us that some pee just squirted down her leg. An image of her in a white medical coat inoculating small African children flashes in my mind.
A neighbor walks onto a back deck behind us and politely asks us to keep the noise down.
Ponytail puts the acoustic down and pulls a bag of weed from his fanny pack. He rolls a joint the size of a bobby pin, lights it and passes it around. The blonde wakes up, takes a hit, and goes back to sleep. Maggie holds onto the jay for ten minutes while she tells us a story about her high school boyfriend, describing the curvature of his penis in detail. Everyone nods along, except me, because I’m staring at the joint, watching it burn down in Maggie’s hand. Finally I reach out for it and she hands it over. I get half a hit before it burns my fingers. It doesn’t even taste like weed. It’s probably kale.
“Are you okay, man?” Ponytail says. It takes a moment before I realize he’s talking to me. I haven’t said much this whole night, and it occurs to me I have that pissy, disgruntled look on my face, the same face I wear when something doesn’t go my way.
Before I can answer Maggie is sitting on my lap, all five foot ten inches, one hundred and fifty pounds of her. “Vat’s a matta, dah-ling?” she says in a German accent, the point of which is beyond me. She erupts in more laughter and then drops her voice and presses her neck into my face. “Do you like this?” I smell sweat and vodka. Her body odor is so toxic it's probably keeping the mosquitos away. I try and wiggle free but she pushes harder. From the corner of my eye I see Ponytail pack up his acoustic. Maggie leans into my diaphragm and wraps her arms around my neck. I can’t breathe. The edges of my vision blur. Then I hear that scraping sound and one of the chair legs buckles and we collapse onto the brick. I black out for an instant and when I come to Maggie is laughing crazily into my face, blowing her hot poison wind into my mouth, transmitting the bile and vodka and rot into my body like it’s a demonic possession.
“WILL YOU PLEASE KEEP IT DOWN OUT THERE!”
Another plea from the neighbor. “Uh-oh,” Maggie says. She gets up, then reaches down to help me.
“I got it,” I say, waving her off. I get up and walk around the patio a couple times, limping, holding my left hip. “You broke the fucking chair.”
Maggie holds a finger over her lips. “Shhhhhhhh.”
Ponytail wakes up his girlfriend and leaves. Sarah, the roommate, remains seated, staring at us, pulling on her face. She looks like an alien in a bad human disguise, something out of Men In Black.
I want to go home. I can think of nothing better than going to bed, waking up early tomorrow morning and driving to the Home Depot parking lot to cop something, maybe a benzo so I can relax and read the Sunday paper, then nap the afternoon away. I’m about to say my goodbyes when Maggie grabs my wrist.
“I’m not done with you yet,” she says. She leads me back into the house. Before I walk through the screened door I turn and catch a glimpse of Sarah, staring at me, her lips curling downward into a sneer.
I follow Maggie as she zigzags down a dimly lit hallway, using the wall both as support and as a directional aide. I ask where her third roommate is—small talk—and she responds with a belch that drifts back and clings to me. She pushes a door open and we’re in her bedroom. Before I can close the door Maggie pulls her muumuu up over her head and throws it across the room, where it lands on a lampshade. She wears white cotton panties and nothing else. She drops on the bed, looks up at me, and beckons.
We make out for a couple minutes. She groans and tugs at my hair until I hear a ripping sound. “Ouch. Jesus,” I say, grabbing her wrist and pulling her hand away.
She laughs again and palms my face, squeezing my cheeks together. “You ah zee boy. I vill have my way with you.” Again with the German accent. I pull her hand away and hold her down by her shoulders. I tell her to please relax. She does. Her head sinks into a pillow and she mutters something low and inaudible. I move down and sprinkle her stomach and back with small kisses. When I come back up she is facedown, her eyes closed, her mouth open, a small circle of drool on her pillowcase.
“Maggie?” I shake her shoulder. Nothing. “Maggie?” I shake harder. I hold her wrist in the air and let it fall back down, watching it smack the side of her buttocks. I grab her wrist again and feel for a pulse. Nothing, but then again, I've never checked for a pulse before. “Jesus Christ,” I say, scratching my head. I place my fingers in front of her nose. I can’t feel anything—at least I don’t think I feel anything. Should I get Sarah? The alien roommate who hates me because of my OK Cupid age preference? I look around the room, and that’s when something catches my eye. Something on the night table next to the bed.
Three prescription pill bottles. Everything goes on hold. I feel that adrenaline shoot up from my bowels to my chest. I’m light-headed. I straddle over Maggie’s dormant body and reach for the pill bottles, checking each label. The first is unfamiliar. No value to me. The second is Valium. The third is Xanax. I pick up the Xanax and give it a little shake. It’s robust and full, music to my fiending ears.
I look down at the half naked body on the bed.
I look at the bottle of Xanax in my hand.
Only bad things lie ahead.
TO BE CONTINUED…
When I was eleven years old I got bit by the ‘golf bug’, an apt metaphor considering that I played the game with as much grace as someone suffering from malaria. Still, I loved it. Ever since my caddying days at Brae Burn Country Club I wanted to be a golfer. I loved the dewy, early mornings. I loved the steaming cups of coffee and oscillating lawn sprinklers. I loved the cemetery-like perfection of the landscaping. I loved how affable these rich golfers were when they played well, and how quiet and sulking they became when they didn’t. I loved the inbred greenskeeper who drove around in his electric cart and probably lived somewhere in the woods off the seventh fairway. I loved the sounds of a golf course, the gallop of metal spikes over concrete walkways, the whip-and-crack of a perfect tee shot and the throaty cluck of the ball dropping into the cup. I loved the forty bucks I earned per round—big money to a kid in 1987—all for carrying two bags that were only slightly heavier than gravity itself.
Four years later I made the Newton North golf team as an alternate, which meant, essentially, that I got to practice with the team a few days a week. It was a step above ‘honorary captain’—a designation normally reserved for kids who are either terrible or have a debilitating handicap. Being an alternate on a golf team isn’t like being the second-string quarterback or back-up catcher; there’s no need for a reserve golfer to suddenly suit up and get out on the field. Golf-related injuries are limited to heart attacks, blisters or electrocution by lightening bolt. And if--God forbid--one of the top seeds died in some other tragic, non golf-related way, I’m pretty sure the coach would have rather forfeited the season in tribute than have me represent his team.
I was a poor golfer. "Inconsistent" would be the golf euphemism
Regardless, my dad was thrilled that I had taken up the sport. He offered to buy me a new set of clubs, so I’d no longer have to use his set: rusty old Walter Hagens that were covered in cobwebs and mud from the 1960s. Having my own set would officially make me a golfer; I could polish them, talk to them, develop individual relationships with them and take them out for ice cream after a particularly good round. Like kitchen knives to a chef or a Gibson Les Paul to a guitarist, golf clubs were an extension of the player, the bridge between art and artist. And the better the clubs, the shorter the bridge.
All of my friends had nice clubs: Ping, Ben Hogan, Titleist, Wilson, Tailor Made. These were the same clubs used by the members at Brae Burn. When I suggested those brands to my father, he waved them off. “Son, I know a guy, friend of mine, makes custom golf clubs. Better than all that other crap. Let me give him a call.”
I felt a cold breeze of doubt curdle my excitement. It came and went, but it was there.
The following Saturday my dad and I went to get my custom clubs. We drove up I-95 to Norwood, a town I had previously known only for its highway exit signs. The main road was a typical suburban thoroughfare, only without homes. Instead there were a lot of small businesses, auto parts stores, legion halls, empty parking lots. We turned onto a dead-end side street. The asphalt became gravel, and then became dirt, as though the gravel just gave up entirely and said "why bother". We parked in front of a lonely one-story house with weather-blasted siding and a flat roof, a relic of 1960s architecture that hadn’t seen a single upgrade since it was built. There were no signs of life anywhere else on the street, no kids playing, no dogs barking, nothing. It had the sad feel of a studio backlot, or one of those fake neighborhoods in New Mexico used for testing atomic bombs. I felt dread as I stared at the house, imagining the Brady Bunch inside, all of them sprawled across the living room floor, dead from a carbon monoxide leak or a suicide pact.
My dad grabbed his Dunkin Donuts coffee and got out of the car, laboriously, groaning Je-sus Christ like he always did when he rose from a sitting position. The car rocked side to side from the weight displacement. I watched him as he headed up the front path in that slow gait of his, sipping his coffee while adjusting his trademark Irish cap. He reached the front door and knocked. The sky darkened and the rain fell harder.
The front door opened. A skinny, disheveled man stood there. He wore a tank-top that was most likely white at one point but had now turned the color of nicotine. He looked confused and defensive for a moment and then said “oh, hey!” once he recognized my old man. Okay, I thought, so maybe this guy is some sort of reclusive genius who makes things, an eccentric blacksmith who bucked the corporate system and had gone to seed in the backwoods off some interstate. Maybe he was the head die caster at an elite golf club manufacturer and was fired for being too brilliant. Maybe he discovered that his clubs were being used for the wrong reasons, like nuclear warfare. Maybe he was the best of the best, too smart and talented for his own good, and now he would come out of retirement to make one last set of irons. Mine.
But how would he know my old man?
“Danny, this is Joe, Angie Cedrone’s oldest boy, from up Hawthorne Street,” my dad informed me as I shook the man’s hand.
He looked vaguely familiar. “Did you…used to work one of the food stands at the carnival?” I asked him. The “carnival” was Newton’s annual Italian street fair, held in the middle of July at Hawthorne Park.
“Yeah,” he said. “The cherry stones.” Only it came out derry dones, because he was missing all of his teeth. He nodded his head and blinked his eyes rapidly, a nervous tic. “Doh, you’re Bunny’s kid, huh?”
Bunny was “Sonny”, my father’s nickname. My heart sank. This man was no genius craftsman; he was a goddamned carnie. A Newton townie exiled to this drab, industrial suburb. My dad probably helped him get his GED. Then I thought, Of course! This guy is like Igor. Every brilliant recluse has a mentally incapacitated hunchback answering his door. After we dispense of the introductions Joe will lead my father and I down to the lab, where a tall, gaunt man with a disturbing pageboy haircut will appear from a dark corner, put on bifocals, switch on an overhead lamp and then ask to see my hands. I’ll hold then out and he’ll lean forward and examine the contours of my palms while nodding and saying “yes…I see…very good”. Then he’ll put on heavy-duty rubber gloves and proceed to make my golf clubs, forging them in a celestial fire, as though commissioned by King Arthur himself.
Instead, Joe led us down into a tiny cellar filled with cardboard boxes marked 100 CT or FOR RETAIL SALE ONLY. There were random items strewn about, multiples of everything: ten black hockey sticks leaning against one wall. Two dozen plastic lawn chairs and matching side tables, stacked high in the corner. Lined across a shelf was a row of white orthopedic shoes, all with the tags hanging from the laces. I peeked into the box next to me and saw that it was neatly packed with purple CONAIR hair dryers. “Where’d I put em?” Joe said, scratching his whiskers and looking around. He moved aside a framed picture on the floor, a paint-by-numbers of Jesus meditating on the beach, wearing headphones. Behind it was a set of golf irons, held together with rubber bands, resting against the wall. “Here ya go, kid,” he said, handing them to me.
“Wow. Thanks,” I said, looking down at the clubs. The handgrips were thin black rubber with a white v-shaped tread, a design that brought to mind the soles of 1950s basketball sneakers. On the back of each clubface was the name PRO SWING, a brand I had never heard of, etched in a lightweight, sans serif font, similar to that of the premium PING EYE 2 clubs. So similar that from far enough away one might mistake them for Pings. At least that’s what I hoped.
“How dey beel?” Joe said.
“They feel great,” my father replied, sipping his coffee. “Danny, take the clubs and wait in the car. I gotta talk to Joe about a few things.”
I walked up the stairs and back to the car, cradling my new set of irons as though it was a puppy that just leapt happily into my arms and then abruptly died.
The following Monday was team practice. I took my new clubs to the golf course for their maiden voyage. I was nervous, as though I was about to walk into school with my ear pierced or my hair permed. What would the other kids think? Would they be impressed? Envious? Would they even notice? Would I want them to notice?
“Are those new clubs?” Dave asked as I took some practice swings off the first tee. He reached into my bag and grabbed an iron. “Pro Swing. Huh. Where’d you get these? K-mart?”
“They’re custom-made, actually.”
“Really? They don’t look custom. They look like beginner’s clubs.” He took one out and gave it a swing, then grimaced and shook his head as if to say yuk. “If they’re custom, how come they don’t have anyone’s name on them? How come it doesn’t even say ‘custom’ anywhere?”
“Because the guy had a stroke before he could do that part,” I said, yanking the club out of his hand.
I had a similar conversation at least a half dozen times that day. Kids would ask if my clubs were new, and then upon closer inspection they would recoil in horror, as though I had showed them an infected wound.
“Pro Swing? What brand is that? I’ve never heard of it.”
“It’s my brand, okay? My own brand of golf clubs. Do you have your own brand? No.”
“That’s a terrible name, dude. It’s boring.”
“Yeah well you’re a terrible asshole.”
As the afternoon wore on I grew progressively more defensive and humiliated, two emotions that, for me, mix together to become rage. Unable to get out of my own head, my golf game suffered. I took an X on most of the holes, and the ones I actually finished were triple-bogeys. The low point came on the eighth tee, when two other passing foursomes stopped to watch me hit. “Let’s see that pro swing, Danny!” one kid yelled. I got in my stance, swung and missed the ball outright. The gallery snickered. Now fuming, I took another swing and shanked the ball off to the right, where it hit a nearby tree and ricocheted back in their direction. I pretended it was intentional.
“You like that?” I yelled to my teammates, red-faced. “The next one’s gonna hit you right between the eyes, shitbirds!”
After practice I waited on the street for my dad to pick me up. A Jeep Cherokee packed with the top-seeded Newton North players pulled out of the parking lot and sped past me, leaving the sound of Pearl Jam and the scent of marijuana in its wake. Valet attendants drove up in brand new Porsches and Mercedeses, holding the doors open for the club’s wealthy, private members and then stowing their three thousand-dollar golf clubs in the trunks. Finally my dad arrived, in his 20-foot Oldsmobile, chewing his spearmint gum and listening to talk radio. I put my new clubs in the backseat and got in.
“So, Danny, how’d you make out with the new clubs?” he said.
I started to cry.
* * * *
My father hung around with a bunch of low-level gangster types, guys with names like Lefty and Fatty and Dominic. They weren’t real gangsters, but they looked the part well enough, and they certainly enjoyed playing the part. One of their pseudo rackets was SWAG—merchandise obtained in bulk from warehouses or bankrupt wholesalers, usually arbitrary crap that nobody would ever need, want or think to purchase for themselves. Things like football tees or American flag beer koozies or travel-sized tubes of Crazy Glue (that were cleverly renamed “Wacky Gloo”). One evening my father came home and handed me a plastic bag. “Here ya go, son. I got you a little something.” Inside the bag was a flexible elbow brace, the kind worn by tennis players. My elbows were fine, but since it was a gift and it smelled new I figured I should put it to use. I wore it to school for a couple weeks as a fashion statement, to see if I could start a trend. It didn’t catch on and eventually smelled like spoiled milk, so I tossed it.
In fifth grade my dad gave me a Rolex watch. He made a ceremony out of it. “Son, this is a Rolex. The finest watch ever made by the finest watchmakers in the world. You’re ten years old now, and pretty soon you’ll be a man. A man’s wristwatch is a sign of his integrity. A sign of his class. His dignity. It shows his respect for time and respect for himself. Take good care of this.”
I took care of it. I had never heard of a Rolex but I liked the little gold crown below the number 12. It was a regal accessory and I cherished it. I showed everybody at school, even my teachers, who seemed amused rather than awestruck. I even made a little bed for it out of a Kleenex box, where I kept it during showers or baseball practice.
A month later the Rolex stopped working. I assumed the battery had died, and when I tried to remove the back plate to replace it, the plastic shield popped off of the face. I picked it up and tried to push it back on but it cracked down the middle and my thumb jammed into the dial and bent the minute hand. When I then tried to straighten out the minute hand with a pair of tweezers, it snapped off entirely.
I told my dad the Rolex broke and, to my surprise, he was not angry. Instead he gave me another one, same exact design, same black and gold color scheme. I wore that one for two months until my friend Matt informed me that it was a fake. “Rolexes don’t tick; they sweep,” he said, with the snooty air of a Sotheby’s auctioneer. “And by the way, they cost thousands of dollars. You really think your dad would give you a watch that expensive, and then, after you broke it, just give you another one?”
“Yeah, actually, I do,” I said, feeling tragically outclassed. I picked up my Trapper Keeper that was held together with electrical tape and stormed out of the classroom.
Pride kept me from admitting it, but I knew Matt was right. The watch was a fake. Both of them. The quality was cheaper than the digital video game watches that CVS sold for sixteen bucks. I got home from school, tore the Rolex off my wrist and threw it in the family junk drawer, where it stayed until 2006, when my mom remodeled the kitchen.
Nearly all the watershed moments of my adolescent life were commemorated with knockoff merchandise, likely procured from a warehouse that was about to be lit on fire. My baseball cleats always had the three Adidas stripes but never the Adidas name or logo. For my sixteenth birthday I got a STREET LITE ten-speed racing bike, the lettering of its logo an exact rip-off of SHOGUN. In college, while everyone sat in their dorm rooms typing papers on Dell or Hewlett Packard laptops, I used a Bonavenci desktop computer that took up my entire desk plus most of the surrounding floor. It had no internet data ports and the user manual was in Mandarin Chinese. I had to ask someone in the foreign language center to install it for me.
These experiences have bred in me a genuine complacency with substandard quality. Today, whenever I have the option, I always buy the cheaper product. Recently I bought a new iPhone. I got the 16 GB model, rather than the 32 GB one, because it cost a hundred bucks less. After taking thirty-five selfies and uploading four Guns N’ Roses albums, my phone is now out of storage. I had to delete most of my apps in order to watch the new Star Wars trailer on Youtube. I apply the same principle to bigger things, like vacations. Rather than spend thousands on a trip to the Bahamas or Europe, I always opt for something more convenient, like Quincy. “Jesus, nothing ever makes you happy,” I yell at whichever girlfriend accompanies me. “The sky is blue. The food has calories. The people are human. The fuck more do you want?”
* * * *
As I write this, I look up at one of the bookcases in my study, on top of which stands a framed 8x10 picture of my father. The picture is from the late 1950s, during his time in the service. He is dressed in pilot’s gear: leather bomber jacket, white scarf, captain’s hat, and a set of headphones with a mouthpiece that he has pushed aside for the purposes of the picture. He is young and handsome, with a lopsided and devilish grin. The colors and edges of the photo are soft, appearing almost airbrushed, like an old pre-Technicolor war film. I imagine my father posing briefly for that picture and then saying, “alright, see ya”, then climbing into the cockpit of a B-12 and taking off for Korea. It is my favorite picture of him, and I have kept it in my study since the day he died, nearly twelve years ago.
At some point I learned the picture was a phony, a gag. One weekend my father and a group of his G.I. buddies went down to Tijuana on a weekend leave. They stopped at a penny arcade that offered portraits taken in a variety of different costumes, from policeman to cowboy to professional baseball player. My father picked the airman getup.
In the end, it doesn't really matter. I still love that picture.
It was the bottom of the fourth inning when, from the corner of my eye, I noticed our centerfielder toss his glove to the ground. He then crossed his legs, pushed his hips forward, and began pounding his own butt cheeks with his fists, hammering away as if he were a tribal warrior and his ass was a bongo drum. This lasted less than a minute; by the time our pitcher went into his windup, the centerfielder had retrieved his glove and was back in the ready position, legs slightly bent, hands on his knees. I looked around the diamond and the bleachers, wondering if I was the only one who had witnessed this oddity. It seemed no one else had noticed. Did I hallucinate? Catch a glimpse into some parallel universe, one that involved a ritualistic voodoo dance? Had our centerfielder developed some form of acute autism since his last at-bat? The possibilities were endless. I pondered them for the next three batters.
After the inning I approached him in the dugout. He had just put on a helmet and was wiggling his hands into a pair of batting gloves.
“Hey, what were you doing out there? At the beginning of the inning you were, like, pounding on your butt cheeks.”
“That’s the plopper stopper,” he said, selecting a bat and taking a couple check swings with it. He rested the bat against his shoulder, as though he were about to give me a hitting tip. “Whenever I feel a shit coming on, I do the plopper stopper. It scares it back up my ass. I’ll be good for at least three or four innings.”
“Huh. Do you take a lot of shits?” I asked.
“You never know when your number’s gonna get called,” he said, and then turned and walked to the on-deck circle, taking half swings along the way.
That was 1987. I had forgotten all about the plopper stopper, until twenty-five years later, when most of my colon was surgically removed.
Since then I’ve thought about it. A lot.
* * * *
In the summer of 2012 my Crohn’s Disease suffered a severe flare-up. My colon was inflamed, ulcerated, kinked and knotted. According to the CT scan, my intestines looked less like neatly stacked layers of insulation and more like my iPhone ear buds after I take them out of my pocket. What’s more, multiple perforations had opened, allowing bacteria and stool to leak out and form an abscess inside my abdomen. Between May and August I was hospitalized five times to have the abscess drained, a rather medieval procedure that involved snaking a tube through my stomach, puncturing the grapefruit-sized ball of infection, and then waiting six days for it to drip out into a plastic bag taped to my torso. It reminded me of a family trip to Florida in 1982, when my dad bought my sisters and I these plastic souvenir spigots that you stuck into oranges, yielding a tablespoon of freshly squeezed juice. A lot of build-up with minimal satisfaction.
The abscess would drain and then duly reform after a couple weeks. Surgery became my only option. The damaged part of my colon would have to be removed, but because the area was so badly traumatized it would take three months before the healthy ends could be reattached. In the interim I would require a temporary colostomy bag, which, to the opposite sex, is less appealing than genital herpes.
The surgery was successful and my recovery was swift. I finally quit smoking cigarettes, though I did replace it with a fierce addiction to painkillers. My weight quickly returned to normal. After nearly twenty years of wrenching abdominal pain, gaunt features, dark circles around my eyes and a waxy, translucent complexion, I finally looked and felt like a normal, healthy man.
Except for the shitting. See, the colon is like your kitchen trashcan. The smaller the receptacle, the more trips you make to the garage to empty it. The difference is that your trashcan can sit full for days, and when you try and pack in that last banana peel or crushed milk carton, it doesn’t blow diarrhea all over your new ceramic tiles.
People with Crohn’s Disease like to empty their intestinal trashcans as little as possible, if only to indulge in the illusion that they have some control over their bowels. The need to relieve oneself as soon as nature calls is like being the Manchurian Candidate--once the brain receives the colon’s signal Crohn’s patients clear their minds and immediately develop a single-purpose plan of how and where they are going to take a shit. Many times I’ve walked home from work and felt the floodgates open. I imagine that the look of jolted severity on my face is similar to Lawrence Harvey whenever he sees the Queen of Diamonds: one instant I’m playing an innocent game of solitaire, the next I must assassinate KGB agents at any cost.
Therefore, each bowel movement becomes a test. How long can I hold this? If I get that sluicing feeling in my belly at 4:30, before I leave my office, will I make it through the evening? Or should I play it safe and just unload everything at that moment? The safe route seems the most logical, but at the same time, the most subservient. After all, there is a chance that the feeling will pass, thereby granting me a brief reprieve from the bondage of my bowel disease.
This is where I begin to factor in other variables. The first is location. Where will I be in two hours? A movie theater? If so, I’ll try and hold it. And if I get too uncomfortable, well, a cineplex is a great place to take a shit. The restrooms are spacious, sparkling clean, and almost always empty, provided you go during the show (and not immediately after). I find a nostalgic comfort in leaving a dark theater mid-movie and walking to the restroom, down the empty corridor, following a tacky red and yellow carpet with designs of arc lights and film reels printed on it, passing framed posters of classics like E.T. and Casablanca and Field of Dreams. I feel safe whenever I take a shit in a movie theater restroom, the same safety I felt when I watched movies as a kid, that warm feeling of experiencing life by proxy and without risk, the guarantee of second-act conflicts and third-act resolutions. Safety, comfort and happy endings…all key ingredients to the ideal bowel movement experience.
Since I don’t drink anymore, I no longer have to worry about taking an emergency crap in some “cool” dive bar men’s room, those tiny, unventilated closets with a marbled glass window, one urinal, one toilet, no mirror, no lock on the stall, poems that involve necrophilia scrawled on the wall and a pool of urine at your feet. Drunk assholes will come in to piss while I’m sitting on the can and immediately gag or even blurt out “Fuck, bro, that thing in your ass needs a eulogy!” Shitting in a dive bar is like hiding out in a South American hotel during a military coup: you never know when some bloodthirsty nationalist is going to kick in the door, seize you and hand you over to the masses.
On the other hand, I do spend most nights at AA meetings, which are actually worse. Restrooms in church basements are often just as small and unventilated as those in dive bars. The main difference is that they’re far more neglected, which means they never have hand soap and could be out of toilet paper at any given time. Their functionality is spotty, too. I’ve gone into AA bathrooms and found the toilet bowl overflowing with what looks like melted Rocky Road ice cream, a situation I find equally horrific and gratifying: I am reminded of the chance we all take when shitting in a public restroom, and yet I am thankful not to be directly involved. It’s the same bone-deep feeling I get when I hear news of a plane crash.
Contrary to what you might believe, I’m actually quite fond of unisex bathrooms. These are usually found at trendy bistros, yoga studios, tattoo parlors and design firms. The trappings and décor of unisex bathrooms far outweigh the nightmare scenario of walking out of the bathroom just as that cute receptionist is on her way in; rather than apologize for the biological weapon you left behind you simply avert your eyes and walk away, praying that you never come in contact with her for the remainder of your life. In spite of that, however, the unisex bathroom is a shitter’s utopia, designed to make the movement of your bowels as pastoral as possible. They typically have soothing paint schemes, like pistachio green, or sky blue with a trim the color of sand dunes. They are equipped with bowls of potpourri, Meyers hand soap and a variety of air fresheners, from lavender rose petal to lemongrass sage. Some are furnished with orchids or viburnums (if not the real thing than at least a still life hanging on the wall). It’s as though I’m taking a shit while sitting next to Andrew Wyeth. I’ve been in a few unisex bathrooms that even offer reading material—and not back issues of Good Housekeeping or Glamour, either. I’m talking about a driftwood shelf with a dozen clothbound American classics, just in case you want to lose yourself in the selected works of Robert Frost or Henry David Thoreau while you’re squeezing one out.
The other variable to consider when forecasting my nightly bowel movement is my last meal. What did I eat for lunch? Was it starchy? Meaty? Ethnic? Leafy? Deep-fried? How many shots of espresso did I pour into my afternoon cup of coffee? Frankly, though, none of that really matters. I have eleven inches of colon; you have five feet. My digestive system operates like a shot glass that’s held under a running faucet. I could eat nothing but rice cakes, peanut butter and Imodium all day, but if my Crohn’s feels the need to announce itself with authority, I am powerless. All I can do is run, as fast as I can with clenched butt cheeks, that is.
* * * *
My first experience with my new, “leaner” large intestine came a month after my surgeries, in November of 2012. I was at my doctor’s office for a follow-up, discussing the broad strokes of living life with a travel edition-sized colon. During the meeting my stomach gurgled and some mild pressure began to rise in my abdomen; I chalked it up to psychosomatics, the same way Chuck Norris hears phantom machine gun fire when he returns to Vietnam in Missing in Action. I squirmed and crossed my legs and the feeling subsided.
Thirty minutes later, driving down Commonwealth Ave., the pressure returned. And it mounted fast, a deluge of water rising against the dam. I started to sweat. Then I started to pray. I heard my sphincter call out to me, the words squeaking out like gasps: I can’t…hold it…anymore… I tried to picture nice things, like swing sets, or kids riding bikes in a 1950s neighborhood. What came to mind instead were images of people getting sucked into things, like tornadoes, or the little girl who gets swallowed by her closet in Poltergeist. Human futility in the face of nature’s wrath.
I unbuttoned the top of my jeans. My stomach spilled over, bringing mild relief. I unzipped my fly, giving my distended belly as much room as possible to breathe. The pressure continued. My sphincter was speechless, its fingernails scraping along the castle’s wall, about to succumb to a flood of Biblical proportions. There was no recourse. A series of quick images flickered before my eyes: Easter eggs, little league, birds chirping, a base hit, the cheering crowd, a first kiss, an ice cream truck, the plopper stopper.
The plopper stopper.
“Son of a bitch!” I cried, and veered off Commonwealth and up a hilly side street. To my left were houses; to my right was a wooded area. I pulled my Jeep onto the grassy sidewalk, yanked up the handbrake, pulled down my pants, pushed the door open, pointed my ass out and shat onto the street. I let out a long, audible, thankful sigh. Just then I saw two women in yoga attire walking in my direction, both pushing baby strollers. “Oh fuck,” I said. At that point, any sort of wiping was a forgone luxury. I climbed back into the driver’s seat, floored the gas and drove off. I ducked down as I passed the two women, but I can only imagine the disgusted and horrified look on their faces. Dear God, Catherine, who was that animal? How dare he desecrate our quaint, affluent neighborhood with his fecal matter! Shall I phone the police? This kind of travesty is the very reason we bought houses on an avenue instead of a street.
I turned onto the main road and smiled. Then I started laughing maniacally, driving in my Jeep, sitting in my own shit.
Although rare, on-the-spot bowel movements have become a way of life, like springtime allergies or achy joints during a rainstorm. I have learned to accept them, to always take the safe route and to not gamble with my Crohn’s Disease, no matter how bound up or sturdy I might feel in a given moment. Like a snake in the grass, Crohn’s can sink its venomous fangs into your heel anywhere, anytime: on a date, at the beach, anywhere between point A and point B. I’ve shat in people’s backyards, in strip mall parking lots, behind dumpsters. I’ve shat in duffle bags and in cardboard Amazon.com boxes. Anywhere, anytime. From sea to shining sea. If it’s on the map, I’ve probably taken a shit there.
* * * *
One of my bizarre traditions of 2014 was wearing leather pants to work on the third Friday of every month (excluding May through September, for obvious reasons). On October’s Leather Friday my company received word that we had won a substantial piece of business, so to celebrate we went out after work for drinks at a nearby watering hole. I didn’t consume any alcohol, but I did partake in many of the exotic appetizers that were passed around the table. An array of egg rolls, dumplings, chicken satay and clever little deep-fried balls of breaded cheese, all accompanied with a variety of dipping sauces. I ate and laughed and rejoiced, toasting our agency’s hard work and good fortune, paying no heed to the rumbling that began, deep in my gastric seas.
I bid farewell early, still light outside, while my coworkers were so legless that they were arm-in-arm, pledging eternal friendship and singing along to Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’, even though most of them despised each other from the hours of nine to six.
As soon as I left the bar I felt the first warning shot of pressure in my bowels, followed by a warmth in my undercarriage and around my neck. I had a twenty-minute walk ahead of me. No problem, I thought. I’ll put in my ear buds and listen to something relaxing to keep my mind occupied.
Once I crossed over the expressway underpass, into South Boston, I received another warning shot, this one a hot pain that seared up through my sternum, causing me to double over. I wiped sweat off my forehead and undid the top button of my Banana Republic leather pants, which were already sticking to my legs. I took a deep breath and resumed walking over the West 4th Street bridge.
By the time I got to Old Colony Ave. I started panicking. The pressure was at a fever pitch; my sphincter felt like it was holding back an entire grain silo. I shut the music off and focused on my breathing, walking bolt upright, tensing my legs and torso. Somehow I didn’t think relaxation would be wise in that particular moment. The only nearby business was Doughboy Donuts, but they didn’t have public restrooms. So I walked on, my strides getting shorter and shorter, my butt cheeks clenching tighter and tighter.
Once I got to D Street I felt a surge of hope. A few more blocks and I’d be home. Maybe I’d try the plopper stopper when I got to my street—West 9th—and buy myself an inning or two. Worst case I could shit in the walkway next to the crack dealer three houses down from me, which I’d done twice previously.
As I turned the corner onto West 9th the pressure eased up. “Thank you, God,” I said, smiling like a prisoner of war after the lashing stops. As soon as I saw my front steps jutting out on the left the pressure disappeared completely, and I resumed my normal walk. It must have had a psychological effect: the comfort of seeing my own house had calmed my volatile colon, like blowing cool air on an open wound. I breathed a long sigh of relief.
Then I saw my neighbor, John, standing out front, waving me over. He looked distraught. John is a decent guy, albeit on the trashier side, to put it kindly. He always takes my garbage to the curb on Thursdays and shovels my front walk when it snows. He loans me tools, even offers to watch my cat, which I would never in a million years accept. Regardless, I like to be a good neighbor, so I stopped at my front steps and asked how he was.
“This is bullshit,” he said, not really answering my question. “My fucking daughter just got picked up by the cops. You see all the cruisers out here a minute ago?”
“No, I just got here. What happened?”
“Fuckin drugs. Fuckin OC sixties, you believe that?” His voice was shaky. He wiped snot from his chin. I could smell the tooth decay in his breath from six feet away.
“Oh, John, that’s…” Just then my reservoir started flooding again. Fast. I bent over and held my stomach. He kept going.
“I had to call the cops myself. She won’t get help, you believe that? Now she's bangin her dealer, some fuckin spic from Mission Hill.” He started to cry. I had tears in my eyes, too. I tried to imagine a field at sunset, tall reeds swaying in the breeze and milkweed sifting through the air, but all I could see was John’s obese, 20-year old daughter, with her mullet and her Nike high tops, having sex with a scrawny Latino man in the back seat of her Chevy Caprice.
I pulled my keys from my jacket pocket. My hands were so shaky that I couldn’t locate the front door key and I ended up dropping them on my steps. John continued with his rant, telling me at least six times how his daughter was banging her dealer. I bent down to grab my keys, and that’s when the floodgates opened wide. Down both legs of my leather pants.
“Oh...that’s fucking awful,” I said.
“I know, right? I had a problem with booze and coke, but I quit on my own. Been thirteen years, did it myself. You had some problems with that shit, too. Right?”
All I could do was nod, leaning against the rail of my front steps, holding my head in my hand.
I stood there for another ten minutes listening to John talk about his daughter. Finally I told him I had to go. I shook his hand and wished him luck, told him I’d be happy to talk to her about recovery whenever she was ready, then crab walked up my stairs and into my condo. Fortunately my leather pants were so tight and sticky they trapped most of the shit against my legs, sparing my favorite pair of boots.
I removed my shirt and boots, stepped in the shower and turned on the water. Once the leather pants were off, the cleansing could begin. A new day always comes, with or without hope, or safety, or the possibility of happiness. Clothes can be replaced. Everything is disposable. Even good health is elusive, no matter how often you get to the gym or how prudent your diet. But humility…that stays with you for a long time.
Or at least I hope it does.
Dear Readers, the story you most likely came here to read, ...And Justin For All, is gone. I took it down because one too many people identified the real "Justin", and this presented an ethical dilemma. If the real "Justin" ever stumbled upon this story or got wind of its existence, the damage would be severe. I'm not worried about my relationship with him or my personal safety; I'm worried about a fellow human being falling even deeper into a very dark place.
The Greater Fool is here to entertain you with stories about life. With the exception of a few minor details, ...And Justin For All is 100% truthful. I wrote it through his POV as a way of preserving that truth. Is it a fascinating, horrifying, humorous look into the mind of a man who feels victimized by the modern world? I think so. Is it an important story, one that captures not only his bitter voice but the voices of many like him? I know so. Is it akin to watching an oncoming train, one that gains speed and heads toward inevitable destruction? Absolutely. Is our entertainment worth the potential hazards if "Justin" were to one day read this story and face his own truth? Absolutely not. When I look at it that way I see this as nothing more than an elevated form of cyber-bullying, and that is not The Greater Fool's purpose.
I have watched my site traffic double with the release of this story. I have received many accolades for its mixture of horror and comedy. I will no doubt disappoint some of you with my decision to remove it. Therefore I have created a restricted page on this site that will host potentially hazardous materials, stories that, for whatever reason, are not suitable for public view but only to subscribers of The Greater Fool. That's where you can read ...And Justin For All, along with its forthcoming sequel. How do you get access? It's easy: just enter your email address in the little box on the right hand side, and I will send you a link or login instructions whenever a new story is published. Or something like that. I'm not entirely sure how these things work. And don't worry, I'm not going to mine your data or put your on the Warby Parker mailing list.
In the meantime, might I interest you in some of last year's hottest toys? You can read about goth girls, pederast CCD teachers, drug addiction, the movie business, teenage boys who get perms, Russian Mail Order Brides, and feline hatred, all listed under the "Danny's Favorite Stories" section to your right.
The Greater Fool
Hello! My name is Oksana. I will be fair - I am shy to write to you and don't know you will write to me or not. I have not enough experience in dialogue through the Internet, but I hope our acquaintance will be pleasant and interesting. What do you think? I will look forward your letter. I cannot write more now, but I will try to write to you more next time. Oksana
Hello Oksana! It’s good to hear from you. I’m glad you wrote. Tell me a little about yourself. Your OK Cupid profile says you live in Maine…how did you end up there? Are you in school? Work? PS – you are very beautiful.
Hello! It is very glad to see your letter! How are you today? My day was good. It will be very pleasant and interesting to me to have acquaintance to you. I live in small city Petrozavodsk. I want to warn that my intentions are serious. I think that my character is not character of the girl which searches only for flirtation, I want from life of more important things. If for you acquaintance is only game - I do not think that we with you approach each other. I was tired of games and people which think only about themselves and the interests. I hope you understand me... I am glad that you want know me better. I work as the teacher of children. I hope you will write more in yours next the letter. I send you my photos, I hope you like it. Unfortunately I cannot write more today, I have not enough time. I hope you will not be offended. But I was really glad to receive your letter. Your new friend Oksana.
Hello Oksana. Your town seems like a nice place. I looked it up online. It is very far away. Do you have any plans of coming to the United States? I don't think I'll make it out to Russia any time soon.
Hi dear Danny!!! All the day long thought as I will read your letter! Danny, I want to warn you, I not always can to write much because I write to you from Internet cafe, I have no computer at my home. But I will try every day reply on your letters, it is very pleasant to me to receive them from you. I have removed mine profile from OK Cupid site because was tired of bad people which write bad words. Because of messages with requests to send a naked photo or simply rough words. When received such lines - I was very much afflicted... Danny, now I will communicate only with you and I am glad to it. I do not ask you to communicate only with me too, but would be very grateful if you support me in it. This way we could develop our acquaintance. In this letter I send you a photo, the picture has been made when I walked.
I wanted to tell a little about myself. I work at children's school of art. I teach in a sewing and knitting class, children in my class learn to do things of a fabric, the threads, even some clothes. In the childhood my mum has taught me to this creativity, it helps me to show my private world. I try to teach children in my class to show their feelings, their interests in their creativity. What do you think of it?
Danny, it would be very interesting to me to know more about you, you have a hobby? You would like to show your private world in any new art? Danny, I try to study better English, I hope at me it turns out. If I cannot understand some your words, I ask be not afflicted, I will try to be more attentive. Your friend Oksana
Thank you for the picture, Oksana. You are incredibly gorgeous. And thank you for only emailing exclusively with me, though I am not sure that is necessary just yet. If I may be frank, what exactly are you hoping to achieve through this correspondence? Are you looking to make a new pen pal? Or are you trying to flee from your country and gain citizenship in America through marriage? If it is the former, I’m not really interested. If it is the latter, I am totally willing. Could you come visit me for a week, so we could at least meet in person before we get married? I can make pasta and we can watch HBO. There are many shows you probably do not get in Russia.
Your future husband (hopefully),
Danny, Hello!!! How are you today? I hope all is fine! Today I looked news on tv. It seems to me there would be nothing more bad what to spoil mood. When you look news it seems as if the whole world gone crazy. What do you think about it? It seems to me news and tv is the good tool of influence on people. I will wait your letter and it will be interesting to me to learn your thoughts on my words. Oksana
Oksana…did you get my last email? It seems you did not answer my question. I’m curious about your intention, and if you are looking for marriage to gain citizenship to the U.S. Just to be clear—I am completely willing (if that is really you in those pictures). Please let me know. Danny
Dear Danny!! Yes, I receive your letter. Danny, we have a statement that separation does feelings more strongly, but I think that separation this most difficult for feelings... What do you think of it? Danny, very much it is pleasant to me that I can come up with to your my ideas, I hope you treat kindly it. I will wait yours next the letter. Your friend Oksana
Danny, Hi! I with impatience waited your letter. I hoped to read your lines. But I have not received your letter today. I hope all is fine with you and you just have no time for checking your a mail today. I will look forward your letter. Oksana
Dearest Oksana, news of world make me sad. Tonight I watch news of snow in Minnesota and I got so sad I pooped on floor of kitchen. But then I stick birthday candle in poop and make a cake, and it make me feel happy. I don't know if I can handle another winter.
I think I have great love for you. Please send me $8500. That would be nice to happen.
Your best friend, Danny
Danny, I smile when I see your lines!!! I looked forward when I can read your letter and at last I can make it! To come to cafe it would be necessary to spend about 30 minutes in a way. I spoke to you, I live in city Petrozavodsk. Usually it is a silent and safe city, but yesterday I was frightened. My way was about park, there some men loudly shouted. I think they were drunk, it is not pleasant to me when people accept a lot of alcohol and show aggression. But all was good, I have safely come back home. I try to be careful always.
Danny, what you think? What for you ask, that I have sent you money? And such a great sum. My salary is very small. I send to you to a photo on which I walk on park after work, I had a good mood. I like to walk in park, it helps me to distract from sad thoughts after long days. You take place, which helps you to distract from thoughts and to have a rest after difficult days? Danny, tell to me more about your city and your native land, it is very interesting to me. You take a favourite place where you have pleasant to rest? I like to walk in park, it always calms me after active and a hard time. Helps to bring in my thoughts an order and rest, helps to think of many things. Still I like to have a rest about water, it is pleasant sounds of fountains, it as if hypnosis for me when I hear a fountain sound as if the whole world stops and waits when I will stop to fly in my thoughts. Danny, probably my words have brought to you a smile, simply wanted to be more open in conversation with you. Oksana.
Oksana my dear, I have think of you in the deepest wee hours of the night. I wonder...what it is you seek? Do you search friendship? Do you search true love? I would like to tell you story of small town Russian hero. Man is name is Ivan Drago.
Ivan Drago was boxer. Violent man. Tall, rippling, spiky frosted hair. Russian parliament want Drago to be international hero, so they send him to United States where he fight Apollo Creed and hurt him bad, kill him blood. James Brown sing a song. But wait. Apollo friend, Rocky Balboa, travel to Russia to fight Drago. Rocky much smaller, and Italian, but great hair. Small Rocky train in snow, train hard he did. When fight come small Rocky beat big Russian Drago in 10 rounds knockout. Big Russian Drago on lots of steroids. He tire quickly. He not real. All bluster. All show. Big Russian hero fall hard. Small good hair Italian win big.
What do you think of this? When will I meet you? I may love you like Russia love Drago. Who knows? Fight go 10 rounds???
Please don't ever do steroids. Make ding ding shrivel, small like prune!!
If love come down to you or Janet Jackson, you win love.
Hi, Danny!!! I looked forward your letter! My day was good today. I spend time with my friend, she is unique my close friend. Her name is Irina. We are on friendly terms since the childhood as if I know her all life and she as if the sister for me. We very much like to spend together time! Wanted to tell to you about my friend, she married 6 years. Now she and her husband Vitali plan to get the child, I think at them there will be a fine kid! Her husband works as the driver of the truck. He works much and sometimes he leaves for some weeks the house and when comes, spends houses some days, and again leaves to work.
How does your day happening? Your friend Oksana
Danny, Hi! I with impatience waited your letter. I hoped to read your lines. But I have not received your letter today. Possibly you are very busy? Oksana
Hi, Danny! I was upset because have not received your letter today... You had not enough time and have not checked up your mail? Yours Oksana
Dear Danny, your letters are very much silent. I am upset to not hear to you, my heart is sad. So much sad. Today there are men that take my father to city for crimes he say of that he is innocent. Russian Federation had steal my mother’s jewelry and other things, say they will set to the house in fire and burn down. My father tell me how much he loves me all this time. Tomorrow he is to be executed in front of public. So sad!! Danny, I try and make good walk by water fountains as to distract from thoughts but military is to make blockades. I cannot write any longer today. I hope to hear more from you soon.
Dear Danny, this will be final letter. There is much friendship I have for you. But now my home is gone. Strange men take my sister Svetlana and put her on shiny plane and take her up into stars. My fear is great that shiny plane come down and find me. I am upset to not hear from you any longer. I must go now. Your Oksana
Oksana, are you there? Please write back and let me know you’re okay. I will await with impatience. Love, Danny
Oksana, it is almost Christmas, and I can only assume you are dead. If so I hope you are sitting in that great internet café in the sky, wearing a cable knit turtleneck and sipping a latte. I have gone back and reread all of our letters, and I think you are a wonderful person. It is too bad we couldn’t have met in person. We have a lot in common. I also like to take walks to clear my head, to distract me from the stress of life. Do you have iPods where you come from? Ignore that question. You don’t (didn’t) even have a computer.
You have taught me much about the simple life. In my part of the world there is much complaining. People complain about snow, about jobs, about boyfriends and girlfriends, about traffic, about the president, about vacations, about the commercials in the Super Bowl, about everything. It is (was) refreshing to know that someone so hopeful and humble exists. It makes me both happy and sad.
Your last letter implied that aliens abducted your sister and were possibly coming back for you. If that is true then I am hopeful. After the initial body probes you will teach these aliens about love and all the good of humanity. Then perhaps one day you can ask the aliens to fly their spaceship to South Boston and we can finally meet in person. Tell the space men that they can probably land their ship on Castle Island. Oksana, I truly hope this is the case. I anxiously await for you with impatience.
Subject: Message Failed
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I learned how to drive a manual transmission in high school. First my friend Dave taught me in his Volkswagon Fox, until I burned a hole through his clutch. Then my father took over the responsibility, letting me drive his Honda Prelude in the parking lot of Aquinis Junior College on weekends, while he sat in the passenger seat, shaking his head and moaning Jeez-us Christ every time I stalled out. Eventually I found that perfect synergy of clutch and gas and was able to move the car forward in first gear without bucking it. It was a rite of passage, a sign of maturity, emblematic of the delicate and unspoken balance of right and wrong, that those who drove a stick shift somehow understood life’s blind stitch and could intuitively weave through it for the rest of their lives.
Of course, none of that mattered six years later, when I found myself at the top of La Cienega Boulevard in West Hollywood, at the intersection of Sunset, waiting for the light to turn green. La Cienega is a hill so steep it looks like trigonometry homework, the kind of street you drive past and think “Wow, that’s kind of a cruel joke.” Watching traffic line up at the La Cienega-Sunset stoplight is like watching roller coaster cars stuck halfway up the tracks. The drivers usually have the same queasy, ominous look on their faces, too.
I waited at the light, one foot jammed on the brake and the other on the clutch, the car at a forty-five degree angle, my heart pounding and my bowels warm and mushy. Sweat trickled down my face and greased up my palms. There was no margin for error: in front of me was a Porsche 911 Turbo; directly behind me was a Mercedes S-Class Coupe. In between them was my ’92 Acura Integra, still flaunting its native Massachusetts license plates. I was a slice of Oscar Meyer bologna, sandwiched between half a million dollars’ worth of bread.
I was so nervous I forgot to lower my radio, which blasted Van Halen from my open windows and throughout all of West Hollywood. My focus was on the clutch and nothing else. I’d ease it out, slowly, until the car started to rattle, then I’d pump it back in, all while pressing the foot brake so hard into the floorboard that my leg was numb. I’m dead, I thought. We don’t have hills like this in Massachusetts, not unless you’re sledding down them. I checked the Mercedes in my rearview. Its grill and headlights sloped downward, like a wildcat’s face at the sight of a field mouse. On the front bumper was a vanity plate that read WARBUX.
Then I remembered the emergency brake. Yes! Training wheels for stick shifts. I pulled up the e-brake and gently released the foot brake. The car rocked back but held firm, and just as Eddie Van Halen belted out the opening chords of Panama the traffic light turned green and I floored the gas, still tepidly pushing in the clutch. Once the Porsche drove off I released the e-brake and popped the clutch and the Acura squealed and lurched out into the intersection. I did it! I thought as I cut the steering wheel, making a hard right turn onto Sunset, leaning my body in the opposite direction so I wouldn’t roll the car. Then I slammed on the brakes because the Porsche was stopped ahead of me in traffic. I screeched to a halt, my torso jerking forward, the seatbelt cinching around my chest. Smoke rose from my tires. I smelled burnt rubber. David Lee Roth wailed from my car radio: Jump back…what’s that sound…here she comes, full blast and top down. I peered over the steering wheel and looked to my right. Two middle-aged men in tracksuits stood at the crosswalk, staring at me. One of them shook his head and said:
* * * *
In Hollywood, there is no middle class. There is the Celebrity Class and the Loser Class. In spite of being the youngest producer’s assistant on the Disney lot, in spite of my apartment in Beechwood Canyon, my sleek ’92 Acura Integra and my astronomical $31,000/year salary, I undoubtedly qualified as a Loser.
My furniture was picked from the trash. I ate Jack In The Box, In and Out Burger and Wendy’s for dinner, every night. I came home from work at 8:00, smoked weed, watched The Simpsons, smoked weed, watched Cheers, and went to bed. There were four of us—sometimes five—living in a two-bedroom apartment: two sharing one bedroom, an air mattress in the corner of the living room, a big black guy sleeping in the closet and me in my own bedroom—the king’s quarters—for which I paid a staggering $350 a month. You’d think with such reasonable living expenses I’d have had a little extra cash at my disposal. I didn’t. My money went to weed, cigarettes, the occasional trip to Vegas or the even more occasional date, and parking tickets.
I had one nice outfit that my sister gave me as a graduation present: a pair of tweed slacks and a button-down shirt, both from Banana Republic. I wore the pants every day to work and alternated the shirt with a flannel I had since sophomore year of college, during my Kurt Cobain phase. It was threadbare with a worn-in ring around the collar and a hole in the shoulder. It smelled like patchouli, no matter how much I washed it. I didn’t own a pair of shoes so I wore shell top Adidas. People in other offices often mistook me for a bike messenger. It wasn’t long before they realized that I in fact worked among them, at which time they shifted their perception from bike messenger to plain old asshole.
My tramp chic wardrobe didn’t bother me too much until one day when Henry Winkler showed up unannounced in my boss’s office, just to say hi. (He played the school principal in Scream, which my boss produced). He appeared in the doorway looking genteel and…small, actually, wearing a gray blazer and penny loafers. My boss was out of the office, per usual, and I didn’t want to pass up an opportunity to say hello to the Fonz himself, so I got up from behind my desk and went to the door to shake his hand. “I graduated from Emerson, too,” I said, standing there as though waiting for a gratuity.
“Is that right?” he said, pleasantly, and then looked me up and down. His smile faded into something sympathetic, as though he were visiting a sick fan in the hospital. “Well, good luck with…everything, and please give Cathy my best.”
My four co-workers were all L.A. natives: young, Jewish, well dressed, connected. They wore tailored suits to work, carried leather bags and drove SUVs. They had cell phones. They met other young executives for lunch at places like Ivy while I got tuna melts from the commissary and ate them at my desk, wearing my phone headset.
“Ho, Vinnie Boombats!” This is how David, the director of development, addressed me. I’m pretty sure I was the first Italian he’d ever met in person; up until then he thought we all lived in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and competed in disco contests.
“Did you get into a lot of fights, growing up in Boston?” asked Darren, our intern from USC film school, who spent most of his three days a week quoting Good Will Hunting to me.
I grew up in Newton, but didn’t have the heart to ruin his fantasy. “Five, maybe ten,” I said, even though I’d never thrown a punch in my entire life. He went on to ask how I liked them apples, to which I smiled and nodded, just like every other day.
“Ho! Boombats!” David again. “Time to restock the Oreos, capisce!”
“You guys went through all three bags already?” I said.
“Fuggedaboutit!” he said, waving his hand in the air.
Yes. One of my duties—in addition to running the producer’s phone calls, maintaining her schedule, and pretending to be in the mafia—was keeping the snack drawer fully stocked at all times. With total shit food. That meant every Monday I had to stop at the Vons on Alameda before work, push a carriage around and load it up with cookies, potato chips, fruit roll-ups, cereal, pop tarts, and any other high-fructose crap I could find. I’m talking $150 worth, every week. It helped that I was usually stoned. One time I bought “reduced fat” Chips Ahoy. When Jim Mangold, the film director who shared both an office and a bed with Cathy, realized he was eating a low-fat cookie, he spit it into a paper towel and, with a mouth full of pasty chocolate, said to me: “Danny, you know, your job’s really not that fucking hard.” He walked out of the office, leaving the balled-up paper towel on my desk.
Cathy was worse. The euphemism: fair and consistent. The truth: certifiable bitch. Her normal tone was anger. Her angry tone was abusive. Once she was on the phone with Whoopi Goldberg, discussing a potential role, while I listened in on mute. At one point the conversation got casual and Whoopi asked Cathy if she’d received the National Geographic subscription she sent her as a Christmas gift.
“I’m on a location scout in Harrisburg fucking Pennsylvania, Whoop. Where did you send it?”
Whoopi told her she sent it to her L.A. address.
“Danny?” Cathy said. “Danny? Are you there?”
I clicked off mute. “I’m here, Cathy.”
“Have you seen any National Geographics at my house lately?”
“Yes, Cathy. There were a couple inside the front hall the last time I was there.”
“And why didn’t you forward them to me?”
“I…I’m not sure, Cathy.”
“Danny…do you have a fucking brain inside your head?”
I fell silent. Cathy broke it with: “WELL, DO YOU?”
“Then fucking use it! Jesus Christ…I’m so sorry you had to hear that, Whoopi…”
I placed my headset on my desk, dropped my head in my folded arms and wept. I thought about quitting and driving back east. Then I got angry and decided I’d quit but stay in Los Angeles and become an actor, a huge star, and Cathy would want me for a movie and I’d tell her to fuck off. Reality quickly set in and I lowered my sights to male modeling, and then to porn. The phone rang. I filled with dread, figuring it was Cathy calling me back to unleash more wrath.
“Is this Danny?” said a deep, sensuous voice on the other line.
“It’s Whoopi. You keep your chin up, y’hear? You gonna be just fine, sugar.”
“Thanks, Whoopi,” I said, wiping away a snot bubble.
There were some perks. Once Cathy gave me her invitation to the premiere of 54 at Mann’s Chinese Theater. Even with the invite, I still couldn’t get in. I stood out by the red carpet, bewildered and frightened, getting pushed around by photographers like an Amish teenager in a high school locker room. Finally I gave up and went back to my car, where I found an $80 parking ticket on the windshield.
I also housesat for Cathy and Jim occasionally, when they went on location scouts or took an extended trip to New York to suck up to the Miramax brass. They lived in a secluded Spanish-style house on Oak Pass Rd. in Benedict Canyon. It had a swimming pool, Jacuzzi and tennis court, and was completely enclosed by sycamores and eucalyptus. My sole reason for staying there was to feed Cathy’s two cats, Chuck and Ella, who were more important to her than box office returns. “The sliding door to the pool must remain closed at all time. Do you understand?” she said. “The cats are not allowed outside. Do you hear me, or am I talking to myself?”
“Yes, yes, absolutely,” I said, diarrhea siphoning throughout my intestines.
My second night at Cathy’s house I had a little party. Eight people—three of whom were my roommates—came over to swim, soak in the hot tub, play night tennis, smoke weed, and listen to Jim’s vinyl collection, which consisted of R&B artists none of us had ever heard of. Frankie Sambatino, my friend from back home who moved to L.A. with me, finished off a half-full bottle of Johnny Walker Blue Label that he found in the liquor cabinet.
“You know that was a $300-dollar bottle of scotch, right?” I said to Frankie, who was in the kitchen, holding the refrigerator door open, scanning the contents. On the countertop were several empty containers from Cathy and Jim’s “zone” diet—pre-packaged, carb-less mini meals that were delivered every day. “And now you’re eating all their food. Thank you, that’s wonderful. Where did you get that robe?”
“Jim’s closet,” Frankie said, and then lifted his leg and let out a long, greasy fart. “Meeting adjourned.”
I shook my head and walked back to the pool, and that’s when my heart stopped beating.
The sliding glass door was wide open.
I didn’t have time to find out who was responsible, nor did I care. I shut the door and immediately searched the house for both cats. I found the older one, Chuck, sitting on the downstairs sofa’s armrest. After a thorough, hour-long search, Ella, the baby kitten, was declared missing.
I went out to the Jacuzzi and announced that a small white cat was gone, and that I was dead if we didn’t find it. The five people in the hot tub opened their eyes and looked around for a moment.
“It’s not here, dude.”
“Thanks for your help,” I said.
I grabbed a flashlight and scoured the grounds, the tennis court, front yard, driveway. Who the hell was I kidding? That kitten could have scurried off through the dark woods an hour ago, in any direction, and been eaten by a coyote. Or she could be on Mulholland, eating Fancy Feast with Warren Beatty’s cat. Either way I was finished. I failed at the only job I was given: keeping a sliding door closed. I could kiss any future associate producer credits goodbye.
“Danny!” someone called from the pool area. I ran back to find Chris, our upstairs neighbor in Hollywood, holding a waterlogged slab of white fur by his fingertips.
“What is that?” I said, unable to imagine the possible answer.
“I don’t know,” Chris said. “I lifted the lid to one of the pool filters, and I found it stuck in there.”
Chris dropped the ball of fur on the pool’s deck. It smacked against the slate like a wet wad of toilet paper. All seven guests—including Frankie, still wearing Jim’s robe—slowly formed a circle around it.
“Are you sure that’s the cat?” someone said.
“I don’t know,” I said, breathing rapidly, my chest heaving up and down.
“How do we make sure?”
“That’s not funny, asshole.”
“Wait, wait,” I said. “The cat…the cat…” I had cottonmouth and could barely speak. I pointed a finger repeatedly at my eye. “The cat had a…a brown spot, or patch, or whatever, over one eye. That’s right! It wasn’t all white. It had at least one big brown spot on its face. I know that for sure.”
Chris retreated into the pool house and came back with a tiki torch. He kneeled before the animal carcass and, with the torch’s staff, prodded into its fur to examine it. He spread it out at its joints, making it look like rolled-out pizza dough with vertebrae. Then he wedged the tiki torch underneath and flipped it over like a pancake. He stared at it and rubbed his chin.
“I don’t know, Danny. I don’t see any brown on this sucker. Have a look.”
I knelt beside him. He continued: “I’m thinkin it’s a mole, or maybe a mouse, one that got bloated from being in the water so long.”
I grabbed his shoulder and shook it back and forth. “Oh thank Christ. You’re a fucking genius, you know that?”
The party fizzled out after that. I searched the premises for another hour, even crawling through some of the shrubbery that ran along Cathy and Jim’s property, but to no avail. My hope was intact, though fleeting.
At 1:00 a.m. I called Brad, Cathy’s traveling assistant and, technically, my direct supervisor. I told him the whole story. He was calm and understanding, yet in no way cushioned the severity of his message.
“Danny, first of all…relax. It’s going to be okay. Secondly, do not return to work until you find that cat. I’ll cover you at the office. Right now that cat is your sole reason for existence. So go to sleep, get a good night’s rest, and at the crack of dawn resume your search. Okay bro?”
I slept in Jim and Cathy’s king-sized bed that night, wearing Jim’s Brooks Brothers pajamas. Surprisingly I slept well, in spite of having vivid dreams, including one where my two front teeth kept falling out. I woke up at seven-thirty, amber sunlight filling the master bedroom. I leaned up on my elbows and took in the panoramic view of the canyon and smelled the scent of fresh eucalyptus wafting in through the open window. How could someone who wakes up to this every morning be so goddamn angry? I thought. And then I heard a squeak, and I turned to my left.
Curled up on the pillow next to me was Ella, staring at me, her ears perked up, an inquisitive look on her face. Almost a smile.
Only in Hollywood.
* * * *
I returned to the apartment in Beechwood Canyon the following week to discover we had just been burglarized. Frankie was sitting on the couch. “The cops just left,” he said, despondently.
“What was stolen?” I said.
He took in a deep breath and sighed it out. “The change jar on the windowsill and the weed that was on the coffee table.”
“They left the TV over by the door, like they were gonna take it but changed their minds.”
I was too shocked to laugh. Frankie, on the other hand, seemed traumatized. “You okay, man?” I said. “Were you here when it happened?”
He shook his head. “It’s not that we got robbed; it’s that we didn’t get robbed. Two people broke into this apartment last night and the only thing we had worth stealing was a jar of pennies.” He dropped his head in his hands. “They didn’t even want our TV.”
He turned to me. “Dude, we’re fucking losers. I used to be the executive chef at a five-star restaurant in the North End before I moved here. Now I drive a catering truck for ten bucks an hour. My boss doesn’t even speak English. I have no money. I have no car. I have no friends. I’m just not like the other people out here.”
I sat down next to him on the couch and nodded my head. After a moment I said, “Did the burglars leave any weed?”
“There’s some stashed in the kitchen. Why?”
“Roll up a joint. I know exactly what you need.”
We walked outside our apartment, up Cheremoya Ave., across Chula Vista, up the winding side streets all the way to Bronson Canyon. “Light that thing,” I said, nodding to the fat joint tucked behind Frankie’s ear. We waited for two power-walkers to pass by and then he sparked it up. We took mammoth hits and held them in as long we could, coughing out spittle, getting light-headed, swaying as we passed the joint back and forth.
“Where we going?” Frankie asked.
I pointed up ahead to that white, block-lettered sign that presided over the canyon. “We’re going to Hollywood, kid. Just keep walking.”
And we did. We walked and we climbed. Our shadows grew longer and then dissolved completely. We barely spoke a word. Every so often one of us would point to something. “Look! That’s where they filmed the opening of the Batman TV show! When the Batmobile comes driving out of the Batcave! That has to be it!” We’d break into a sprint, kicking gravel, singing the Batman theme, out of breath, no water, no turning back. We walked against the tide of all the hikers and joggers and dog-walkers that ebbed back to their homes for the night. We walked until the cicadas sang loud. We walked until we reached the dusk.
The mountain got steeper and we hoisted ourselves up onto a ledge and sat, dry-mouthed and winded, looking down at the Hollywood Hills. The clandestine homes were small and camouflaged by treetops; lights flickered on inside them.
“Feel better?” I asked.
Frankie nodded and lit a cigarette. “I do.”
“Good. When you’re done with that smoke we should head back. It’s gonna take a while, and I’m cold and thirsty.”
Frankie stubbed out his cigarette and peered over the ledge. “This is pretty steep. It’s like a twenty foot drop.”
I looked down from the ledge. It was more like fifteen feet, but the crag was steep and the ledge directly below us was narrow—maybe three feet wide, tops. Climbing up was easy, but finding the same footholds on the way down would be a challenge. And if we slipped and fell and missed the ledge below, we’d likely tumble down a good distance. I hadn’t realized how steep it was on the way up. My neck broke out in a cold sweat.
“Shit,” I said. I tried lowering myself down but couldn’t get any purchase; I panicked and pedaled my feet and pulled myself back up again. “Oh, shit-shit.” I looked up. The ledge above was even higher—maybe thirty feet—and the slope even steeper. “Fuck, dude,” I said, wiping my sweaty palms on my pants. I looked around in every direction. It was almost dark out. We were stuck.
“What are we gonna do?” Frankie said.
“I don’t know.” We knelt and looked over the edge. “Maybe we can make it…but I don’t know. Maybe we should wait for help.”
“It’s almost nighttime, kid. We’ll get eaten by wolves. Fuck this. I can make it.”
I looked at Frankie, who outweighed me by at least fifty pounds, most of which was stored in his midsection. He turned himself around, gripped the ledge and, after a few deep breaths, lowered himself down. His left foot found a hold; a few feet below that was a crevice for his right foot. He’d have to slide down a bit to gain purchase. “I think I can make it, Danny,” he said, and then there was a slipping sound and then “Danny! I’m losing it!”
And then he lost it. He slid down the crag and onto the ledge below but his momentum kept him going downward, running fast, as though he had jumped off of a moving vehicle. For a moment I thought he would keep running upright until the mountain leveled off, but I was quickly proven wrong. Frankie tumbled forward headfirst and somersaulted for about a hundred feet until finally coming to a stop.
I thought he was dead, until he screamed my name.
“Are you all right?” I yelled.
“Yeah,” he said, laying flat on the mountainside. A cloud of dirt hung suspended around his body. At least he made it to the bottom.
I cupped my hands over my mouth.
Miraculously, two straggling hikers heard me, and one of them had a cell phone. Within twenty minutes a fire engine, ambulance, two police cars and three news vans had arrived at the bottom of the mountain. A fireman in a harness lowered himself down from above and attached himself to me; I held onto his waist and the two of us roped down to the plateau. Once I was down reporters rushed to me, shoving their mikes in my face, asking for my story. “These are the real heroes,” I said, gesturing to the fireman. The comment was unprompted and implied that I somehow considered myself a hero for getting stuck on a mountain. I turned around and saw two medics lifting Frankie onto a stretcher. Blood ran down his leg and arm. I turned back to the camera and smiled. “This is Hollywood. This is what it’s all about. Getting rescued by heroes. It’s the movies.”
Frankie messed up his knee and elbow pretty bad, and since he had no insurance the E.R. doctor gave him minimal care, cleaning the gravel out, sterilizing the wounds and wrapping them with gauze, and sending him home. He couldn’t walk for six weeks and was laid off from his catering job. He spent the rest of the summer sitting on the couch with his leg up on the coffee table. Someone had to help him off the toilet every time he took a shit. Sometimes late at night, as I lay awake in bed with a book, I heard him sobbing.
By mid-September he was limping and reasonably mobile. He got a job as a line cook at the Sunset Marquis Hotel in West Hollywood, and his demeanor gradually brightened. He’d tell me about the special egg white omelet he made for Courtney Cox, or how he delivered a corned beef sandwich to Gene Simmons’ bungalow. “Guess who I saw driving his Ferrari down Sunset today? Tim Allen. This place is fuckin awesome, kid. I don’t think I’m ever going home,” he said one day, slurping the broth from a bowl of Ramen noodles.
The least I could do was give him rides to work whenever I could. In Los Angeles nothing says Loser Class quite like riding the public transit down Sunset Blvd. On the drives there he’d tell me about the waitresses at the Whiskey (the Sunset Marquis’s restaurant), how they’d flirt with him and tease him and tell him dirty secrets or give him detailed accounts of their sexual exploits. One night he made out with one of them after they smoked a joint in the back alley. Another one, Brooke, took him to a Public Enemy concert; afterward they fooled around in her car and she dropped him off at seven the next morning. I couldn’t figure out the appeal. Maybe these girls looked at him and saw a part of themselves, the part they left back home in some small town.
We arrived at the Sunset Marquis’s back entrance. Frankie slowly got out of the car, holding onto the roof for support while he delicately moved his right knee out. “Thanks for the ride, kid,” he said. “I might be going out after work, so I’ll find my own way home.” He limped up the stucco drive toward the hotel. I shook my head and smiled. Pain, humility, poverty and utter degradation. Sometimes that’s the best place to start.
I pulled away from the hotel and headed up La Cienega, my least favorite street in this godforsaken city. As always, the light at the top of the hill was red. There was a Maserati convertible stopped in front of me. An older gentleman with a baseball cap was behind the wheel; in the passenger seat was a young blonde woman. My guess was they weren’t blood relatives.
I cranked up the Van Halen, pulled the e-brake and revved the engine.
Watch the actual news footage here.
After six years living in Boston I finally bought my own place, a first floor condo located on the west side of Southie. The building is old and needs some exterior work, but the unit itself is newly refinished: an eleven hundred square-foot split level with two bedrooms, a brand new kitchen and energy-efficient HVAC. Given the high demand in South Boston and the recent drop in interest rates, I felt it was a sound investment.
The second floor tenants came down a few days ago to say hello. They are a nice couple in their early 30s. He works in the IT department at Liberty Mutual; she is a cellist who teaches music to under-privileged kids. I heard her playing “Moonlight Sonata” the other night while I painted my bathroom trim. It was quite relaxing.
I have not yet met the third floor resident. All I know is his name—Danny Pellegrini—and his email address, and that he apparently shovels the front steps and sidewalk when it snows (says the previous owner). I have lived here for almost two weeks and I have not seen or heard from him once.
I sent him an email, just to say hello and introduce myself. It has now been five days since I sent that email, and I have not heard anything back.
My friend Tony, a plumber, helped me install a new water heater the other day. The old one was from 2002, and I didn’t want any surprises, what with winter coming and all. We had to shut off the building’s main water line before making the switch, so I went upstairs to alert my neighbors.
Steve and Kimberly, the second floor tenants, were watching a movie and in no need of running water, at least for the next ten minutes. I had a brief conversation with Steve in the doorway about the neighborhood, all the luxury condos going up around us. He seems like a normal, down-to-earth guy.
On my way up to the third floor I smelled the sticky, pungent odor of weed. It became so intense that I got light-headed and held onto the railing to steady myself. I let out a deep breath and moved to the door when I heard a British-sounding voice from inside the unit:
“WHY MUST YOU CONSTANTLY SIT THERE? WHY? PLEASE EXPLAIN TO ME, AND TO EVERYBODY ELSE IN THIS CHAMBER, THE BENEFIT OF YOU SITTING IN THAT PRECISE SPOT, EVERY BLOODY DAY. NOW GO ON, IF YOU WILL. WE ANXIOUSLY AWAIT YOUR RESPONSE.”
I waited anxiously, too. There was no response, so I decided to knock. As I raised my knuckle to the door I heard a screech, like the sound of a schoolgirl screaming for her favorite teen idol. The screech segued into a high-pitched, maniacal cackle.
I backpedaled slowly across the landing and hurried downstairs to the cellar.
“We good?” Tony asked, kneeling by the water heater, wrench in hand.
“Let’s just do it,” I said. “Quickly.”
A week later I left a bottle of pinot noir with a note attached to it in front of Mr. Pellegrini’s door, next to the welcome matt. The note read:
Hey neighbor, it’s Nick, the new owner on the first floor. Just wanted to introduce myself. Come down and say hi when you have a few minutes. I’m usually home weeknights.
Two days went by and I heard nothing. Maybe he’s out of town, I thought, so I walked up to the third floor to have a look. When I got to the landing I heard loud music from inside, either Motley Crue or Def Leppard or Ratt or one of those fucking bands that the gearheads listened to in junior high. I also heard someone talking, possibly on the phone. I also smelled weed again. It was eleven o’clock, Saturday morning. I looked down at the welcome matt, which was a bathroom rug spattered with gobs of petrified toothpaste.
The wine bottle was gone.
* * * *
“Now, is it true that the folks involved with this project took a pay cut in order to get it off the ground? Was that because the studio didn’t want to take a chance with such controversial, uh, subject matter?” Letterman asked me. He leaned back in his chair and smoothed out his tie.
“You know, Dave, it’s always tragic when movie stars have to take a pay cut.” (Studio audience laughs; crew laughs; Dave does his hee-hee laugh.) “But yes, nobody wanted to touch this film. Of course it helps when you have people like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg in your corner. And then once DiCaprio was attached, that was when the picture got fast-tracked.”
“How did, uh, the whole DiCaprio-playing-you thing come about?”
I was about to tell the story of how Leo DiCaprio flew to Boston to meet with me, how we spent six hours driving around my hometown discussing the role, when I heard a knock at my door. A knock! After four years of living in this apartment, somebody picks now to knock on my door.
My first thought: who could possibly be knocking? My second thought: whoever it is, is he/she recording me? How much has he/she heard? The DiCaprio thing obviously hasn’t happened yet, but I just revealed to Dave Letterman the gist of my idea: a three-hour musical about bowel disease. It has never been done before, and I’ll be damned if someone beats me to it.
I pieced together a series of incidents, starting with an email from Jerry, the original owner of the building, mentioning something about the first floor unit going on the market. That was weeks ago. Since then, other clues: the sign reading CENTURY 21 in the first floor window. The carpenter’s van, parked across the street for nearly a month. The unfamiliar voices that trailed around the unit on Saturday afternoons, accompanied by heavy, echoing footsteps. The young couple, standing by the front steps as though waiting for someone, who then gave me a funny look for not letting them into the building. I felt exhilarated as the logic formed a circle and closed in around me, my deductive powers spinning before my eyes like the walls of a centrifuge, all leading to one final piece of the puzzle.
I unlocked my file cabinet drawer, where I keep valuables like my checkbook, my Telly Savalis autographed cocktail napkin, a Box of Evil, my Graffix bong and the only surviving copy of my unfinished manifesto, “Pellegrini in the Modern Age”. From the drawer I retrieved the wine bottle that mysteriously appeared at my door two days ago. I examined it, tipping it upside down, holding it in the sunlight, searching for a clue I may have overlooked. And that’s when I found a note, hidden in a folded piece of paper, tied to the bottle’s neck—a place usually reserved for price tags, now the vessel for a communiqué.
I pulled out my magnifying glass and read the note.
There is a new person living on the first floor of this building. His name is Nick, and he wants me to come down and say hello.
Or so he wants me to believe.
* * * *
Today is December 18th. I have lived here for six weeks and I still have not met, or even seen, the man upstairs. I have a feeling, however, that he sees me.
Last Tuesday night. As I entered the building I saw the silhouette of a figure, standing in the third floor window. I did a double take, and the figure was gone.
Thursday morning. I lied in bed while my girlfriend got ready in the bathroom. She asked if I had met the third floor guy yet and I said no, I’d given up, and who cares since he’s a total freakshow. I rolled over on my side and noticed a smell…that skunky, burnt smell of weed, as though it rolled in like a mist at the very mention of the man upstairs.
“Babe, do you smell that?”
She came out of the bathroom, towel drying her hair. “No. Smell what?”
“Nothing,” I said, bringing the comforter up to my nose to take a whiff.
Friday evening. I opened the door that leads downstairs to the laundry room and a cat leaped out at me. I shrieked and threw my laundry basket into the air, sending my socks and underwear everywhere. The cat ran to the base of the stairwell, turned and reared back onto its hind legs and hissed at me, its long pink tongue curling out between its bottom fangs.
“Jesus Christ, what the hell are you?” I said, pressed back against the wall.
The cat hissed again, then scurried up the stairs.
And then there is the singing, always when I’m alone in my condo. Usually golden oldies like “Surfer Girl” or “Runaway”, sung in a wooden, almost spoken word, British accent. I’ll be on my couch reading or in the kitchen making something to eat and I hear When the night. Has come. And the land…is dark. And the moon. Is the only. Light we shall see. I woke from a nap yesterday, laying awake in my dark bedroom, when I heard Bum….Bum….Bum… It sounded close, as though it reverberated off the bedroom walls. Then: I have no gifts to bring pa-rump-a-bum-bum!
I got dressed and went up to the second floor to talk to Kimberly and Steve, get their take on the man upstairs. As I climbed the stairs it occurred to me that I had not heard Kimberly’s lovely cello for a couple weeks. When I got to their door I felt a sickness in my stomach; their coat rack and welcome matt were gone. I pressed my ear against the door and heard nothing, not even the hum of a refrigerator. I knocked twice, waited, and got no reply.
Instead I heard a screechy mew. I looked up and saw the cat, staring down at me from behind the third floor railing, its face peeking out between two balusters.
“What have you done to them?” I said. The cat disappeared.
And then I heard laughter.
* * * *
“They’re laughing at us again, Boot,” I said. I picked up my cat and carried her to Safe Zone II: the corner of my bedroom, in between my synthesizer and my Indiana Jones cardboard standee. I sat on the floor and cradled the cat, rocking her back and forth. “We’re safe here, Boot. It will pass. It always does.”
I waited for more laughter. Or the singing. Instead I heard a knock at the door.
“Go away,” I said, mentally. I closed my eyes and visualized the words emanating from my brain, in italic, floating through my condo and seizing the intruder’s neck. I also visualized two exclamation points, launching them separately, like air support.
Another knock. Finally there were footsteps, descending the stairwell. I let out a sigh of relief.
Perhaps it's time to explain all this.
Three years ago I unwittingly granted a ghost permission to enter this building, and since then it has haunted my clothes. Not all of my clothes, just my Z Cavaricci jeans, my green sweater vest, two pairs of tube socks and an orange B.U.M Equipment shirt.
When I first moved in, there was an old fellow named Joe who lived next door. He was a small man in visibly poor health, always standing in front of his wooden fence, smoking cigarettes and spitting. He had a wife who never left their living room. I caught glimpses of her through the window, an old frail woman, as frail as Joe, sitting upright in a chair, staring straight ahead at what I imagine was a television. Now that I think about it, though, maybe it was something else she stared at.
Joe and I exchanged pleasantries whenever I left for work in the morning and then again when I came home in the evening. I’d say, “How we doing, Joe?” and he’d reply with “Fuckin good!” and then spit on the sidewalk. One summer night I came home and asked how he was and he said “Fuckin terrible!”, and then spit on the sidewalk.
“Oh yeah? What’s wrong?” I asked.
“My fuckin wife died,” he said.
I grieved with him for a few moments, then we talked. “You work in advertising, right?” he asked. I told him yes, I did. “You got copy machines over there?” he asked. I told him we did indeed. He reached into his wallet and pulled out a driver’s license. “This is my wife’s license,” he said. “I don’t got no pictures of her, and with her being dead n’ all, I prolly oughtta hang a fuckin picture of her on the wall. So I’s thinkin you could enlarge her driver’s license picture to something bigger, and maybe I could hang that on the wall, right next to our calendar.”
He handed me the license. “Sure, Joe,” I said. I looked down at it. His wife’s face appeared flattened, her lips and mouth caved inward, as though she had forgotten her dentures. I looked back up at Joe. “Consider it done.” He spat on the ground, most of the phlegm clinging to his stubbly chin.
The next day I photocopied the license, enlarging it by 400%. I even spray-mounted the color copy onto a foam core backing to give it some depth. When I came home that night Joe wasn’t standing out front smoking, like he usually was, so I went upstairs to my condo. I removed the license and the photocopy from my bag, placed them on my kitchen table, ate dinner and went to sleep. When I walked into the kitchen the next morning, both the license and the photocopy were gone.
I searched my condo for two hours. They were gone. As if they never even existed.
Finally I went outside to tell Joe. Again he was absent from his usual post, so I knocked on his door. I heard him shout from inside: “Fuckin come in already!” I let myself in. Joe was sitting on his couch, smoking a cigarette, hooked up to dialysis. The living room smelled like urine. “There’s something wrong with my balls,” he said. “They keep getting bigger. I think they’re gonna fuckin explode.”
I sat on the chair across from him. “Um, listen Joe, I don’t know how to say this.” I told him about the license and the picture, how they simply vanished. “I’m so sorry,” I said. He dropped his head in his hands and started to cry.
Finally he looked up at me. Snot slicked down from his nose and into his mouth. “Just fuckin leave, you worthless fuckin asshole.”
I nodded, got up and left.
That night I did a load of laundry. When I took the clothes from the dryer I noticed something else in there with them, something small and non-apparel. At first I thought I left the tags on my Z Cavariccis, but since I got them in ninth grade I quickly dismissed that theory. I reached into the warm dryer and grabbed the object. It was the driver's license.
I ran back to Joe’s and knocked on the door. There was no answer. The next morning there was an ambulance in front of his house. I never saw Joe again. I can only assume that his balls exploded, most likely from excessive grief.
Immediately I gathered up the clothes I had washed and placed them in a box, along with the driver’s license and a vial of holy water my mom got for me from her trip to Spain with the Red Hat Society. I labeled the box EVIL, placed it in my file cabinet and locked it.
Why not just throw the box away, you ask? I’ve thought about this ad nauseam. And my answer is quite simple: Evil will always exist. One cannot stop its natural flow. One can only hope to contain it.
For the last three years it has been laughter and singing. I can imagine worse. Much worse.
* * * *
December 31st, 2009. I finally met the man upstairs. I had a small housewarming/New Year’s Eve party that night. A few straggling guests arrived around ten, and when I opened the front door to let them in a Domino’s delivery guy stood there with them, holding a medium pepperoni, ordered, presumably, by my upstairs neighbor. I had him trapped.
I entertained my guests in the front hall, taking their coats and asking them to remove their shoes, while the Domino’s guy waited. Finally Mr. Pellegrini appeared on the stairwell, wearing a bathrobe and pajamas, holding that fucking cat in his hand like he was a James Bond villain. My guests and I got quiet and watched as he made his descent.
“Hey neighbor,” I said, cheerfully. “Happy New Year. I’m Nick. I’ve been living here for, oh, two months now. I wasn’t sure if you even existed.”
He paid for the pizza. The Domino’s guy said good night and left.
I introduced my friends. “This is Lindsay, Ariana and Lauren. Ladies, meet Danny. The man upstairs.”
He looked us over with a glazed, distant look in his eyes. “Hello,” he said.
“What an adorable cat,” Ariana said. She reached out to pet the thing and Danny pulled it back, turning it away from us as if to shield it.
“Danny, why don’t you come in and join the party for a minute.” He shook his head. “No, really,” I said, taking him by the shoulder and leading him into my unit. “I insist.”
I introduced him, one by one, to all my finance and banking friends, my hi-tech sales friends, and my lawyer friends. The men all wore suits and the women wore elegant dresses. They twirled martini glasses and crossed their legs. They tilted their heads back when they laughed. They nibbled on hors d’ oeuvres from pinched fingertips. “This is my neighbor, Danny,” I’d say, gesturing to the asshole standing next to me in a bathrobe and slippers, with a pizza in one hand and a cat in the other.
The next morning I woke up to a back rub from my girlfriend. A light snow fell outside. I heard the TV from the living room and smelled coffee. It was perfect.
“That was mean, what you did to your neighbor last night,” she said, leaning forward, next to my ear.
“Oh, come on,” I said. “I was just having fun. The guy creeps me out.”
She kissed my back, between the shoulder blades. “I know, honey. But it’s bad karma.”
I agreed, just so she’d continue with the back rub.
After our morning sex I got dressed. We needed milk and I wanted to get a newspaper. I put on my coat, opened the door and noticed something on the welcome matt, something that looked like a local restaurant flyer. I bent down and picked it up.
It was a picture of an elderly woman’s face, mounted on some kind of foam backing. The image was grainy, slightly out of focus. I couldn’t tell if she was laughing or crying.
I tossed it aside and headed out to the store. I'll throw it in the trash when I get back.
I learned a lot from MTV. Michael Jackson’s Beat It introduced me to the brutality (and choreography) of life on the street. Bon Jovi’s Dead or Alive comforted me during my dark periods of adolescent solitude. Madonna’s Papa Don’t Preach shed light on the ethical dilemma of teen pregnancy. Def Leppard’s Love Bites helped me endure the torture of unrequited love. But it wasn’t until August of 2002 that MTV taught me its most valuable lesson of all:
I was a complete fucking loser.
I was 26-years old, sitting on a couch in Waltham, Massachusetts, stoned on extra-strength Vicodin, scratching my shins until they bled, watching Jimmy Fallon host the MTV Video Music Awards. On the adjacent couch sat Bill: part-time friend, part-time drug-dealer, full-time registered sex offender. Bill lived with his elderly mother and mentally disabled brother. Their house smelled like a mixture of dog farts, old slippers, used Band-Aids and burnt Elio’s pizza. None of that bothered me, though, so long as Bill had a fresh Vicodin refill.
“This guy’s good, this Fallon kid,” Bill said, scratching his own shins with one hand while holding a Peking dumpling with the other. Duck sauce was smeared around his mouth, glistening in the light from the television.
Maybe the Fallon kid was good, maybe he wasn’t. But at the very least he was something. Just one year older than me and already an established comedian, TV star, and now host of the world’s biggest music video award show. Myself…I was a personal assistant with chronic bowel disease and a painkiller addiction…living in my parents’ basement.
“I don’t see what’s so great about him,” I said. “His impersonations are pretty funny, but for everything else he just acts weird, like nervous energy. That’s comedy? I could do that.”
“Yah!” Bill said, exaggerated, his mouth full of Chinese food. Shards of dumpling hung from his few remaining front teeth, like the shark in Jaws, after it eats Quint. “Oh, okay, kid. Now I’ve heard everything. Know what he’s got that you don’t? T-A-L-E-N-T. That’s what.”
“Whatever,” I said, sinking into the couch, engulfed by the smell of mildew and crotch. I felt a wave of depression settle into my bones. Watching MTV from your drug dealer’s couch on a Sunday night is one thing; having him belittle you for your aimlessness is an entirely new kind of bottom.
That’s when MTV spoke directly to me. It was the end of the show and Fallon came out to present the encore act.
“It’s been an honor hosting this show tonight from New York City…if you’re from here, you know how magical this place is…and if you’re not from here, welcome to the jungle. Ladies and Gentlemen, my favorite band, GUNS AND (BEEP)-ING ROSES!!!”
I sprung up on the couch. “No,” I said, reaching for the television. I had been awaiting the return of Guns N’ Roses for nearly a decade, confident that I would somehow be chosen to reintroduce them to the world. But the Fallon kid beat me to it. Not only did he cast a spotlight on my own failures, he stole my raison d’etre.
I had never received such a clear sign, as though MTV itself commanded me to move to Los Angeles and set forth on a career in comedy.
For the next two weeks I worked on material, and by mid-September I had a routine that consisted of three things: a) living with my parents, b) cruising around my hometown at night, smoking weed and listening to classic rock, and c) never getting laid. My shtick was neighborhood creep. I recorded my whole eight-minute act onto a microcassette and played it for a few friends, who laughed generously.
That was all the encouragement I needed. It was time to take my show on the road.
My last order of business before heading west was shoring up some Vicodin for the road, which meant a visit with Bill’s “back doctor”, Dr. Wong, a resident of the now-defunct Waltham Hospital. Dr. Wong’s waiting room was as crowded as a refugee boat, a mixture of immigrants with legit medical issues and obese white women clamoring for Oxycontin. Little kids ran around the room smashing plastic cars into each other while Haitian couples waited patiently for physical exams and the chance to be cleared for U.S. citizenship.
After my name was called I followed the receptionist into an examination room. Ten minutes later a small, hunchbacked Asian man in a white jacket walked in. He looked up from his clipboard at me.
“You insurance?” he asked.
“You co-pay?” he asked.
“Okay. So whassamatta?”
I told him I hurt my back lifting weights, and that at times the pain was so intense it seared down the backs of my legs. I stood perfectly still and upright as I said all this, as though pinned together with skeletal traction.
Five minutes later I walked out of the hospital with an appointment for an MRI and a script for twenty-eight Vicodin ES, enough for the drive cross-country and to settle me into my new Hollywood life.
The Vicodin lasted two and a half days. I took my last three pills somewhere near Cedar City, Utah. They were out of my system by the time I reached Henderson, Nevada, and withdrawal set in around Bakersfield, California. Like rigor mortis. I clenched the steering wheel, trying not to move or think. My head ached and my body alternated between chills and hot flashes. Once I got on the 101 Freeway my eyes watered and I felt a torrent of diarrhea against my sphincter. I considered driving straight to LAX, abandoning my car and flying back to Boston.
“Danny boy!” said Jason, an old friend from home, as he opened the door to his studio apartment. He held his arms out to give me a hug but I dropped my bags and ran past him, straight to the bathroom.
“You doing all right, bud?” he shouted through the closed bathroom door.
“Yeah,” I said, holding my head in my hands. “Just a long drive, that’s all.” I thought of my parents’ empty basement, the newly bare mattress and my Grateful Dead poster, thumbtacked to the wood-paneled wall. I thought of cruising past my old high school, smoking a joint. I wiped a cold tear from my cheek.
“You don’t look good,” Jason said, once I finally emerged from the bathroom. He gave me a hug. “You lost some weight…how’s your Crohn’s?” The stench from the bathroom seeped into the room and surrounded us. Jason covered his mouth. “Jesus, man. What happened to you out there?”
I apologized, told him I wasn’t feeling well, and asked if he had any weed. He said he might have a little bit stashed somewhere but he wasn’t sure, he didn’t really smoke anymore. I begged him to look for it. “I think this is weed,” he said, opening desk drawers and searching through empty cigarette packs and matchbooks. “Here’s a tiny bit.” After thirty minutes he had collected about twelve flakes and five seeds, which he placed on a piece of notebook paper for me. “Wait…I have a pipe!” he said, digging one out from his closet. I scraped all the available resin from it, mixed it with the weed crumbs he had found and got two decent hits. I tried for a third but got a lungful of smoldering ash instead.
Jason sat on his bed while I sat on a milk crate on the other side of the room, holding the pipe in one hand and the lighter in the other.
“So, what’s your plan? You been workin’ on a stand-up routine? Let me hear some jokes,” Jason said.
I stared straight ahead, solemnly, and said nothing.
The next morning I woke up on Jason’s floor with severe abdominal pain. It felt as though I was trying to digest a piece of coral reef. “Dude, sorry to wake you,” I said, grabbing Jason’s shoulder, rousing him from sleep. “I need to see a doctor. It’s my Crohn’s.”
An hour later Jason and I were at a strip mall on the 6000 block of Sunset Boulevard. Wedged between a tanning salon and a discount electronics shop was a storefront, its sign printed entirely in Russian. It could have been a travel agency or a deli, if not for the word DOCTOR in the store’s window, flickering in red neon. It was 7:45, Sunday morning. Every other business in the strip mall was gated and padlocked.
“This is a doctor?” I asked.
“Yeah, she’s great. My friend sees her for sleeping pills. You’ll be fine. I’m gonna grab a coffee. Meet you back here in a couple hours.”
Jason drove off, down Sunset. I watched his car disappear into the early morning haze.
“I have Crohn’s Disease, and I think it’s flaring up. I just moved here yesterday. I don’t have a regular doctor yet, and the pain is unbearable,” I told the doctor, in the middle of an empty waiting room.
“Oh, poor thing.” The doctor made a sad face and took me by the shoulder. “You come with me. I examine you.” She brought me into the back room. Inside were six army cots, three of which were occupied by malnourished men who looked like they had just been carried off a battlefield. Bandaged heads and cavernous eyes turned towards me as I entered.
“Lay down, my sweet, and up with your shirt.”
She pressed on different areas of my stomach, massaging small circles with her fingertips, then pulled my shirt back down and motioned for me to sit up. “Eat only eggs and water until belly softens. And you find gastroenterologist for follow-up. Now come, I give you something for pain.”
Forty extra-strength Vicodin, plus two refills.
I walked down Sunset Boulevard elated, as though I had just been offered a role on a sitcom. Like a small piece of the city belonged to me. My stomach already felt better, and I hadn’t even dropped off the script yet.
A week later I moved into a studio apartment on North Sycamore Ave., just off Hollywood Boulevard. In the mornings I walked down to the Shelly Café for my coffee and egg sandwich. Among the regulars there were Batman, Superman, Marilyn Munroe, James Dean and Darth Vader—those costumed characters that loiter in front of Mann’s Chinese Theater, taking pictures with tourists for dollar tips. They all sat at the same table, drinking coffee, reading newspapers, sometimes playing cards. One morning it was only Darth Vader and Marilyn, holding hands across the table, whispering to each other. Another time Batman was by himself, his head facedown in his arms, as though he was napping through class. A waitress came by and asked him something and he just waved her away with a gloved hand.
Jason came to visit me at my new place. I was wired from Vicodin and gave him an exhaustive tour of my one-room apartment. “See this? This is a closet, an interesting closet, more like a half closet. And this? This is where I keep my videotapes. And this right here is the title to my Acura Integra. See?” I held up the title and pointed at it repeatedly. “I own it now. I own the car outright.”
Jason nodded, chewing on his lip and looking around suspiciously. “So, uh, I think I got you a bartending job,” he said, handing me a business card. “Call this guy tomorrow. He’s opening a new club with some friends. They’re looking for a Friday/Saturday bartender.”
“No shit?” I looked down at the business card. It had on it an illustration of a martini glass. Next to that was a phone number and a name:
“We’re looking for a star, the main attraction, the centerpiece of the whole operation. I’m looking at you and I’m thinking, maybe you’re it, kid.”
I nodded. Although I had only known him for five minutes, Johnny Eyelash seemed to really believe in me.
He continued. “I’m talkin celebrities, I’m talkin women, I’m talkin cash. I’m talkin $500 a night, minimum. Fridays and Saturdays, two to six.”
“Two to six…in the morning?”
“It’s an after-hours club. My partners and I rented Liberace’s old penthouse on Beverly. We got everything worked out: zoning, security, cops, neighbors, guest list, cocktail waitresses. We got in-house coke and ecstasy dealers. You’ll have a bar back and any security you need. Personal safety is paramount. Admission to the club is fifty bucks; all booze is free. These fucking mokes’ll be throwing tens and twenties at you, every time you pour a drink. Hear what I’m sayin? We open next Friday. You up for this, kid?”
“All right good. Now I gotta see some people. You can show yourself out, right?” He stuck out his hand. “I gotta real good feeling about this.”
I shook his hand and walked out of the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. Finally, I thought, a stroke of good luck. This was how things happened. Taking advantage of opportunities. Johnny Eyelash never even asked if I had any bartending experience. He knew I had what it took just by looking at me.
Back at my car there was a $60 parking ticket stuck under my windshield wiper. No matter. Soon the cash would start tumbling in. This was just the beginning.
That night I celebrated. I took twice my regular Vicodin dose, sat by my kitchen window and smoked cigarettes, looking out into the atrium and watching my neighbors come and go, wannabes, all of them, trying to make it in this city of broken dreams.
The next day I phoned Dave, a friend from back east. “How’s the stand-up comedy going?” he asked.
“It’s great!” I said, pacing around my apartment, scratching myself. “I’m working on some new material, some really funny stuff. I got a job bartending at this exclusive celebrity club. Things are happening, man. I’m getting dialed in. People are starting to notice me!”
“Good to hear,” he said. He promised to fly out for my first headlining gig. I asked how he was doing and he said he’d just been promoted to supervisor at IBM. He also told me his wife was three months pregnant and that they were looking to buy a house in the suburbs. “It’s all good, man. Nothing too exciting. We can’t all be big-time Hollywood comedians.”
“Its not as glamorous as it sounds,” I said, checking myself out in the bathroom mirror. It was 8:30 at night and I hadn’t even showered yet. I was still wearing my pajamas, in fact.
Club Liberace was packed on opening night. The bar was six deep until 5:00 AM. The only celebrities I saw were Scott Baio and Tone Loc, but word was that the curly-haired kid from That 70s Show showed up at some point, too. The crowd was mostly young hipsters and hangers-on; the drinks mostly beer and vodka-Red Bulls. At the end of the night I had $145 in my pocket. I tipped out my bar back, a slow, lanky, bald-headed kid from Nebraska who chain-smoked the entire night. I was embarrassed giving him only thirty-five bucks for six hours work (an hour of setup plus an hour of cleanup), but he seemed genuinely humbled by the gesture. “Gosh, thank you sir. This is the most I’ve ever been paid for anything,” he said. After he sprayed down the bar mats I never saw him again.
That left $110 for me, or roughly what I made after thirty-six holes of caddying, when I was thirteen.
“How’d you do tonight?” Johnny Eyelash said when I popped into the back room to say goodbye. He was feeding a stack of hundred dollar bills into a money counter. I told him I didn’t do so well, especially for such a busy night.
“You got any cooler clothes?” he said, feeding another stack of bills into the machine. “Remember, you’re a star, kid. You gotta dress like one.”
I found it odd that he called me “kid” all the time, especially since I was at least five years older than him, but I took his advice nonetheless. The next night I wore my leather pants, which were a gift from an old girlfriend. I had lost so much weight over the last few months because of my Crohn’s that the pants barely stayed on, even with a belt. I felt like a biker’s kid playing dress-up in his father’s clothes.
The club was dead that night. I walked with sixty-eight bucks.
I was running out of cash, but more importantly I was running out of Vicodin. I had one refill left, and it wasn’t available until the following Sunday. What’s more, my pharmacy was closed on Sundays, which meant I would have to wait until Monday. However, if I had the prescription transferred to the 24-hour Rite Aid on La Brea then I could fill it as soon as I finished my Saturday night shift at Club Liberace. Yes! I got that great feeling again, like I had done something right for a change. I went ahead and transferred the prescription.
My current prescription was gone by Saturday afternoon. I arrived at Club Liberace that night feeling fatigued and irritable, so I bought a forty bag of cocaine from one of the resident dealers. By 4:00 I had finished the entire bag and was grinding my teeth and sweating through my clothes. At one point I clutched my chest and spent three minutes trying to swallow. “You okay, bro?” one of the bar customers shouted at me.
“Yeah…I think so,” I said, taking in short, gasping breaths. I looked at the concerned patron and saw that it was Vince Vaughn.
The night finally came to an end. I made a whopping eighty bucks in tips. I cleaned up the bar by 6:45 and ran to my car. Next stop: Rite-Aid.
I was so excited that I blew a stop sign on my way to the pharmacy and got broadsided by an Oldsmobile Cutlass, sending my Acura spinning onto the sidewalk of Melrose Ave. The impact shattered my windshield and smashed my entire front panel. The Cutlass pulled over with no visible damage. A Mexican father and daughter got out. Judging from his suit and her white dress I presumed they were on their way to church.
“Esta bien?” the man said. I climbed out of my car and met them on the sidewalk, still disoriented. “Esta bien, senor?”
“I’m okay. Are you hurt? Is everyone okay?” I was so visibly shaken it seemed like I was asking myself. The father and daughter kept their distance, staring at me like I had just fallen out of the sky. “Jesus Christ, I can’t believe that just happened.”
The street was empty, the only other sign of life a dog from a nearby yard that wouldn’t stop barking. I brushed shards of glass off my shoulders. If a cop drove by I’d be screwed. What would I tell him? I was on my way to Starbucks for a cup of coffee, at 7:00 on a Sunday morning, wearing leather pants?
No cops came. The man and I exchanged insurance papers and I drove my wrecked car through Hollywood and into my garage without incident.
I was too shaken up to sleep. I changed out of my leather pants and walked straight to the Rite-Aid.
“Sir, we never received the transfer. We have no record of it in our system. So, like I told you twice already, you’ll have to take this up directly with the other pharmacy.”
“They’re closed today!”
“Sir, for the last time, there’s nothing we can do.”
“But my Crohn’s Disease is flaring up. I’m in serious pain, for Christ’s sake.”
“Then I suggest you go to the emergency room.”
I stormed out of the Rite-Aid in a tizzy but returned five hours later, just in case the prescription transfer got hung up in the system. Also on the off chance a different pharmacist was working—a more sympathetic, compassionate one.
“He’s back,” I heard someone murmur behind the pharmacy counter. The original pharmacist from earlier appeared. I promptly turned around and left as he mentioned something about calling the police.
I was back at my studio at 4:00. Some of the other tenants were barbecuing in the atrium. I held my hand to my ear and pretended to talk on a cell phone as I walked past them.
I drew my blinds and turned the volume of my TV up to drown out the sound of amity coming from the barbecue. Then I got in bed, pulled the covers over my head and started counting time in twenty-minute increments. Only forty-four to go until the pharmacy opened at seven tomorrow. I could make it. I would make it.
* * * *
“Dude, you killed it. You were great. I mean that,” Jason said to me as I came out through the Laugh Factory’s back door. He gave me a big hug and slapped me on the back. The group of friends who came with him congratulated me as well.
It was a good show. I did five minutes in an open mike showcase with ten other rookie comics. There were maybe thirty people in the audience, which isn’t bad for amateur night. I started with the parents’ basement bit and then improvised; I talked about my Crohn’s Disease, about strip mall doctors, about the drive to L.A., about Johnny Eyelash and the b-list actors at Club Liberace, and about the car accident. The Crohn’s part got the biggest laugh; apparently people really like to hear about unfortunate assholes.
“When are you leaving?” Jason asked.
“Tomorrow,” I said.
“So that’s that, huh? One show and then call it a career? I’m telling ya, you had something up there, man. You know what they say, there’s no greater tragedy than wasted talent.”
“I’m sure I can think of a few others,” I said.
The next morning I packed up my 1993 Jeep Wrangler, paid for by the insurance I got for my totaled Acura. I dropped my apartment key in the dropbox outside the building manager’s office, took one last breath of cool, early morning, eucalyptus-smelling air, and said goodbye to Hollywood. I drove down Gower, past the Capitol Records building, stopped at a Jack-In-The-Box, then made my way to the 101 South.
In my pocket were forty-five Vicodin, which I bought from one of the dealers at Club Liberace. Enough to get to Boston, if I drove fast.
In the last month I have received some positive feedback on my memoirs, Half-Assed. Thank you to those who have read it, but special thanks go to two particular readers who are actually characters in it. I would even contend that they are integral characters. They did not know they were in the book when they started reading it, and I can only imagine their reactions once they came to their parts in the story.
They are both women I was involved with in some way. One name I barely changed and the other I didn’t change at all. I revealed intimate details, objectified them physically, passed judgments, assailed character and assumed motives. I was like a scorned lover venting into the pages of a diary. I never stopped to think that anyone in my book might actually read it one day. That was a problem for another time. Well, the chickens have come home to roost. Some of them, anyway. There are more out there.
Just as I wrote this I got a message from a third woman. I am not lying. The instant I typed “there are more out there” I received a message from an ex-girlfriend, also an integral character in the book. Okay. That’s fucked up. I haven’t read her message yet, and now that I think of it, I did not change her name either.
Let me arrive at a point.
Once I sent this blog and my memoirs out publicly I had a major crisis of conscience. I took people’s private lives and made them public, without asking permission. Plain and simple. I don’t care how legal it is. It’s a small form of art, if you’d even call it an art. It’s petty, tabloid journalism. I felt like a complete scumbag for doing it.
When these two (now three) women wrote me (let’s call it “fan mail”) I immediately had to take a shit, the same psychological Crohn’s response I always get when I realize I fucked something up and then shift into instant panic mode. I was afraid to read their messages. I knew they would call me a coward and an asshole and a fucking low-life piece of shit.
I think you already know that’s not how this story ends. I won’t go into details, but I was surprised at all three of the reactions I got from these women. What I got from their feedback was understanding…even some contrition. (I also got major props on my writing, but that’s an incendiary benefit right now). What’s more, I got a greater respect for people in general, that there are some in this world (like these three women) who understand the past is in the past, that people grow, and that perception is a transitory thing, constantly evolving, and that my perception is only my perception, filtered with my own bullshit. I am not on a high horse handing out indictments; I am writing my stories from the bottom of a hole, looking up in admiration at all the people I’ve been fortunate enough to have in my life.
There are people out there, though, who are just assholes. Not me, and none of you, but they’re out there. Trust me. The chick from “All Girl Band”…yeah, she was an asshole.
I’m pretty sure I’m right about that one.
Christmas Eve, 2014.
From Chapter 21 ("Maintenance") of "Half-Assed":
I could still smell the foamy dogshit in my Jeep, blended with a trace of 409 all-purpose cleaner. There was no way Bill got it all; that fucking dog rode on his knees, its ass aimed in my direction, the shit pouring down into the Jeep’s middle console, filling cupholders, slipping into the rubber folds of the gear shift, an area not even my mechanic could reach without dismembering the whole interior.
When it happened, earlier that morning, I remained calm, as calm as possible: I clenched the steering wheel, covered my mouth and rolled down the window. It was the fifth time in as many weeks that the dog lost its load in my car, and each time Bill would blame me for not getting the dog to the park quicker.
Even before the dog became incontinent we’d cover the passenger seat in towels before a trip to the park, on account of the ungainly boil on Lucy’s hindquarters that constantly leaked and smelled like a used coffin. The seat’s fabric would soak up the revolting smell and mete it out onto whoever rode shotgun. With the top down it was hardly noticeable. But with the top up—especially in the ninety-degree heat—it was like sharing a microwave oven with a disease.
Getting shat all over was a profoundly apt metaphor for my current state of life. The only bonus was that Bill—in spite of blaming me for it—would always hook me up with an extra Suboxone for free. Or an extra Xanax, if they were in season.
I rolled down both windows. Fortunately the Jeep’s back window tore off during one of my trips to the ER the previous summer and I still hadn’t replaced it, thereby permitting a nice draft of fresh, morning air through the two front windows and out the back. This lasted from the Mass Pike onramp in Newton Corner to the Brighton tolls, where, as usual, the morning rush hour traffic was backed up and I slowed down to five mph. Without the airflow another wave of shit/all-purpose cleaner rose up in the Jeep. I tasted it in my throat and gagged.
I inched along, stop and go, all the way to the expressway exits, where I split off for South Boston. Not only was I on the verge of vomiting, my bladder was about to erupt as well; again, another regular part of my morning routine. I was usually in such a hurry to leave Bill’s house each morning (because I had to go home and get ready for work and because being there was like being trapped in a serial killer’s basement) that I often left without peeing, after drinking two large coffees at the park. By the time I reached exit 24A (South Station), like clockwork, I was gripping my penis, my hand a sort of tourniquet, cutting off the flow of blood and stemming the rising tide of urine through my urethra. Within three blocks of my condo my foot would start tapping and I would sway to and fro; if I hit a red light I would pray to God. By the time I parked I would lean out of the driver’s seat and pee on the sidewalk. Sometimes I wouldn’t even make it and just soil the right leg of my sweatpants.
Most people wake up in the morning and go for a jog or make coffee and read the newspaper. My morning ritual for the last twelve months was:
-- Wake up before 6:00, frantically drive to Waltham by 6:30.
-- Get yelled at or get the silent treatment from a crazy pedophile.
-- Pay $15 for a drug that no longer got me remotely high, only prevented me from getting sick.
-- Have a dying dog shit all over my car.
-- Stand outside, rain or shine, for one hour.
-- Drive home in rush hour traffic.
-- Pee down my leg.
-- Shower and go to work.
On the bright side, my Crohn’s was well behaved. My appetite wasn’t as fierce as it was earlier in the year, and I didn’t make it to the gym as much, but the number of bowel movements was still low and my weight was still high, somewhere north of 180 pounds.
I didn’t take into account that narcotics—especially opiates and benzos—make you constipated and bloated.
So there’s that.
Yesterday was my first sober Thanksgiving since 8th grade. I felt a bit shaky, like a man awaking from a 25-year coma, forced to relearn all of the mundane rituals in his life. Or like a tourist setting foot in a strange land. Old Colony Ave., the main street outside my house, was post-apocalyptic quiet when I went out for my morning cup of coffee, but still I stood tepidly on the sidewalk, across from the Dunkin Donuts, waiting for imaginary traffic to pass by.
I have been sober for fifty-one weeks, but yesterday felt like day five all over again.
When I woke up that morning, at a little past 9:00, my first thought was panic: Fuck! Bill’s gonna kill me! Oh shit…oh shit…He’s probably already at work! I probably have twenty missed calls from him! Bill was my old supplier—not quite a dealer, not remotely a friend, just a guy I used to know who procured a certain drug I liked. Rather than sell me quantities of this drug for profit, Bill would only sell me one dose per visit, at cost. His condition was that I drive him and his dog to the park near his house, in Waltham, for one hour, and then drive him to work at Home Depot by 9:00 AM. This meant I had to arrive at Bill’s by 6:30 AM, which meant I had to leave my house by 6:00. If you’re trying to calculate the timing in your head right now, don’t bother. Just trust me. I did it every day. If there’s one thing you can count on from a junkie, it’s that he will always show up for his fix on time.
My second thought was Wait…it’s Thanksgiving. Home Depot is closed. Bill will be at home. He’ll be pissed that I didn’t show up earlier, and he may ignore my phone calls, but he’ll be home. I can drive to his house and knock on his window. And if he’s not home for some reason, I can drive around the area looking for him. And if he’s not in the area, I can just sit in my car outside his house and wait for him. I have time. I don’t have to be at my sister’s until two, and I can always be late.
My third thought was Wait…I’m sober. I don’t do drugs anymore. And then I laid back in bed feeling sad. For almost fifteen years, Thanksgiving had been a drug-and-family sandwich: I’d meet Bill in the morning and get my fix, enough so that I could endure four hours of family time at my sister’s house. Then afterward I’d go back to Bill’s for another dose, settle in, blast off, eat pumpkin pie and watch the late football game with Bill, sitting in a dark living room that smelled like a mixture of dog farts, old slippers and used gauze. Then I’d walk outside into the cold night with a cup of coffee, smoke a cigarette and think to myself Life’s not so bad. It’s pretty damn good, in fact. Happy Thanksgiving. I love you all.
I pulled my blanket up around my head, forming it into a Jedi’s hood. Through my bedroom window I saw the sky—light blue and clear. Planes departed from Logan airport, shiny metal fuselages glistening under the sun. People were traveling to loved ones. Fireplaces were being stoked. Kids were sprawled out on couches, searching through texts, while parents prepared meals. The smell of turkey and butternut squash permeated through first floors and hung in stairwells. Countertop televisions broadcast pre-Thanksgiving Day Parade coverage, the tin-sounding audio of commentators channeled through one small speaker. Teenagers were at high school football games; college students were still upstairs, sleeping off hangovers. People everywhere, all over America, preparing to give and receive.
This Thanksgiving I opted to stay home while my family splintered off into other parts of the country. I politely declined any invitations to join friends, extended family and co-workers for their festivities. I had planned to enjoy the silence, to see a couple movies, hit an AA meeting, sit by my electric fireplace with a good book and a cup of something hot.
It seemed so picturesque in theory, but I had underestimated the power of the past.
I could call Bill. It is Thanksgiving after all, a day of reunion, sometimes of reconciliation, usually of overindulgence. But I haven’t spoken to him since I went into detox, and I deleted his number a few days after I got out. Still, I know where he lives. I could drive over there and knock on his door. It would be awkward at first; I’d tell him about my progress and how I was “cured” and thus able to enjoy certain things in moderation. Then he’d give me some drugs and I would enjoy them. We’d take his dog to the park, like the old days, stopping for coffee along the way. We’d pick up the Boston Herald and the New York Post and read them in the park while his elderly dog limped after squirrels and rolled in leaf piles. Then I’d drop him off and go home, maybe see a movie, then go back to his house later in the day for leftovers and the late football game…and another dose…just like the old days. It’s Thanksgiving, after all. A day of honored tradition, of old friends. Of not being alone.
I could do that, but I won’t. I forfeited my rights to indulgence fifty-one weeks ago. All that remains is my soul and my values, and today those are both intact, and for that I am grateful. And thankful.
PS - I promise the next post will be funny. Happy Thanksgiving.
According to OK Cupid, I “reply often”, a trait that is made public on the upper right corner of my profile, next to my user name and age. The words REPLIES OFTEN are housed in a small green rectangular box. The green, I presume, stands for “please proceed”, or, to put it frankly, “I am submissive”. Women who “reply selectively” get a yellow box, while women who “reply very selectively” get a red one. Green, yellow and red. Get it? When dealing with men, it helps to simplify the complexities of social interaction to a three-color system.
I do not receive a lot of messages. This is not because of my physical appearance. (I am very attractive; I have a great smile, cute bangs and a D-cup, and I do this adorable little thing when I laugh where I touch the bottom of my upper teeth with my tongue and roll my eyes—I constantly roll my eyes…in an adorable way). The reason I do not receive a lot of messages is because--DUH-dum—I am sober, and it says this loud and clear in my profile. Yes, sober. As in recovery. As in Alcoholics Anonymous. As in one night when I was living in Williamsburg with my ex-boyfriend I allegedly fell asleep naked in my apartment building’s foyer next to a puddle of puke. Allegedly.
But that was two years ago, and since then I’ve had what us alkies call “a spiritual awakening”. For me it was Kabbalah, then Christianity, then Islam, then plain-old Spirituality, then Kabbalah again. I’m totally into fundamentalism. Lately I’ve been exploring Orthodox Judaism. My dentist is an Orthodox Jew, and recently I saw her walking down the street with her husband, full gabardine, head wrap, the whole nine. She looked absolutely gorgeous. So…
…I’m good now.
Men do not like sober women. A sober woman is not easily duped. A sober woman will not do shots of Jager and let you take her home and fuck her without a condom and then Snapchat naked pix of her unconscious body to your bros. What a sober woman will do is see through your bullshit and call you on it. A sober woman is strong, together, and capable of kicking your fucking ass, bee-atch.
Sober women act; they do not overreact. Sober women do not prejudge. Sober women do not immediately scroll down to the “Income” section of a man’s profile. Sober women have tolerant, rational, open minds, and they believe everyone deserves a chance. Sober women reply often.
Last week I received a message from WAxl, an obvious homage to the icon of woman-beating himself, Axl Rose, the mouthpiece of that retardo 80s rock n’ roll jizz machine known as Guns N’ Roses. I rolled my eyes (not in the cute way) and read the message:
Hey there! I love your profile and your pix. You play music?? Awesome. Oh BTW…I’m sober too. Hope you write back. Danny
Oh yeah, I play music. I neglected to mention that tidbit because it’s not a character trait or a personal preference. It’s just…me. It’s who I am. A musician. You sorta have to be one to know what I’m talking about. I don’t really like to make a big deal of it, but since my main profile pic is this awesome shot of me with my acoustic, behind the mic at a Brooklyn coffee house, it’s usually the first thing a dude will comment on. Sometimes men are so fucking perceptive it’s almost enchanting (eye roll).
I clicked on WAxl and was transported to his profile page, where I found what I expected: late-30s white male, short brown hair, brown knit sweater, sitting on an unspecified stoop looking up at me with a safe-zone smile (as in somewhere in the safe zone between lecherous cool guy and Christmas card nitrous oxide). I scanned through the rest of his photos—all proved similar, including one on Halloween with him dressed as (ahem, eye roll) Axl Rose, standing in a group shot with Prince, Freddy Krueger and a yellow M&M with white arms. How festive. Yeah, and what is the deal with Boston? Everything is white and brown and has short hair. Where are the full beards? The Chinese military caps? The European cheekbones? The John Lennon eyeglasses?
I moved on to his profile. Mildly entertaining, somewhat original. Some clever jokes, some decent vocab. From the corner of my eye I saw that he left his SALARY blank. Whatever, but under JOB he listed “Advertising”. As in image peddler. As in sell-out. As in d-bag. As in needed something to fall back on. Yuck. Too gross for an eye roll.
For the I’M REALLY GOOD AT section he listed “crosswords”. I thought of the crossword from the back of People Magazine, where the most intricate answer is usually “Beyonce”. Then I thought, what kind of person is good at puzzles? Then I thought of the Unibomber. Under FAVORITE MUSIC he listed Nine Inch Nails (yikes), Joni Mitchell (pandering), and, of course, GnR, Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith. Because that’s what every strong-willed, independent, 30-year old woman wants: a teenage boy in acid-washed denim.
And then the ultimate kick in the vag: under FAVORITE BOOKS he listed Stephen King. Did this guy grow up in a fucking Stop n’ Shop? I pictured him on Revere Beach with his bros while “Paradise City” wafts out from some Camaro and he’s all lathered up in Hawaiian Tropic reading The Celestine Prophecy or The DaVinci Code or the unauthorized tell-all of some former NHL star who snorted a lot of coke and fucked a lot of flight attendants during the ’86-’87 season. I sighed, then remembered my designated motto: reply often.
So I did. We went back and forth for a couple days with some generic banter and then he asked for my number so we could upgrade to texting. I obliged and decided my first text to him would be pass/fail: I informed him that I was about to order groceries online for the first time and that I was paralyzed with anxiety over it. Take that, Axl Douchebag! I expected him to vanish.
Nope. He texted back ten minutes later saying he understood my fear and that I should just place the order, and how he makes it a point to always move toward his discomfort. Now there’s some fucking AA scripture for you.
I moved to the grading system and gave him a B-. He asked if we could meet up soon, and I said yes, Sunday night could work.
I went commando (no makeup), wearing a black cardigan with a string of thrift shop pearls, black stretch pants and a mini skirt. I made sure I was twenty minutes late to the gastro pub, which he picked, conveniently located in my general area. (How gentlemanly, eye roll). When I arrived he was sitting at a corner table, with his chin propped on his fist, staring at nothing. Not the football game on the bar TV, not even his phone. I wondered how long he suffered through that posturing.
He was handsome enough, his brown hair longer than it was on his profile. We said our hellos and shook hands and I took a seat. Before the awkwardness could fester I asked him about his job. He shrugged and tried to downplay it but I persisted. I wanted him to describe exactly how an ad was made, to take me through the process from concept to design to the guy who hangs the billboard over the expressway. Whenever he tried to gloss over any part of the production I called him on it. A couple times he fumbled and told me that “wasn’t really his department”, to which I looked him in the eye and said, “So basically you don’t know, is what you’re saying.”
He asked me about my music, nothing groundbreaking, the same shit everyone asks a singer-songwriter such as myself, one with a fully mastered EP, her own Youtube channel and a publicist who used to work with The Supremes. He told me missed the days when records sold millions of copies, when he used to tailgate in the parking lot of Tom Petty concerts. “Tailgating?” I said, breaking out into laughter. He looked at me funny. I wanted to remind him that tailgating and music were two concepts that should not share the same bedroom, but I restrained myself.
The server came and took our order. I asked him if he had any hobbies. He told me liked to write and that he had just finished a book. “Oh, cute,” I said. “What’s it about?”
“Crohn’s Disease,” he said. “It’s a chronic bowel—”
“I know what it is,” I said. Right. Because women are dumb and sheltered and aren’t familiar with any medical conditions unrelated to the reproductive system.
“It’s a memoirs, actually. Hopefully a funny one.”
“Mm-hmm. So do you follow a special diet?”
“Well I try and eat sensibly and avoid certain—”
“So you just eat whatever you want and then cry about your stomachache. I see.”
“Excuse me? I don’t cry about anything, least of all my health.”
Heel, boy, heel.
He let out a breath and looked around the restaurant. The server dropped off his coke and my water. I eyed his coke reproachfully and fought the urge to make a comment about sugar intake. He rubbed his hands together and said “So…” all drawn-out, and then he changed tack and asked me about my apartment. Back to me. Good boy.
Then we talked about Brookline, where I currently reside. This led to mutual accolades about the city. Oh, lookee, we agree on something. Yes, Brookline’s a nice place to live. I upped the ante by telling him how much I loved Jews and Liberals, how fascinated I am with the empowerment of female prostitution and how much I hate Republicans because they’re so hateful. He nodded along through all of this, adding in the occasional “interesting” or “gotcha”. He asked me if I was going to vote on Tuesday and I quickly returned with “I’m not registered in the state of Massachusetts”, followed by a little smirk, just to quell any bullshit he might give me about civic duty.
The food came. Pan-seared trout for him and roasted chicken for me. I expected him to get the hangar steak with French fries but he surprised me. After a few moments of chewing he asked me about my band. I told him it was in a rebuilding stage. He asked if the band had a name and I said yes, two names in fact: my first name, followed by my last name. It took him a moment to realize (can I get a halleluiah) that my band was me, and some other musicians.
“Have you ever heard of Jewel?” I asked.
“Of course,” he said.
“How ‘bout Alanis Morrisette.”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Well, there you go.” I waved the server over to take my plate away.
“Gotcha,” he said, nodding, piling his sautéed vegetables onto his fork.
“I just found a new rhythm guitarist. Her name is Brittany Lightening, and I love her. There are two people I love in this world: Jewel, and Brittany Lightening. And my dentist, so that’s three.”
“Cool,” he said. There was a lull, during which he finished his meal, cleaning the plate spotless. I wanted him to carry it to the sink himself, but the server promptly took it away.
“So,” he continued, rubbing his hands together, as if conjuring a new-and-improved form of small talk, “is your band an all-girl band, or…”
And there it was. Thank you, Gods of Kabbalah.
“Wow. That was the most sexist thing anyone has said to me in a long fucking time, Axl.”
He straightened up, confused, alarmed, and, ideally, frightened. “No, I just meant…”
“Do you refer to Led Zeppelin as an ‘all-boy’ band?”
“No, I…guess not. I mean, I refer to L7 as an ‘all-girl’ band; I think that’s how they refer to themselves, in fact.”
I’d never heard of L7, and, either way, that’s not the fucking point. The point is: after making an asshole of yourself, don’t try and rectify the situation. Period. The best thing to do when your foot is lodged in your piehole is…
“I’m sorry. I didn’t think of it that way. I didn’t mean to offend you,” he said, calmly, looking me in the eyes.
Fuck that, but okay.
I examined my fingernails. “Well, now you’re aware.”
He sat back in his chair and looked around the restaurant, searching for a salvageable change in direction. The awkwardness was his now; he owned it. After a moment he perked up and pointed to the ceiling. “Great song, huh?”
I tilted my head and listened. The song was “99 Red Balloons”. I turned back to him with a pitying smile, the kind of look you give someone who accidentally wore their underwear on top of their pants. “Oh, of course. You’re Gen-X.”
He rubbed his forehead, and without looking up at me said, “Let me guess. The 80s suck, right?”
“They’re just…sad. I think everything about your generation is sad, actually.”
“Really.” Now he was looking for the server. I waited for him to ask why his generation was sad, but he motioned for the check instead. I answered him anyway.
“I think people who hold onto things are kind of sad. Like the past. Like anything outside the present moment.” I twirled my Kabbalah bracelet around my wrist.
He nodded slowly, closing his eyes. The server dropped off the check. He threw a card in the vinyl check holder and handed it back, and then he looked at his watch, which appeared to be a Rolex.
After paying the check he told me he was tired and asked if I was ready to go.
“You look tired,” I said.
Outside the restaurant he asked if he could drive me home. I shrugged and said “sure’. Some might say that is effectively sending a message, the same people, for instance, who think “no” means “yes” and that eye contact means “please talk to me”. But sober women do not play games, nor do we concern ourselves with the pettiness of subtext. It was cold and I didn’t want to walk. Regardless, I was fully prepared to stonewall any sexual advances. With my can of mace, if necessary.
“You need a new car,” I said as we climbed into his Jeep Wrangler. I pointed out some rust spots creeping up from the chassis.
“Nope, this one works fine,” he said, backing out and heading down Beacon Street. I leaned over and spied the odometer, which read 172,000 miles, and smiled to myself.
We pulled up in front of my apartment building. “Well, it was great meeting you. Have an awesome night,” he said through a yawn. I turned to give him a hug but his head was leaning against the driver’s side window and he was rubbing his temples.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll talk to you later in the week then. Good night.” I climbed out of the Jeep and heard him say something just before I shut the door behind me. It could have been “you too” or “okay” or “bitch”.
Back home, inside my apartment. I peeled off the thrift shop pearls and the cardigan and got into my sweatpants. I picked up my acoustic and strummed a few chords, then I got up and turned on the GoPro camera that I keep on a tripod (I videotape myself whenever I write songs…footage for my upcoming Youtube “Behind the Music” video). I strummed a few more chords but, alas, nothing came to me. Maybe my next date will inspire me.
That’s why I reply often.
She hugged me, kissed me on both cheeks, and stuffed a Cellophane bag into my jeans pocket.
“Eat them a half hour before your shift ends,” she whispered into my ear. I felt like a spy that just received highly sensitive information. I scanned the bar furtively for anyone who looked out of place—someone who might blow a poisonous dart into Carol’s neck.
She pulled away from me and winked, and then nodded to the bar, where her two muscular, male companions sat waiting. One of them raised a martini to me and grinned, further reinforcing the espionage motif. “That’s Al,” she said. “And his boyfriend, Johnny. They’re coming out with us tonight.”
“Cool,” I said.
“I’ll be waiting for you at the bar.” She kept my hand in hers as she started toward the cocktail lounge, then finally released it. It fell limply against my thigh.
It was 10:30 and I had one table left—two young couples, the men engaged in conversation while the women sat looking tired and uninterested. On the table was the evidence of a meal: strewn-about linens, four empty highball glasses, a plate that was once a brownie sundae (now just a smear of chocolate sauce over white China) and the black vinyl check holder, resting off the edge of the table.
The kitchen closed at eleven. There was one other server still on the clock. Surely he could handle any stragglers that came in for desert or an appetizer.
I walked back toward the kitchen to the employee bathroom, where Carol and I had our first clandestine, cocaine-fueled kiss. I locked the door behind me, retrieved the balled-up Cellophane bag from my pocket and brought it to my face, smelling the faint odor of Carol on it, her hand lotion, or perfume, maybe. Inside the bag was half an eighth of dried, hallucinogenic mushrooms.
I ate them quickly, holding my nose while chewing each mouthful and then immediately washing it down with tap water. It was like eating Styrofoam while having fecal matter spread around my mouth, the pungent aftertaste of dogshit lingering on my upper lip. I managed to get them all down without gagging or vomiting, then splashed cold water on my face and walked out of the bathroom.
I walked to the service bar and poured myself a Coke. As I guzzled it down my manager, Jay, approached me holding two menus.
“Are you blind, Danny?” he said in his usual affectatious, gay tone. He pointed toward the host stand, where a young couple stood waiting, looking slightly lost and bewildered.
“Can’t Sean take them?” I said.
“He just punched out. I was trying to find you but you must have been taking one of your unexplained powders. Now go do your job. Go. Off you go, Daniel.” He shooed me away with his hand and giggled to himself.
I took the menus and walked to the host stand to seat the couple. It was 10:35. I had just swallowed a full dose of mushrooms. My hands started to sweat, greasing up the plastic sleeves of the menus.
Twenty minutes later, as I carried their entrees to the table (the risotto for him, the roast chicken and asparagus for her), my hands and wrists were light and it felt like I had spiders crawling on my shoulders. I focused on my breathing and quickly set the plates down on the table. I leaned in and asked the couple if there was anything else they needed and they said no, and as I returned to my upright posture I heard a swish sound pass by my head, followed by vague yet somehow precise visual trails.
Walking back to the kitchen I looked at the bar and saw Carol. Her head was tilted back and she was laughing with Al and Johnny. She slapped the bar with one hand while the other twirled the stem of a martini glass. Then she caught me from the corner of her eye, and her smile vanished and curled into a sneer. And then her eyes gleamed with fire, and I’m pretty sure I saw horns sprout from her head. And then, I swear to God, she mouthed these words to me:
IT’S. ALL. OVER. NOW. DEAD. LITTLE. WHORE.
I hurried back to the employee bathroom, where I locked the door behind me, moved directly to the corner, curled up into a ball, dropped my head into my folded arms and rocked back and forth.
Something wasn’t right. I needed to lie down immediately, so I spread out across the linoleum and lay flat on my back, my arms stretched out as though I were making a snow angel. I heard the sounds of the kitchen reverberate off the floor and into my brain—clinking pots and pans, high-pressure dishwasher hoses, Brazilian slang. I picked at my ear; worms can crawl in there, you know. Anything can get in there if you’re not careful. Fucking miniature Brazilians can get in there. It’s a pathway to--
The bathroom ceiling started to move. Slow, gentle waves of white plaster. The ripples were relaxed and friendly to start, but then they became obscene bulges, rodents trapped inside the gullet of some creamy monster--
“Jesus fucking Christ,” I said as a single, warm tear rolled down my cheek.
Soon a reprieve came. The keel of the surrounding world grew steady. The black and white checkered linoleum no longer jumped off the floor. I got up and looked at myself in the mirror. My eyes were two dark caves. My face was haunted. My only tangible thought was just how necessary it was that I hold a mandolin in an undisclosed, midwestern backyard. I saw a single, fluffy cloud in a blue sky, and an elderly woman in a gray, floral dress pulling white t-shirts from a clothesline.
“Okay, Danny...okay.” I splashed cold water onto my face, and went back out to check on my table.
The couple sat with their elbows on the table and their half-eaten entrees pushed over to the side. They held hands and looked into each other’s eyes intently. I wanted to sit with them, to go home with them and recover on their couch while they made love in the bedroom. I wanted them to adopt me.
Dread spiked up inside me as I realized they might never leave, ever. They could conceivably stay at their table, locked in true love, until 1:00 AM, when the place closed. “Breathe, Danny. We’re here. We’re all here,” I whispered to myself. Push it away. Push it away! The world began to tilt to the right again. I continued toward my table, holding the seatbacks of the booths on the way for support.
I picked the plates off the table. “How was everything?” I said, grinding my teeth.
“Great, thanks. We’ll just take the check.”
“Alright, then. I’ll be right back.”
Mercifully, the couple paid the check promptly and left, and I was free to complete my sidework of setting all the tables and stocking all the sugar caddies and marrying all the ketchup bottles in the safety of an empty dining room.
Before I could do that, however, I ran to the employee bathroom once again, where I vomited twice and broke into a cold sweat-inducing muscle spasm. It was brief, and when it released me from its grip I felt a peaceful stability, like an airplane leveling off at 35,000 feet. I started laughing, lying flat on the floor, and I checked my watch.
It had been forty minutes. The demon had settled nicely into its lair. I was tripping.
It was time to give Jay my paperwork, punch out, and then go to the coyote.
I sat down at the bar next to Carol. She leaned in and kissed me on the lips, holding the back of my neck as she did so. She kept her hand there, scratching my hair with her long fingernails, staring into my dilated eyes.
“Let’s go,” she said. Her voice was deep and slow, like maple syrup dripping off the edge of a plate.
I looked around the bar at the crowd of metropolitan professionals. I couldn’t stop grinning. “We could stay here if you want.”
She shook her head and got up, saying nothing. She reached into her bag and withdrew a lipstick applier, twisted the bottom and touched up her lips with a shade of dark red. Then she puckered once, dropped the lipstick back into her bag and looked at me, the tip of her tongue gliding across her teeth.
“I don’t want to stay here.”
Our convoy walked down Mass Ave., Al and Johnny in the lead, Carol and I trailing behind. The October night air was chilly, maybe mid-forties, but I was comfortable in short sleeves, opting to carry my leather jacket by my side. I put my arm around Carol’s shoulders. “Should I throw my jacket in that dumpster?” I said as we passed an alleyway. Carol shook her head and laughed. I leaned closer and kissed her cheek. “I want to take off my shoes. I don’t want to wear them anymore. I don’t think I’ll ever need to wear them again.”
At the intersection of Boylston and Tremont, just a few blocks from Machine, I stopped and pointed at the traffic light, which had just changed from yellow to red. “Watch...soon there will be a red man, and then that red man will turn into numbers. The numbers will count down. It’s basically...it’s basically the same principle as the universe.”
Carol wrapped her arms around my neck and pulled me toward her. We made out in the middle of the sidewalk as Al and Johnny left us behind. Pedestrians walked past us on both sides. Had I not been tripping my balls off I would have found our display tacky and disgusting.
She pulled at the collar of my shirt and slurped on my neck. “I think about you every fucking second of the day, Danny. All week I’ve been waiting for this. It’s just you and me tonight, and I’m gonna fucking destroy you. My God am I going to tear you apart.”
Then we both broke out into laughter.
Al and Johnny were waiting for us at the back door of Machine, where they were talking to a large black man in a cowboy hat and leather vest. The black man saw Carol and shrieked and gave her a massive hug and a kiss on both cheeks. She introduced him to me as Levon. I waved to Levon with that dumb grin still plastered on my face.
The inside of Machine was dark and indiscernible. The four of us walked down a hallway, constantly pulling aside thick, velvet curtains. All I could see were red EXIT signs and the vague shapes of Al and Johnny ahead of me. The further we walked the louder the throb of bass became, its vibrations sinking into my pores and drawing me in like a gravitational field. Finally we tore through one final curtain and emerged into a small dance floor packed with maniacally dancing, shirtless men.
Strobe lights flickered and flashed across the crowd. The house music assaulted me. Carol yelled something directly into my ear but I couldn’t hear her, so I just nodded in reply. Al turned to us and made a drinking motion with his hand; Carol shook her head; the two guys left for the bar and quickly disappeared into the crowd. I stood there enrapt, my head making lazy circles as I took in the scene: a pool of bare-chested men dancing under the staccato light show. At first it was chaos, but after a moment they formed a circle, slowly rotating without an axis. It was a theatrical galaxy.
I nodded my head slowly and then raised my hand in front of my face and studied it, fanning my fingers out, bringing them together. It didn’t matter. I accepted my fingers without judgment. I read the lines of my palm in the dim and violent light. They made sense. Finally, after twenty-two years on this planet, things made sense.
“We’re safe here, Carol. Yes. I think we are going to be okay.”
And then I felt her hand go down the front of my pants.
It was impossible to measure time, but at some point Carol took my hand and led me out into the middle of the dance floor. A remix of Madonna’s “Ray of Light” had just exploded over the PA. She turned around and grinded up against me, pulling on my neck, tearing at my shirt, wedging her hands down the back of my pants and clawing at my upper butt cheeks. We devoured each other’s mouths, drool trickling down our chins and glistening in the yellow and purple strobe light. Whenever I looked over her shoulder at the crowd I saw a carousel of bloodthirsty Indians, circling us, preying on us, worshipping us, Carol and I, the raging bonfire, the sacrificial lamb, the altar of hedonism, the nucleus of forbidden desire.
Carol yanked up my t-shirt and hugged me tight. I felt her warm, smooth skin, and realized that she had pulled up her shirt as well and removed her bra. Our naked torsos pressed against each other. Her nipples tickled my skin. The heat of our meshed bodies numbed me, like running frostbitten hands under hot water. I was short of breath and dizzy. Carol grabbed my chin and turned me toward her.
“I’m givin ya some tit!” she yelled, her voice slipping into a heavy South Shore accent, her breath suddenly rancid, smelling faintly of the dried mushrooms we ate hours ago.
I looked down. Carol held her right breast up. “Suck it!” she screamed, and in that instant I feared her. The exotic, sophisticated deejay with the high cheekbones was gone, replaced by a salty, wasted, table-dancing townie chick.
I held onto her shoulder and lowered myself down to her breast.
The Indians roared their approval. The lights bled. The music hammered away.
Somewhere near 3:00 AM Carol and I staggered out of Machine, depleted and disoriented. The rest of the crowd filed out among us. Al and Johnny were gone, had been gone since they went to the bar when we first arrived. All that remained were shells of everything.
The Boston night was cold and somber. The air smelled of cigarette smoke, grilled sausages and mustard. Groups of people poured out of bars and stumbled over streets, fighting over taxis, yelling the occasional “FUCK YOU”. Carol and I walked next to each other but far apart. We both looked down at the ground. Finally she broke the silence in a meek voice: “I have a joint. Wanna take a walk through the park?”
We sat on a park bench in the Commons and passed a skinny joint between us. It netted us four hits apiece. Neither of us spoke a single word. Carol flicked the roach away and lit a cigarette. We got up and walked down one of the paths.
“My feet hurt,” Carol said. I looked down and saw redness creeping out from the inside of her high heels and onto the tops of her feet. She looked uncomfortable, taking tepid half steps, her toes pointed inward, the way a small girl might walk when playing dress up in her mother’s shoes. Her face was rigid and constrained, as though she was trying with all her might to endure something. Her makeup had run from all the sweating and her face looked mask-like. Her lips trembled. She ground them against her teeth. She sucked on her cigarette with an unsteady hand and exhaled the smoke in chops and gusts.
“What should we do now?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she replied immediately.
“We could get a hotel room,” I said.
“No, Danny. No. I have to go home. I have to go...back. I need a...I need a...a Pepsi.”
I could hear the cottonmouth in her voice as she spit out the word Pepsi. Her lips were cracked, and dried pockets of white spittle had collected in the corners of her mouth. Her breathing was uneven. She looked like she was having difficulty swallowing. She walked with even less stability—her arms were folded against her chest and her knees buckled; the heels of her shoes made a squeamish sound as they ground against the concrete path. In spite of all this, though, she trudged on, determined, stampeding forward in her uncomfortable shoes, staring straight ahead, trembling in the cold night, moistening her chapped lips with what little saliva she could muster.
“I have to go home, Danny. I have to go home to my...”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll get you a cab.”
I flagged down a cab on Arlington Street and walked her to it. I opened the back door for her and she got in, without looking at me or even saying goodbye. I handed the driver two twenties. “Put this toward the fare,” I said. I looked into the backseat to see if Carol saw me paying but it was too dark—all I saw was my own reflection in the Plexiglas divider. My haggard, cavernous face.
The cab pulled away from the curb and drove down Arlington toward Storrow Drive. For a moment I saw the shape of Carol’s head in the backseat, a quick glimpse of her short, spiky hair in silhouette, and then she was gone.
I walked into the empty street and stood with my hands in my pocket. The drive to Braintree, at that hour of the night, would take no more than thirty minutes, which meant Carol would get home at around 4:15 or 4:30. Her husband would be asleep, maybe on the couch, if they had one. Her son, Jake, would be asleep, too. But he would be waking up in a few hours to watch cartoons. He would ask his mommy to make pancakes.
I turned and walked in the direction of my car, when it occurred to me that I may have parked in a tow zone. Anxiety swelled inside me. In all likelihood my car was already gone, and I’d have to deal with the rigmarole of retrieving it from the tow lot in South Boston. I contemplated taking a cab home, back to Newton, and dealing with my car tomorrow. I wasn’t in the mood for reality. Some stones don’t need to be turned over, I thought to myself, as I raised my hand at an oncoming taxi.
I do not have Part 2 of Sex Pistol ready yet. I feel like I owe you, my non-existent readers, an explanation. By "non-existent readers" I mean, of course, me. I need to explain to myself why I've squandered another Thursday - Sunday writing period.
My day job was busy this week. Fine. It happens. But then I hurt my back at the gym on Thursday. How did I do it, you may ask? I was at the squat rack, doing Romanian dead lifts. That's the exercise where you stand up straight, holding a barbell by your waist, and you bend forward, then back up, working your hamstrings. It's imperative that you keep your spine perfectly straight when you do this exercise, because the slightest break in form could result in a serious back injury. And that's exactly what happened. I felt it immediately, stopped that exercise and continued with the rest of my workout.
Mistake #1: I should have went home right then, but I happen to be in love with a girl at the gym--have been for six months--and I wanted to stick around in case she approached me for sex.
The pain/stiffness didn't set in until that afternoon at work, and even then it was manageable. I was able to walk around (though at first I walked like grandpa Simpson, then after 200 feet I resumed a normal posture; I was like a living evolution chart!) and lay on the ground and stretch every few hours. I took some motrin or Advil or whatever the fuck it's called, and that helped a little. I skipped my AA meeting that night (the long walk and the grammar school chairs would have been too taxing), which sucked because Alan got his 6-year medallion, which I would have liked to have witnessed.
It also sucked because there are usually at least three hot chicks at that meeting. Hot, sober, angry chicks. Booya!
Instead I went home that night, ordered a medium pepperoni from Domino's and watched four old episodes of "Entourage".
Mistake #2: Everything from that previous sentence.
The next day, Friday, I felt better. Work was still busy but my back felt looser, even after sitting all day in that Filipino-made bullshit ergonomic chair I have. Or maybe I was just so busy I didn't even consider the pain, which could have been the case. I threw a little ice on it and spent most of the day yelling at my computer, throwing temper tantrums in front of my IT guy, and insulting innocent co-workers for no reason. I was pissed that I had work to do and couldn't do the Friday NY Times crossword. I missed the last AA meeting in the area, walked home, nuked some pasta, made a salad, beat off and watched 40 minutes of "Interview With A Vampire" on my DVR. I was asleep by 11.
Mistake #3: Nothing. Perfect Day.
Saturday I woke up feeling great. I actually got out of bed and walked to Dunkin Donuts in an almost upright manner. I lied in bed and read for a bit, drinking my coffee, then called a massage parlor in Chinatown (the name and number of which were procured from a fellow AA brother) and made an 11:30 appointment. I took a shower and walked there. It was beautiful out and I felt great, walking perfectly fine. The girl at the "Spa"'s reception desk was very cute. She walked me down into a subterranean room smaller than my bedroom and told me to take my clothes off, lay face down and wait. I did. Five minutes later another girl--this one not exactly cute, but more like a cross between Bruce Lee and 70s Elvis Presley--walked in, wearing cuffed sweatpants and a Russell Athletics t-shirt. The only English she knew was "sir", and "deep or stone". She spent the first 10 minutes trying to pop a zit on my back, then she got to work. And yes, there was a happy ending. I closed my eyes and pictured the girl from the front desk, and not Bruce Lee's bloated brother.
Afterward I went to Carson beach and lay flat on the stone wall that runs along its perimeter. I listened to music and looked at chicks and caught some rays. My back didn't hurt. It felt great, actually.
I went home and did something incredibly stupid. I PUT A HEATING PAD ON MY FUCKING BACK. I lay down and took a nap with A FUCKING HEATING PAD ON MY BACK.
Now it's time for Mistake #3: AFTER 24 HOURS IT'S ICE, NOT HEAT. Ever hear of the internet, fuckstick???
Immediately I started feeling pain, stiffness. I figured it was all part of the healing process. By the time I walked to my Saturday night AA meeting I was hunched over again. I had to stop and touch my toes a couple times. I sat through the meeting fine, but walking home was all grandpa Simpson again. I got back home, crawled up my stairs, and PUT THE FUCKING HEATING PAD UNDER MY BACK WHILE I LIED ON MY LIVING ROOM FLOOR. I hadn't realized Mistake #3 yet.
Like the genius I am, I microwaved the heating pad real good and slept on it, waking up a couple times throughout the night to re-zap it. By the time I woke up, this morning, I was immovable. I could barely even curl up in the fetal position. I walked to Dunkin Donuts all upright and stiff, as though I was holding in a massive crap. I got home, lied on the floor and stretched my back. Then I walked to the gym, and halfway there, after seeing my reflection in the EZ Storage doorway, I realized it was ridiculous. I couldn't even walk. How the fuck was I gonna lift heavy weight? I turned around and went home.
That was when Mistake #3 occurred to me. Maybe heat isn't a good idea this far into an injury, especially considering I was feeling great when I started using it, and now I feel like the Tin Man. So I began my ice regiment. I currently have four various ice packs in my freezer and I spend about 75% with one of them pressed again my lower back and the other 25% stretching. Maybe stretching isn't a good idea, either. Should I go for a walk or should I be resting? When I rest, should I lay flat or sit upright? When laying flat, should it be on my bed or on a more firm surface, like the sidewalk outside? Jesus Christ, I can't take these fucking options. When it comes to forks in the road I have a notorious history of choosing the wrong way. And no, I will not look on the internet for advice. The last time I did that I had just got out of detox and I was trying to find out how long the withdrawal would last. The first website I came upon informed me that my life would be hell for at least 5 years and that I should just kill myself. In retrospect, that was pretty accurate.
Alas. Nothing to do but nurse my wounds, watch bad TV and try and stay calm. The pain can't last forever. Or can it? Today was a beautiful day, probably the last beautiful day of the year. I was planning on going to the beach today, after going to the gym and taking a yoga class. Instead I stayed inside and felt sorry for myself. I'm going squirrelly. I'm getting cabin fever. I'm so bored I jerked off twice today to tranny porn. The only time I left my house was this morning, when I drove to Whole Foods for Pro Biotics. In the parking lot a man approached me and asked if I could give him, his wife and two sons a ride to Framingham, to a "small motel", as he kept referring to it. I looked over at his wife and kids. They all wore New England Patriots T-shirts and were locked in a group embrace, all three of them making these overly-dramatic sad faces, as though they were posing for a homeless family ad. He told me they had just arrived from Kissimmee, Florida, and now they were stuck in a Whole Foods Parking Lot in Newton. None of this made any sense to me. I sat in my Jeep, blocking the entrance to the parking lot, while my lower back was screaming at me to get the fuck away from this psychopath.
"I don't understand...what's in Framingham?" I asked, confused.
"A small motel," the man said, clearly annunciating the words as though I was deaf, or from another country.
I wanted to help, but something just didn't seem right. The only evident luggage the family possessed was a single black gym bag.
"I don't know, man. Framingham's quite a ways away--"
"Oh fuck this," the man spit out, then turned and walked away. I proceeded to park my Jeep and kill the ignition. But I stayed in it for a few minutes before getting out and going into the Whole Foods. I needed a moment to process it all.
Dear Readers, I'm trying something new: old-fashioned, serial storytelling. Just like in the old days, when we'd gather around the wood-paneled radio for a swashbuckling episode of Captain Blood or the rousing trumpet of the Lone Ranger, enrapt for 30 minutes until the hero finds himself in a jam with no foreseeable way out and we're left hanging with the ubiquitous words, "tune in next time!".
Well, apply that device to Penthouse Forum, and you've got my latest installment in two parts: Sex Pistol.
Part 2 will be posted next Sunday. I assure you it will be worth tuning back in...
SEX PISTOL -- PART I
It was the summer of 1999. I was 23-years old, waiting tables at a trendy, cosmopolitan brasserie in Boston called the Blue Cat Café. The Blue Cat was known for its jazz, specifically Acid Jazz. I’m pretty sure I know what Acid Jazz is, and I think I like it. I don’t want to look it up on Wikipedia though, in case I’m wrong.
I had just returned from Los Angeles after a year and a half working for a movie producer. I was living at home, with my parents, searching for my next career move; I figured the best way to explore my options was to work nights, snort coke, party with sexy bartenders and then drive home through my quiet suburban hometown at sunrise, my window rolled down, taking in the smell of freshly cut grass and listening to the ching-ching-ching of automated lawn sprinklers. I lived rent-free. My only expenses were sanity and self-respect.
Each day I pondered my future, from noon to 1:00 PM, while lying in the bed I slept in as a teenager, too lazy and guilt-ridden to go outside for a morning cigarette. For a week straight I watched the recast of the MTV Movie Awards—Will Smith dancing around and singing about the Wild Wild West.
“Fuck L.A.,” I said, turning the TV off and throwing the remote into the corner of my high school bedroom. I stared across the room at my Dan Marino poster. “And fuck you, too.”
By August I was depressed. I was already sick of my twenties. I wished I was 35 and living in a house somewhere with a real job, a 401k and health insurance. I missed eating lunch during daylight. I missed prime time television. The Sopranos was a national phenomenon and I could never watch because I worked on Sunday nights. Life was passing me by.
And then, one night, Carol kissed me in the Blue Cat bathroom, and I found my raison d’etre.
Carol was the Blue Cat deejay on Thursday and Saturday nights. She was an older woman, and by “older” I mean somewhere around 30. She had short, spiky, frosted blonde hair and an angular, German face. She wore leather pants every night—sometimes maroon, sometimes black. She reminded me of everything good about the 80s. Whenever she entered the restaurant—usually around 10:00, when the crowd was peaking—it was like a sonic ripple, something I felt more than saw, like a rock star moving through a throng of fans. She was stopped by at least eight different people on her way from the front door to the deejay booth; each conversation seemed important and personal. I watched her as she hugged, kissed on both cheeks, listened, laughed, talked intently, narrowed her eyes, put her hand on someone’s shoulder, scratched her nose, ran her hand through the back of her short hair (a habit). I watched her as she methodically removed her 33” records from a leather case. She examined both sides of each disc before playing them, brushing the vinyl with horsehair. I watched her every time she went to the ladies’ room. When she walked she stuck her hands in the back pockets of her leather pants; she took long strides, her hips wide and commanding. And I’d just stand there, holding a tray of water glasses or a breadbasket, lacking any self-awareness, unable to register my emotions. I felt like a schoolboy living in an Aerosmith video.
She played remixes, mostly; my faves were a Macy Gray/Elton John mashup and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” by Them. One night I mustered up the courage to approach the deejay booth and make a request.
She saw me coming and smiled. My bowels got loose and squishy. “Can you play that Van Morrison song?” I shouted over the din of the crowd. Back then I didn’t know Van was the lead singer of a band called Them. I just knew it was his voice wailing on the track.
“I’ll play it next. For you.” She nodded and smiled again. Her cheekbones were high. Everything about her was exotic, European, sophisticated, way out of my league.
She played it next.
I asked some of the older, seasoned, gay waiters about her. “She’s married and she has a kid,” they informed me. “Why? Do you like her?”
“No, I just…” Suddenly four gay waiters surrounded me, all smiling with their eyebrows arched. They reminded me of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, sitting on top of his mountain perch, rubbing his chin, devising a plan. “She’s married,” I said. “So what difference does it make?”
“Well, she’s married, but she’s not married married. Know what I mean?”
My eyes darted across each of the waiters. “Forget I said anything.”
One of them must have said something to her, because the following Saturday night Carol started looking at me. Every time I looked at her, she looked back. And then she started smiling at me. Not an amiable, “Hiya friend!” kind of smile. It was the kind of smile a coyote gives to a cocker spaniel that’s chained to a backyard leash. I’m going to eat you soon.
I had no idea what to do, other than take a shit.
So I kept looking at her, and she kept looking back. For two weeks. Whenever our eyes met my neck would get warm, my heart would pound and I’d lose all sensation below my waist. I’d be down on the dining room floor, in my stupid server uniform (a black t-shirt and long black apron—like a dopey samurai warrior), and she’d be up in the farthest corner of the cocktail lounge, behind the turntables, wearing a snakeskin jacket or a buttoned-down shirt with the collar up or sometimes just a tank top, and we’d connect through the crowd of 200 metropolitan idiots laughing and spilling martinis on each other. Just me and Carol, and no one else.
One Saturday night, Carol was absent. At 10:30 I went up to Jay, the manager, and asked if she was coming in. He shrugged and told me he hadn’t heard from her. I went back to the dining room feeling despondent, the way I used to feel when one of my baseball games got rained out. For the next forty minutes I skulked to and from my tables feeling like I was about to cry. I didn’t even want to finish my shift. I was about to ask Jay if I could be first cut when I heard the opening keyboard of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, its sweet, melodic chimes rising and falling over the PA. I looked up at the turntables and saw Carol, smiling at me. It was our song. Our mating call. She waved at me to come over.
“I know you love that song,” she said.
I moved behind the turntables, close to her. “I didn’t think you were coming in,” I said.
“I had to wait for my mom to come over to watch Jeffrey,” she said, and then added, “He's my son.”
“Oh.” I nodded and took a half step backward. She turned toward the crowd, her hands in her back pockets, and then took a step toward me.
“Do you like to do junk?” she said.
“Do you party?” She tapped her nose with a long, crimson fingernail.
“Oh…yes! Yes I do!”
She smiled at me, coyote to leashed puppy.
“Meet me in the bathroom in five minutes. Once the next song starts.”
I walked back to the dining room. A few minutes later “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” ended and a song by De La Soul started. Carol made her way through the cocktail lounge—taking those long, leather strides—and down through the dining room, glancing briefly at me as she passed by. She turned a corner and disappeared by the kitchen, where the Blue Cat’s employee bathroom was located.
I checked on my tables and then followed her.
The hallway leading to the bathroom was empty. I walked down it quickly, feeling that warmth again, rising up from my loins and spreading into my chest and face. I knocked on the closed door. Carol opened it a crack and then let me in. She closed and locked it behind me and promptly moved over to the sink, where she cut up four lines of cocaine with her driver’s license.
“I’ve got til the end of this song,” she said, handing me a rolled-up bill. “Go ahead.”
We snorted the lines. I immediately felt like taking a shit. I backed up against the wall and clenched my butt cheeks.
“This is good shit,” Carol said, packing up her purse. “Are your lips numb?”
I nodded. “Uh-huh.”
“Good,” she said. Then she grabbed the back of my neck, and her mouth came toward me.
We made out for a couple minutes, and then she hugged me, pressing her face against my neck. She told me that she wanted to see me outside of the Blue Cat. “Come out next Saturday night. I’m not working, but me and some friends are gonna take mushrooms and go to Machine. Will you come, after you get off here?”
I nodded, holding her, my mouth chewing on air, the two of us swaying back and forth to the final notes of a De La Soul song.
She never mentioned her husband, or her son, Jeffrey. And I never asked.
The next six days were a journey. At first I was eager, but then I was nervous, at one point (Wednesday) considering declining, making up some excuse not to go, anything.
On Thursday she called in sick, and I felt despondent again. I planned on canceling our Saturday night mushroom trip but after an hour of looking at an empty deejay booth I missed her. I didn't want to be there any longer because she wasn’t around to play our song. By the end of the night I was angry and my stomach felt sick. I was desperate to see her, even for a single moment, standing behind the turntables. Or doing anything at all.
Saturday couldn’t come fast enough.
And then it came, and there she was, walking through the door to the Blue Cat, dressed in black leather pants and a tight black t-shirt with two words bedazzled in rhinestones across her bulging breasts:
TO BE CONTINUED...
Dear Readers, to add another dimension to this storytelling experience I've included a link to the Them song, "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue". See below. It truly is a mating call...
I know. I know. I know.... It's been over a month and I haven't posted anything. I'm still working on Dave's notes for this piece of shit book, and I've been doing steps 4 and 5 of my recovery program, which involves listing out all the bad shit I've ever done or been a part of and then sitting down with someone and confessing it all. I thought it would take me 20 minutes but noooooo.....it took 2 months.
So here's a very quick snapshot of CHAP 14, which is the first chapter to PART III SLINGSHOT, which basically chronicles the spring-fall of 2012, when the shit hit the fan and I lost most of my colon. This little snippet is a delightful 2-page look at an online dating experience.
Like everything else, dear Pellegrinites, it is totally fucking true.
Enjoy, and here's a tip for the day: the weather inside your mind is always overcast.
(Excerpt from Chapter 14, "The Creature Stirs"):
One girl, a 30-year old, Latino, Naval Academy graduate, showed promise. Our first date was a success; we got tipsy over cocktails and appetizers at a bar in Beacon Hill and then made out in a light snowfall on Charles Street. She looked like Rosario Dawson, with a bright smile and long black hair tied back in a ponytail that slung back around the front of her shoulder. I could see her voluptuous curves through her wool topcoat, and I fantasized about what those curves looked like covered only by red lace. Our second date, an intimate dinner at an Italian restaurant in the same neighborhood, was a disaster. She was in a foul mood because of some work and landlord issues and complained aggressively throughout the entire meal. I tried to bounce some optimism her way but was met at every attempt with a wall of fierce resistance. Things got especially interesting near the end of the meal, when the subject turned to politics.
“I voted for Bush,” she said, “but I just adore Obama. Everything he does. And it drives me batshit when I hear people lay these false claims on him. Socialist? What does that even mean? Like, do you even know what the fuck you’re talking about?”
I looked around the dining room, discreetly, and then came back to her. She leaned forward on the table into her smooth brown shoulders, looking vulpine in a silver strapless dress. “Personally,” I said, “I think they should split the country in two—Republican and Democrat. East America and West America, or more like Coastal America and Middle America, or whatever. Boom, end of discussion.”
She tucked her chin inward and looked up at me, the candlelight dancing in her dark eyes, lighting them up something wicked. “That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” she said.
I looked down at the table’s centerpiece. My heartbeat started to drumroll. “Well, I’m not being completely serious.”
“How would that be possible? Are you suggesting we go back to the antebellum days? Fight another Civil War?”
“I’m saying that people like to bicker. Take that away and they might actually have to fill their time with productive discourse.” I was no longer smiling.
“Ha! Split the country in two? I mean, really? Did you really just say that?”
“Yes, I did. Let me ask you something: why don’t you lighten the fuck up? There’s this new thing that’s sweeping the nation—both of them—it’s called a sense of humor. Google it when you get home.”
She straightened up. The light flickered out of her eyes. “Awkward,” she said, rolling the word back and forth across our table. Her face became solemn; her high cheekbones looked gaunt and macabre, like a voodoo doll.
“Yeah, awkward.” I raised my hand for the check. My heart thudded against my breastbone. I remembered her military background. My stomach sloshed around like a laundry cycle.
The waiter brought the check. As I signed it I made a snippy remark about how I hoped she didn’t want dessert, and when I closed the black vinyl check holder with a determined whap I immediately regretted saying it. I couldn’t help it. I was enraged to the point of tunnel vision.
Without looking at her or the other diners I got up, put on my coat and gestured for her to walk ahead of me, all while staring down at the carpeted floor. I still had the civility to walk her back to her apartment, in total silence, up the hill to Revere Street, three doors down, ironically, from Anisha’s old place.
He-he-hello, campers! I just updated this post because a) the complete chapter was too fucking long for even me to read, and b) there are several indicting things in it that could get me into some trouble with people who may actually read this thing. So now instead of all of Chapter 3, you get the first couple pages, which I think are funny, but probably suck.
Note: Tommy Donovan is a pseudonym. You don't know the real Tommy Donovan, I assure you. But they're out there. Trust me. There's a Tommy Donovan in every childhood story. Hell, there's a little Tommy Donovan in all of us...
(Beginning of Chapter 3, "Free Agents" from "Half-Assed"):
Tommy Donovan was my first step towards reclaiming coolness, a calculated but risky acquisition made in the summer of 1990, before my sophomore year of high school.
A wild-eyed, flame-haired imp who went to a nearby Catholic school, Tommy knew all of us Traut/Newton North kids through baseball and the neighborhood. Like me, he had two older sisters. Unlike me, he treated his sisters and mother as though they were Barbie dolls onto which he would strap cherry bombs. He’d yell “whore!” out the window when his sisters left on a date with a male suitor. He left his turds unflushed in the toilet when he knew they were waiting for the bathroom. For entertainment, he’d mimic the New Kids on the Block in front of them, kicking his legs out at the sides in that famous NKOTB dance, singing “Girl, you shoot the white stuff!” (instead of “you got the right stuff”). “Ew, Tommy, that’s gross!” they’d say. And he’d burst out in his high-pitched cackle and then abruptly stop and turn to me and say, “Go fuck yourself.” His mother was always yelling, and when she’d scold Jimmy for not doing a chore he would give it right back to her, calling her a “fucking cunt”. I’d just sit there on the couch, in the crossfire, horrified. Finally his mother would throw him out, and he and I would walk across the street and sit on a park bench until he cooled off. We were fifteen.
His father moved out when he was five but lived in the area and would come by often to visit. Tommy would boast about how his father brought him porn and once taught him how to jerk off. I never fully allowed myself to grasp that notion, so it never truly disturbed me, as I believe it should. Even as I write this I still can’t comprehend it, and secretly pray that it isn’t true.
The effects could not be denied, however. Tommy was a hot coil of unhealthy sexual aggression. He always wanted to rape things, not in the literal sense, though he would randomly blurt out “Let’s go fuck Conchetta!” (the bag lady who collected cans in Cabot Park) or “Let’s go fuck Stevie Kushner!” (the six-year old boy who lived next door) or “Pelly, I’m so hungry I could fuck a McRib sandwich!”. A few times during the summer he’d walk into Cabot Park late at night and take his clothes off and masturbate, sometimes defecate, and then come running back into his house, pounding his chest and growling, “Fuck it, Pellegrini! Fuck it!”
He knew a couple trashy girls from Watertown who would walk over to Cabot Park and hang out with us during those summer nights. Tommy always took the heavy one and would make out with her in plain view and coo at her with boy band lyrics:
“Baby, you know I love you. Me and you, togetha foreva.”
“What you and I have is true, baby. Special. Nuthin can come between us.”
“This is what it feels like to fall in love. Nuthin else matters but you and I.”
I half expected to hear an Al Green rhythm in the background whenever he would talk to these girls.
Tommy wasn’t necessarily a violent person; he was just violently discovering his sexuality. One summer night he called the “gay hotline”, a toll-free number for Boston-area homosexuals. He started talking to “Sean”, a gay paraplegic from Danvers. What began as a prank, with me on the kitchen phone stifling laughter, ended with Tommy upstairs in his bedroom, talking to Sean by himself for hours after I had gone home.
For the rest of the summer, whenever Tommy and I hung out, he’d ask if I wanted to call Sean.
“Why?” I’d say.
“Because he’s fucking hilarious, asshole! Last night he sang Bette Midler’s ‘From A Distance’ to me, every fucking word of it! Fuck you, Pelly. I hate you. Leave.”
Tommy wasn’t looking for gay sex; it was the faceless, non-judgmental voice on the other end of the phone, home to a vagrant mind, a place where Tommy felt safe to set aside his rage and confess his fears to a person in a wheelchair who was disowned by his family for being different. It was a place where Tommy could be vulnerable, as well as perversely human.
I am amazed at the amount of hostility cats receive. In my office, which employs some 45 full-time staffers, there is a 15-to-1 dog person to cat person ratio. I am one of three cat people and, as of yet, the only outspoken one. I know the identities of the other two, but they have come forward only on condition of anonymity.
I am a cat person, but I also love dogs. I wish I could say the same for dog people, who seem to view cats the way most Republicans view President Obama. When I told Karen (a creative director at my agency who I absolutely adore) that I had a cat, she dropped her chin, looked up at me, shook her head and said, “Oh, Danny. Danny. Just rip my heart out, why don’t you.” You would have thought I showed up for work wearing a “HOMOS FOR RICK SANTORUM” button pinned to my sweater vest.
“I fucking hate cats,” Sister Marie said to me after my Godson Paul's first communion. “They are abominations spawned from the darkest legion of hell; they are not to be trusted.” Then she smiled sweetly and nodded like she always does, her habit tilting down, anointing me with her virtue.
When I tell someone I have a cat, more often than not, their jaw drops and their face goes pale. They tilt their head and study me as though I have antennae sprouting from the back of my head. “Are you serious?” they ask. The other common reaction is laughter, mostly from women, which then dovetails into embarrassment—for me—when they realize I am not kidding.
“Hemingway had a cat!” I say. “Lots of them!”
“That’s...not helping. At all.”
Today it is more socially acceptable to have just about anything for a pet…other than a cat. A web designer once brought his hedgehog, Bosco, into the office. It was like holding a bag of quills and about as cuddly as pin art. All the girls crowded around, fawning, taking turns holding the poor, frightened little creature, laughing and saying “awwww” every time he dropped a pellet in their hands.
It would be “cool” if, say, I had a python, which could slither out of its tank at night and asphyxiate me, or a Pit Bull, which could maul a family of four on the way home from the dog park. Hell, I’d get more respect if I told people I bred vampire bats, or that I have a chimpanzee at home that shares a cage with a retired Nazi officer.
“I despise cats,” says Holly, an account director at my office. “They’re just filthy creatures. I don’t even like being near them.” That’s funny, I tell her, because cats are fastidiously clean. They wash themselves more rigorously than humans, in fact. “I don’t care,” she replies. “I’d rather scoop up a pile of fresh mastiff shit with my bare hands than go near a cat. Ew.”
As such, all rational thinking goes out the window when it comes to cats. They are bad luck. They hex pregnant women and suck the life force out of newborn babies. Their dander is destroying the ozone layer. And since many cat breeds originated in Russia, they are obviously socialists; their very existence is a threat to our 2nd amendment right to bear arms.
Urban legends and old wives tales aside, here is one natural fact: I used to have a mice problem in my condo, what with all the recent construction in South Boston. Once I got my cat—no more mice problem. Nada. Not even a stray turd behind the bookshelves. I have seen my friend’s chow shepherd run out of the house yelping at the sight of a mouse. Not so with my little feline friend. She sits back on her fat ass with her feet sticking out, daring a mouse to show its face, like Joe in A Fistful of Dollars.
I’ve heard some people accuse cats of being self-centered. I find it interesting that all of a sudden we hold cats to the same standard we’d hold a boyfriend or girlfriend. As if the cat should somehow compromise, should scratch our bellies at least part of the time, or maybe have the decency to spoon some Fancy Feast into our bowls, for a change. Is that so much to ask?
I think the real issue is that dogs are clingier, and that satisfies our basic human insecurities. Dog owners need constant reassurance that their dogs love them unconditionally. And maybe it’s true; dogs are more loyal. But what’s so fun about that? Frankly, I like my cat’s ambivalence. I like how she won’t come to me when I call her name, but she will come and sit on my chest at the very moment I’m thinking of getting off the couch and grabbing a soda from the fridge. I like how, when I’m having an enjoyable, engaged phone conversation with a friend, she’ll start scratching my favorite reclining chair and staring at me with a look that says “Having fun with someone who's not me? Hm.” I like how she gets jealous of my books. As soon as I put my book down next to me on the bed she’ll walk over and lay down on it, as if she’s holding a pillow over the book’s face. Same goes for any longhand journal writing. Once I set the notebook down on my coffee table she’ll hop up and knock it off with her paw. And when I’m at the computer? Forget it. I’ll be sitting at my desk typing away, forging my latest revolutionary idea, and Dixie will walk directly in front of the laptop screen and just stand there. If I shoo her away she will eventually go, but not without smacking my face a few times with her tail.
If I play with one of my colleagues’ dogs at work, as I often do, then come home that night and pet my cat, she’ll sniff my hand and look up at me and meow, only the meow sounds eerily like the word “really?” Then she’ll walk into my study, where her litter box resides, and shit on the hardwood floor. Afterward she’ll walk back out with the kind of swagger reserved for a woman who’s just maxed out her husband’s Amex.
Yes, I am a cat person. A proud cat person. It is a thankless job, made even more thankless by the constant ridicule we endure from other humans. So my cat won’t lick my face. She will however bite my Achilles tendon or scratch my eyelid at 4:30 in the morning when she’s hungry. So we don’t go for runs along the beach. But she does climb atop my fridge and knock my cereal boxes onto the floor (which reminds me—I need to start closing the tops). So she doesn’t curl up at the foot of my bed while I sleep at night. But she does walk down to the second floor landing and wait patiently outside my downstairs neighbor’s door for hours on end. What she’s waiting for, I have no idea.
And that’s just another reason I love her.
One night, when I was 15 years old, my CCD teacher called me, out of the blue. I was excited at first, thinking he was going to tell me class had been cancelled.
“Danny? It’s George LaRoche, your CCD teacher.” This was followed by an awkward pause. I waited for the good news: that class was postponed until further notice due to a flood in the church basement or something. Instead he asked me how I was doing and what I was up to that night. After I responded with “good” and “nothing”, he asked if I had any career aspirations.
“Well,” I said, still perplexed and a bit uneasy, “I really want to be an actor.”
“Really,” he said, in a drawn out, surprised, mildly aroused tone. “What kind of actor?”
“What do you mean, ‘what kind of actor’?”
“Like a soap opera actor? Or do you want to be a huge movie star and see your name in lights?”
I should have hung up the phone right there, but something in his voice made him sound like a genie, about to grant me three wishes.
“I don’t know. I guess I want to be a movie star, like Tom Cruise.”
I sat on my living room couch and talked to this man for another twenty minutes, while my dad slept in his recliner and my mom watched Jeopardy, digging her rubber-tipped tooth cleaner into her gums, constantly shush-ing me and never once asking who I was on the phone with, even when I said things like “I wouldn’t have an issue with sex scenes. Duh!”
“I know Kevin Bacon, ya know,” he said.
“Yah. Him and his brother. They’re gonna be in town this weekend, staying at the Sheraton in Newton Corner. Kevin wants me to meet him for dinner at the hotel bar.”
This sounded entirely plausible to me. An A-list movie star coming to a suburb of Boston, for no discernible reason, staying at the Sheraton and having dinner with my CCD teacher on a Saturday night.
“I was thinking we could go see a 7:00 movie and then swing by and say hello to him. How’s that sound?”
“That sounds awesome, are you kidding me?”
“All right, then. I’ll call you on Friday.”
I hung up the phone and turned to my folks. “Who is…Harper Lee!” my mom shouted at the TV, while my dad snored.
The next day at school I told my friend, Jason, about the phone conservation. Jason also wanted to be an actor. “Dude, that sounds kinda weird,” he said. “I mean, maybe the guy does know Kevin Bacon, but it wasn’t too cool to be calling you up like that and asking you to the movies. Don’t ya think?”
“True, true.” Then a thought occurred to me. “Why don’t you come with me? I’ll tell him you’re my cousin, visiting from out of town, and that you have to come along. That way at least I’m not alone, and also it’s a chance for you to meet Kevin Bacon.”
Jason let out a long breath. “Okay. I’ll do it.”
On Friday I told my parents about my movie plans with George LaRoche. My mom looked skeptical; my dad looked indifferent. “I don’t even know this guy. I think he should come in here and meet us, and not just pick you up and drive you away to some abandoned house somewhere,” my mom said. It was as though she expected this strange CCD teacher to be a serial killer, and thought he should at least introduce himself before abducting me.
On Saturday Jason came over to my house at 5:30. My mom looked relieved to see him. “Oh good, Jason’s going with you. Good.” I appreciated the concern, but it didn’t exactly inspire confidence, either.
“Mom, I told you this guy knows Kevin Bacon, right?”
“Who’s Kevin Bacon?”
At 6:55 Jason and I waited at my living room window, staring out at the street. At precisely 7:00 a mid-80s white Cadillac, the car you think of when you think Fat Gangster, pulled up in front of my house. “What’s this guy’s name again?” Jason asked as he peered out from behind the curtain at a car that would have more aptly suited Elvis or Liberace.
“George,” I said. “George LaRoche.”
“Jesus,” Jason muttered.
We watched as LaRoche got out of the car. He was a large man, what would today be categorized as “Big and Tall”, though far more Big than Tall. With his left hand gripping the hood of the Cadillac he pulled/swung himself out of the driver’s seat, hiked up his tan trousers and proceeded up my front walk. He wore a blue blazer and a white collared shirt, the same outfit he wore every Tuesday night at CCD, or at the 5:00 Sunday mass when he handed out Communion wafers. His face was beaded with sweat. His hair was curly and light brown, with a mullet in the back, exactly like the porn star, Ron Jeremy. He even had the same bushy mustache, to boot.
The doorbell rang. I answered it. “Hey George,” I said.
“Hi, Danny.” His voice was high-pitched and nasally and he spoke with a thick Boston accent.
He entered my house. Both my parents approached him, their right hands outstretched. “So, you teach Danny’s CCD class,” my mom confirmed.
“Yes. I’m heavily involved with the church,” George said. This seemed to ease my mom’s nerves.
He shook my dad’s hand. “Hiya doin. Dan Pellegrini,” my dad said, chewing his gum, then turned and promptly walked away before George finished saying hello back.
“George, this is my cousin, Jason,” I said. “He’s visiting from New Hampshire.” My mom looked puzzled. I stared at her and shook my head discreetly.
“Oh.” George’s eyes lit up for a moment. “Nice to meet you, Jason. Where in New Hampshire are you from?”
“Um, Hampton Beach.” It was the only place either of us knew up there. We couldn’t even name the state capitol. Probably still couldn’t.
“Well,” George said. “Arachnophobia’s playing in Dedham at 7:35, so I guess we should get going.” We followed George down the front steps, toward his car. I looked back at my house, just in case I wouldn’t be seeing it ever again.
Once the Cadillac turned onto Lewis Street, out of view of my house, George said, “Oh. Bad news. Kevin didn’t make it into town this weekend.”
I peered into the backseat and looked at Jason. We exchanged a dubious glance. “That sucks,” I said, turning back up front. “What was he doing here, anyway?”
“Meeting with a producer, I guess.”
“Boston. But he likes to stay at the Sheraton.”
I looked back at Jason again, who was grimacing, as if to say, Bullshit. Not the Four Seasons, the Plaza, or the Lenox House. The Sheraton, in Newton Corner. Where I had my junior high prom.
“I talked to another friend of mine, though, who lives in New York City.” He emphasized the words New York City as though he were giving driving directions to a foreigner. “He’s an accountant at Bloomingdale’s and handles all of Tom Cruise’s personal shopping. He gave me this.” George reached into the inside pocket of his sport jacket, took out a folded piece of white paper and handed it to me. I opened it up. It had a perforated edge, like old Dot Matrix printer paper. Printed on it, in faded type, was a list of five or six items.
I read the list out loud. “Fahrenheit cologne…Calvin Klein underwear…Body Glove spandex shorts…” I looked up at George. “What is this?”
“Some of the things Tom Cruise likes,” he said in his bouncy tone, with that intense Boston accent. Tom Cruise sounded like Twam Karoowiz. “My friend says they have to order these things special for Tom. I thought you might like it.”
“Um, thanks,” I said, unsure what to do with the piece of paper. I handed it back to Jason as though it were a piece of evidence in a murder investigation. He examined it then looked back up to me, his glazed-over eyes corroborating the note’s meaning:
We were both going to die.
We made it through the film, Arachnophobia, without incident, although our seating arrangement was peculiar: George sat in the middle, barely fitting into his chair, his wide legs bulging through the armrests, a large bucket of popcorn held firmly between his thighs. Throughout the film he would offer the popcorn to us, but rather than hold the bucket out he would nudge us on the shoulder and then nod between his legs. “Have some popcorn,” he’d whisper in his squeaky Boston accent. As far as I remember, neither Jason nor myself accepted. Intuitively we knew how wrong it was.
On the drive back to Newton, up I-95 North, George showed off by gunning his Cadillac up to 85 miles per hour. “What do you boys think of this?” he said, leaning back and grabbing the steering wheel with one hand while the automatic transmission bucked into fifth gear and his 25-foot car gradually increased in speed, the odometer needle slowly creeping upward. Jason, now in the front seat, looked back at me over his shoulder, smirking. “You boys like to go fast?” Just as he said that a Porsche 911 tore past us at close to 100 mph, cut us off, then swerved out of sight. It was kind of sad and pathetic, like a 70 year-old man telling you to check out his fastball, then go into a wind-up and fracture his hip.
Once we reached the off ramp to Newton, I felt relieved, safer. I rolled down the back window to breathe in some of my familiar, hometown air. I felt Jason’s tension dissipate as well. Then George said, “I’ve got some presents for you back at my house, if you guys want to stop there before I take you home.”
“I don’t think so, George. It’s getting late.” I looked at my watch. It was 9:35.
“Are you sure? What if I told you I had some of those things from Tom Cruise’s shopping list?”
Jason looked back at me, raised his eyebrows and gave a furtive little shrug. I thought about it. What could this guy possibly do to us? We were two healthy, young adolescents. He was a big fat man who broke out into a sweat whenever he drove fast. Besides, I had just discovered materialism. I liked to spend money from my part-time job on things like $65 hair treatments and $120 Ray-Ban sunglasses, anything to fashion myself after Tom Cruise. The summer before 9th grade I saved up caddying money and bought a leather bomber jacket and cowboy boots. I wore them on the first day of high school; the jacket was two sizes too big and the boots were stiff and felt like high heels, clicking and clacking as I strutted down the main corridor toward my locker, 11th and 12th grade girls pointing at me, covering their mouths, laughing.
The way I saw it, if the items were free, and if Tom Cruise had the same ones, I was game, even if it meant being chopped up into 40 pieces and then molested.
The Cadillac pulled into the driveway of a two-family house a couple miles from my own. George got out and we followed him through the front door. “Do you live here alone?” Jason asked.
“I live with my brother,” George said. I felt a weight lift from my neck and shoulders. “Don’t worry; he’s out right now.” That same weight then clamped back onto me like an evil spirit angling for a piggyback ride.
George lived on the first floor, essentially a two-bedroom apartment with a spacious common area—an open kitchen that looked out into the living room. The three of us sat down at the kitchen table and George asked if we’d like something to drink.
“Do you have any iced tea?” I asked. George had his back to us and was looking through a cabinet next to the fridge. He didn’t respond. “Or a coke, if you have it?”
“I was thinking maybe you’d like something stronger. Like a glass of scotch.”
“Sure, I’ll have some,” Jason said. I turned to him and mouthed “No.”
George turned around, holding a bottle of Dewar’s and two rocks glasses. “Are you sure you don’t want any, Danny?”
I nodded and watched as George set the glasses on the table with his pudgy, sausage link fingers. He dropped two cubes in each glass and filled them with scotch. “Well, I have something else for you, anyway.” He raised his glass to Jason. “Cheers, Jason. Glad you could come on this adventure.”
I felt the sudden impulse to smash the bottle of Dewar’s over his head, probably because I felt left out of their little scotch club.
George took a drink of his scotch and then waited for Jason to do the same. Jason took a small sip, winced, coughed, then set the glass down. “Wow,” he said.
“Strong, isn’t it,” George said. “You’ll get used to it.”
Just then the front door opened. A man who bore a similar resemblance to George—only much thinner—entered the house with a woman behind him. “Hey Richie. Guys, this is my brother, Richie, and his girlfriend, Naomi. Richie, Naomi, this is Jason and Danny.”
Richie gave his brother a funny look, a look that said I know you’re holding something behind your back. I’m not an idiot. I can see the blood dripping on the floor. “Nice to meet you,” he said, his eyes darting from George to us to George. “I forgot my thermos. I’m just gonna grab it and I’ll be out of your way.” He walked into one of the closed off rooms, presumably his bedroom. George followed him in there and closed the door behind him. Richie’s girlfriend, Naomi, stood in the kitchen and waited. She wasn’t bad looking; Jason nodded at her and said “hey”. She just stared back at us and said nothing.
I was about to stand up and announce that we had to leave and that we were walking home when the bedroom door opened and George and Richie came walking out. Richie—thermos in hand—hastily moved to the door, took his girlfriend’s hand and left the house, without saying goodbye. George walked back into the kitchen, holding a paper bag. He handed it to me.
“Here ya go. All yours.”
I looked at him. I looked at Jason. I set the bag down on the kitchen table, opened it and reached inside. First I removed a box. It was white, like a pastry box, with the word Fahrenheit printed on the top. I opened the box. Inside were hundreds of sample-sized bottles of cologne.
“That’s the cologne Tom wears!” George said, jubilantly.
“Cool, thanks,” I said, passing the box to Jason, as though it were a Christmas gift.
Next I reached into the bag and felt a spongy material. It was a pair of spandex biker shorts, black with a thick, neon-colored stripe up each side. “Awesome.”
The last item in the bag was men’s bikini underwear, a package of three, each pair in a different acid-washed print. I held them in front of my face, too stunned to comment.
“Aren’t you gonna try them on?” George said.
“Yeah, Danny, try them on.” Jason said, smiling.
“I’ll use the bathroom,” I said, and took the paper bag with me.
I closed and locked the bathroom door. It was a small space. The bathroom mirror had those dressing room light bulbs around the edges. I tried on the spandex shorts first; they cut off my circulation and nearly put my legs to sleep. After I took them off I looked at the tag: S for small. Maybe they did belong to Tom Cruise, after all.
After that I reluctantly tried on a pair of the bikini underwear. It was like slipping on a pair of women’s panties. The thong rode up my butt crack and my scrotum spilled out of the sides of the front the same way George himself spilled out the sides of his movie theater seat. I felt an immediate sense of shame and disgust and I took them off, hurling them back into the paper bag.
“Why don’t you come out here and model them for us?”
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
“Wha-at…just having some fun!”
I walked out of the bathroom. Jason was still sitting at the table, smiling. I held up the bag. “Thanks for this stuff, George. But we gotta go. My dad’s expecting us. We’re gonna walk.”
“Don’t be silly. I’ll drive you.”
“Nah, there’s a couple girls we’re seeing who live down the street. We’re gonna stop there first.”
“You have a girlfriend?”
“Seeya at church!”
I received my confirmation a month later, and CCD was over. George still handed out communion during the 5:00 mass—the only mass I could ever wake up for—so I duly skipped every Sunday. I haven’t been back since.
After a couple months of avoiding his calls and making up excuses, he got the picture and left me alone.
Then he started calling Jason.
“Dude. LaRoche called me again last night.”
“Are you shitting me? What now?”
“He wants me to have a three-way with him and his girlfriend.”
“Bullshit he has a girlfriend.”
“He put her on the phone.”
“It was probably his mother.”
“She sounded young.”
“It was probably a hooker he was about to kill.”
“Dude, what should I do?”
“What the fuck do you mean, ‘what should you do’? Are you seriously considering this?”
“No, no, of course not.”
After two weeks of nightly phone calls Jason’s older brother, Ronnie, picked up the phone and threatened to kill George if he ever called the house again.
“We’re just friends!” George pleaded in his nasally Boston accent.
“I don’t give a fuck who you are. Come near my brother again and I’ll run you over in my ‘vette. I know what you look like, fat man.”
Two months later myself, Jason and Fran Hoolihan were hanging out at the Shell gas station where Jason worked part time during the summer. Fran was sipping from a bottle of schnapps when a white Cadillac turned in off the street and pulled up to the pumps. The door opened and out swung the fat man himself, LaRoche.
He hiked up his trousers and walked toward us.
“How have you boys been?”
Jason and I stayed put, sitting on the bench, with our arms folded across our chests.
“Is someone gonna pump my gas?” George asked.
We both turned to Fran. “Fuck it,” he said, and got up and walked to the pump.
After filling the tank, George gave Fran a twenty on $18.25 of gas. He got back into the Cadillac, looked at Jason and me one last time, started the engine and drove away, the sound of Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York trailing away from the car radio in the summer night.
Fran walked back to the bench and sat down. “Just made two bucks off that fat guy. Who was that, anyway?”
“Go to the 5:00 mass on Sunday. He’ll be there. He’ll hook you up with free booze. And free cologne,” I said, dully, staring straight ahead.
“How do you assholes know this?”
Jason and I looked at each other.
We didn’t see much of Fran after that night. Apparently he and George became close; how close, I’ll never know. Nor do I care to know. I’d see him down at the park from time to time, and he seemed fine. He’d tell me how George would call him almost every night and they’d talk—sometimes for hours—about life, about absent fathers, and about career goals. Fran didn’t have any. George seemed to take a special interest in that.
One evening at the park, after a Babe Ruth baseball game, I saw Fran sitting alone on a park bench. I walked up and sat next to him. He looked shaken up. I asked what was up and he told me that George had come over the night before--unannounced--with a couple bottles of whiskey. Shortly after that his father came by to say hello, saw George, threatened to kill him, and chased him out. “I kept the booze, though,” Fran said, staring off at a swing set in the distance.
I sometimes feel bad about introducing Fran to George, but I felt the only way to truly eradicate the curse was to pass it off on someone else, like in an exorcism movie. According to Facebook, Fran is a happily married, father of two. Jason is living in Los Angeles and fronting a Johnny Cash cover band. I am alive and well in Boston, doing whatever it is I do.
I have looked for LaRoche on the internet.
His whereabouts remain unknown.
I believe everyone should have a friend that lives in Los Angeles. I have one. His name is Johnny Starr. We talk on the phone 4-5 times a week. And by “talk” I mean that I listen while he takes me on a simulated audio tour of L.A., navigating his way through boulevards and freeways, fast food drive-thru windows and full-service gas station islands, grocery stores and strip mall Rite Aids. He takes me everywhere he goes. He is my friend; I am his designer Chihuahua in a Louis Vuitton bag.
The phone rings. I see JOHNNY STARR on the iPhone screen and I answer.
DANNY: Johnny, what’s up, man?
JOHNNY: Just checking in, bro. How’s it going?
DANNY: Fucked up, actually. I think I’m--
JOHNNY: Buddy. Hey buddy. I’ve been coming here twice a week since ’07. The other guy has never charged me for the plastic cup. I pay the $2.19 for the Diet Dr. Pepper and I get the cup, for free. I’m not trying to be difficult, bro. I’m just letting ya know. It’s the way it’s always been. Hold on. Yep. There ya go. That’s all I’m sayin. We cool? Cool. So what’s up, man?
DANNY: Are you talking to me?
JOHNNY: Yeah sorry I just had to take care of some shit. Talk to me.
DANNY: Well, that girl I met online? You know, MustangSally78?
DANNY: Dude she fucking--
JOHNNY: Hiya. Yeah. $13.50 regular, por favor. Wait...wait...make it $13.80, pal. Yeah what about her?
DANNY: Okay so she makes the first move. She writes me. I write her. We do the dance, couple days, exchange cell numbers, then she goes to the Poconos for a week with her fam.
DANNY: So she texts me from Poco-land. A selfie. Her in the outdoor hot tub.
DANNY: And under the pic she writes--
JOHNNY: Can I get a Double-Double with fresh tomato and a side of onion rings? But make sure the tomato is fresh, please. Like, one from the container with Cellophane on it. Cellophane. The plastic stuff. Hold on. Here’s three...here’s four...there’s five clams, buddy. Thanks. Sorry dude, so okay you exchange cell numbers and then what?
DANNY: Um, so, cell numbers, Poconos, hot tub selfie.
JOHNNY: Nice, kid!
DANNY: Right? And next to the pic she writes, “I have a thing for bubbles in the snow. Just sayin. Winkie face.”
DANNY: I don’t even know what that means, but...
JOHNNY: It means ‘I want to fart in your hand’. What do you think it means, numbnuts?
DANNY: Well I don’t know, because--
JOHNNY: This is an exit, pal! See how all the cars are going out? See?
JOHNNY: Okay. I’ll do that. You have a lovely day, sir. Well there’s nothing I can do about that, sir. I don’t have superpowers. Go ‘head, man. Sorry.
JOHNNY: Yeah...I just...give me a second...I’m merging onto Pico...okay...okay...all you, bro. Hit me.
DANNY: Where was I?
JOHNNY: Farting in her hand.
DANNY: Um, wait. Oh yeah. So I write her back, and I’m like, “Haha. Looks like you need a rubber duckie right about now.”
JOHNNY: Holy shit.
DANNY: Was that too forward? I thought it was just the right amount of respect and--
JOHNNY: Dude, there is a six-foot-five black guy walking down Pico right now. He has long dreads, he’s wearing leather pants with cross-ties up the seams, a leather vest with no shirt underneath, and he has a fucking electric guitar strapped to his back. He looks like fucking Robin Hood. A black, heavy metal Robin Hood.
JOHNNY: Sorry man, so she’s in the hot tub with the bubbles, and then what?
DANNY: Never mind. The point is I haven’t heard from her in three days. Just like that, practically mid-conversation, she’s gone.
JOHNNY: No way, dude. She smoke-bombed you?
DANNY: I don’t know. Should I write her again?
JOHNNY: Is the ball in her court?
JOHNNY: You can’t, dude. She dropped the bombs. She could be all the way back at the Batcave by now. You’ll never hear from her again. That’s not true; I’ve had bombs dropped on me before and then out of nowhere they reappear, when you least expect it.
At this point I hear his car accelerate, followed by the white noise of wind, air conditioning and freeway traffic.
JOHNNY: (Yelling) When I was dating the girl from That 70s Show she would drop bombs like every other Sunday. I dunno. It was like the cycle of the werewolf or something. You get used to it, I guess. It’s a...game...(Trails off) Are you kidding me? How is that even possible? No way...(Loud again) The point is, I don’t remember the point.
DANNY: Me neither.
Johnny goes on for 25 minutes, continuing with the girl from That 70s Show and ending with the time Paris Hilton propositioned him outside Fred Segal. He makes random allusions to old Atari games, like Combat and Missile Command. He tells me that the Griffith Park Observatory is the best place for a first date; that Shia Lebouf is a wus and a phony; that Gospel Music will be huge in the next 12 months; that he’s considering writing a book of poetry; and that the answers to just about everything in life are encrypted in the placemats of Mel’s Drive In. Before he gets out of his car he asks if I will Western Union $175 to a man named The Animal.
Then he is on foot again, walking into his apartment complex. The white noise is gone.
JOHNNY: Anyway, man, the key is to play it cool and not worry about these things. Life’s too short. Know what I mean?
DANNY: I hear ya. It’s just that I after this chick told me--
JOHNNY: Is she gone? You just said an ambulance was here. Did they take her boyfriend, too? That sucks, but hey, at least I won’t have to hear those fucking bongo drums at 3:00 in the morning anymore, and the hallway won’t stink like dead animals.
Johnny’s right; life's too short.
I've had some hard times, worse than some, better than others. For starters, I have a severe form of chronic bowel disease. As a result of multiple surgeries I became addicted to painkillers and checked myself into a substance abuse facility. So instead of sipping cocktails at trendy seaside bars I sit in AA meetings, where I introduce myself as “Danny, an addict, sober by the grace of God.” Far worse than both of these things, however, is my bone-straight hair. I am not joking when I say I have never seen straighter hair on another living person. I have seen straighter hair on a tennis ball, one that has been smacked so many times that it is nothing but stray threads of fabric hanging on indifferently to a worn down nub of its former self, the word “Wilson” barely legible in faded pink print.
Growing up I wanted to be tough, so I hung out with some of the tougher kids in my hometown of Newton, Massachusetts. All the tough kids had flattop hairstyles with rat-tails dangling down the back. Some of them had three lines, or “cat scratches”, as we called them, shaved into the sides of their heads. When I employed this technique my head looked like a patch of backyard weeds after someone started gardening and then gave up after ten minutes.
The only time my hair looked good was after a shower, soaking wet. I would comb the sides back and let my bangs swoop down to my eyebrows, and pray that it would never dry. It always did, though, and by the time I got to school my hair would be the same hopeless, light, feathery pelt of baby alpaca that it always was, thousands of defiant strands of hair that refused to cooperate with the rest of my body.
On weekends I took day trips into Boston with my friend, Matt. We’d go to Stairway to Heaven, a rock n’ roll paraphernalia shop in Downtown Crossing, where you could buy things like an Ozzy Osbourne t-shirt or a Guns n’ Roses poster. On the way there we’d cut through the Boston Commons, passing homeless people asleep on park benches or sprawled out on the grass. We would get quiet as we walked by them, and I noticed that even they had great hair, thick, black manes with poetic waves sweeping through them. “Why?” I’d ask myself, “Why can’t I please have what they have?”
In seventh grade I discovered two things: the movie Top Gun, and Dep styling gel. I would go to CVS and, for $2.99, purchase a bottle of this crap, which came in three different colors: green, pink or yellow. Then I would go home and spend half an hour meticulously working it into my hair, molding a part on the left side, just like the one Tom Cruise had in the movie. It was like building a volcano for a science fair, slathering on paper mache while marveling at the exquisite mess before me. I would get close to something desirable but then eventually my hair would start popping back into its natural state, one hair at a time; an hour later my head looked like a steepled rooftop thatched with dried, brittle palm fronds.
My hair was like a clown punching bag, the ones that are weighted at the bottom. Every time you knock it down it just bounces back up, laughing at you.
In 10th grade I decided to take action. When I mentioned my dilemma to Tina, the girl who cut my hair, she suggested I get a perm. I think she may have been joking, but I perked up. “Really? Isn’t that for girls?” “Not at all,” she said, perking up as well at the thought of another customer. “I give perms to guys all the time, mostly when they want their rat-tail to curl up in the back.”
“I don’t want my hair to look curly,” I said. “I want my hair to look like this.” I held up a picture of Tom Cruise from the movie Cocktail.
“Mm-hmm, sure. For that we’ll do a body wave. It’s a perm but the curlers are bigger and looser, so it just makes your hair really wavy.”
This sounded like a miracle drug.
“We’ll need to wait a little while, though,” Tina said. "Your hair has to be long enough for the curlers, or else it could come out kinky.”
I made an appointment for the following month and started counting down the days.
The next day at school I met my friend, Jason, in the cafeteria and told him about my perm. He was intrigued. His hair was straight (not as straight as mine), longer and shaggier. “Do you think she could make my hair look like Tom Cruise’s in Days of Thunder?" he asked, his eyes gleaming with hope.
“Probably,” I said, raising my eyebrows and swallowing a bite of my cheeseburger. “You should go talk to her!”
Jason scheduled his perm for a Saturday, immediately following my appointment. We went to the hair salon together, each with $65 we had saved, the cost of the perm. We were like two Army privates getting tattooed. Only instead of an eagle with machine guns under its wings we were getting boy band hairdos. Jason got underway while I was in the final stages of mine. He passed me while I sat underneath the plastic bubble, curlers in my hair, and gave me a dubious look. I reassured him with a thumbs-up. He looked bewildered as Tina came out and gestured for him to follow her into the other room.
Afterward we sat in front of Star Market, waiting for our bus, staring at our reflections in the doorway. Jason still looked bewildered. We both looked like Little Richard, Jason’s hair even curlier than mine. “She said the curls will relax in a few days,” I told him. But he said nothing, just turned his head from side to side, his face growing more solemn with each rotation.
The bus came and we got on. It was full of strangers but they all stared at us. At first I thought they were in awe of our hair, but by the end of the ride I realized it was because we stank of hydrogen peroxide. A man sitting in front of us had to cover his mouth with his hand.
We both wore baseball hats for the first three days back at school. On Thursday we made a pledge to take them off, convinced that enough time had passed for the curls to loosen up and not be so noticeable. Our first class on Thursday morning was theater arts, which we were both in together, a class that was predominantly female. We felt it was a safe testing ground for our new perms.
We sat in the back row of the Little Theatre. The girls filed in. As soon as they saw us they started laughing. Vicki Saris, the tall, outspoken, alpha-female of the group, pointed at us. “Hey, curlicues, did you guys get your fucking hair permed?”
“No,” I said, defensively. Jason sank down in his seat.
When class started Mr. Schaeffer asked who would like to begin with some improv, as was our custom. Vicki blurted out, “Maybe Jason and Danny can do Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water for us.” The class broke out in laughter, along with Mr. Schaeffer.
Think what you will, but I was proud of my perm. When kids asked me if I got a perm I’d say, “It’s not a perm. It’s a body wave. Totally different thing.” And they’d nod dismissively. Every now and then I’d catch some shit but I’d shrug it off. Nothing would break the newly processed, reformed bonds of my wavy hair. Nothing.
A month later the curls had relaxed to a more natural, wavy state. Two months later they were almost entirely gone. All that remained was a lazy sweep at the bangs and a nice bend around my ears. The hair I had always dreamt about, what so many others take for granted, like a healthy bowel movement, or an evening glass of wine.
Ten weeks later and the perm was completely gone. But its ghost was there; I felt it late at night, or when I lied out in the sun. It whispered in my ear in my darkest hours and most trying moments.
“Nothing lasts forever, Danny. Not even permanents.”
Daniel Pellegrini is a recovering drug addict with an aggressive form of chronic bowel disease. That means he can't take painkillers after undergoing rectal surgery. He's here to show you just how beautiful life is.
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