The Radioactivity of Secrets

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

 

Suddenly, the games stopped.  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, but their clothes felt ridiculous on them, so when they returned, it was back to nudité and erotiqué.  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, 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.  Outside, there were buskers on the street.  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, and you could see it on his face.

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Everyone has his own gifts, Evan thought.

Evan sipped his tequila sunrise and played his game, which could be seen in his body, which he moved slowly and deliberately, no fast movements, and his eyes, with which he tried not to offend.

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.”

John took a drag, lifted his head and exhaled into the air above him, and then looked into the distance.

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

“Why?”

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

Evan looked away.

“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 heavy, but trust me, he can’t always protect us.  Learn this lesson, son.  You gotta be always ready to pack up and move in an hour.”

“Okay.  So I should have a plan to go back to my old gig.”

Evan felt a wave of relief pass over him.  There would be an end to the anxiety.  He would have made many thousands in cash and he could walk away with it and never have to talk to him again.

Waitress 1a

“No, buddy, listen to me.  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 shoes.

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

“Same thing.”

“Okay.”

Evan tried to think of the bright side.

“Kara likes the East Coast,” Evan said.

“Yeah, you could bring her, or you could find somebody else, don’t much matter.  I’ve already gotten tired of her whining.”

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

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 boy’s face, stray spittle landing on the guy’s face, before his voice started to wear out and he wandered away.

Φ

And still the marks didn’t come.  Evan and Kara drove to L.A. in the new car and enjoyed themselves a little.  They hung out with Evan’s old buds at the Magic Castle and talked monkey moves.

“Whatcha working on?”

“Gambling sleights.”

“I don’t do them much.  Women don’t like gambling tricks that much.”

It turned into a jam session.  The guy showed him a new false shuffle from Derek.  Another guy showed him a new corner short from Finland.  Another guy showed him a new magnetic holdout from France.  The holdout kept Evan laughing for ten minutes, it was so brilliant.

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“There’s a Japanese magician playing the main stage this week,” the guy said.  “His show is like nothing you’ve ever seen, trust me.”

But these were gimmicks and tricks.  What dawned on him there at the Castle, among all the tricksters performing fireworks in their hands, was that Evan wasn’t a gimmick monkey anymore, he was a player.  It was reality now, not yuks and gasps.  It was real wins, real losses.  He smiled, thinking about it.  Just like Uncle John and Wynton Marsalis, two masters of two different instruments, Evan was now learning how to bend a note.

Φ

When Kara was in the restroom, a lady 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 hardly had an ounce of fat on her and legs that stretched all the way to Ipanema.  Passing by, the girl gave him a familiar look, like they knew each other.

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

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

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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.”

Then she winked and 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 sorrow, 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 false, 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.  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 slapping the 18 C-notes, to use his father’s patois, on the kitchen table.

Φ

The next day, while driving back to L.A., they got the call from John.

“Get back here in seven hours.”

They dropped everything and got back in five.

Φ

Evan arrived a half-hour ahead of time in his Maserati.  Boaz let him in.  John was sitting on the sofa, a Scotch and water in his hands, his legs crossed.

“It’s the Russians again,” John said.

“Okay.

“But it’s a different deal.  We aren’t in it to win this time.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, this time we lose 75% of the time.”

“Okay.”

“I give you the signal,” he said, tapping his elbow with two fingers, “and you fold.  You’re going to do a lot of folding.  And a lot of losing.”

“Why?”

John looked at him for a long moment.  The gaze that John gave him was disconcerting and made him squirm.

“Why do you need to know?” John finally said.

“Okay, you’re right, that’s all right.”

“I wouldn’t normally tell a guy why.”

“Okay, forget I said anything.”

But John’s eyes were still boring into him.

“I don’t want to know,” Evan said.

John finally took a deep breath and lowered his voice.

“The Russians have to get their money out of their own country,” John said.  “They don’t trust their own banks, because they’re not really banks, they’re just people who take your money.  Plus, it’s not the Russians’ money to begin with, at least not legally.  So they come here with all their fucking cash and they lose it at a game.  Then they win it all back in the casino.  I’ve got another Evan at the casino who helps them win it all back.  Minus a commission, of course.  It’s a fucking win win.  Except the Russian people, but who cares about them?”

It was an easy game.  Neither John nor Evan could really communicate with these guys.  They knew a few words, like monney and boker and hooker, but not much beyond thatAll the while, Evan felt hot, like a fever was coming on, but he knew what it was.  It was DNA and the sequeliae thereof.  It was the radioactivity of secrets.  It was who he was now.

[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.

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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.”

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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.”

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.

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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.

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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!”

Carlos Caliente 1a

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.

[http://guestofaguest.com/los-angeles/galleries/2012/november/hollywood-weekly-magazine-and-celebrity-suites-la-host-ama-reception/764205]

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.

collegehumor.19248682858a17a732ded6f080b48913

“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.

Mother Is a Reflection of Light Through a Crystal Goblet

My mother is in the hospital with pneumonia, so I had just come from her house in Diamond Bar, where I had retrieved some items that she needed during her stay in medical prison.  I was sitting in the left turn lane on Grand Avenue, thinking about how we care about others.

IMG_5557

Sometimes caring is genuine and sometimes it’s faked, but when it’s your mother, the genuineness of it goes deeper and broader than anything, deep like the deep roots of an ancient tree in Lord of the Rings, and broad like the stretch of our identity, which is like the muddy Mississippi River of a Jimmie Rodgers song, and which I’ve seen from the shore of the French Quarter and I could hardly even see the other shore.  Mother stretches into everything.  How you shake someone’s hand.  What goes through your head when you get angry.  The things that play below your thoughts like malware in a computer.  The unexpressed things that make people say you’re a good person.  How you react when you read a newspaper story about someone killing somebody else.  In all of those things, there are pieces of Mother, like the reflections of light through crystal.

Sally Groves with her new baby

I’ve been calling my mother on the phone more than she professes she wants (“You have a life to live!” she says), but I think that’s because she doesn’t want to be a bother and I sincerely want to be a bother.  I don’t want to be laying comfortable and warm on my sofa, feeling just great, while she’s laying in a hospital bed in an ugly green gown that’s open in the back, her lungs hurting all the time.  That’s why I call so much.  That’s why I visit the hospital every day.  That’s why I drive to her house and brings things to her.  And that’s why I was sitting in my car at the intersection of Grand Avenue and Diamond Bar Boulevard that day, bringing her a bagful of her belongings that she needed.

That’s when I saw him.  He was a medium-sized mutt, dappled white and black, and only about a year old.  He was running into the street and cars were stopping for him.  It was alarming to watch.  He was a bit frantic in his actions, as if he were lost and searching for his owner, rushing to a spot in the street, then stopping unexpectedly and swiveling his head around, then just as unexpectedly running in a different direction across lanes of traffic.  Everyone who saw him feared for him.

When the light turned green, I made a left turn onto Diamond Bar Boulevard, and it just so happened that at that moment, the dog was safely on the sidewalk to my right.  Still, I knew he might run into traffic at any time, so I pulled over and rolled down my window.

“Here doggie!” I said.

He looked up at me curiously.  In a split-second decision, I parked the car then and there, in the red in front of a bus stop, and jumped out of the car.

“Here baby!” I said, trying to approach him.

He cautiously approached me and sniffed my hand, but I was cautious about him, too.  You never know when a dog is going to bite you, after all.  I squatted down and was about to snatch him when suddenly, he bolted and ran into traffic, as if saying, I don’t have time for this, I’ve got to find my owner! 

I stood up and watched, dreading what would happen.  Diamond Bar and Grand is a very busy intersection, after all, and he kept running into lanes where drivers weren’t expecting him.  Worrying that I had locked myself out of my running car, I got back into my car and watched.  Then, just as suddenly, the dog veered back to our side of the boulevard, and a shiny black pickup truck behind me opened his door.  The dog went up to check the man out, and the driver got a bit of a hold on his harness.  Behind us, a bus and many cars were waiting to see what happened.  Seeing that the guy was having trouble getting the dog into his truck, I jumped out of my car and grabbed the dog from behind.  I lifted him into the cab, despite the fact that the dog was peeing on my hand, and bam!  We had him!

“Go pull into that parking lot,” I said to the truck driver.

Once we were safely there, I climbed into the cab with the other driver.  He was a sixtysomething auto mechanic who had just moved here from New Jersey, he said, and he was as giddy as I was to have averted a disaster.  But now we faced a different problem.

“What do we do now?” he said.

“Well, there are shelters,” I said, “but they usually keep them for a couple weeks and then kill them.”

I was thinking about other dogs.  My first dog, a dachshund named Gretchen, whom we loved for a couple years until he became paralyzed, as many dachshunds do (with a genetic disease now called IVDD), and my parents put him to sleep, as the euphemism goes.  My second dog, a Samoyed named Czar, who kept me company throughout my teenage years, and whom my mother gave away during my freshman year in college because I wasn’t there to take care of him.

Then, unfortunately, I was thinking about another dog I had found under a car in our driveway and I had fallen in love with.  He was big and brown.  He was scared and lost.  I brought him into our garage that night, and then in the morning, brought him to the shelter.  His owner would be looking for him.  He would be frantic.  But when I called later, I discovered that the owner never picked him up.  I wish I’d had the time to take him.  I can only presume the consequences.  I think about that dog often, in fact, with great regret.

My second dog, Czar

My second dog, Czar

My grandmother's Pomeranian (L) and our family dachshund Gretchen.

My grandmother’s Pomeranian (L) and our family dachshund Gretchen.

My bunny Quesadilla and our cat Zorro.

My bunny Quesadilla and our cat Zorro.

Our bunny Lulufifi.

Our bunny Lulufifi.

“Let’s not bring him to a shelter,” the Jersey guy said.

I was also thinking of other pets.  Our cat Zorro, who lays around all day sleeping, just waiting for mealtime.  My old bunny Quesadilla, who lived an astounding 14 years, perhaps because we took such good care of him.  My old bunny Count Chocula, whom so many children had petted and loved.  There are so many animal companions in our lives, and I dread to think how helpless they all are.

So I was holding this mutt, rubbing his face and back, trying to make him feel more relaxed.  He had his front legs on the passenger seat, looking me in the face as if to say, Is this my new owner? and was warming up to me.  To look at him, he seemed like a cartoon dog, like the kind of mutt that Little Orphan Annie might have had, and he had an open, friendly spirit.  He was wearing a black harness, implying that he wasn’t a stray, but not a tag, so there was no phone number we could call.

“Hey listen, I have an idea.  When I first saw the dog, he was coming from over there,” I said, pointing up Grand Avenue.  “We should just drive up there and see if anybody is looking for a lost dog.  There’s a condo complex up there and not much else.”

“Well, that sounds as good as anything.”

So we started driving towards Grand Avenue.  We were two strangers thrown together by circumstance, trying to do the right thing.  In some ways, I felt like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, or the Skipper and Gilligan, whichever seems more lost.  We pulled onto Grand Avenue and then made a U turn back to the condo complex.  I kept petting the dog, rubbing his face, holding his beautiful gaze.

“It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay,” I kept saying.

He was a darling.  He believed me, even if I didn’t know if I did.

Immediately, we saw a thirtysomething guy walking down the street and talking on his cell phone.

“Let’s ask this guy,” I said.

“Okay, but what are the odds that he’s the guy?  I mean, are we going to ask everybody we see?  It seems impossible.”

I rolled down the window as we pulled up to the guy.  I interrupted his phone call.

“Are you looking for a lost dog?” I asked.

The guy looked at me as if a lightning bolt had just hit him.

“Yes!” he cried.

I held the dog up so that he could see, and the man suddenly had the purest look of unmitigated joy in his face.  I mean, there were tears in his eyes and the emotion had filled him up.  The dog was excited, as well.  The man came up close, grabbing at the dog’s head, holding it, petting it.  For a moment, I thought he might kiss me.  It was that lovely of a moment.

And when I was driving home, I thought of my mother.  I thought of love like a muscle that you flex and exercise, and which gets stronger or weaker, depending.  I thought of love as a decision.  And I thought of what vast and mysterious ways in which I love my mother.  And a half-hour later, I walked up to room 581, brought her her bagful of things, and didn’t mention anything about any of this.

Mom 1b smaller

[Sorry, but I have no pictures of this incident.]

Mouse Skeleton in a Trap

I was always missing the moment. Jane was a girl in my Christian youth group. While ten or more of us were talking, she reached over and secretly held my fingers under a jacket for a few minutes. I froze, didn’t turn my head or anything. Eventually, she let go. Nothing ever came of it. Another time, fifteen of us went to an amusement park. We were high school journalists from area schools. During one of the rollercoaster rides, one girl was forced to sit between my legs. The rest of the day, I guess she gave off signals, or that’s what my friends said. She was pretty enough. I was stupid. Didn’t go anywhere.

My religion didn’t help. I had a hard time crossing boundaries. I made hardly a distinction between seduction and rape. To make matters worse, my self-control was absolutely stonewall. Something to be proud of, really. I guess that’s how I reached my junior year in college with innocence intact.

College, I knew, wasn’t about girls. I had to keep my eye on the ball. It was about becoming somebody. You never knew who you were going to be. Lawyer, doctor, physicist, politician, psychologist, the die was rolling. Brilliant, tragically average, heroin addict passed out in an oily gutter, the die was bouncing. Sometimes, I looked into the mirror for clues as to who I was. Studied it. My facial expressions would give me a clue. The set of my mouth. Something in my eyes. Once, in the twenty minutes after answering a question in Victorian lit that drew a loud “Exactly!” from the professor, I knew I was a supernova, after all.

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The guy next to me clearly wasn’t. Too skinny, not serious, denigrated the impenetrability of As I Lay Dying. When I got to know him, he gave a name to his chin: Hapsburg, after royal recessive inbreeding. We met in 20th-century American, taught by a bearded young prof in tight pants who smirked at the girls and thought that all literature, past and present, was based on the template of one poem published in 1922, as if that were Ground Zero of a nuclear explosion.

“Bullshit,” Nathan said, his footsteps echoing through the hallway. “What, all literature? J.D. Salinger? Zane Grey? Winnie the Pooh?”

“Give the idea a chance,” I said. “He’s the one who grades us.”

“And the day after the quarter ends, we never think about this shit for the rest of our lives.”

I didn’t speak Obscenity. It was another difficult boundary, as were kissing others on the cheek as a greeting, calling adults by their first names, daring to fill the air with words and convictions, and going outside with morning hair.

Nathan ate his sack lunch sitting on the wall outside Rolfe at noon, after morning classes. I joined him. One day, we bluffed our way into the English Reading Room, which was reserved for grad students. It was like King Tut’s tomb—“Wonderful things!”—packed with all the most esoteric and obscure journals. Nathan sat down with a thumbed copy of the PMLA while I immersed myself in a short story in The Sewanee Review. It was about Hitler’s whore. He made her lie face-up on the bed while he repeatedly defecated upon her, crying out, “Die, England, die!” My mind was being broadened.

Jacqueline was researching the Walloon poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire. Nathan started riffing on Walloon, and within seconds, the both of them were laughing uncontrollably. The next day, Jacqueline saw us eating on the wall.

“It’s the Walloon girl,” Nathan said.

“That’s your opening gambit?” she said. “Girl?”

Which got us into an unfunny debate about appellations and the political sequeliae thereof. She preferred, when referring to a gender-neutral nonspecific pronoun, to default to s/he. Watching her essay volubly, short dark hair, light freckles, and slender frame, I mused over the length of a woman’s hair and how that told you something about her priorities, how many hours a day she wanted to mess with it. This literary goddess had opted for four minutes.

There’d been straitjackets and screams during the month Nathan had spent in a mental institution. He was fifteen and had taken too much LSD and couldn’t stop tripping. It went on for days, which the doctors hadn’t seen before. He’d be watching television with the other loonballs when suddenly, in his peripheral vision, another inmate would grow a faucet from his shoulder and brown water would flow out, or the doctor would tap him on the shoulder and he’d turn and see a Cyclops in a white coat. Back in his cell, there were padded walls and a sloping floor that led to a grating to facilitate the hosing down of blood and vomit. The amazing thing was that he seemed not just normal, but extraordinary. The paradox he embodied made us best friends.

Every day, we would all sit on the wall for a bit. Jacqueline had an ungenerous curl to her mouth. Nathan made her laugh, though. She had graduated with a class of only 100 from the Castilleja School in Palo Alto. I had rarely known rich kids—had gone to school with only one or two—and didn’t understand their complexions. I didn’t know the snakes that crawled through their perfect skulls.

“I’ve eaten Top Ramen for three days running,” Jacqueline said, shaking the bag. We were in her tiny kitchen. “This stuff proves there is a God.”

“I’m eating lots of Chef Boy-ar-Dee,” I said.

“You guys gotta be kidding,” Nathan said.

“It’s easy, cheap, and good,” Jacqueline said.

“You’d have to take upper-level chemistry just to figure out what various flavors of cancer you’re getting.”

Jacquie was wearing a blue wool pullover, and when she pulled it over her head to remove it, she had an unwanted encounter with her breasts.

“I hate these things,” she said, arranging her hair again.

“What things?” Nathan asked.

“Tits,” she said. “They get in the way.”

“I have to tell you, dear, that’s not the majority opinion,” Nathan said, smiling.

“And your clothes have to go over them. And men are always looking at them. Judging them. Like they’re trying to calculate.”

“Calculate what?”

“Whether they’ll fit whole inside their mouths, I guess.”

They weren’t that big. They weren’t that pretty.

Jacqueline handed me one of her poems. It cut a difficult path through the wild, the poet dodging meaning as deftly as she could, nonetheless turning some striking phrases. I looked in vain for sentiment. Upon second reading, the poem began to unfold itself to me.

“I don’t speak French,” I said.

She gave me a look that sunk its teeth into my self-worth.

“It means little breakfast.”

“Oh.”

She closed her eyes, saying: “I’d like to hear what you think.”

I paused for a long moment, looking at the page.

“I don’t know what to say. I don’t know if I have enough understanding of poetry to judge it. You’re obviously very good.”

My thing was fiction, so I became the fiction editor of Westwind. I never imagined how bad some writing could be. I was surprised that these students: a) thought they could submit something for publication so crawling like worms in a corpse with typos, and b) could express themselves well enough to order Tommy’s burgers. It buoyed my spirits. Clearly, I stood on a dramatically lit pedestal that towered far above them.

But other submissions were more puzzling. Maybe I just didn’t get it. Avant garde, plotless fiction, postmodernism. Character before story. Or maybe it’s like this: You’re holding a piece of excrement in your hand and you don’t realize he’s the next Kafka, but fuck, you say, who would want to meet Kafka, anyway, he’d probably just engage you night after night in long, draining conversations in the back of a smoke-filled Prague beerhouse about how many different flavors of shitty a person can feel, and no matter how much you tried to talk him down off the ledge, you couldn’t convince him that life was worth living—“It’s shit! It’s shit!”—and then one day you’d hear he starved to death in a Vienna sanitarium and you’d think, Well, who didn’t see that coming?

One manuscript blew my ducky out of the water. Eunice and her three friends were at the beach rummaging through the clothes of people who were swimming. They scored seventy dollars, five rubbers, and a class ring. Later, they were teaching these guys they’d just met how to play mumbledepeg.

“You’re pretty,” one of the guys said.

“You’re the Prince of Who the Fuck Cares.”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, you’re the Prince of I Don’t Have a Fucking Clue.”

Using the blood from a knife wound, Eunice and her three friends pledged to tell ten lies a day. Swear, swear, swear, swear, like a knife stabbed between outstretched fingers, bam, bam, bam, bam. They were telling lies to friends, boyfriends, teachers, even parents and strangers.

I’m still a virgin, Momma

My brother lost his legs in Vietnam

My history teacher is from Africa and teaches us in Pig Latin

I have gonorrhea, you wanna have sex?

My mother isn’t dead, she’s gone back to her hometown in Mexico which is Mind Your Own Fucking Business

No, she didn’t feel any pain

I’m okay, don’t worry about me, I’ll be all right, I’ll be just fine.

Eunice’s wound got infected and she lost the ring finger. She didn’t care. Didn’t want to get married, anyway. She dared boys to touch the stub. If they touched it, they could touch anything else they wanted. Eunice looked in the mirror and decided to slash her face because for a moment, there in her eyes, she’d seen a flash of her mother. She wanted to feel the wound. She wanted to stick her fingers into it. She wanted to pull her mother out of the muscles and blood and slap her on the back and she would start breathing and crying. And Eunice would be free.

I kept the story with me in my bag for days, sometimes reading bits in the back row during boring classes. On the phone, the writer had a high, girly voice that made more concessions than Eunice ever did. I invited her to lunch. Cute didn’t begin to capture it. Angelique looked and moved like Geronimo’s daughter. Hair the same color, I’m sure, and long, too, twelve minutes a day.

“Did the stuff in the story happen?”

Her eyes tracked slowly, but by no means unintelligently.

“Some of it. It was a girl I knew in high school. She always wore short dresses. I never knew what she was thinking. Her boyfriend got a girl pregnant that I’d known since third grade. Eunice messed the girl up and she lost the baby. It was all about babies and dying.”

I had become a born-again at age twelve during a mountain retreat. Sometimes I think I accepted Jesus into my heart to impress this pretty girl in a peasant blouse. After she moved away, the religion took on a momentum of its own. By 17, born-againism had constructed an impressive Plexiglas box around me. Everything was always bouncing off it. Girls on rollercoasters, for example.

This guy Neil was leading Bible studies with me on Sunday mornings in an avocado grove. His eyes tended to get watery and his smile overwide with religious fervor and I wondered what he knew that I didn’t. He was the leader of a cult of one, I guess. I thought it was what my parents wanted, but they were secretly stunned by it. At my age, my mother was wrapping unsuspecting guys around her little finger and crashing motorcycles. My father was losing it in Koto-ri, South Korea.

I was writing a lot of short fiction. I had grown up studying piano, and knew that to play a Bach concerto, a Debussy arabesque, and a Beethoven sonata in recital, as I had in my senior year, thirty-three pages of patterned wheels within wheels within wheels to memorize and play perfectly, you had to start out at age seven with scales, work your way up through John Thompson, and toil for years in the intermediate coal mines before you tackled anything that made people gasp. Short stories made my hands black.

With each story I wrote, I tried something new. Experiment with pov. Tell a true tale of a horrific industrial accident my grandmother once told me. Describe violence. Each story had an objective. I would grow, but only if I had good feedback. Hence, my readership. Nate was a good reader, but always frustratingly unspecific. Mauro was excellent as far as his burro mind would carry him. Jacquie was excellent without reservation. Angelique had a quirky response that I couldn’t penetrate. Tom was eager but egotistical. He later became a personal-injury lawyer and made his first million at age 27 by paying kickbacks to tow-truck drivers.

Every couple months, I would type up the finished manuscript of my next short story, make copies, and hand them out. Later, my readers would give me their reactions in detail. I desperately wanted to know what my readers liked and didn’t like, but in the end, I disregarded half of their critiques. It’s like I didn’t know what I thought about my own story until they said something that I knew was bullshit. That’s how it was with the rest of my life, too.

I was changing and I knew it. One day when I was visiting home, Neil came over. We were sitting in the backyard in chairs where years ago my swingset used to be, among ghosts of my former self. I was wearing brown corduroy pants and no shirt. I said that college was teaching me things. Neil, with his towhead blonde hair and piercing blue eyes, said he was worried about me.

“Worried that I won’t believe the exact same things as you?”

“No, it’s not like that.”

“What is it, then?”

“That you’re following a secular humanist path. It’s not about me, it’s about the Lord’s plan for your life.”

“This is the same Lord that says it’s okay to own slaves, right? Or are you talking about another one that you’ve just invented who believes that all thinking is from Satan?”

“You sound exactly like a person who’s in the world.”

“That’s where I live, Tonto.”

“Jesus wants so much more for you.”

I had fallen for his liturgical shell game in high school and felt stupid for it now. Neil was already starting with the waterworks. His smile was turning into a metal claw. He had acquired those tools growing up with an alcoholic father.

“Why do you need to control everything?” I said.

“God isn’t about control, my brother, He’s about deep, overwhelming, overpowering love.”

“No, you. I’m talking about you.”

Neil never played defense. It’s not that he played offense. He just wanted the opportunity to scratch your face with that metal claw.

“I’m just afraid,” Neil said, getting up from his plastic chair, the gravest of looks splattered over his face like a cream pie, plus a touch of denigration that topped it off like a red rubber nose, “that your Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ may have lost you, and you’re so very precious to Him.”

Nate was rolling a joint. I remember thinking, I’m going to remember this, and here I am remembering it.

“When he’s onstage,” Nathan was saying, “Fahey plays these long guitar masterpieces that nobody never heard of before he rescued them from obscurity.”

“Every time a hillbilly with a banjo dies, man, an angel cries,” Jacqueline said, picking seeds out of the weed.

“He went door to door in Appalachia collecting songs,” Nathan said. “I saw him at McCabe’s last spring. In between songs, he spits into this bucket, I mean, these long, disgusting spittles easing down to the spittoon right in front of the audience.”

“He doesn’t care,” Jacqueline said.

We all toked up in Jacquie’s kitchen and walked the two miles into the village.

“Is it safe for me to walk all that way?” I asked.

“For Chrissake,” Nathan said, “I didn’t give you PCP.”

“What’s that?”

“You don’t want to know.”

Walking up the big hill, getting more winded than usual, feeling the dope descend like a cloud on my head, I suddenly saw my bare feet through my shoes. They were 7-year-old feet. The grass glowed and fluttered like radioactive jello. It all meant something terribly important.

Later, we all sat in the dark together. Jacquie loved Truffaut, but I was convinced they were all speaking Egyptian, so we left. In a village café eating French fries, I couldn’t stop talking. Expectations are what we all have in abundance, I said. Ambition is an expectation. Born-againism is a locust cloud of expectations. Virginity is the Everest of Unrealistic Expectations, the proof of which can be seen simply by tossing two bunnies into a cage. And it’s Everest in another way, too, because you can’t breathe up there. And what about parents’ expectations? You carry them around on your back like the bundle of firewood on the cover of that Led Zeppelin album.

“I’m never going to have an expectation for the rest of my life,” I said.

“Okay,” Jacquie said, grinning.

Looking at the two of them sitting across the table from me, the curly haired folkie and the small-breasted poet, an amused look on each of their faces, I suddenly blurted it out.

“You guys are like twins, you know that? Except you don’t look anything like each other.”

The next morning, I drove to the grocery store with my hands clamped tightly on the wheel, terribly worried that pedestrians were going to jump out from behind cars. I didn’t feel right for three days.

We all had dinner at Woody’s in the village. Nate and Jacquie were on one side, Angelique and my cousin Mauro on the other, ketchup and mustard and a couple of wrapped presents in the middle of the table. Nathan and Angelique had beers. I couldn’t have a drink till midnight.

I punched a Carpenters song into the jukebox and then walked back to the table. They all ribbed me. We all had guilty pleasures we had brought from our childhoods. I mourned the loss of sentimentality. As I learned from my professors to live without so much of it slathered on everything like ketchup, I began feeling differently about things. It was a different world, a lighter sleep, filled with surprising things like Thomas Pynchon, D.H. Camus, Leonard Cohen, the Velvet Underdog, Michelangelo Antonioni, subtitled Swedish movies, moral relativism, alienation chic, sushi, eggplant, ennui, pi.

Mauro was talking about how marijuana was so much more natural than liquor, because it entered your bloodstream through your lungs.

“Didn’t you just try it for the first time?” Mauro said. “That must have been, like—how many weeks ago was what?”

“Two months.”

“Did you like it?”

“If liking it means being a week behind in my assigned reading of the Henriad, then yes, I loved it.”

“God, I’ve got a ton of pages to read, too,” Angelique said.

“First time I did it,” Mauro said, “I had profound revelations.”

“What, that you like potato chips?” Angelique said.

“No, just to live in the moment.”

“I’m always missing the moment,” I said.

Mauro and I exchanged glances. We had been in Boy Scouts together. We had taken the oath together. If I recall correctly, getting high isn’t found anywhere in the oath, correct me if I’m wrong.

“Did you ever drop acid?” I asked Angelique.

“Once. The stereo was on, and the lyrics to Joni Mitchell’s songs were appearing on a ribbon”—Angelique raising her finger toward the spot—“high up on the walls.”

The way she said it, her hair falling down over her shoulders, her eyes filled with remembering, she suddenly seemed unspeakably beautiful.

“I was in a bookstore the other day,” I said, “and I thought, ‘What is it that I’d like to buy?’ And then it occurred to me: A novel written by you.”

Angelique seemed displeased. “You’re still high.”

By 12:01, we were in a dark nightclub in Hollywood with flashing lights and pounding music and I was showing my driver’s license to the bartender for the first time. Angelique watched, transfixed, as Bo Diddley played onstage. I couldn’t care less. His day had come and gone. I asked Angelique to dance.

“It’s Bo Diddley!”

“What?!”

“I’m listening!” Pointing to her ears.

Between sets, with canned rock ‘n’ roll taking over, I tried to get the ball rolling, but Angelique still couldn’t hear me. I leaned in closer and my lips touched her hair. Suddenly, everything that had been muddy became clear. The moment was no longer a problem. The thought of her hair on my lips was tattooed onto my loins. I had three more Rum and Cokes, and by two, Angelique was driving me home.

I tried to tell her about when Mauro and I were seven and he won a Halloween costume contest with a Raja toga and turquoise turban and he fell on his face when he stepped on his robe and chipped his front tooth, but my tongue was thick. I asked her to walk me up, but she politely declined.

“I ha’ some Kahlu’ and milk upstairs,” I said.

“Go to bed.”

I unpacked myself from Angelique’s old red Datsun and climbed the steps. Made it to the top and waved goodbye, watched her taillights drift down the hill. It was the saddest thing I ever saw.

Her high school boyfriend was still in the picture. He was living in Sonoma in an old house with a dog that she missed. Bastard had so much going for him. Hair that stretched all the way to Calexico. Attitude that spilleth over. Dope dealer. Or maybe he was just an excuse. Maybe he didn’t even exist, I don’t know. I was falling, I didn’t know what into, maybe a haystack of needles.

When I got to my front door, I couldn’t go in. Nobody in there but my roommates, two of whom hated me, one of whom hadn’t even talked to me for five months because I had blow-dried my hair on his bed and he hated stray hair and had jammed Spackle into the electrical outlet holes. So I took off my clothes, left them in a pile. Walked towards the pool, stumbled once, said to myself, Don’t worry, I got it, get your fuckin’ hands off me. Stepped onto the diving board, took an unsteady step towards the water, another, sat down, legs dangling, feet underwater. Looked up at the fifteen apartments that faced the courtyard. Two had lights in the window.

I knew what would happen. Some girl would look out the window, see me sitting there, and come down. She would want what I wanted. She would have been scribbling page after page of journal entries in a spiral notebook about how lonely she was. She would have been stuffing the pages into the crawlspace, hiding them but hoping they would be found. I had a name for what I was, and it wasn’t happy. Her name would be Carly or Sophia, but I would settle for Chloe. She would invite me inside. She would have silky dark hair. She would have an unexpected smile that no one had yet discovered. I knew it would happen. It was supposed to be a magical night. Everybody said so. Everything was supposed to happen tonight.

After a half-hour, I knew there wasn’t a God. The night was just one long, empty boxcar. I walked back to the door, let myself in, and collapsed on the bed. Fuck the caffeine. Fuck the moment. I went right to sleep.

The beach was nothing to speak of. Grey sand and lots of litter. We wandered back to the main drag, where a brown guy with only a few teeth in his smile and no English at all, I mean, not an ounce in his whole body, sold shark tacos on the street corner.

“I’m not hungry,” I said.

“They’re fully cooked. You can see him cooking them.”

“Nate, you’re buying food from a guy on the street.”

We pondered where to stay. There was a $3 hotel, a $5 hotel, and a $6 hotel.

“Let’s try that one,” I said, pointing.

It looked like an American motel, with four floors, a new paint job, nice cars in the parking lot, and American families on the balcony in nice leisure clothes.

“I don’t want to pay that kind of money.”

“What kind of money? How much could it cost? I’ll go check.”

I walked over and talked to the clerk. Turned out to be $12 a night.

“Look, we’ve got a chance to pay only $6. You just don’t pass that up.”

So we went with the bargain basement. We checked in. The shower looked scary. The whole room looked like the inside of some fat slob’s dirty mind. I had wanted to read a little Hemingway on the bed—I was rereading his entire works now—but it wasn’t a pleasant place to spend any time. It was exactly what $6 bought us. We left our luggage, but when we were walking along the boulevard, I began to wonder about my stuff. Then again, what would they steal? My short stories? We wandered over to a bar that was famous, I don’t know what for, getting deadass drunk, I guess.

“You want a beer?” Nathan asked.

“Naw,” I said.

“I’m buying.”

“Every time I drink or smoke, I lose three days.”

“What do you want, then?”

“Coke. In the bottle.”

Nate went away and came back with a Dos Equis and a Coke in the bottle, the cap freshly popped. There was moisture around the lip. Imagining Montezuma waiting for me with fangs and talons, I left it untouched. I surveyed the room. It was filled with things. Framed photos of Pancho Villa and Emilio Zapata. American celebrities who had visited the bar. Men posing with huge swordfish and big smiles. There were two barefoot teenagers going up to each table with a wooden box and trying to sell something, I couldn’t tell what.

“Where’s Jacquie?” I asked.

“She’s with her parents till January 6.”

“Did you ask her to come down here with us?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I haven’t slept with her yet, if that’s what you were asking.”

“I wasn’t asking that.”

“She doesn’t want me.”

“There are guys who seem to know just what to say.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“I’ve seen them. I wish I knew what those things were so I could tell you.”

“I don’t know if anything’s going to work.”

“I mean, they’re no more good looking than other guys. They just know what to say.”

The teenagers were suddenly at our table with the wooden box. The 14-year-old was speaking to us in broken English.

“You…real man?” he said.

“Who wants to know?” Nathan asked.

“If you are real man, you able to hold thees.”

“Do you understand the adverse sequeliae of chauvinistic appellations?” I said.

He made a face.

“You hold thees. We put electricidad.”

“You think I should try it?” Nathan asked me.

“What the hell for?”

“I could use some good shock treatment right now.”

“Don’t do it.”

“It helped Sylvia Plath.”

“Nate, Plath killed herself.”

Nathan reached into his pocket and gave the kids a couple quarters. He took a deep breath.

“How long seconds?” the kid asked.

“Thirty.”

“Are you sure?” the kid asked.

“Yes.”

The kid looked at me. “You should to bet. Five dollars he hold thirty seconds.”

I ignored the kid. Nathan took the metal rods into his hands and rested them on the table. The kid cranked up the box, and then suddenly Nathan got this weird look on his face, frozen, as if he had left the planet. It was a long thirty seconds. I sat forward in my chair. A muscle in his upper arm began to twitch wildly.

“Nathan!” I said and almost touched him, but pulled back.

I worried about doing something, or yelling something or anything. When he finally came back from wherever he was, he took a deep breath.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

Nathan looked at the kids.

“Get the fuck out of here,” he said in a weak voice.

They took the box to the next table.

“Do you feel any better now?”

“Go fuck yourself.”

Nathan kept shaking his hands out. After dinner, we went to a nightclub and met a couple girls from San Diego. I liked the Asian girl named Joanne and danced with her a bit. I looked over at Nathan dancing with the chubby blonde. He claimed to be a great dancer but he was actually pretty awful, and every so often, he would shake out his hands, which made him look like a bad dancer who had just finished washing dishes. They had the countdown to midnight and people blew horns and cracked confetti eggs on people’s heads and kissed. But I didn’t kiss Joanne and Nathan didn’t kiss his blonde. I wanted to be a gentleman, but I misunderstood the ground rules. Those girls had wanted to be kissed. When it’s New Year’s Eve, you kiss the girl. You always kiss the girl. I still hadn’t found my route across the desert.

It seemed crazy. It seemed like there should be some way to ask the question and get a straight answer, but there wasn’t. Would you mind if I kissed you? or May I have your consent to be intruded upon? Or some window you could apply at, fill out a form, like “Form 1492: Application for Consent to Physical Invasion,” or even work for it, like collect boxtops or green stamps or pull some weeds. I would gladly clear all of western Kansas if that were the reward. But to not have any way to ask was just crazy.

Three years later, Mauro recommended R.D. Laing’s work, and I sat down one afternoon in a hot tub and read with surprise his theory that all insanity is simply a sane response to an unlivable situation. Over the next few years, I began fitting my ideas about life into that construct, because that was the word for this way of living: unlivable. Two years after that, I visited Metro State Mental Hospital as a journalist and saw a twentysomething man walking around aimlessly in circles like a zombie, saying over and over again, as he had every day for the past fifteen years, “I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it.” The nurse said that when he was nine, his father had shot and killed his mother in front of him, then turned to him and said, “You made me do this.” Then he killed himself. Unlivable.

By three, Nathan and I were driving lost through unlit suburban neighborhoods. We both had to take a leak. We got out in front of a wooden white house with a dead brown palm tree growing next to the curb.

“That tree needs watering,” Nathan said with a smirk.

Nathan was not a little drunk and got my light-brown Florsheims wet. I kept a lookout for the house’s owners.

“Listen, you’re twins, I told you that,” I said.

“We’re not twins. We’re strangers.”

“You just have to be more aggressive with Jacquie. Try to think like those guys who get the girls.”

“It’s worse than that. She’s a whacker and I’m a mole.”

“Why the negativity, man? Jeez, you sound like my Dad.”

“Because she wants you.”

“What?”

When Croatians wish you luck, they say, “Bowl of shit.” They’re a cynical people. They’ve been dominated for centuries by outside powers, Austria-Hungary on one side, Romans on another, Turks on still another. But sometimes, Bowl of shit is just what you get. I looked at Nathan uncomprehendingly for a moment, then looked away. On the one hand, it is sad to hear that your best friend is disappointed in love, and doubly so when the fault seems to fall on your own mesomorphic shoulders. On the other hand, it is not enough for one to succeed; one’s friends must fail.

“You should go after her,” Nathan said. “She’s a beautiful girl.”

I didn’t want to be impolite.

“Yes, she is.”

There was a difference, my fiction prof had told us, between sentimentality and sentiment. The former was a blemish, the latter, a mere option among many. What had moved me growing up had not, contrary to what I had assumed, been a formative experience, but instead, a juvenile response. Sentimental books—anything that made my heart ache or soar or that touched it in any way—were childish. But there was one thing I knew: I did not want to live in a world without sentiment. The prospect took away my joie de vivre. That was the world that Jacqueline thrived in. Or, as she would insist on putting it, in which she thrived.

“She said you look like her father,” Nathan added.

Opening up a whole other can of Freud.

“She asked me if I could set something up with you.”

I had begun to stop wishing for specific things when I threw a penny into a fountain. It seemed childish to wish for a job, or a car, or a girl. Those were things you earned. It was like a spoiled rich brat wishing for a pinball game for Christmas. And getting it. There was no guy in a big red suit. I always closed my eyes, cleared my mind, and just before tossing the penny, let one word flow through my head: Fulfillment. It meant there were no boundaries, no limits. It meant I was claiming everything, the whole world, without restriction. I hesitated, though, to claim black cats.

For months and months, I steered clear.

It was bothering me, though, why I didn’t have any luck with women. I thought about it constantly. It made me wonder whether I might fit into this new category people were talking about: gay. I didn’t think about men in an erotic way. The first time I heard the mechanics of it, I mean, really had it explained to me, I said, “What?! No! You’ve gotta be kidding!” But I did get terribly nervous when I was around girls that I wanted. And I never got any of them.

Susana was perfect. Perfect blonde hair and perfect blonde face. She went on one date with me. I called her the next day and left messages for the next twelve days in a row to ask her out again. I must have become the big joke around the sorority house: Another guy’s in love with Susana. So what else is new? Fiona was perfect, too, but in a more refined way. She sat next to me in the back row of Victorian Lit. We wisecracked beautifully together. On the last day of class, I screwed up the courage to ask her out. She beat me to it. Showed me her engagement ring. Never got any of those women.

There was an unconscious, Freud said, that gave you everything you truly wanted. But I didn’t get those women. Did I not want women?

“You’re too intense,” Nathan said. “Women like men who don’t care.”

“How do I not care?”

Nate and I had moved into a place together six miles south of campus. Once, I went down to the carport to my green Datsun and found behind my windshield wipers a couple pages torn out of a pornographic gay magazine. It was photos of naked men having sex with other men. On the bottom was scrawled: “This could be us.” That evening when I took a walk, the middle-aged dolt in the house across the street gawked with a grin on his face.

Nathan was in limbo. He had graduated, took a shit job at a clipping service, and was falling more heavily into THC. I would come home and he would be sitting on the couch with red marijuana eyes and an album cover in his hands, listening to “Give Me Cornbread When I’m Hungry.” He had devised a plan to plant marijuana in his closet under grow lights, but I nixed it. It wouldn’t be good for either of us.

“I’m visiting my mother in Passaic all next week,” Nathan said. “You should call up Jacqueline while I’m gone. You’ll have the whole place to yourself.”

Our apartment was a two-bedroom in a cheap neighborhood. The bedroom doors were as thin as our voices were loud. The carpet was green, thin, and old. If you picture an apartment building that’s nothing special, I mean, nothing special at all, you’ve hit it on the nose.

I invited Jacqueline in without a kiss. She entered in ominous silence. I had spent so much of my life working hard not to think about the actual specifics of sex. What comes first, what comes next. We had no real furniture, only bricks and planks for bookcases and a mattress covered in an orange bedspread in the living room for a couch. I poured us both some German Riesling because that’s what you were supposed to do. As she walked into the bedroom, the dog in the yard below started barking. He was a vicious old black dog on a chain that barked all the time. Months later, someone shot him dead and the cops did nothing about it.

Jacqueline laid her purse down on my desk, a door laid across two used filing cabinets. This was before I had accumulated a lot of junk in my bedroom. That’s not to say it was clean. It was what a guy thought was clean. We took off our clothes in silence and laid down. We began to kiss and fondle, as I’d seen them do in Three Days of the Condor. She may not have been gorgeous, but she was pretty enough. I didn’t really know what came next. She put her hand on me. I reached my hand between her legs and it came back sticky, as if I’d touched jam.

“Uush,” I said.

“Well, yours doesn’t feel too good, either.”

And that was that. In a huff, she was out of there. I didn’t really see that I had said anything wrong. I was lost for awhile. Played some New Chautauqua. Read a few pages of something. Then went into the kitchen and turned on the TV, which was playing the 1958 schlockfest, The Naked and the Dead. Soldiers were fighting and yelling. War was hell. I sat down and propped my feet on the kitchen table. It was so difficult to tell if you had become a man. Nobody issued you a license. The tribe no longer gave you an initiation ceremony in which you ate panther intestines or spent the night in a sweat lodge. Seeing guys in khaki buoyed me. These guys were men. War had made them men. I wondered if what I’d had was sex, and whether that had made me a man. My father had been to war, but he didn’t say anything about it. Did he give me a roadmap to manhood? Was he going to help me? What would he say if I told him I’d touched it and said what I’d said? He’d say he didn’t want to hear about it and take a drive.

Two days later, Jacqueline called me. I wasn’t going to apologize.

“You get only one first time,” she said. “You want it to be special.”

Jacqueline and I had dinner at her place by candlelight. That was more the way it was supposed to be, she said. She was wearing a blue cotton blouse, and I was wondering whether it bothered her tits. I was wondering whether any of her other protuberances got in the way, too, like her nose or her butt.

“Where do you want to live when you get out of school?” Jacqueline was saying.

“I don’t know. Hemingway had four homes. I’d like that.”

Her eyes were lit up above the candles.

“Where?”

“He had a home in Spain.”

“How do you know that?”

“I’ve read a few biographies.”

“How many?”

“Twelve.”

She gave me a look. I had read the first biography, and at the end, wondered where the secret was. Because he knew something. I read the second and the third biographies, then just kept reading. It was clear in the very seams of his prose that he had an understanding. When Robert Jordan was preparing to blow the bridge and knew he would die in the act, the author knew something. When Santiago brought back the stripped carcass of the massive marlin, the author knew something. But the more I read of his life—which was a very different thing, something that couldn’t be revised and which you couldn’t change the events of to make yourself look heroic—the more I realized just how much of a prick he was.

“Have you ever been to Spain?” Jacqueline asked.

No.”

“I love Barcelona, especially Las Ramblas. Where else?”

“He lived in Ketchum, Idaho, which was great for skiing. There’s a picture of him skiing with Gary Cooper.”

“Do you ski?”

“A little.”

“We should go skiing sometime.”

“Okay.”

“Did he ever live in New York City?”

“No.”

“I want to move there.”

“Because it’s the center of the publishing industry?”

“Because there are so many things to do all day and all night. Plus, I can speak French and people will know what I’m saying.”

I had brought a record that I loved. It was Keith Jarrett, who played improvisational solo piano. Ever since I had broken the surly bonds of classical, I had luxuriated in improvisation. It allowed you to follow the music in your hands. Jarrett’s improvisation was the kind of music that, like Fahey, pulled you into an ever-deepening whirlpool. You could drown in it. Jacqueline dropped it on the stereo.

I was on top of her. It came more naturally this time. I said nothing about the jam. I wasn’t just listening to the music, I was the music, and it was a shiny feeling that I had only had in a dream, the white candles flickering onto the walls, lightly crackling, my innocence slowly burning off, my identity transmuting, because I was no longer the guy who was impossibly innocent, who couldn’t get the girl, who used Christianity as a buoy in open waters, who doubted his sexual preference, who couldn’t cross boundaries, couldn’t find a route across the Sahara, who was missing the moment, I was the moment, I was burrowed so far into the moment that I was emerging the other side, pushing my way out the other side like Eunice’s mother, when suddenly, as if someone were spearing me like a fish out of a stream, Jacqueline was almost shouting.

“This isn’t right, this isn’t right,” pushing me off her.

It wasn’t an easy thing to stop in the middle, I discovered. Energy wants to go from one place to another. The body doesn’t want you to stop and lay on your back. I was panting and sweating.

“What do you mean?” I said, nearly out of my mind.

She couldn’t immediately verbalize it. Her lips once again wore that ungenerous curl. It looked like she was trying to figure out who to blame.

“Why did you pick that record?” she finally asked in a sharp tone.

“Because I love it.”

“Why do you love it?”

“I don’t know. Why is this important now? I listen to it all the time.”

“Yes, but why did you think it would be good for lovemaking?”

I stared at her. “Because I really, really love it.”

“I think it’s because it’s a live album.”

“What?”

“At the end of every song, it has applause,” she said. “It’s for your male ego. Egoiste. You needed applause while you were making love.”

My father didn’t yell. When he was angry, he became quiet, walked out the door, and took a three-hour drive. I could feel my face tighten while I put on my clothes. I could feel myself become impermeable. I remember a panicked look starting to form on her face, as if she could feel me at the start of never talking to her again. She started saying things, but the sound was turned off. I wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction. I was gone.

I didn’t see Jacqueline for years after that. It turned into a story, then a memory, then a static representation of an experience like an icon on my computer. It’s like when I looked into the attic of an old house I was renting and discovered a mouse skeleton in a trap. Nathan told me she was pursuing a master’s degree in poetry. She had married a fellow graduate student in the program. They didn’t move to New York City or Paris or Barcelona. They were having offspring. Apparently, he had brought a studio album.

But I knew what she had meant. I didn’t love her. I couldn’t make myself love her. But she and Nathan had been so insistent. Still, she made me think about things for years afterwards. At 29, I got an invitation to go home with an exotic but slow-witted lady named Tricia. We rolled around on her sofa for a bit, and then, out of breath and all lathered up, she seemed ready to kick it into the bedroom.

“I haven’t slept with anyone in ten years,” she said.

The look in Tricia’s eyes took all the wind out of my sails. It was like she looked into my eyes and saw the route to the next twenty years. I could have commandeered that toy boat, but I didn’t have the heart. I could see the wreckage before it even hit the rocks. So I didn’t let it happen. In the ensuing years, I became increasingly honest with myself. I wondered whether Jacqueline had been only the first in a series of casualties. I had often been so casual about sex. But after Tricia, I stopped sleeping with women I didn’t really want to sleep with. My heart couldn’t take it, and neither could theirs. It was like doing violence to someone.

In the ensuing years, small tragedies befell my friends. Nathan never said a word about what happened between Jacqueline and me. He turned out to have the biggest heart of all of us. His tragedy was that he fell in love with a girl who didn’t enjoy anything but her own misery. It helped him quit THC, but he wrestled with her misery for decades.

Another tragedy: Angelique landed a newspaper gig and never found much time for her fiction. A third: She went into therapy and learned how to be happy. She was never quirky again. In bookstores, I still long for the novel she might have written.

I became a magazine writer. Within ten years, I had written over 500 articles and felt like a writing machine. My religion became just another forgotten border crossing, my virginity, the lingua franca that I finally learned to speak.

But for years, Jacqueline remained a mystery. Then one night, I looked her up on Facebook. It took me a couple weeks before I got up the courage. When she friended me, I began devouring her profile. It took me days to fully grasp it. I walked around thinking about it all the time. At times, I was angry with her. Fucking ballbreaker. She had given up the poetry—given it up! Quel désastre!—to become a short-sale realtor. She had embraced her mother’s Judaism, and was now worshipping at a synagogue along Sunset Boulevard. Her three children were now nearly grown, and her longtime companion Susan was a choral director. In the dark of the night, my face lit up by the computer screen, I laughed. No more expectations, no, never again.