Hurtling Through the Air and Hitting Things on the Way Down

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

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

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

“Seriously?”

It was a long, quiet drive back.

Φ

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

Evan needed high mileage to figure out his toe tag.

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

20160926_175033I must have broken a cheekbone, he thought.

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

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

Bicycle tire filtered 1b

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

Builds character, he thought while pedaling.

“Can I go?” Kara said.

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

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

Φ

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

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

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

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

Crying blur 1a

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

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

Φ

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

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

“Can I talk to you?”

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

Evan looked down at his shoes.

“I don’t know.”

Kendra stared at him for a long moment.

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angry Kendra 1a

Kendra said nothing.

“I need to talk to someone.”

Kendra took a deep breath, looked out the window.

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

“She’s not up to it.”

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

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

“Do you have to go?” Evan asked.

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

“My heart is sick.”

“Do you fuck at all?”

“Not lately.”

“Because she’s bad in bed.”

“No.”

“Because you miss me.”

“No.”

“Because you made the wrong decision.”

“No.”

“I’ve got a client.”

Evan looked straight at her.

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

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

“I don’t feel like Evan anymore.”

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

“But I feel so awful.”

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

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

“I’m not eating.”

“To be expected.”

“I’m not sleeping, either.”

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

Evan stood up and started for the door.

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

“What?”

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

Φ

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

“Really?” Kara said, bleary eyed.

“Definitely.”

“I thought you had gotten tired of me.”

“I’ll leave you a post-it when I do.”

IMG_5181c filtered

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

“I’m going to kill my father, okay?”

Kara’s breathing didn’t change at all.

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

That time, Kara stirred.

“What?”

“Okay?” Evan said.

Kara shook her head in confusion.

“Okay,” she said.

“All right,” he said.

[This is an ongoing work of fiction.]

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On Reaching My Dad’s Age

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

Donald Groves Positive Thinking

My father Donald Groves in his twenties

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

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

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

“I’m sorry, Dad, I’m sorry….” I said.

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

Donald Groves in his fifties smaller

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

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

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

Dad's grave 2015 smaller

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

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

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

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

IMG_6231b smaller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay.”

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

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

Donald Groves and kids David and Diane and friend Dana Crague

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

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

David Groves age 8

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

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

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

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

That was his wisdom: breasts and vinegar.

Donald Groves on his honeymoon 1951 b

In many ways, he was me.

Combo David and Donald shot closer

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

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

Mom at Dad's grave 2015 1a smaller

David at Dad's Grave 2015 1a smaller

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

“Oh, don’t get me anything,” he said.

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure.”

“Where do you want to go?”

“I have an idea,” I said, smiling.

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

The Radioactivity of Secrets

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

 

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

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

IMG_4920b smaller

Everyone has his own gifts, Evan thought.

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

Try not to get hurt, he thought.

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

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

“Oh.”

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

“Okay.  Well, you did.”

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

Waitress 1a

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

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

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

“Same thing.”

“Okay.”

Fiona Apple was growling about something in his head.

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

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

“Okay.”

“Because you can always trade up.”

“I don’t know.”

“Be the pin, not the balloon.”

“Well….”

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

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“Okay.”

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

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

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

Fuck out of here, John said.

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

Φ

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

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

Evan never used to be that interested in Benito.

“Gambling sleights,” Evan said.

“Now you’re talkin’.”

IMG_5154a smaller flopped

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

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

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

“Yeah?”

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

“Give me the gist of it.”

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

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

“It’s a ledge,” Benito said.

“Holy Christ,” Evan said.

“It’s beautiful.”

“It’s fucking gorgeous.”

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

Φ

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

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

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

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

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

“You don’t like trouble?” she said.

“My girlfriend is coming back any moment.”

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

She winked and then slinked away.

Φ

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

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

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

“I’m eating pretty well, actually.”

“Vegetables, too?  Four basic food groups?”

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

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

“Okay.”

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

“Where’s Dad?” Evan said.

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

“He works too hard.”

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

“Mom, what is it?” he said softly.

“What?”

“You know what.”

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

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

“Why?”

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

“Mom, you can tell me.”

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

“He’s not your father.”

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

“Who is?”

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

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

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

 

[This is an ongoing work of fiction.]

In the Labyrinth of Selves

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

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

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

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

“Dropped out of Princeton.”

“I mean before that.”

“Oh.  Prep school in New Hampshire.”

“Which one?”

“Exeter.”

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

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

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

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

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

Φ

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

Drunk 1a

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

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

Almost everything is going right.

Over Deception Pass, almost isn’t good enough.

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

Φ

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

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

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

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

“Who?”

“The bitch.”

“What, Kara?”

“S’what it is.”

“I’m sorry about that, bro.”

“But I got a fix for it.”

“What’s that?”

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

“What is it?”

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

“What is it?”

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

David and Angela drunk 1a

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

Φ

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

 

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

Body art 1c

“I wann’ sleep for coupla hours.”

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

“Naw, sleep for coupla hours.”

“You guys up for that?”

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

“If he can take it, I can take it.”

“I’m with him.”

“Fuckin’ A.”

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

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

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

“Why didn’t you?”

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

“From books and other guys.”

“Not from your father.”

“No.”

“I’d like to meet those other guys.”

“It took me ten years or more.”

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

“She’s never been a good cook.”

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

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

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

Φ

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

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

“What do you mean?”

“Just promise me.”

“I promise.  But why?”

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

“Just hemlock,” she said with a grin.

“I’m serious.”

“All righty, then.”

“Have you?”

“Just water.  Only water.”

“Come crash at my place.”

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

“Something like that.”

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

“What, you mean Baptiste….”

Their eyes met.  She got it.

Φ

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

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

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

“Hardware store.  Why?”

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

“You’re at the house?”

“Yeah.”

There was a long pause.

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

“We got a game tonight.”

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

“My phone’s been off.”

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

“No you didn’t.”

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

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

He said to get the fuck out of there.

Nobody will know.

This isn’t going to end well.

Everything will be fine.

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

Φ

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

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

“Tough about Baptiste.”

“Yeah.”

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

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

“No.”

“Okay, listen to me closely.”

“All right.”

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

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

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

55 Days in Las Vegas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey.”

“So what’s up?” John said.

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

“Hoped?”

“No no.”

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

“Was it something I said?” John said.

“What?”

“You busy or something?”

Evan had so looked forward to those candles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A private game?”

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

“It sounds dangerous.”

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

Kara set down her Champagne glass.

“Whoa.”

“Yeah, whoa.”

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

“But…it’s not exactly….”

“What?”

“Legal.”

“Yeah, but didn’t you say 4k a day?”

“Yep.”

“Plus, he needs a girl.”

“To do what?”

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

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

“Coolers?”  Kara asked.

“Switch in decks,” John said.

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

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

“As long as it takes,” he answered.

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

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

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

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

“All right.”

“Okay.”

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

“Yeah.”

“Yeah.”

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

Their eyes traded looks.

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

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

“That’s what she said.”

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

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

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

“Yeah, I got 7.”

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

Evan smiled.

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

“Yeah, I kinda do.”

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

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

After the third hand, Simon turned to John.

“You got some blow?”

“As much as you want.”

“I want it all.  I want to win.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m going to make a play for her.”

“I’ll put in a good word for you.”

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

Evan just smiled and looked at his virgin Scotch.

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

“You’re right,” Evan said.

“About what?”

“That you talk too much.”

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

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

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

“Naw.”

He didn’t even seem to be pissed off.

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

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

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

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

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

A Nightmare Unfolding

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

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

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

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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.]

A Rose for Doug Slater

Ten years ago, I learned how to twist a napkin rose. I thought it was a pretty neat trick. You take a cocktail napkin and twist it into something that looks like a rose. To boot, I bought some napkins that were specially printed, three-quarters green and one-quarter red, to make it easier.
I told my magician friend Doug Slater about it, and he smiled. He had been there before me. He took out a couple napkins and showed me the real work on it.

Doug didn’t cheat by using a preprinted napkin; instead, he used two napkins, one red and one green. Unlike me, he knew all the little touches and twists. He cared about every little part of the process.

As Doug showed me his work on the napkin rose, I realized that when he put his mind to it, he could master a subject not just thoroughly and completely, like the engineer that he was, but with a measure of love. In fact, he and his friend Elroy videotaped an instructional videotape on the subject that, for technical reasons, never made it to market.
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Doug, I never mastered the napkin rose as you did. But now that you’re gone, I offer this napkin rose to you. It’s not as good as you could have made, but it’s the best I could muster with my limited skills. Rest in peace, my friend.

Lemons Into Lemonade

Unfortunately, this trip has thrown a lot of lemons our way.

On the flight over, we got stranded for five hours in Kafka’s Airport (aka Heathrow) and lost a full 24 hours of our trip, gone forever.

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A couple days later, we rented a car and I began driving on the left. I concentrated hard while driving, because not crashing into things is good.  Then when we turned in the car, they spotted a small scrape.

“I didn’t hit anything,” I said. “I would’ve felt that.”

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“We didn’t feel anything,” my girlfriend Claire said.

“Still, the contract you signed says that you’re responsible,” said the imbecilic Sixt representative.

I didn’t hit anything, and for that, I was charged $250.

“$250 is cheap,” the man said gently, as if we were getting a once-in-a-lifetime deal.

I had the feeling that he said that to everybody in that situation.

That afternoon, I started getting sick, and that evening while lecturing, I became progressively sicker, until at the end of the lecture, I just wanted to crawl under a warm rock.

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At the lecture, trying to make the best of things.  You can see a leprechaun in the left front.

Then yesterday, we spent nine hours on a train, and when we arrived at our friend’s place at 11 pm, she said the key would be under the flowerpot. We rummaged around for a half-hour in the rainy dark before we found it–under the flowerpot.

Today on a train, I accidentally dropped my camera and bent the lens. Will have to buy a new lens.

But still, there are things to enjoy.

Every so often, I turn to Claire, point to a cloud, and say, “See that cloud? That’s an Irish cloud!” Or ”Claire! We’re in England!”

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Irish clouds outside of Carlingford, framed by Irish countryside.

On Monday morning, I got up at 5 am and took a long walk through the Louth countryside, trying to make friends with sheep and roosters and swans, none of whom were having any of it.  Man did I have a great walk, though.

An Irish farmhouse at dawn

An Irish farmhouse at dawn

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A mama sheep torn between feeding and fleeing.

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In Ireland, there was the charming Irish accent, which at once makes me think of singing and leprechauns, separately, not together, because somehow, I don’t think I’d like to hear a leprechaun sing. (He probably wouldn’t take my request, which would be a combination of two songs: Randy Newman’s “Short People” and “Who Let the Dogs Out?” I would call it “Who Let the Short People Out?”)

Then there are all the extremely old buildings in every corner of the country, it seems, and all the castles small and large, and the Irish cemeteries with all their political and overtones.

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An Irish patriot who died in the GPO in 1916.  He was buried in Dundalk near the border with Northern Ireland, an Irish flag forever flying his colors.

An Irish patriot who died in the siege of the GPO in 1916, just before the birth of the Irish Free State.  He was buried in Dundalk near the border with Northern Ireland, an Irish flag forever flying his colors.  It was starting to rain.

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Then in Ireland, there’s that charming sense of Irish doom, which is hard to explain except in a kind of reticence—not reserve, which the English are famous for, but reticence, which comes from a different place—and which my friend Jack Wise says “stems from 800 years of political repression.”

And then, most of all, there are friendly strangers. On the train through Wales, we ran across an English family that was playing cards. I looked at Claire.

“You know what I’m thinking, don’t you?” I said.

“Yes, I do,” she said softly.

So I volunteered to do a magic trick for them, launched into a set, and for the rest of the ride, we had tour guides eager to make our trip the best ever. They hailed from Chester, which is a city built by the Romans when they ruled the wild tribes who lived in these isles. In the Dark Ages, Chester residents dug up the corpse of a revered forebear, St. Werburgh, to avoid descration by the invading Vikings, and reburied it in Staffordshire.

I have a feeling these Chester residents had never dug up a corpse, although you never know.  (I see a bit of sociopathy in the face of the guy on the left, below.)  Still, they loved my magic, and treated me quite nicely.  They thought they were riding the train with a big shot. Of course, I am. I’m not one of those suckers who worships gratitude, but I am one who worships turning lemons into lemonade. And turning strangers into tour guides fits that bill nicely.

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Today, we walked into historic Bradford on Avon, and when I say historic, I mean that the church was built in 1150, the weaver’s cottage we’re staying in was built in 1400, and things that were built after 1800 are considered too new to be worth talking about.

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While in the tourist office, I ended up doing a little magic for a pretty blonde, a crowd gathered, and suddenly, the head of the tourist office had offered me a gig performing at the local festival on Saturday. I’m still feeling a little under the weather, but if I feel up to it, I’ll take her up on it. After all, at the first opportunity, I’m all about making a little lemonade.

But there’s another aspect of lemonade that has sprung to mind, too.  When I was 28, I was engaged to a young horsewoman named Suzy.  She roped me into taking dressage lessons, and we had quite a good time at it, too.  I rode a huge white former California jumping champion who knew I wasn’t experienced, and actually threw me a couple times.  I shook it off.  I was resilient.  I got back on.  For our honeymoon, we planned to go to Ireland and ride across the country.  Suzy said they had property laws that allowed you to ride across people’s land at will, staying at B & Bs wherever we went.

“It’s been my dream since I was a little girl,” she said.

But Suzy’s mother Rebel broke us up.  I wasn’t a born-again Christian, so Rebel was insistent that I would be a bad influence on her daughter, which I probably would have.  It was a bad breakup, filled with screaming, taunts, cat shit left on my front door, and finally, years of wondering whether I had made the right decision.  Suzy had been so beautiful and so brilliant.  I still remember her curves, which were even more alluring when she was wearing a tight black dress.  Growing up, she had skipped two grades, and tended to make the most original and shocking jokes.  Once, while we were both driving on the freeway at 65 mph, she pulled up beside me, honked her horn, pulled up her blouse and flashed me.

Years later, I’m finally in Ireland.  Looking on the Internet, I see that Suzy has become such a devout charismatic that she has home-schooled her four children.  The schools are way too secular for her.

Being here in Ireland without Suzy was a reminder of the dream honeymoon we might have had.  It was sobering.  But considering what became of her, I would like to think that the engagement itself was the lemon.  I’d like to think that being here with Claire, the lovely, lukewarm-religious Claire, the Claire who would never go braless, much less flash me on the freeway, the Claire whose gentleness is a constant lesson for me and my aggressive daring, which I always think is the solution to everything but really isn’t, the Claire who doesn’t sleep well without my warm body beside her and with whom I’ve consorted for nearly 14 years now, and who…well, let’s just put it this way: Whenever I’ve thought about breaking up with her, it’s always seemed out of the question, because hurting her would tear me apart…I’d like to think that because of all that, Claire is the lemonade.

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Dublin Troo and Troo

I haven’t lectured to magicians in seven years, but have invented a lot of new tricks in that time.  In the late 1990s, I performed about 80 lectures all around the world, including in Australia, Hong Kong, Alaska, all up and down the East Coast, throughout the South, and through Texas, which is a country unto itself.  Oh yeah, don’t forget Ohio, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri.  And New Orleans, where I had in my audience a midget and a man who’d had a tracheotomy and asked questions through a voicebox.

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The lecture I did last evening was held at Cassidy’s Hotel in central Dublin, and my hosts were the unusually talented Dublin Society of Magicians.  When I looked out at the audience, I saw 45 smiling Irish faces, and when they asked questions, it was in that lovely Irish lilt that is so cute, I mean, even if the guy asking the question was a hulking bouncer type, the minute he opened his mouth and spoke, that musical accent made you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.  They say things like ting instead of thing, troo instead of through, and DRAW-hada instead of Drogheda.

This lecture coincided with the release of my new magic book, Notes from the Red Spot, which is a compilation of most of the tricks I’ve published so far, plus a few new ones that I’m excited about.  Red Spot can be bought online here: http://www.amazon.com/Notes-Red-Spot-Magic-Groves-ebook/dp/B00KJOCLEA/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1401878553&sr=8-1&keywords=notes+from+the+red+spot

I performed about 15 tricks and explained each and every one, and at the end, the guys posed for the Yikes photo below.

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Gremlins in London

Yesterday, gremlins were hopping all over us.  I hate gremlins.  If I killed one, would it be a hate crime?
Now I know how Kafka felt.  We were flying from Los Angeles to Dublin for a 2-week vacation.  Our plane arrived on time around noon at Heathrow and we staggered out of the plane and into the terminal.  Now, when you’ve been awake for 18 hours, you can get a little punchy.  I had taken a triple dose of an herbal sleep medicine, so my eyes felt like they were trying to go to sleep against my wishes.  My mother, my girlfriend Claire, and myself staggered out into the terminal.  A wheelchair was supposed to be waiting for us so that we could connect to the next flight, because my mother has severely arthritic hips, but there were three people in need of chairs and only two chairs there.  We were SOL.
“It’ll be 15 minutes before I can get another chair up here,” he said.
What do you do when plans change?  You become a hero and roll with the change.  So my mother walked a half-mile through her hip pain until we arrived at the nearest handicapped station.
When we arrived at the handicapped station, called Special Assistance, it was a horrific sight.  There was this one twentysomething guy at a counter surrounded by 20 or more handicapped people buzzing around him like crazed…handicapped people.  We had to wait 20 more minutes before he ordered a handler to wheel my mother and us to the bus to Terminal 5–the wrong terminal, which took us 30 minutes out of our way.  By the time we discovered our mistake, it was another 20 minutes, and then another 20 minutes to take the bus to the right terminal.

 

But by the time we got to the right terminal, the Special Assistance people there looked at us with pity.

 

“You’re going to miss your flight,” one said simply.

 

And he was right.  There was Customs to go through (we were just passing through the terminal, not buying an earl’s estate in Yorkshire!), Customs form to fill out (the airline had said that we didn’t have to fill it out because we were just on a layover!), and by that time, they had taken our luggage off the plane and the plane was in the air, baby, it was up up and away!

 

Normally, that would have been no problem.  Planes to Dublin aren’t like abortions in America, but like buses in New York City–frequent, not rare.  However, the competing carrier that goes to Dublin is Aer Lingus, and they were on strike for a day!  Of all the days to go on strike!  So all the seats to Dublin were taken until tomorrow.  We looked at each other in disbelief at our coincidental misfortune.  That gremlin was a leprechaun.

 

That’s when Special Assistance went into their incompetence dance.  Sometimes, I wonder if an evil dead relative is hanging around messing things up for me on certain days.  This was one of them.  At 3 pm, a short guy in a suit accepted responsibility and said they’d get us into a hotel in London and cover transportation, but it wasn’t until 6 pm that we got into the room, after waiting a total of six hours in the nine levels of airport hell.  I could go into detail about each incompetent person along the chain, but you get the idea.  One guy says we only have to wait a half-hour more, but he doesn’t show up for an hour.  Then another guy takes over and he doesn’t know what’s going on and has to call the first guy to get up to speed.  Then there’s another half-hour wait, and when the driver finally arrives, he has to get on the phone to the short guy for 15 minutes before he can get the message that we need to be driven to the hotel just a mile down the road.  There are companies that hire good people and companies that hire the worst people in any group.  Don’t know why they might do that.  Virgin Atlantic, our original airline, was the former.  Special Assistance was the latter.  Somewhere along the way, some guy put it this way:

“It’s run by a private company and paid for by the airport.  But it doesn’t make any money for them, so they’re always understaffed.  Plus, a lot of people from south Asian countries use it for their translation services even though they’re not physically handicapped.”

It brought to mind the horrible service I received from a K-Mart once, where everybody who worked there seemed to be the stupidest person I ever met.  I just had to put this horrible experience on the Internet, for everyone to see.

Warning: Don’t be handicapped in Heathrow Airport!