My Greatest Hits, Trust Me

If you’re new to my blog, there’s a whole lot to read.  After all, I’ve produced a post nearly every day since starting in July.  That’s why I’d like to list my personal favorite blog posts, so that you can read me at my best.

Try these:

 

Sally (R) at school with another Mexican-American friend

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Don and Sally in the woods 1a smaller cropped2

Family 479

 

My father was a young man.  He had already been smoking for eight years.

David Groves jr high school

Casey and Claire 3 31 13 smaller

Cover What Happens 1d

Family 260

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Combo David and Donald shot closer

Patrice and David kissing NYears Eve 1a smaller

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Hurtling Through the Air and Hitting Things on the Way Down

[This is chapter 7 in an ongoing work of fiction.  To read chapter 6, see here: https://whathappenstous.wordpress.com/2017/08/02/the-radioactivity-of-secrets%5D

“Why did we leave so fast?” Kara said in the car.

Evan, at the steering wheel and staring straight ahead with a strange look in his eye, mumbled something that sounded like, “Brad Pitt is thirty savior,” but really, could have been anything.

“Seriously?”

It was a long, quiet drive back.

Φ

Evan jumped onto his bike.  Knobby tires and shocks were his route into that sin.  Lift his all-terrain Bontrager onto a bicycle rack, drive out to Red Rock Canyon, pedal through the desert.  Three hours in the hot sun, skin slathered with Banana Boat, the sun flogging him, sweat dripping off his helmet, his nose, his chin, tasting the saltiness on his tongue, thinking about that sin.  Temps in the high 90s and climbing, he didn’t care.  He liked the heat.  One day, it was 101, the next day, 110.  When the sweat stung his eyes, he stopped, poured water over his face, and continued.  Bargained with the pain in his hams, his delts, his lungs.  Pushing and pushing, never backing off.  Single trail, sailing through saguaros and sagebrush, past hares and iguanas and rattlesnakes.  He liked climbing more than coasting downhill because climbing was pain and roar and coasting was a sign that you had given up on living, so never coast, only roar.

Evan needed high mileage to figure out his toe tag.

IMG_2004Once, pushing 110% or 111%, Evan went over a root just a tad too far to the left.  His balance buckled and he fell right, down a dusty ravine, over scrub brush and red sand, and all the way down, he was thinking, Good!  Bring it!  Fucking bring it to me!  He was hurtling through the air and looking forward to the things he would hit on his way down.  Finally, his left cheek hit the dirt and his bike landed on top of him.  At first, he lay still.  Everything is numb after a fall.

20160926_175033I must have broken a cheekbone, he thought.

After five minutes, Evan slowly clambered up.  Took inventory for an eternity.  Found himself astonished and a little disappointed that his only souvenirs were road rash, sundry bruises, and pebbles embedded in his forearm.  Dust in his mouth, spitting to get it all out.  He loved the hell out of every wound.

“Oh my God, are you okay?” Kara said when she saw his cheek.

Bicycle tire filtered 1b

20160921_174650cBut it wasn’t about answers, it was about looking for that high again, not whimpering, until he fell again.  He liked punishing himself.

Builds character, he thought while pedaling.

“Can I go?” Kara said.

But it wasn’t about being with a girl.  It wasn’t about going slow.  It wasn’t about chit chatting about the pretty Desert Canterbury Bells along the way.  It wasn’t about fitness and reducing hypertensive risk.  It wasn’t about reducing LDL cholesterol.  It was about abomination.  It was about sin.  It was about landing hard.  It was about the long, red, irritated desert stretching into the horizon of his heart, where the sun was dying of neglect.  It was about the raw, red skin inside his mind.

Bicycle gears filtered 1bThere is a moment when you say goodbye to someone and hug them.  If you hug them too early, it becomes awkward, because then, you have to hug them again.  So you wait for the last moment, and then you hug.  It’s just manners.  But Evan had missed that moment with himself entirely.  There were no hugs at all.  Hugs were for believers.

Φ

Kara was trying to get something out, but the crying was getting in the way.  More like sobbing or even blubbering, Babylynn thought.  Babylynn was sitting across from her on a chair, holding her hands, while Kara was bent over nearly horizontal in the seat across from her.  Babylynn didn’t want to say anything, because it wasn’t about talking, it was about being with her.

The sobs were coming out of Kara from a place way down deep, like a well with a girl stuck in it.  The girl had been waiting down there for years.  She was a-scared.  She had bad memories.  She had things to yell out.  She had wounds on her heart.  Kara tried to tell Babylynn that it was okay, don’t worry, that sobbing was nothing to be afraid of, it was just something she was doing, like breathing or starting a car, but just thinking about saying that made Kara cry even harder.  She was tired of excuses, even if they were her own.  She’d been making excuses all her life.  It wasn’t about apologizing, it was about what was she knew was going to happen because it had happened before and it was the deepest fear of the little girl in the well.

Distressed child 1bKara grabbed a Kleenex and wiped her face, but it took five or six, and afterwards, she was still blubbering.  Her aunt’s face appeared to her as if in a cloud.  It was from long ago, when she was six.  Her parents had sent her and Kara away to live with that bitch aunt.  She didn’t know why at the time.  Why was a fountain of pain.  Why was with her every day like a creepy old man.  Why had dismantled her piece by piece.  First, she lost the piece called safe.  Later, pieces that keep a boat from blowing out to sea.  Ever since then, Kara had always been prone to blowing out to sea, driven by currents and bad weather.

Much later, Kara pieced together that her mother had suffered what her hard aunt referred to as “a break” and had been checked into a hospital.  She had taken off her clothes in the grocery store.  She had sat down in the middle of the produce section, pulled her knees into her chest, rocked back and forth, and said, “Stop.  Stop.  Stop.  Stop.  Stop.  Stop.”  It took a year for her mother to stop rocking, and two for her to want her twins back.  By that time, though, the damage had been done.

Crying blur 1a

Kendra, on the other hand, had gotten stronger.  A fist to the jaw will destroy some people and galvanize others.  From the day that her mother had taken them back, Kara knew that she was of the former persuasion.  Like the cotton dress that she had bought in Tijuana, offwhite with little collections of flowers, something she looked forward to wear to tell her friends that she had gone somewhere, but after the first wash, it had basically fallen apart.  Kara was the type who needed someone or she was nobody, and nobody meant out to sea with no sunscreen.

Kara grabbed Babylynn’s arms again and looked into her eyes.  There were words she wanted to get out, but then the water works were coming again.  It always happened this way.  Babylynn had seen it before.  She took a deep breath and held tight.  They stayed that way for another twenty minutes, just holding each other, and then, an hour later, with the help of a couple pills that she had in the bottom of her purse, ended up nestled into each other on the sofa, Kendra falling asleep in the crook of Babylynn’s arm, and the words she wanted so desperately to say—I’m losing him—still buried deep within her.

Φ

One morning, Evan found himself knocking on an office door.  He didn’t know what Kendra would say.  He didn’t want to start trouble.  He just wanted to know things.  Finally, she answered.  It was strange to gaze at that face.  It was the same and yet it was so different.  She didn’t speak right away.

“What the hell are you doing here?” she finally said at a volume that would have fucked the sound man.

“Can I talk to you?”

“What I mean is, what in the holy fuck possessed you to come into my fucking territory?”

Evan looked down at his shoes.

“I don’t know.”

Kendra stared at him for a long moment.

“Does my sister know that you’re here?” Kendra said.

“No.”

“You should tell her.  You’re her poodle now.”

“Listen to me.  Please.  I need to talk to a professional.”

For a long moment, Evan thought she would hit him.  He didn’t care.  If he could fall off a bike, he could take a hit.  He tried to read her face, but it was all stone and flaring horse nostrils.  Finally, Kendra opened the door slightly.  Evan entered silently on radioactive wings.  He sat down in the client chair and Kendra took the therapist’s chair.  Then he realized the symbolism of those positions and stood up.  He didn’t want symbolism.  He didn’t want meaning.  He just wanted her to tell him what to do.

“I have a client in a few minutes,” Kendra said.  “So what the fuck do you want from me?”

Evan told Kendra about what he had discovered, everything.  Kendra’s eyes suddenly focused and everything changed.  He didn’t know how much time it took, but it was long.  He wanted to include everything.  When he had gotten near the end of his story, he looked up at her.

“So I’m, like, sick all the time.  Not virus sick, but, like, head sick.  And I can’t imagine a time when I won’t be sick.”

Angry Kendra 1a

Kendra said nothing.

“I need to talk to someone.”

Kendra took a deep breath, looked out the window.

“Why don’t you talk to my sister about it?  She’s the one who bought your contract.”

“She’s not up to it.”

“She’s not up to taking care of herself, even.”

Kendra glanced at her watch.  Her client had been waiting now for 20 minutes.

“Do you have to go?” Evan asked.

“So do you fuck a lot?” Kendra said calmly, as if she were asking about washing the dishes, like, Do you do the dishes a lot?

“My heart is sick.”

“Do you fuck at all?”

“Not lately.”

“Because she’s bad in bed.”

“No.”

“Because you miss me.”

“No.”

“Because you made the wrong decision.”

“No.”

“I’ve got a client.”

Evan looked straight at her.

“Listen, just tell me what it all means.  Am I a freak?  Like an albino?  Like a dwarf?”

“You are what you’ve always been.  You’re Evan.  You’re not anybody else.”

“I don’t feel like Evan anymore.”

“I’ve told you what you need to know.  A good doctor would drag it out for six months, collect all that money, but hey, this is my gift to you, I’m laying it all out, like instant coffee: You are what you’ve always been.  You’re Evan.”

“But I feel so awful.”

“I’m telling you what I tell all my clients: Don’t let it get you down, bro.

“You look like shit, too.  You’ve lost weight.”

“I’m not eating.”

“To be expected.”

“I’m not sleeping, either.”

“I could’ve told you that,” Kendra said.  “Now get the fuck out of here.  You’re cured.”

Evan stood up and started for the door.

“Hey, I’m just curious,” Kendra said.  “Why didn’t you just find an appropriate therapist?”

“What?”

“Just pay $150 to another therapist.  Someone who wasn’t your ex?  Someone who would do the job correctly?  You’ve got the money.  You’ve got so much money, it’s killing you.  So why didn’t you do that?  Answer that question and you’ll know what’s really eating at you.  Now get the fuck out of here.”

Φ

Evan wasn’t much for kissing Kara when he came in the door.  It seemed cliché.  He didn’t like calling her sweetheart or honey.  What he did like was waking up in the middle of the night next to her, like 3 or 4 am, just barely awake, and whispering in her ear, I love you, you know that?  It was like talking to her unconscious.

“Really?” Kara said, bleary eyed.

“Definitely.”

“I thought you had gotten tired of me.”

“I’ll leave you a post-it when I do.”

IMG_5181c filtered

Kara smiled, then drifted back to sleep.  Evan couldn’t, just laid there.  He listened.  There were shadows within shadows cast across the ceiling.  The faintest humming sound in the wall.  When Evan was certain that Kara was asleep, he spooned up to her again, their naked bodies fitting each other perfectly.  He needed this.  He stroked her hair and then whispered in her ear again, quite softly this time, but still, out loud, as if that were required to make it real.

“I’m going to kill my father, okay?”

Kara’s breathing didn’t change at all.

“People been doing that for thousands of years.  Sons killing their fathers.”

That time, Kara stirred.

“What?”

“Okay?” Evan said.

Kara shook her head in confusion.

“Okay,” she said.

“All right,” he said.

[This is an ongoing work of fiction.]

On Reaching My Dad’s Age

When I woke up that morning before 7, there was already a message on my phone machine.  I had unplugged it because, as I liked to say jokingly, “No emergency is so dire that it can’t wait until I’ve had eight hours of sleep.”  It seemed like the most reasonable philosophy.

Donald Groves Positive Thinking

My father Donald Groves in his twenties

“Your father has been admitted to the hospital,” my mother’s message said.

I hadn’t counted on that kind of emergency.  I cancelled everything on my schedule and drove across town to the Kaiser Hospital in Bellflower.  While I drove, I focused on what would be best for my father: a cheerful, optimistic attitude.  Whatever the prognosis, it was best to present a face that said, “This is nothing.  You will get better,” but without coming right out and saying that.  I was wearing my black long-sleeved shirt in which I felt like a real man, a Clint Eastwood man, even, a guy who could roll up his sleeves and show everyone his muscled forearms.  I was 33, after all.  I was a man.

And when I stepped up to his bed in ICU, with my mother standing next to him, holding his hand, I tried.  But the moment I saw him, it hit me out of left field, from somewhere deep in childhood, perhaps, or deep in my child’s heart, or maybe deep in my forest of fears, I don’t know, from somewhere it hit me, and on a dime, my face turned from a smiling shield to a crying mess.

“I’m sorry, Dad, I’m sorry….” I said.

My father had spent the past 20 years getting more bitter and more distant from us, and as a result, I had become increasingly unable to speak to him.  But still, when it came down to it, I loved him from a place deep down.  In sickness, he became a bit more real to me.  He was vulnerable.  In fact, being in a hospital gown with tubes down your throat is about the very definition of vulnerable, with doctors pronouncing your fate and depending on straight-faced nurses for nearly every biological function.  I remember the look on his face, like, What’s going to happen to me?

Donald Groves in his fifties smaller

My father in his fifties, when he was increasingly sick with lung disease.

I had given him that cold.  A couple weeks before, I had visited him, my nose running and feeling lethargic, and predictably, he came down with it, too.  But there was a difference between us: I wasn’t hiding advanced lung disease from everyone around me.  That cold, combined with his silent killer, felled my father in March, 1989.  All that anyone could say was that he was gone too young, that he had a lot of living left to do.

He died the month he made the last mortgage payment on his house.

Dad's grave 2015 smaller

In the years since, my father has become a memory more than a person.  I wonder if he really was the person I remembered, or whether my memory had distorted it.  Or perhaps the person I was at the time had distorted it.  As an adult, I had become increasingly unable to connect with him, because being positive and hopeful wasn’t something we had together.  He had become someone who expected the worst, thought everything was stacked against you.

My father’s politics were pessimistic, too.  Politicians were all corrupt, so just don’t give them any money to steal.  Starve government.  Cut taxes to the bone.  Rapid transit is a scam.  He bought all that self-serving Republican crap.

“I don’t know what they’re talking about when they say we’re overpopulated,” he said.  “When I fly to jobs, most of the time I look down and it’s just empty land.”

As I lived my life, I chose a different path.  I followed that positivity thread as far as it could take me.  In fact, it became what I had instead of religion.  As a freelance journalist, I believed in a better world.  I believed in progress.  Later, when I became a professional magician, I ignored hecklers, never struck back at them.  Always, I try to surround myself with only good people, so that I can feel comfortable giving, knowing that I will always get things back from them.

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But as the years marched on and I got further and further from my father’s death, I began to wonder one thing.  Will I outlive my father?  In some weird way, it seemed like I might die on the day that I turned the age he was when he died.  It wasn’t a rational thought, to be sure–it was wacky, even–but it was a thought that occurred to me, nonetheless.  Die on the day.  We are each allotted a certain number of years, and it just seems fair that you shouldn’t–be allotted more years than your father.

As that day approached, my mother grew increasingly depressed.  Of course, her depression has been her constant companion in the years since he died.  Every March 9, she was depressed, because that was the day that he died.  We had to be with her on that day.  Then we realized that she became depressed in the month before March 9, and we increased our time with her during all of February, too.  Then we realized that she became depressed in the months approaching Christmas, so we increased our time with her during that time, too.

Basically, we just paid more attention to Mom.  I was visiting her once a week and called her every other day.  Then I increased it to every day.  Then to twice a day.

“I’m just checking in, Mom,” I would say on the phone.  “How are you?”

But How are you isn’t really sufficient, because she would always say Fine.  You had to dig.  You had to spend time with her.  Sometimes, after four hours in her house, she would break down and start crying.

“I just miss your father,” she would say.  “I miss him every day.”

I missed him, too, but in a different way.  I wondered what he would have said to me.  I wanted to hear about his Korean War service, because he had never talked about that.  I wanted to hear about what he saw, the friends he’d lost, the gooks he’d killed, and how badly he felt about that.  I wondered about his mentally ill mother, because he had never talked about her, either.  Plus, I just wanted to sit with him.  Watch bowl games with him.  Watch him play with his dog.  Go to a coffee shop and have eggs and bacon and hash browns with him.  An oily, unhealthy breakfast with lots of ketchup.  He really liked that.

In 2012, I began calculating the months and days until I turned his age when he died.  His death day.  Turned out it was August 9, 2015.  I wondered what I would do on that death day.  Wait for a lightning bolt to kill me?

A month before, I called my mother and told her all about my feelings about August 9.  I asked her to be with me on that day.

“Why is that date important to you?” she asked.

“I don’t know.  But will you go out to the gravesite with me?” I said.

“Okay.”

So when the day approached, I cleared the calendar.  That morning, I woke up with a purpose.  I drove to my mother’s house and gave her a big hug.  Then we went out and bought some flowers.  We drove to Forest Lawn in West Covina, which is all rolling hills and grass as far as you can see.  I helped my mother up the stairs.  We stood above my father’s gravestone and thought about him.

He was the man who coached my Little League baseball team when I was 12.  I loved playing catch with him.  We were connected, it seemed, by the flight of the ball and the plunk of the ball into the mitt, and that pleased me so that I cannot adequately express it.  I was playing catch with my Dad.

Donald Groves and kids David and Diane and friend Dana Crague

My father coaching my Little League baseball team when I was 12, with my sister and her friend behind him and me in the background.

He was the man who taught me how to be good.  My mother was the strategic one, the one who was always figuring out how to get ahead, but my father was the one who didn’t have any angles on anything, he just worked hard and loved us.  He turned down promotions so that he could spend more time with his family.  In his fifties, he would always sit slightly outside of the circle of the family and watch quietly.  It was his angle, outside looking in, as if he were saying to himself, I want to remember this moment forever.

David Groves age 8

He was the man who was the smartest, the wisest, the best.  He never gave me worldly advice, like, To thine own self be true or Neither a borrower nor a lender be.  His wisdom was more everyday.  Like when I hit adolescence and began developing the upper-body physique of a mesomorph.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “you’re not going to grow breasts.  That’s what I thought when I was your age, but don’t worry about it.”

Or when I got angry at somebody at school, he would say:

“Remember, you can attract more bees with honey than you can with vinegar.”

That was his wisdom: breasts and vinegar.

Donald Groves on his honeymoon 1951 b

In many ways, he was me.

Combo David and Donald shot closer

There was a time, before I arrived, when my parents’ marriage was shaky.  He was thinking about moving out of the house and divorcing her.  There may have been another woman involved, I’m not sure.  But then, Mom told him that she was pregnant.  He moved back in and made the marriage work.  He wasn’t going to desert his child.  That’s the kind of man he was.  He wasn’t going to leave a child without a father.

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On that day at the cemetery, we placed flowers at my father’s grave.  We lingered and talked about him.  We meditated on his life.

Mom at Dad's grave 2015 1a smaller

David at Dad's Grave 2015 1a smaller

Once, I asked my father what he wanted for Christmas, but his tastes were spartan.  He asked so little from life.

“Oh, don’t get me anything,” he said.

“No, I’m going to get you something, so tell me what to get you.”

“I’m serious.  Don’t get me anything.”

“Dad, I’m going to get you something.”

“No.”

So I asked my mother, and we came up with something: He loved macadamia nuts.  It was his only luxury, it seemed.  I had made a fair amount of money that year, so I splurged and bought him four bottles of macadamias.

“Oh, no!” he said when he opened the present.  “This is too much!”

Even though he complained, though, I was happy.  He deserved it.  I loved him four bottles’ worth of macadamias.

I was thinking about this during our visit to his grave.  Afterwards, we left and sat in the car.

“You want to go out for lunch?” my mother asked.

“Sure.”

“Where do you want to go?”

“I have an idea,” I said, smiling.

We went to Carrow’s.  I’m not a fan of the place, but this was Dad’s day.  He was a cheap bastard and would have liked us eating at a restaurant whose food is unremarkable but whose bill makes you happy.  He would have smiled.

The Radioactivity of Secrets

[This is chapter 6 of an ongoing work of fiction.  You can read chapter 5 here.]

 

Suddenly, the whales stopped coming.  The tenor abruptly changed.  At Evan’s apartment, it was all sheets and bodily fluids and release.  They stayed in bed till afternoon.  They cooked their meals nude, curtains closed.  They played Bill Evans and Pat Metheny while they took their swims.  They brought their meals to bed, and afterwards, swept the crumbs off their sheets.  Finally, after a few days, they dressed and did errands to Brasil ‘66, but their clothes felt ridiculous on them, so when they returned, it was back to nudité and erotiqué to Sade and Sonny Lim.  Evan began to feel that, after all, touch and grappling and looking at somebody point-blank, eye to eye, breathing on someone’s bare skin, entangling himself in her legs, and running his hand over her soul to the right music, were the only important things in life.  He felt sorry for accountants, conservatives, and religious zealots, for he imagined them to have a painfully meager allowance for release.

After a week, Evan met John for a drink at Binion’s on Fremont Street.  Cotton covered his body and there wasn’t any good music playing.  From where he sat inside, Evan could see buskers on the street.  There was a magician, a guitarist, and a powerfully good break dancer.  What most caught Evan’s attention, though, was a young man, perhaps 25, who gave off the unmistakable impression that he could easily fuck up any task you gave him, and who held a sign that said VERBALLY ABUSE ME FOR $5.  There was a tale behind that one.  You could see it on his face.

IMG_4920b smaller

Everyone has his own gifts, Evan thought.

Evan sipped his tequila sunrise and played his John game, which involved his body, which he moved slowly and deliberately, no unexpected movements, his eyes, with which he tried not to offend, and his humility, which he played like an air guitar.  He never knew an uncle could be like this.

Try not to get hurt, he thought.

“Why aren’t we meeting at the big casino?” Evan asked.

“We’re keeping a low profile on the Strip,” John said, a cigarette dangling from his lips.

“Oh.”

“I only brought you there in the beginning to impress you.”

“Okay.  Well, you did.”

John took a drag, lifted his head, exhaled into the air above him.

“Just want to tell you, s’only gonna last six months or so.”

“Why?”

“Why does anything end?  Everything ends, pal.”

Evan looked away.  There was a Fiona Apple tune playing in his head and it bothered him, all doom and adolescent cynicism.

“Because,” John finally added, “somebody always comes back with a beef or a gun or a bodyguard or a lawsuit.  And my sponsor is heavy, as in hea-vy, but trust me, he can’t always protect us.  Learn this lesson, son, if you don’t learn any other.  You gotta be always ready to pack up and move in an hour.”

“Okay.  So I should have a plan to go back to walkaround magic.”

Evan took a breath and felt a wave of relief pass over him.  There would be an end this.  At the finish line, he will have made many thousands in cash and he could walk away with it and never have to talk to his criminal uncle ever again.

Waitress 1a

“No no no, buddy, listen to me,” John said, smiling.  “When we fold it up here, we take it on the road.  I know a casino owner in Atlantic City what runs the same deal.  Plus, I don’t mind your company.”

Evan looked at his new shoes, which for some reason seemed fucked up beyond all recognition, even though they were the same beautiful things he’d bought for $300 yesterday morning.

“You mean we’ll get a place in Atlantic City?” Evan asked.

“Same thing.”

“Okay.”

Fiona Apple was growling about something in his head.

“Kara likes the East Coast,” Evan said, trying to look on the bright side, at least for show.

“Yeah, you could bring her, or you could find somebody else, don’t much matter.  I’ve already gotten tired of her whining.  I don’t like her hair, either, I mean, what’s that all about, that hair?”

“Okay.”

“Because you can always trade up.”

“I don’t know.”

“Be the pin, not the balloon.”

“Well….”

“Then stick with her, I don’t care.  I just don’t trust her.”

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“Okay.”

“Listen, son, you got good mitts, just like me,” John said, holding out both hands.  “That’s worth some money, trust me.  They’re gorilla claws and they can do things.  And emotionally, when the heat is on, you have grace under pressure.  Like, faking it is in your DNA.”

Lately, Evan had been thinking about his hands.  When he was a child, he had studied piano, and his hands had started a labyrinthine journey to dexterity.  When he became an adolescent, his hands grew so large and its tiny muscles so finely developed that he could do anything on the piano.  In football, he played tight end and his hands were so big, he could catch anything.  They called him Gluey, as in Hands Like Glue.  Sometimes, he caught women looking at the hands lasciviously.  With a deck of cards, he could hide a card easily in one hand, no effort, without a hint of it peeking around the edges or through the windows.  When people see tension in a hand holding a palmed card, they sense that there’s a card hidden in it.  But Evan had none of that.  He had “all the gifts,” as the great card man Bodine Balasco had once told him.  It was all about DNA, like Kendra and Kara, twisted döppleladders.

Just then, a chick who was mostly smooth porcelain skin punctuated by heavy mascara walked up, gave them the once-over, and lingered, leaving a question hanging in the air.  John turned his head sharply.

Fuck out of here, John said.

She knew the tone.  Her father had used it with her all the time growing up.  She was out of there before Evan could blink twice.  Within a couple minutes, John was outside on Fremont Street giving the homeless guy a C note, as he liked to call it.  John bellowed insults at the guy for a full ten minutes, sometimes with his face two inches in front of the fuck-up’s face, stray spittle spraying out, before his voice started to rasp and he ambled away, hacking and smoking.

Φ

And still the whales didn’t come.  Evan and Kara drove to L.A. in the new car and enjoyed themselves a little.  Blasted road music, like R.E.M. and Led Zeppelin.  They hung out with Evan’s old buds at the Magic Castle and talked monkey moves.  Before, he’d been much more interested in entertainment and punch lines, but now, he was in a different game.  Sleights took on a whole different hue of green.

“Whatcha working on?” said his old cardician acquaintance Benito.

Evan never used to be that interested in Benito.

“Gambling sleights,” Evan said.

“Now you’re talkin’.”

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It turned into a jam session, a full hour.  The best thing he got from it was some work on the corner-short, which is a way of keeping track of a card by cutting the corner by the amount of just a fingernail clipping.  Nobody notices it.  But just by clipping that corner, you can completely control a single card in the deck, or even a stack, which is a bank of cards in a predetermined order.  Gambling moves didn’t used to make any difference to him, but now, clipping that corner could make him some serious green.

“Dai Vernon has some work on it,” Benito said.

They were truly magical words, Dai Vernon, it was like saying, God offers some advice on that move.

“Yeah?”

“Six pages on the corner-short.  It’s the real work.”

“Give me the gist of it.”

“Okay, look.  If you tap the deck on the table just once….” and then, he did just what he was describing his own deck “…then look what happens.”

Benito turned the back of the deck towards him.  Evan squinted.  By the tiniest fraction of a millimeter, not enough for anyone to notice, one card was now subtly jutting out the back of the deck.

“It’s a ledge,” Benito said.

“Holy Christ,” Evan said.

“It’s beautiful.”

“It’s fucking gorgeous.”

All night, Evan smiled just thinking about it.  He used to ignore Benito, obsessed with all these card moves that didn’t amount to any kind of entertaining card trick.  Now, everything was different.  Just like Uncle John and Wynton Marsalis, two masters of two different instruments, Evan was now learning how to bend a note.

Φ

While Kara was in the restroom, a slender beauty walked by in the tightest red dress he had ever seen, with a cutout that exposed a circle of skin around her fabulous midriff.  She had glittery raspberry lipstick, carried hardly an ounce of fat on her, and possessed gams that stretched all the way to Ipanema.  Passing by, the girl gave him a familiar look, like they had had a previous acquaintance at the Castle.

“Do I know you?”  Evan asked, puzzled.

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“Oh, you should,” she said with a twist.

Evan felt the blood rush to his face and looked away.

“I’m going to get in trouble,” he said.  “I’m with somebody.”

“You don’t like trouble?” she said.

“My girlfriend is coming back any moment.”

“That’s okay,” she said with sudden disdain.  “In my head, I just fucked you for a month and then broke up with you.”

She winked and then slinked away.

Φ

The next evening, they drove up to Corcoran to visit his parents.

John was right, Evan thought as he sat in the kitchen watching his mother tend to a couple different pots on the stove, she can’t cook.  Kara had taken the car for some mumbled errand.

“Are you eating properly?” she said, giving him an accusatory glance.

“I’m eating pretty well, actually.”

“Vegetables, too?  Four basic food groups?”

“Mom, they don’t use those food groups anymore.”

“Of course they do.  I’m just concerned about you.”

“Okay.”

They talked about Evan’s father, sister, and then the cousins for a while.  All the while, Evan was angling how to talk about John.  He had the money in his back pocket, 18 Benjamins.  He wondered what his mother would say.  Even more, he wondered what his father would say.

“Where’s Dad?” Evan said.

“Business trip,” his mother said with a smile.

“He’s not around much anymore, is he?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, the last three times I’ve visited, he’s been on a business trip.”

“He works too hard.”

There was something in the way that she said it, with a touch of something that rang hollow and dark, like a drumstick on a carved-out pumpkin, that piqued his curiosity.  Evan placed his hand on her forearm and realized that she was silently crying.

“Mom, what is it?” he said softly.

“What?”

“You know what.”

Evan waited for the longest time.  Finally, she looked up at him with the sorriest eyes he had ever seen.

“He’s moved into an apartment,” she said softly.

“Why?”

She started to tell the story, but everything about it was pumpkinny, even the way she ended her sentences.

“Mom, you can tell me.”

She took a deep breath.  She looked up at him.  Then she took another.  She started to speak, then closed her mouth.  It took her ten full minutes before she came out with it.

“He’s not your father.”

Evan’s mind began to swirl, and he immediately knew.  He had always known, but not in the place where we live, only in that underwater place of archetypes and nighttime eternities.

“Who is?”

His mother started to spin this tale about not knowing, that it could be either of two people, blah blah blah, but Evan could see through it.  It wasn’t either of those two.  He had all the evidence before him.  It was all coming together now.

“I know who it is,” Evan said softly, looking into her eyes.

They looked at each other for what seemed like forever, his mother’s eyes more naked and guilty than he had ever seen them.  Naked like a wound, guilty like a scar.  He did know.  He had always known.  When he heard Kara drive up, he walked out the front door.  But not before leaving the 18 C-notes, to use his father’s patois, on the kitchen table.

 

[This is an ongoing work of fiction.]

In the Labyrinth of Selves

[This is chapter 5 in an ongoing work of fiction.  To see chapter 4, click here: https://whathappenstous.wordpress.com/2017/06/28/55-las-vegas-days/%5D

There was a Russian oil executive’s son.  Then there was a South African who had something to do with diamond mines.  Then there was a New York investment banker.  It didn’t really matter what they did.  What was important was that they were all loaded.

Evan played the part.  Over weeks, he began to understand the fields that Anthony Hopkins ploughs.  And David Haselhof.  And Donald Trump, too.  Evan had two selves, and he had to keep track of where they were at all times.  It was like they were tethered to each other by elastic.  Sometimes the selves were one person, but at other times, his real self stepped outside and watched the other one play the part.  Sometimes Evan watched it lie.  But the nub of lying was that he had to lie from truth.  Otherwise, suspicion would fester like a sore, and was liable to be fatal.  There’s a beautiful state park in Washington called Deception Pass, a beautiful bridge that stretches over a lovely forest and beach, and whenever he had to deceive, Evan said to himself: I’m driving over Deception Pass again.

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“Where’d you go to school?” the investment banker asked.

“Dropped out of Princeton.”

“I mean before that.”

“Oh.  Prep school in New Hampshire.”

“Which one?”

“Exeter.”

“Oh, my kid goes there.  Kid from my first marriage, before I discovered I wasn’t a breeder.  Did you like it?”

Evan stepped outside of himself and watched his other self panic.  He had done the research, but he didn’t want to get into too much detail.

“Hated it.  Hated the teachers, hated the kids.  It would be great if I never ever thought about it again.  Ever.”

That shut him up.  Only gradually did his two selves veer together again.  Hate was great misdirection.

The investment banker loved male strippers, which made the dirty work easy.  Sometimes he disappeared into a bedroom with one.  Over eight straight evenings, John took $2.4 million from the guy, and without protestation.  Evan decided not spend his share.  He was saving for a down payment on a house, but was unclear how he would do that in cash.

Φ

The young Russian was easy, too, but then he turned around too soon during a deck switch.  Evan looked at him.  Their eyes met, and then Evan looked away.  He began to sweat.  Russian eyes were scary because Evan didn’t know where they were coming from.  They seemed frighteningly unsentimental.  He looked over at John, whose eyes were eyes averted but who was still looking.  Evan thought about what he knew about Russia, that they were an alcoholic society, that they had been ruled for years by gangsters masquerading as communists, and now, gangsters masquerading as democrats, that they had been undergoing a brain drain for years and that natural selection had probably taken its toll.  They were such a corrupt society that they had to deal with loser American millionaires like Mr. Orange Hair.

Drunk 1a

A long minute passed.  Eventually, it became clear that the Russian was drunk.  He had seen something, but he didn’t see, the brain being a funny thing.

I’m thinking too much about my mistakes, Evan thought.

Almost everything is going right.

Over Deception Pass, almost isn’t good enough.

At home, Evan kept his cash in his shoes, and when he ran out of shoes, he bought more shoes.  After a while, he stuffed cash into socks in his drawer.  He bought somebody’s surfboard and had it hollowed out, stuffed that full of cash.  Then he found a metal panel behind the refrigerator, opened up the wall, and hid a big bag in there.  It was a challenge that he hadn’t expected, where to store his cash.  Evan wasn’t going to fall into the trap of spending it all.  He had self-control.  He knew that about himself.  After five weeks, he had bought a new car, but it was a two-year-old bargain, an Acura, nothing fancy.  On game nights, he would roll up to the house in some red racecar that John had arranged for.  As soon as he could after a long game, he would take Kara out and blow a few hundred on a great evening—dinner, dancing, a penthouse room somewhere, sweating on top of her, hands gripping her wrists, iced Champagne in bed after, club sandwiches and Truffle French fries for two, the works.

Φ

One night, John built a game around a Midwestern bakery millionaire’s son.  He was impeccably handsome, like Ryan Reynolds but without the kind eyes.  Evan stared at him for a while from a distance, deconstructed his look, and finally concluded that he wasn’t really gorgeous, after all, that it was mostly just a construct built on expensive tailoring and careful dermatology, like Ivanka.  The guy called over Kara and asked for a Quaalude or two, which John had conveniently stocked up on, and Evan realized it was going to be an easy evening.  There were two other guys at the table who liked to dream big but didn’t have the deep pockets to back them up, classic losers.

Around midnight, during a break in the action, Evan walked up to Baptiste in the other room.

“Rum and Coke, hold the rum,” Evan said.

“Hey listen, she turned me down,” Baptiste said, fixing the drink.

“Who?”

“The bitch.”

“What, Kara?”

“S’what it is.”

“I’m sorry about that, bro.”

“But I got a fix for it.”

“What’s that?”

Baptiste opened his palm, and there were two pills in it.

“What is it?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Baptiste said with a grin.

“What is it?”

“Let’s just say I bought it from one of Bill Cosby’s friends.”

David and Angela drunk 1a

Evan’s first self was red-faced and fuming, but his presentation self remained quiet and mildly amused.  Baptiste was cool, too, smiling the widest disgusting smile that had ever been disgustingly smiled.  Evan turned and looked out the window at nothing.  It was nothing, his public self was saying, she was just a silly bitch.

Φ

When the morning dawned, the bakery heir’s cell phone woke him up and he staggered back to the game.  Soon, the table was swimming in a cloud of smoke and their sweaty clothes stank of tobacco.  Kara pushed Sex on the Beaches hard on bakery asshole and he dug himself further and further into the hole.  To amuse himself, Evan rolled a half-dollar on the backs of his fingers.  It seemed like a smart-ass thing to do, something he might have learned from the bad boys at Exeter.

 

At 9:30 am, the two losers were in the other room with a couple strippers while the bakery boy was passed out on the sofa from too many hookers and Stolichnaya.  Evan looked at the kid’s face.  It was like seeing track marks on him, a face full of affluence and pampering, pink cheeks and perfect hair.  He didn’t feel sorry for him at all.  The kid had never had a day’s struggle in his life, that much was clear.  Growing up, Evan had had to save up for magic, tricks that cost $15 and $20 and each purchase felt like you were sacrificing something for it, a pound of flesh or something, but this guy could have bought Magic City, Inc., with his weekly allowance.  He was pissing it away.  Evan had no sympathy for bladder problems like that.  He didn’t know if it was affluenza or self-destruction or just a urinary infection, but Evan wove these moments into a narrative, like what he was doing was kind of like, not exactly like, but in a way like class warfare, like Karl Marx or FDR or Bernie Sanders.  He was doing a good deed.

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“I wann’ sleep for coupla hours.”

“What about coming back tomorrow night?”  John asked.

“Naw, sleep for coupla hours.”

“You guys up for that?”

The other two guys had been eyeing the scion’s cash all night and morning.

“If he can take it, I can take it.”

“I’m with him.”

“Fuckin’ A.”

While bakery scion slept, Evan closed his eyes in one of the bedrooms.  It was a gorgeous high bed with a beautiful bedspread.  It yawned before him.  Four hours later, he woke up to discover that he worked his way under the sheets fully clothed and still wearing shoes.  The sheets were fabulous.

“I never had a son,” he heard John say.

Evan looked up and spotted John in the doorway eyeing him, he didn’t know for how long he had been doing it.  Then he rubbed his eyes and looked at him more closely.

“Why didn’t you?”

“Hate kids.  They steal your life away.  There are a few I’d like to have killed, Jesus.  But even so, it’s nice to have somebody grown who knows what the score is.  Somebody who’s blood.  Somebody who isn’t a fucking round roast.  And somebody who can muck cards, if the occasion arises.  Where’d you learn to do that?”

“From books and other guys.”

“Not from your father.”

“No.”

“I’d like to meet those other guys.”

“It took me ten years or more.”

“No denying you got a talent.  You don’t take after your Mom, that’s for sure.  She was devoid of talent, even in the kitchen.  Hell, she could burn water.”

“She’s never been a good cook.”

“Listen, we’re going to do see how deep we can bury this guy, all right?  Wake up and suit up.”

Evan sat up on the edge of the bed and rubbed his eyes again.  Taking after people was a naval to gaze into.  It was like having a twin, like looking into a mirror and seeing something familiar, or even something that you hated.  It was like Kara and Kendra wrestling with each other.  Evan had John’s knowing grin, but he didn’t know whether that was venality or physiology.  A knowing grin seemed to be an iceberg, with seven-eighths under the water.

Maybe I hold back like that, Evan thought, splashing water onto his face and looking into the mirror.  Or maybe holding back is a reason to go to hell, too.

Φ

When they all knocked off at 3 pm, Evan sidled up to Kara.

“Don’t drink anything that Baptiste gives you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Just promise me.”

“I promise.  But why?”

“Have you taken any drinks from him last night or today?”

“Just hemlock,” she said with a grin.

“I’m serious.”

“All righty, then.”

“Have you?”

“Just water.  Only water.”

“Come crash at my place.”

“What, you want us to babysit your cash?”

“Something like that.”

Evan started walking away, and then it dawned on Kara.

“What, you mean Baptiste….”

Their eyes met.  She got it.

Φ

Three weeks later, Evan showed up for a game with a Brazilian soccer star’s brother.  He walked in the front door, saw that the front room was empty, and then walked into the other room to get a Diet Coke at the bar.  He stopped.  Stared at a prop dummy hanging from the ceiling.  One of Baptiste’s practical jokes.  It was hanging from a strong reinforced trestle that held up a heavy curtain.  From the neck.  Wearing jeans and a sweatshirt.

Evan called John’s cell phone.  He discovered that he was out of breath when he talked.

“Where are you?” Evan finally managed to utter.

“Hardware store.  Why?”

“Listen, you better get to the house fast.  There’s a body hanging behind the bar.”

“You’re at the house?”

“Yeah.”

There was a long pause.

“What the fuck are you doing at the house?”  John finally said.

“We got a game tonight.”

“I texted everybody.  The game’s off.”

“My phone’s been off.”

“I told you never to turn your fucking phone off.”

“No you didn’t.”

“Don’t contradict me.  Get the fuck out of there.  Now.”

John hung up on him.  Evan looked down and stared at the phone.  One self wanted to follow orders, but his other self wanted one last look.  The tension between the two made his heart beat like he was a scared bird or something.

He said to get the fuck out of there.

Nobody will know.

This isn’t going to end well.

Everything will be fine.

It took him a minute or two, but Evan floated over to the bar again.  Looked at the body closely.  It was a strange feeling.  He wasn’t used to seeing bodies dangling next to him.  It was an intense feeling, like his other self, the innocent self that believed everything would be all right, were hanging up there.  Then he looked more closely.  Somehow, something wasn’t right.  He moved behind the body.  Suddenly, he noticed.  The hands were handcuffed behind him.  He drifted back in front to look at the face, which was tilted upwards so far that he couldn’t be sure.  But he knew.

Φ

The newspaper reported that Baptiste’s body had been found in his studio apartment in Henderson.  Death certificate said the same thing.  Inquest revealed that Baptiste had been depressed for years and was taking medication for it, that a pharmacopeia of illicit drugs had been discovered in his apartment, and that he had been selling them to junior high schoolers.  As if.

The games went on, though, no big deal.  Money kept flowing like a dirty river.  Kara kept serving drinks and drugs.  The new bartender had the unlikely name of Boaz von Diebenkorn, a smiley Austrian chap with bad teeth.  After introductions, Evan wandered away, but John caught up with him.

“Tough about Baptiste.”

“Yeah.”

Evan looked at John, straight at him, even though he was afraid to, and there was something in his eyes that Evan had seen before but hadn’t correctly identified.  He hadn’t realized how malignant it was.  The first time he had seen it, it was roguish and charming, like Bogie, the lone wolf with a heart of gold, but now, it was like the pretty mask had been torn off and it was a wolf underneath and Evan tried his best to act like a good boy, I won’t tell, I won’t rat, don’t kill me, tethered by a thread above Deception Pass.

“Do I need to ask the question?”  John said in a low voice.

“No.”

“Okay, listen to me closely.”

“All right.”

John raised his finger sternly in front of Evan’s eyes.  It was as good as waving a hunting knife.

“You.  Don’t.  Steal.  From.  A mark.  The bakery guy was passed out and it was an easy roll, just a few thousand, but that wasn’t Baptiste’s juice, baby, it was mine.”

[This is chapter 5 in an ongoing work of fiction.  Chapter 6 is here: ]

55 Days in Las Vegas

[This is chapter 3 of an ongoing work of fiction.  To see chapter 3, click here: https://whathappenstous.wordpress.com/2016/01/02/five-meanings-of-i-love-you-2/%5D

The 1st day was a loaded moment.  They both knew that.  It was their first December 24.

In the absence of family, Evan wanted to create something familial, so he bought a tree.  Kara bought egg nog and dug out an old motorized Santa Claus.  The shadows were long and the traffic intense.  It felt like December 24 always feels, a rarified time, like everyone is breathing expensive air.  Evan had planned lovemaking for later, with cinnamon-scented candles and Kind of Blue loaded into the stereo system.

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But after dinner and rum balls, in the middle of a langorous kiss and Evan’s hand down reaching into Kara’s blouse, there was a knock at the door.

Evan was suddenly stricken with the thought that it might be Kendra.  Then again, he worried that every unexpected knock or ring might be Kendra.  It had been over three months now, and Kara and he were now exchanging I love yous, but beyond saying it, he was surprised to realize that he truly meant it.  He loved her in a way that was different from the way he had felt about Kendra.  He was afraid for Kara.  He didn’t want to hurt her.  He didn’t like that look on her face.  That hurt look.  He believed that Kara didn’t want to hurt him, either.  That she was incapable hurting him.

In the last two years, he had stopped believing in love.  It was an evil little trick that biology played on us to make us procreate.  Evan had lost his belief in love down the same hatch that he had lost God.  Life was all just a flat, dusty dustbowl of unwanted truth.

When Evan opened the door, though, he stepped back.

“Hey, what the fuck,” his Uncle John said.

“Hey.”

“So what’s up?” John said.

“Wow, I thought I’d never see you again.”

“Hoped?”

“No no.”

Evan couldn’t figure out what to say.  Kara was still buttoning up her blouse and straightening her hair.

“Was it something I said?” John said.

“What?”

“You busy or something?”

Evan had so looked forward to those candles.

On the 2nd day, the three of them walked down the Strip together.   They stopped in at a big casino and were railroaded into their most expensive restaurant.

“Order some expensive shit,” John said.  “The owner’s spotting us.”

The chef was a genius.  The bill came out to over $500, but John just signed for it.  They were stuffed like favorite Airedales.

On the 5th day, John and Evan were standing in a huge house in a gated community.  It was John’s new home.  There was a living room that was six times the square footage of Evan’s whole apartment and seven bedrooms and four bathrooms.  Everything was new.  On a table across the room sat an open book larger than a computer tower, who knows how much it cost, with thick, expensive color pages that were lovely to turn.  They all sat on the long sofa and chatted while Amy Winehouse belted it out of the park.  After Kara left to make her shift at the casino, John lowered his voice and leaned towards Evan.

“I have a proposition for you,” he said.

On the 7th day, New Year’s Eve, Evan and Kara toasted at midnight with French Champagne.

“It’s been a helluva year,” Evan said.

“This one will be better.  I’m trying to convince myself of that.  It’s against my nature, though.”

“Listen, I’ve got to run this past you,” Evan said.  “John wants to bring me in on this project.  Apparently, he’s in tight with the owner of that casino—you know, where we racked up that big dinner bill.  He has access to a lot of high rollers who want a private game.

“A private game?”

“A game that breaks the rules.  He’s talking Saudi princes, Russian billionaires, that sort.  He needs someone at the table who can handle cards.  And I guess someone he can trust.”

“It sounds dangerous.”

“Yeah, probably.  But it pays $4,000 a day.”

Kara set down her Champagne glass.

“Whoa.”

“Yeah, whoa.”

“I don’t mean whoa as in what you say to a horse.  I mean, dude, giddyup.”

“But…it’s not exactly….”

“What?”

“Legal.”

“Yeah, but didn’t you say 4k a day?”

“Yep.”

“Plus, he needs a girl.”

“To do what?”

On the 15th day, Evan was learning the system.  It was going to kill some brain cells.  The deck was marked, but it was so subtle, it was going to take a month to fully learn it.  There were other chisels in the toolbox, too, like daub.  John preferred a Revlon blush.  During play, Evan would secretly steal some daub onto his middle finger and then secretly smudge it on the back of, say, an ace.  Deck gets shuffled, and then when you need an ace, you spread the deck and locate it by feel.  Plus, John taught him how to nick cards.  Use his fingernails to place secret nick marks on the sides of certain cards.  He had to memorize secret signals that John, who would be sitting at the table across from him, would give.  Play, trade two, fold, whatever, John was the pro, John knew how to play it.

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Kara’s job was to dress like a cocktail waitress, serve drinks, and help ring in coolers.

“Coolers?”  Kara asked.

“Switch in decks,” John said.

Finding a moment was an art.  The biggest part of the art was waiting, but the other part was knowing the moment to act.  One great magician had some wise words on the subject decades ago.

“How long do you wait?”  one of his disciples had asked.

“As long as it takes,” he answered.

But this was a different context.  If you screwed up a magic trick, people snickered.  If you screwed up in this arena, somebody could pull a gun.  You had to be good.  It came down to looking and listening, which Evan saw as one of those priceless Ming vases that became more complex the more you looked at its design.  There were worlds within worlds within worlds.  Motifs could mean this or they could mean that.  They looked like one thing but had a different meaning when you knew the historical background, like what a particular hand position meant in 1422.  People, too, have historical backgrounds.  Same for listening.  You had to be a scholar to interpret it, like a scholar of the soul.  Same for looking.  You could look and not see.  You could be looking and not really looking.  Zero in on the vase.  The vase was the basis of everything.

Evan had always seen himself as being moral, more or less.  Then John had waved some money in front of his eyes and everything had changed.  The way he saw it, there were ways of thinking about it that didn’t even involve the term moral.  He now preferred the term experimental, as in, I’m just going to experiment with this thing for a while because the opportunity fell on my lap.  People, he now felt, don’t experiment with their lives as much as they should.  Their lives are filled with rules and rigidities.  The tree that doesn’t bend will break, as the ancient Chinese used to say.  It won’t just break, it will be ground into sawdust.  The ancient Chinese knew a thing or two.  You don’t see the Chinese turning down an opportunity.

Evan was playing a part.  He was a Silicon Valley millionaire, so John gave him 10k to blow on a wardrobe.  The marks themselves were a certain type: men with a fatal combination of too much money and not enough maturity.  It wasn’t a hard combination to find.  Trawl the hallways of any popular prep school.  The high-roller manager at the casino would herd them over like prize cows, their udders swinging.  The first evening, John and Evan would cheat in favor of the marks.  Pretty quick, though, everything would go south on them, like Tierra del Fuego south.  It was an art to keep a mark’s attention riveted over a period of days, and John, apparently, was an artist.

“I don’t want anybody knowing that you’re doing each other,” John said.  “Not the marks, not the bartender, nobody.  The less they have on you, the better.”

“All right.”

“Okay.”

“But kids, listen, your main job is to stay cool, as in what a cucumber salad does, John said, squinting through his own Marlboro smoke.  Can you do that?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah.”

“When things get heavy, how chill can you be?”

Their eyes traded looks.

“We’ll fucking see,” John said before they answered, and walked into the other room trailing Marlboro smoke.

On the 22nd day, Kara met the bartender, Baptiste, who would be working with her.  He was a tall dude had a major twinkle in his eye and who slurred his words even when he wasn’t drunk.

“That’s what she said.”

He dropped that line in response to something she said, and he flashed an eye-fuck.  Normally, that would work with Kara.  She would be in bed with him within an hour.  But this time, she recoiled.  She didn’t know why.  Perhaps it was because of a fleeting thought she’d had about Whitney Houston.  That girl had such a voice.  She had a shot at happiness on a towering scale if only she could give up her Loki.  And then she died in a bathtub or something.  Those great pipes.  That fabulous contract.  What a waste.

On the 30th day, Evan and Kara got their second training payment, all in cash.  They celebrated at a French restaurant for tourists.  Evan was wearing his new clothes was starting to feel very Silicon Valley.  The crabcakes were to die for and the sea bass was fabulously subtle.  Evan had never paid this much for a meal.

Over her Cherries Jubilee, Kara leaned over and whispered in urgent tones: Dude, I’ve got 5k in cash in my closet!

“Yeah, I got 7.”

“What am I gonna do with all that money?”

Evan smiled.

“Spend it.  You got a problem with that?”

“Yeah, I kinda do.”

Kara never said that last bit, she just thought it.

On the 47th day, Evan met Simon—his American name—who was the son of a man who owned a grocery empire in China.  Just the clothes on Simon’s back must have set him back $5,000.  His hair was bleached blonde, moussed, and waved in a way that made it look at once overproduced and yet absolutely forgotten about.  He walked in—made an entrance was a better term for it—and didn’t shake anyone’s hand.  It all seemed personal.  He seemed to dislike Evan from the start, you could see it in his face.  It seemed to be his way of addressing the world, because he didn’t need to like anybody.  He had a shitload of cash with him, plus markers up the ass.  There were two other moneyed players at the table, but it was Simon who had the bull’s-eye on his back.

After the third hand, Simon turned to John.

“You got some blow?”

“As much as you want.”

“I want it all.  I want to win.”

John led Simon into another room, and he came back with his eyes all lit up like the Binion’s sign.

“That’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout!”  Simon said.  “At the casinos, they don’t give us these kinda perks, fuckin’ bitches.  Dude, I’m cocked and loaded and I’m ready to pull the trigger, I’m a winning winner, bring it on!”

The first night, Simon was up 10k.  The third night, down 70k.  Fifth night, down 110.  The more he coked up, the easier it was for them to run their game.  Kara served everybody stiff drinks except for Evan, who got water disguised as vodka and water.  Every so often, she rang in a cooler.  It was so easy.  Daub, nicked cards, hand signals, all functioning as efficiently as a gun without serial numbers.  The hard part for Evan was staying awake without drugs.  Caffeine helped.  So did catnaps.

The 49th day, Evan strolled over to the bar.  Baptiste wasn’t there, so Evan moved behind the bar to get some orange juice.  It was sitting next to a pistol.  It all made sense.  Baptiste was a shitty bartender.

Three hours later, after Simon had left, and just after Kara was pulling away, Baptiste opened up to Evan.

“Man, that Kara could crack walnuts,” he said.

Evan saw red for a moment, but he didn’t dare show it.

“She’s a babe, that’s for sure,” Evan said.

“I’m going to make a play for her.”

“I’ll put in a good word for you.”

“You’re a bro.  Hey listen, you got really good hands.  Where’d you learn those big-league moves?”

Evan just smiled and looked at his virgin Scotch.

“Oh, okay, listen, I understand, homie.  I talk too much.  Always have.  It works for me and it works against me.  Bartenders are supposed to listen, but I’m not that good a listener, I admit it.  But hey, a couple hours ago, when the deck was in your hands, I saw you dealing seconds.  I recognize it.  That’s a major move, homie.  Did you have a mentor?  Was it John?  Because John is a major dude.”

“You’re right,” Evan said.

“About what?”

“That you talk too much.”

Evan threw his $500 muffler around his neck, walked out to his rented Lamborghini, and sped home at high volume through the quiet Las Vegas streets.

On the 53rd day, Simon handed over 925k and everyone was happy.

“Bitch, you gots a great coke supplier.  Don’t suspect you’d give me a name.”

“Naw.”

He didn’t even seem to be pissed off.

On the 55th day, Kara was staring at all this fucking cash on her kitchen table, all hundreds.  P!nk was playing on the stereo and she was getting the party started.  The bills were crisp and new, 15k rolled up in rubber bands.  Kara’s heart was beating like it did when she was looking at some guy she wanted inside of her.  P!nk knew the feeling.  Kara had her cell phone in front of her, her eyes flipping from the money to the phone and back again.  P!nk was belting it, keeping it going.  Kara was ready to call her dealer, but something was stopping her.  It was strange.  In fact, it was a supreme mystery, like the Trinity or something.  There was something inside her that had turned off, that was the best way to describe it.  Like when you finally get the willpower to lose weight, and you don’t know where the hell it came from.  Maybe it was being with Evan that had turned it off.  Maybe it was the new job.

But somehow, she felt it was deeper than that.  It was like something that lay beneath the bark on the trees, like the rings or the sap or even just the idea that the tree’s Momma had when she was thinking about conceiving that tree.  Beneath beneath the beneath.  Maybe it had to do with failing at being a big-time singer, and now, suddenly, having a shot at it again.  Maybe it was the prospect of becoming a Whitney Houston, a bloated damp corpse in a bathtub.  Maybe it was desperation and hope, that Yin Yang, because she’d had so much desperation in the last couple years, but an injection of hope always put her on top of things, no other way to describe it, on top of things like a little girl on a horse, the leather reins in her hands.  She was riding.  She was galloping again.  Maybe Kara could win the race after all.

P!nk went onto another song, and then another, and then the moment changed and a thought slowly crept into her head like a tarantula, a creature as cool as P!nk herself, wove a web, and suddenly, she was reaching for the phone.  Dialing.

But that last part happened only in her head.  She was playing games with her own damn self. Something was holding her back, it was weird.

[This is an ongoing work of fiction.  To see chapter 3, click here: https://whathappenstous.wordpress.com/2016/01/02/five-meanings-of-i-love-you-2/.  To see chapter 5, click here: https://whathappenstous.wordpress.com/2017/07/02/in-the-labyrinth-of-selves/%5D

A Nightmare Unfolding

On Friday evening, I was performing a show at the Magic Castle when the dead body of the magician Daryl was discovered hanging backstage.

daryl11It suddenly became a crazy and nightmarish evening. Shows were closed down in two theatres and those crowds were set loose in the Castle with nothing to do. We had to redouble our efforts to entertain the 480+ guests and not tell them anything. We heard whispers from the guy who found the body. We didn’t know what to believe.

One guy shouted out during one of my shows that somebody was stabbed in the Castle, which was incorrect. Magicians were starting to cry. One magician friend started performing his show, and then six minutes in, found he couldn’t continue. Incorrect TMZ reports were appearing on guests’ phones and they were starting to realize something was wrong. They were amazingly understanding. The Castle shut down early, at 11:30, and I performed the last show there.

img_8097-cropped-smaller

The author standing in front of the Magic Castle in a happier time.

In the ’90s, Daryl was so clever, so articulate, so much the magician I wanted to be. This is the most tragic death I’ve ever experienced, and along with Ted Anneman and Chung Ling Soo, the most tragic magic death I’ve ever heard of.

[BTW, TMZ got it all wrong. They wrote that he was discovered in his underwear. I talked with the guy who found the body, and he was fully clothed. TMZ invents alternative facts. I won’t trust anything they write ever again. It’s astonishing how dishonest that is.]

Five Meanings of I Love You

[This is Chapter 3 of an ongoing work of fiction.  Chapter 2 is here.]

1. I want to be closer to you

Evan had learned something about his mother that had robbed him of his smile, Kara couldn’t figure out exactly what, she wished to God she knew, it killed her that she didn’t know.

“What is it?  You can trust me.”

“I know I can, but…”

“That’s what I’m here for.”

“…but I need to sit on this one for a bit.”

“That’s what love is all about.”

“I know.”

“Then why don’t you tell me?”

“It’s just that—”

“Is it something about me?”

“No, it’s just that some things take time to process.”

The look on his face broke her heart.

It was like the ancient Rapa Nui written language.  They have ancient writings, but nobody knows what it means because the Spanish conquistadores killed all of the Rapa Nui scholars by 1888.  Today, we look at the writings, but they’re absolutely impenetrable.  That was sometimes how Evan seemed to her.

There were so many things that Kara wanted to do with Evan.  Go on a train trip with him.  The idea of bumpy train sex made her wet.  Life was all about rhythm, she knew, figure out how his rhythms counterpointed with her rhythms and make a song, and whether that song was a good song or a tired-ass clunker.  Rhythms explained everything.  Once, she had stood onstage with her lead guitarist playing a solo behind her, and just from the rhythm, she realized that his girlfriend had just broken up with him.  She turned around and looked into his eyes incredulously.

Really, her eyes said.

Yes, he nodded.

It was all there in the rhythm: details and concepts, math and emotion, pink and zigzaggy and booyah, everything.

The next morning, Kara wrote up a list of other things she wanted to do with Evan, too.  She so liked lists.

  • Hike in Red Rock Canyon till we’re knackered.
  • Sing him my best songs. In the living room.
  • Not talk about coke ever.

IMG_2102 smaller

2.      If I can’t love, I can at least pretend to love

After a set in the casino, someone with a loving face came right up to Kara and killed her with kindness.

Oh my goodness gracious, your voice is such a blessing.  You songs open up my heart, I can’t tell you how much.  We’re from Indiana.

But, Kara thought as she showed her lovely smile, she still lived in a crummy apartment and drove a crummy car.  Sometimes she heard somebody on television, some real person in an interview, who said to a girl, I will transform everything, and he did.  The guy who married Mariah Carey.  The guy who married Celine Dion.  The guy who wrote songs for Ke$ha.

I want to meet one of those guys, she thought.  I could pretend to love him, too.

Sometimes Kara wracked her brain for something that would change things—a new song, a new band, new chops, a new writing partner.  But the thought that tortured her was—What if I need a new heart?

3.      I have the right to take what I want

It was 8 at night and Kara was on her way to surprise Evan at his apartment, but for some reason, she veered into a Catholic church.  Inside, it was so empty and shadowy that it made her think of an ancient Italian cathedral she’d read about once that had a splinter from the True Cross.  She couldn’t imagine being that close to Christ.  She walked up the aisle and the tile echoed off her heels, the proof of her own aloneness.  Kara had never felt close to Him, only far away, so far away that He’d always been nothing more than a vague concept.  Written on a piece of paper.  Stored in a vault.  Bolted to the bottom of the sea.  On Jupiter.

The sound of her own heels hurt her so much that she started to cry.

There was a young priest there.  He patted Kara on the back and said, There, there.  They ended up at Ichabod’s for a late dinner, and then at her place at 1:30 am.  They nestled together on the sofa and he was saying, I’ll tell you everything, and then he did, not like Evan, who wouldn’t talk.  The priest was young and handsome like Jesus, but humble and kind like no handsome man ever is.  When he took off his clothes, Kara saw he had a scar on his side.

Is that where the centurions stabbed you? Kara joked.

He became solemn and spoke softly.

You know, there’s a lance in St. Peter’s Basilica that they claim is the lance that the soldiers used to stab Jesus.

Really.  You know, I didn’t sign up for a sermon.

What I mean is, there’s another one in Paris.  And other ones in Vienna and Krakow and Istanbul.  So don’t worry about feeling far from God. 

Ah.

Kara pushed her head into his chest.  There was so much consolation in his attitude towards despair, as if despair were simply proof that we can be happy.  She made love to his despair more than anything else.  Afterwards, their conversation settled upon their pasts.  He talked about trying to please his Mexican father, who was so obsessed with not going to hell that his son wondered what horrible thing he had done.  His father had indeed done a horrible thing.  One day, he discovered what that sin was: him.  That’s what made him join the priesthood.

It was my way of committing suicide, he said.

Kara talked about what was consuming her, the old love that was ruining everything.

Harris left me.

Oh no.  Tell me what happened.

November.

What, you mean…last November?

Yes.  I always think about him when I’m making love to Evan.  Sometimes I start crying when he’s making love to me and I have to make an excuse, like I say, ‘Oh, I’m only crying because it’s so awfully beautiful.’ 

You do what you have to do.

Exactly.

I mean, I do what I have to do.

Of course, I paid her back…

Who?

My sister.  She stole Harris.  She dug a grave in my heart.

I’m sorry. 

My boyfriend Evan is a complete mystery to me.  I wish to God there were an Evan-to-Kara dictionary.

I’m sorry.

It’s so beautiful that you apologize.  I wish everybody would apologize to me.  All the time.

I’m a great apologizer.  Give me a sin and I’ll apologize for it.  I’ll apologize for Saddam Hussein’s sins.  I’ll apologize for the weather. 

We’re a great pair.  We fit into each other like puzzle pieces. 

Hey, you want to do some more blow?

IMG_2026 smaller.jpg4.      Don’t blame me, I’m a mess

Five days later, Kara made a list.

  • Organize papers
  • Do delicates
  • Never go back to church ever

Kara loved making lists.  She did it because her life was a shambles.  She made lists and she sang for the same reason: so that she could live with the chaos.  Singing elevated the mess into art.  She’d heard that in ancient Greek, chaos comes from the word sing, which made complete sense to her.

5.      I must control everything

Kara was out shopping with her friend BabyLynn, who was a costume designer for performers on the Strip.  They were eating frozen yogurt in the mall and talking about late paychecks.  One thing they had in common was they both worked in entertainment, and both their employers commonly delayed payment.  Another thing was sobriety.

So how are you doing with your twelve steps? BabyLynn asked.

Kara had forgotten that BabyLynn was her AA sponsor, they had so much fun together.

I don’t know.

That doesn’t sound good.

I mean, look, the Big Book says to be “searchingly honest.”  Why can’t we just be honest?  Isn’t that a bit obsessive, I mean, like, trying too hard, to be “searchingly honest”?

You are too much, Kara, that’s why I love you.  What brought that up?

Oh, I guess I’m having a little trouble with control issues.

Like what?

You really want to know?

Yes.

I’ll be searchingly honest, then, all right?

Okay.

Okay, here it is.  I want Evan to talk to me.  It kills me that he holds back secrets from me.

You think he’s cheating on you?

Could be.  All men are dogs.

What are you going to do about it?

And then Kara began to cry and people at other tables started peering over their shoulders.

I just…I just….

What?

I hate myself for loving him so much.

[Chapter 4 is here: https://whathappenstous.wordpress.com/2017/06/28/55-las-vegas-days/]

The Chaperone with Stars in Her Eyes

Last night, I was hired to perform magic at a high school prom, held at a local country club.  There were 1,000 or more, and they were Orange County kids, mostly white and Asian, middle class, nice.  The morning after, I’m thinking back on them, so many of whom seemed sweet to me.

The girls so proud of their fabulous dresses.

The teenage boy with gorgeous curly surfer hair, standing in line outside with his gorgeous girlfriend in the striking red dress, holding hands.  And you know every girl wants him and every boy wants her and they both know it.

The uncool kids dancing to the quaint jazz band rather than to the superloud house music.

The nerd, slouched and bespectacled, walking around stag, trying not to look lost and unsure what to do or who to ask to dance.

The kids there with same-sex partners, no harassment.

The other kids going stag, or in groups with other kids who didn’t have dates, trying to have a good time.

The brash girl with blue hair, coming off, like, “I’m not going to go through life getting lost in the crowd!”

The girl Alexis who had 35-year-old eyes, like she knew everything already, and she probably did.

The table of Asian kids freaking out en masse at every trick and amazement I performed, screaming “Whoaaaaaaa!” and begging me not to leave, just one more trick.

At one point, I leaned over to an adult chaperone my age, and whispered, “Are these kids like we were?” And she said, with a grin, “They’re better.”

His Father’s Secret Journal

In 1990, when I was first becoming obsessed with the curious art of magic, I asked an agent her opinion about who was the best kids’ magician in Los Angeles.  She said, hands down, that Andrew Frost was.  So, since I was an ambitious sonuvabitch, I set about to insinuate myself into Frost’s good graces.

David Groves with Afro ca 1979At a party in the San Fernando Valley, I met Frost and Jackie, his girlfriend of more than a decade.  Smalltalk was small and insignificant until I mentioned that I’d just spent the previous ten years as a full-time journalist for such national magazines as Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, Mademoiselle, McCall’s, Psychology Today, and many others.

“Wow,” he said.

“Whoa,” Jackie said.

“See, I’m dyslexic,” Andrew said, “so being able to master words like that is, like, wow.”

It was an instant entree into his world.  It was the beginning of something that sometimes resembled mentorship, sometimes resembled friendship, sometimes resembled dysfunction, and sometimes resembled a clown car soapbox derby.

Frost was not a polished character.  In fact, he was immersed in a depth of chaos that I had never experienced before.  He lived in the back unit of a house in Glendora.  His living area was a mess, detritus scattered across the floors, many of it bits and pieces of magic tricks.  It was like the room of a child whose mother had never made him clean it.  If you looked, you might easily find a stray ace of hearts or even half a rubbed-banded deck, a dirty sleeping bag smushed into the corner, empty liters of Coke, the white caps tossed somewhere unknown, and a stack of bootleg VHS pornos that had fallen from a shelf and never been picked up.  Plus, he never seemed to catch up on his dishes.

Our bunny Lulufifi.

Outside his window, his rabbits and doves lived in a chicken-wire cage perched above the overgrown lawn to keep them away from predators.  His house was nestled next to the San Bernardino foothills, and so mountain lions and other predators would sometimes cruise down in the dead of night.  Once, a predator scared the animals so badly that a rabbit died of fright.  Another time, he tried to breed rabbits and succeeded too well, and there were too many bunnies to fit in the cage.  So he just let them run free, bunnies of various colors hopping everywhere.

“We don’t need ’em all,” he said.  “Most of ’em’ll end up mountain lion food.”

What I remember about him most now was his voice, which was deep and slurred.  It had something to do with his dyslexia, because he slurred his words even when I knew he wasn’t drinking.  Every so often, a client would complain to a booking agent that the magician had showed up drunk, although they weren’t complaining about his behavior or any alcoholic aroma, only about his slurred speech.  They didn’t much complain about his shows, either, because they were always entertaining.

“Wuzza somethin’ I said?” he would sometimes suddenly say.

Every so often in the middle of a conversation, he would drop that particular bomb.  It took me days to unpack it.  It was a phrase that implied that you were attacking him in some way, and your natural response was to back-pedal: Did I offend?  What did I say?  I didn’t mean to offend.  In fact, it wasn’t about anything that you said, he was just determined to make you back-pedal, and for no other reason than to maintain his dominance.

Jim Skaggs and David Groves ca 1995 blurred 2a

One Monday after a weekend of kids’ shows, I was sitting with Andrew in his squalor talking tricks.  Across the room, he was making a bootleg copy for me of an instructional magic videotape when suddenly, he jumped out of his chair.

“Oh my God,” he said.

“What?” I asked.

He didn’t answer, just ran out of the room and out to the garage.  He walked up to one of the dove-vanishing boxes that he used during his kids’ magic shows.  When he performed the effect, he would lift up the lid and suddenly, as if by magic, the bird inside had transformed into a rabbit.  In fact, the bird had been safely transported to a secret compartment, which was narrow and dark.  After the show, when the audience was safely out of sight, the magician would remove the bird from the secret compartment, but Andrew had forgotten.  Andrew opened up the compartment, and sure enough, there was the dove.  Thankfully, the bird was still alive.

Formal promo shot

I followed Andrew around like a poodle for one reason: He had the secrets.  He had studied the secrets since he was 10, and now, at 27, possessed a bona fide repertoire. In magic, the secrets are golden, and can cost you thousands of dollars.  I had no money, having spent the previous ten years writing for the top magazines in the country.  That dove box alone cost $500, but even just simple instructional videos were expensive, as well, running $40 per.  Books started at $40 and ran up to $300 for the most highly prized ones.

The bowling ball production costs $1,000.

This coin trick costs $1,000, too.

I once paid $90 for a book that explained a trick that I desperately wanted, but when I sat down with it, I discovered that the writing was hopeless and I have never performed it the way it’s explained in the book, so that was $90 down the drain.  Here’s how I perform that trick today:

But more than the money, having perspective on those secrets is even more valuable.  So I followed Andrew around and considered every word that proceedeth from his mouth to be a pearl.  The pearl necklace that he eventually gave me consisted of both secrets and a philosophical approach to the secrets.

Here are some of the tricks that Andrew taught me, performed not by him, but by other people who had the secrets.

I was thrilled.  The magic was starting to happen in my hands.  At the same time, though, there was Andrew’s chaos to contend with.  To me, the road to success was orderly.  You learned things by applying yourself.  You succeeded by putting things together in a logical manner.  You memorized.  You studied.  You had Aha! moments in the shower and on the 405 freeway.

But to Andrew, order, logic, and studying were for chumps.  As much as possible, he thought, you should try to get away with things.  Don’t rehearse, just perform things on the fly and deal with the mistakes in the moment, the moment was everything.  Don’t read instructions, just do it.  Don’t memorize a script, because that would make your patter sound wooden and unspontaneous.  Don’t write your own jokes, just steal them from others.  Let your life fall apart and get your rocks off on the mess that lies around you.

I wondered if he was right.  After all, Einstein never combed his hair.  Jack Kerouac and the beatniks lived in squalor.  So many legendary musicians–Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, Ginger Baker, James Taylor, Kurt Cobain–created great music out of heroin addiction.  Andrew was a dyslexic, and I wondered if that, too, might be a source of genius.

At first, I tried to see how much disorder I could stand.  I adopted Andrew’s priorities.  Magic was on the highest shelf and cleaning didn’t even have a shelf.  The inside of my car became a mess, and unless I had a date, I didn’t care.  I started considering all the time we spend cleaning and arranging things as wasted time.  Doing the dishes, picking up your clothes, making the bed, putting away the iron, sponging off the kitchen table, everything.  I started to see my chaos as a whole new world.  I felt that, in some ways, it opened up new intellectual vistas to me.

But at the same time, I had doubts.  A voice deep within me told me that Andrew’s chaos was simply the result of family dysfunction.

I remember the day he confessed to me that he was cheating on Jackie, his girlfriend of 10 years, who was a lovely rebel who idolized him.  He was now secretly sleeping with his landlady Jennifer, the woman who lived in the main house.  Both Jackie and Jen worked as clowns, and were friends.  On Mondays, after a weekend of kids’ shows, they would all pal around together in Andrew’s place, laughing and having fun.  This continued even after Andrew started sleeping with Jen.

It became even more complicated one day when I came over and witnessed a strange scene.  As usual, Andrew was sitting in the center of the dining room, the center of the vortex, while Jackie and Jennifer chatted amiably, talking about their weekend’s shows.  Jackie, of course, was clueless about the infidelity, and Jen was playing dumb, hoping she would catch the big fish in the end.  And all the while, the big fish, Andrew, was talking on the phone with another woman that he had secretly slept with a couple nights earlier.  Everybody was screwing over everybody else, but Andrew was doing the most screwing of all.

One day, Andrew himself offered up a psychological self-diagnosis that rang a bell of recognition.

“You know, so many of the tricks that I choose to do involve tearing or cutting things,” he said.  “I tear up a newspaper and restore it.  I tear up a playing card and restore it.  I cut up a rope and restore it.  I just love destroying things!”

Here’s a video of one of those torn-and-restored tricks, performed by someone else.

And another.

But that diagnosis only told me what, not why.  That all-important why wasn’t explained until Andrew started talking about his father.  It was a sad story.  The man used to earn six figures as a computer programmer, but had lost his job due to drug use.  Every so often, I had seen Andrew’s father.  This sad white-haired man would drive over when he was low on money, shuffle up the driveway, ask for money, and Andrew could never say no.

“This is a loan, all right?” Andrew said, handing over five C notes.

“Oh yeah, I’ll pay you next Friday.”

“Next Friday.”

“Definitely.”

Next Friday would come and go, and the next time Andrew saw him, his father was broke and would need more money.  And Andrew would give it to him, over and over again.  His girlfriend Jackie told me that the old man was into him to the tune of 10k.

“He drove up with bald tires on his car,” Andrew said in his defense.  “What could I do?  I don’t want him to have a blowout on the freeway because of me.”

Eventually, Andrew realized what everyone else knew, that repayment of the money wasn’t coming at all, so he started asking for repayment in kind.  Since his father had worked in the tech field, he repaid him in computers.  To Andrew, it was almost as good as money.

One day, I came over to Andrew’s house and found him huddled over one of those computers with intense interest.

“You gotta see this,” Andrew said, a solemn tone to his voice.

A bronze statue in Bewley's Oriental Cafe

In one of the computers, Andrew had discovered a personal journal that his father had kept.  It recounted his exploits with prostitutes in the San Fernando Valley in suburban Los Angeles.  He had documented in great detail how he had picked up prostitutes, what acts they had performed on him, and how much it had cost.  There were dozens of girls.  It was like reading the unexpurgated diary of an addict.  And suddenly, he realized: That was where all his money had been going.

One encounter particularly riveted us.  It involved a 15-year-old prostitute he had picked up on a Sunday morning.  At this point, Andrew’s father had to be in his sixties.  She had taken him to her parents’ house.  While they were away at church, they had engaged in various sexual acts described in copious detail, all the time worrying whether her parents were going to come home.  Then he paid her and fled the scene.

Andrew was devastated, to say the least.  He was disappointed in his father’s reprehensible behavior.  He was disappointed in so many things.  And as we talked it out, Andrew’s emotions hanging in the air like ozone, everything suddenly fell into place.  It was absolutely clear.  I knew exactly from whence Andrew’s dysfunction had derived.

Very soon, my accomplishments grew in the art of magic.  I started following another magician around like a poodle, and this one was the bona fide world champion who had high standards for his life.  My stage repertoire grew, as did my abilities to manipulate a crowd.  I started wrapping street audiences on the Third Street Promenade around my little finger, holding out my hat and collecting dollar bills.  I started performing at corporate parties for adults, not just children.  I began reading minds.  I wrote a magic book about the street–Be a Street Magician!: A How-To Guide–and published it.  I began traveling around the world lecturing on the subject of magic, first to the Midwest (Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma), then to the South (the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas), then to the East Coast (D.C., New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut), and then overseas (Hong Kong, Sydney, Melbourne, Dublin).

 

Be a Street Magician cover 3 smaller

My knowledge grew, as well, until I possessed a closeup repertoire that stretched to several hours and a stage repertoire nearing two hours.

And as my abilities grew, Andrew mysteriously began to make himself scarce, almost in an inverse proportion.  He would rarely return calls.  He would make an appointment to get together and then not show.  It was like he wanted to keep me in the subordinate position that I no longer occupied.  The more I chased him, the more he fled from me.

Once, we were booked at an event together, and afterwards, we talked.  By that time, he was no longer working full-time as a magician, but had landed a regular job as a tech advisor for some widget company, doing magic only on the weekends.  By that time, he had been with Jennifer for nearly 10 years and they owned a house together, although not a wedding ring. He was a kind stepfather, too, although the kids weren’t turning out too well.

“Show me some magic,” I said, trying to conjure up old times.

Instead, he pulled out his cell phone and showed me a photograph.  It was of a young female employee of his.  The woman was nude, her tongue out and an erotic expression on her face.  Then he showed me pictures of another young woman, also cheesecaking it up for the camera.  He no longer had any magic to show, only this.

[All names in this article have been changed.]

Being Himself, in More Ways Than One

Bill Perron is a born entertainer.  He made his living as a carpet cleaner for many years, and hated it.  He hated swinging that big, heavy machine around.  It took its toll on his poor, aching back.  Not only that, but he didn’t find any glory or satisfaction in his job.  But one day, Bill was hired to clean the carpets at the Icehouse Comedy Club in Pasadena.  In that club, Bill experienced a life-changing moment.

Bill stepped up onto the stage, just to see how it felt.  In the semidark theatre, he faced all the empty seats.  He took a deep breath.  He imagined what it would be like to entertain a roomful of people.  He imagined all the people applauding at the entertaining things he said, laughing and enjoying themselves because of every word that proceedeth from his lips.

What a wonderful thing it would be to be a performer! he thought.

Suddenly, an orange light suffused the stage.  Bill swears it wasn’t one of the stage lights, but instead, an otherworldly orange light that shone down upon him.  And suddenly, in that moment, he realized that performing was his destiny.  As soon as he could, he went out and learned some magic tricks, and soon, he was working full-time as a magician.

I met Bill in 1990, when I was first getting into magic.  At that time, Bill had been a performer for five years already.  In fact, Bill taught me some of my first tricks.  He threw some shows my way.  He introduced me to some booking agents.  But the most extraordinary thing about Bill was that funny things were always happening to him.  And to tell the truth, I know exactly why.  It’s because he makes unusual decisions.  He’s a wacky, offbeat guy in so many ways.

Case in point: A few years ago, Bill was taking an improvisational comedy class.  His teacher assigned him the homework of creating a unique comedic character, and Bill went to town coming up with new ones.  The best of the bunch was Carlos Caliente, who was a spoof of a sexy, indeed, arrogantly sexy Spanish guy who is, in Carlos’ own words, “hot hot hot!”

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Bill developed some comedy routines for Carlos, and through the years has gone out on many gigs performing as Carlos.  He even created some modest advertising to promote Carlos.  He placed Carlos’ face onto a magazine cover and put that onto the Internet.  Over the years, Carlos has become one of his favorite characters, as you can see in this clip with his lovely assistant, Joycelyn.

A couple weeks ago, Bill’s commercial agent sent him a casting notice.  A production company wanted lookalikes of latino celebrities for a commercial aimed at the latino television market.  At first, it seemed like he had nothing to offer them.  Bill doesn’t look like Enrique Iglesias or Lou Diamond Phillips, and certainly not Sofia Vergara.  But then an idea popped into his mind.   As a kind of spoof, why not propose that he’s a lookalike for…Carlos Caliente? 

Bill immediately started to laugh.  In fact, he thought idea was so hilarious that in the end, that’s exactly what he did.

I look very much like Carlos Caliente, a famous latino celebrity.

He didn’t expect to hear anything more about it.

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A week later, though, Bill received a callback.  Bill was driving, so Joycelyn took the call.  Yes, they had seen a photograph of Carlos Caliente on the Internet, and yes, Bill did look remarkably like Carlos.  And so they had a request: Would Bill come in and shoot a commercial posing as a lookalike to Carlos Caliente?

Yes, he’ll be there, she said.

At this point, I would have laughed for about 90 minutes and then figured that I’d had my fun.  I would have called off the joke and told the production company the truth.  But that’s what makes Bill different from me.  Bill felt obligated.  Joycelyn had said yes, so he had to go along with it.  Bill showed up at the commercial ready to make some money.

In the studio, the director had a photograph of Carlos pinned to a bulletin board.  In fact, it was the same magazine cover that Bill had mocked up several years ago and placed on the Internet.

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“You look very much like Carlos Caliente,” the director said.

“Yes, I do,” Bill said.

“I mean, very much like him.”

“Yes, I’m fortunate in that.”

“We’re going to dress you up in a 3-piece suit.”

“If you want, I have a suit that looks exactly like Carlos’ suit in that photo.”

“No, we just want to do a lookalike thing.  We don’t want you to look too much like him.  In fact, you already look too much like him.”

“All right.”

It was for a latino department store, so they shot him doing things around the store–shopping, buying things, helping people.  In all, Bill spent seven hours shooting that commercial.

Bill assumes that the commercial is now playing on latino television, although he can’t be sure because he doesn’t watch Univision.  But he wonders what it looks like.  And I wonder what latinos think when they see this guy in a 3-piece suit noodling around a latino department store like he’s Somebody.

Who’s that guy supposed to be, anyway?

He’s just being himself, people, in more ways than one.