A review of “The Tender Bar”

This book has become one of those memoirs that everybody recommends you read, like The Liars Club. It certainly has things in common with Mary Karr’s classic. Kid grows up in a nowhere family shadowed by liquor. Kid grows up to be a writer. This memoir, however, has a lot more dialogue in it, in fact, it’s driven by dialogue, which certainly makes it more readable and vivid than Karr’s dense and even poetic account.

The Tender Bar is really about nothing else except growing up, which is fine. There’s no central event, like a murder or the discovery of a secret family. It’s just about a son of a single mother growing up. Moehringer’s family makes for an eclectic cast of characters. His mother has all the best intentions but no money because of a deadbeat Dad. His uncle was born with no hair or even eyebrows and is a bookie at the local bar, and ushers him into the world of liquor and alcoholics. His grandfather is a man who lives in a decrepit old house and does everything he can to alienate everyone around him.

What makes this book special is that everything is vivid. The prose is pretty good, although not always. Sometimes his sentences read like a first draft that should have been gone over a few times.  But obviously, he knows something about writing, having won a Pulitzer Prize in feature writing.  At one point, Moehringer writes that “words even helped me organize my parents. My mother was the printed word–tangible, present, real–while my father was the spoken word–invisible, ephemeral, instantly part of memory.” And it is the passages about his father and his longing thereof that form the core of this book.

“My father was an improbable combination of magnetic and repellent qualities. Charismatic, mercurial, sophisticated, suicidal, hilarious, short-tempered–and dangerous from the start. He got into a fistfight at their wedding. Drunk, my father shoved my mother, and when his best man objected to such treatment of the bride, my father decked him. Several guests jumped my father, trying to restrain him, and when the cops arrived they found my father running up and down the sidewalk, assaulting passersby.”

His description of Grandpa was equally illuminating: “Grandpa had a photographic memory, an astounding vocabulary, a firm command of Greek and Latin, but his family wasn’t able to enjoy his intellectual gifts because he never engaged us in actual conversations. He kept us at bay with a ceaseless patter of TV jingles, advertising slogans and non sequiturs. We’d tell him about our day and he’d shout, ‘It’s a free country!’ We’d ask him to pass the beans and he’d say, ‘Tastes good like a cigarette should….’ His private language was a fence he put around himself….”  God, do I know about that particular type of fence.

Fortunately, there is a way out for this narrator. He does so well in school that he is admitted to Yale, and that’s wherefrom hope springs. He doesn’t feel adequate to the task, and neither does his family’s bank account, but he dukes it out.  It made me think about my own struggles at UCLA, where I lamented my inability to read quickly, and marveled at those Wunderkinden who could apprend immediately, as if they were spongi.

I believe that it’s best to begin reviewing a book when you’re about two-thirds into it, and that’s what I’ve done with this review.  I will update it as I finish the book.



The Politics of Touching

Joe Biden has been going through a lot of scrutiny lately over his touching of strangers.  It’s the beginning of a campaign, and that is the natural time for such issues to come up.  Some people are quite insistent that Biden has been inappropriate, while others are defending him.

As a teenager, I never hugged people in greeting. I felt that I had a wall around me.  I was lonely and awkward socially.  I didn’t know any way out of this conundrum, because my upbringing hadn’t given me any.

David Groves age 8

Then in college, I met people who hugged. When they saw you, they hugged you. When they said goodbye, they hugged you. It was how things were done in their world. Or maybe it was a moment in history when that changed, the 1970s, when men started wearing colors and gays started coming out of the closet.  Or maybe it was the circles that I suddenly entered, the big city that I had moved to, the sophisticated people, the bohemians and artists, I don’t know. At any rate, I started being more touchy.

David Groves with Afro ca 1979

I have never been as touchy as Joe Biden. I have admired how loving he is, how confident, how giving, but I have never been able to pull it off.  It’s a cultural thing, too, like Latin cultures that are more touchy (Italy, Spain, Greece), and look down on Anglo cultures that aren’t as touchy. There is a tradition that glorifies that kind of touching.

In fact, my mother tells me a story about that.  She comes from Mexican culture and my father comes from a German/English tradition–i.e., a white guy married a Mexican girl.  And when I was born, my mother hugged and held me all the time.  My father objected.

“You’re going to smother him,” he said.  “Why are you touching him all the time?”

“Because I love him.”

It was a point of conflict with him, and they never resolved it.  Twenty years later, when I was in college, I came back from school being more touchy, and started hugging him hello and goodbye.  My father was shocked, although he never said anything to me about it.  But in private, my mother tells us, he did talk about it.


My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking

“When he hugs me,” my father asked my mother, “what am I supposed to do?”

“Hug him back!” my mother said.

There are subcultures that grow out of trauma, such as molestation victims, who freak out when you hug them. And then there are people who seem physiologically averse to touching for whatever brain-chemistry reason. And there are religious subcultures who avoid touching because it might be sexual (cf. Mike Pence, who doesn’t even like to be alone with any woman not his wife, or Muslim subcultures).

I am more aware of personal boundaries than most, probably because my parents taught me to be aware of that. When I was dating, I had problems with the moment when you kiss someone for the first time, for example, because it was an uninvited moment. You had to read the other person, and you could always read wrong.

What I’m saying is that this is not simple.  And before you condemn Joe Biden, ask yourself where you think it comes from: a good place, or a bad place.  That’s the key.

Air in the Deck

[This is chapter 10 in an ongoing work of fiction.  To read chapter 9, see here.  To read chapter 1, see here.]

Evan was stabbing a man, but then it turned out to be a goat, and then he wasn’t stabbing it, he was fucking it, and then Father Iturbide was intoning, “Do you take this beast to be your lawfully wedded husband?” because the goat was pregnant now and he was a girl and gossipy old bitches were hissing, “It’s an abomination!” and then he realized that the priest’s words meant he was a girl now, and then he was a snake eating its own tail and it tasted like chicken.

Evan opened his eyes to tubes biting into his veins like leeches and John hovering above him with Apocalypse on his face and he didn’t know whether he was awake or in a nightmare, because John’s was the wrinkled and unhappy face of all his worst imaginings, plus he didn’t want to hear what John might say, he just wanted to know where his own Springfield EMP was, and then he got the idea of running out to the car, wherever it was, and getting it from his trunk, but he didn’t get further than lifting his upper body before a level 10 muscle spasm laid him out like a slaughtered cow so he closed his eyes and let The Raft take him down the River of Chartreuse Pharmaceutical Dreams once again, with arrows shooting at him from the shore, where indigenous warriors jeered at him: Ai, coward!  Aiee, coward!

Jeff Petrell distressed 1a

Days passed.  Leeches were attached and detached.  A shady doctor with platinum-blonde hair and putrid cologne showed up and evaluated Evan’s chart.

“When you fell onto the driveway, you sustained a concussion,” the doctor said.

Then he primped his hair and left.

Machines pumped, breathed, hiccupped, essayed.  Finally, Evan opened his eyes.  Kara, standing next to Evan’s hospital bed, gasped.  He worked to focus on her face.  She began to silently weep.  It had been three days.

Evan turned his head and closed his eyes.  Something within him shrugged and shrank, and he suspected it might be his reason for living.  That reason had always driven him, but it was all tangled up now, like the roots of something, he didn’t know what.  His parents had once been his roots, but the idea of parentage had now been ground into mulch.  His purity had once been a part of his roots, too, but that was mulch, as well.  He wasn’t much in pain, but he also couldn’t move much, either, and soon realized it was the numbing power of the drugs.

“Where am I?” Evan asked.

“In the house,” Kara finally said.

“What house?”

“John’s house.”

“You mean…the gambling house?”


“Doesn’t look like it.”

“It’s the basement.”

“Where’s John?”

“Upstairs sleeping.  It’s like three in the morning, honey.”

Kara helped him sit up.  It was an arduous task, slow and painful, but when it was all accomplished, he had a view of his living quarters.  There were no windows.  Across the room was a stairway that led upstairs.  There were paintings stacked against the walls and bronze statuettes scattered about.  He could see a couple of them from his bed.  They looked pretty damn good.  One rang a bell, although he couldn’t remember the name of the painter.

“Did they look in my car?” Evan asked.

“Your car?  No, why?  Do you want me to get something from it?”

“No, no, no.”

“It’s still out there in the driveway, parked sideways.”

“East to west.”


Evan closed his eyes to summon the energy to express a more complex thought.  It was like moving iron furniture.

“I parked east to west, not sideways.”

“Why did you park it that way?”

Girl 3a

He tried, but moving this particular iron sofa was too much for him.

“For luck,” he finally said.

Two days later, Evan woke up to John’s red face peering down at him.

“Who the fuck was it?”

Evan’s mind was running on a single rat on a single treadmill.  He felt transparent, as if John’s eyes were looking into his soul trapped in a mayonnaise jar and seeing his intentions and everything ugly about him.  Evan’s hands began to tremble.  His voice was weak.

“What do you mean?”

“Who the fuck got to you?  Was it Zinszer?”


“Who beat you up?”

It was an amazing moment in which things turned, like the moment when a spectator sitting across from you realizes that you’ve changed a two into an ace and the whole dynamic has changed, the whole sky is now purple and the highway orange, and many forks in the road are now opening up to you.  Evan had expected that John would know exactly what Evan had been planning.  But now, it became clear that John had misunderstood.

“I—I’m not sure who it was.  It was dark.”

“Man, this ain’t how it’s done,” John said.

“You lose or you lose, that’s it,” Pancho said.

“So tell me the story.  What did he look like?”

So Evan came up with a story, as best he could at a moment’s notice, about who jumped him.  Who beat on his midsection and broke his ribs.  Who muttered, “You took our money, asshole, and now you’re going to pay.”  It sounded corny, but it was the best he had.  When he ran out of lies to tell and began to stammer, he played it like pain.

John looked at Pancho.

“Last time I saw Zinszer, he was looking a little piquéd, don’t you think?” John said, a knowing look on his face.

“Oh yes, piquéd indeed,” Pancho said.

The silence that ensued was unnerving.

“What do you mean?” Evan finally said.

John looked down at him.

“Piquéd is a condition that is immediately fatal,” John said simply.

Sometimes, Evan woke up and nobody was around but the leeches.  Other times, there was a large black nurse named Jolie who fed him.  She was a woman who seemed divorced from her face.  At other times, Kara was in the room.  But there was always one thing on his mind, and it wasn’t sex, it was the other thing.

So one day or night, Evan didn’t know which, he decided that he would find his father and do what he had to do.  He didn’t have his gun, so he would use whatever he found, his hands if he had to.  He struggled to roll over on the bed, the pain baiting him like some schoolyard bully, and then struggled even more mightily to sit up, as if he were rolling a boulder up a hill, and then he was panting hard and it seemed impossible that he would be able to stand, but he punched through the pain with iron fists and finally he was peering across the room to the foot of the stairs, that was his goal, just the foot of the stairs, and he started putting one foot in front of the other and packing the pain away into a backpack, he was walking slowly and painfully on sore feet and achy ankles and pulsating temples and screaming ribs and trying to forget that he was carrying that fucking backpack of pain.

“Oh, Mr. Evan.”

Jolie stood behind him with her fists on her massive hips.  Then she walked over, gently turned him around, and walked Evan back to the bed.

Two days later, Evan tried it again, but Jolie had some kind of sixth sense.  After that, she slapped padded restraints on his wrists and ankles.

“You are such a bad boy,” Jolie said, a shade of disgust in her voice but her face impassive.

Evan had been at the Magic Castle the night they discovered Daryl’s body.  Police cars rolled up en masse, maybe a dozen or more.  They didn’t know if it was a murder or what, so they locked it down, nobody in or out, 490 people in suits and evening gowns locked in this big old Victorian nightclub, most of the shows cancelled, people with $16 drinks in their hands saying, “What the fuck is going on?”  That’s what the padded restraints were like.


Kara brought a copy of The Hobbit and started reading aloud.  Evan didn’t follow the plot, but liked the sound of her voice.  She always had a lovely voice.  When she reached the end of a section, they would sometimes talk.  About what kind of day it was outside, how searingly hot, which convention was in town, what her band was doing without her now.  Somebody had come up to Kara in a grocery store and mistaken Kara for Kendra.

“Happens sometimes,” Kara said.  “They’re strangers to you, but they talk to you like they know you.  I just listen.  I’ve always liked the idea of passing.  It’s kind of the thrill of a magic trick.  You know?”


“Like, the first time you pulled off a magic trick, did it give you a thrill?”

“Yeah, made me misty eyed.”

“It’s a beautiful thing.”

“It is.”

“Like the first time we pulled off a deck switch.”

“I remember.”

“That night, I cried.”


“It’s one of the most beautiful things in the world.”

“Did you know that birds deceive other birds?”


“Deception is shot through nature.”

Later that afternoon, the conversation veered to childhood.

“I was a quiet child,” Evan said.

“I can see that.”

“I couldn’t engage in smalltalk.”

“I hate to tell you, baby, but that’s still a problem.”

“All right.  Anyway.  At some point, I realized that I would need some attitude to get things in life.  So I started doing these tricks that I read in books, and the tricks had attitude.  So I slipped into those tricks like a jacket.  It was my first attempt at getting a personality.  Then things happened to me and I put on those jackets, too.  And people hurt me, and I put on those jackets.  And gradually, all those jackets became, like, a skin.”

“That’s weird.”


“Well, I never put on any jackets.  I’m just me.  Can’t be anything else.”

Evan didn’t say it, but it seemed that from what she said, she had always grasped things, but never the ideas behind things.  He had sensed it, of course, but now it all fell into place.  It made him sad.

Sometimes while Kara was reading, Evan fell asleep.  When Kara saw his eyes close and sleep kick in, she would stop reading and set down the book.  She would smile sometimes, her eyes drifting to the Tramadol on the bedside table.  She had tried that once, and it had been a smooth ride, sleighing through the powder with no bumps, no possibility of wiping out.  Once, she picked up the bottle and shook it.  There were a whole lot of rides in there.  A whole lot of problems solved.

“Jesus help me,” she muttered softly, her eyes closed.

“I have something to confess,” Kara said.


“Like in a Catholic church.”


“Like a priest listening to what you did.”

“Uh huh.”

But then she didn’t say anything, she just sat staring into space as if something out there was the source of everything bad in the world.  Her face looked puffed up with emotion and red and ready to burst.

“What?” Evan asked.

But her face didn’t burst, it subsided.

“No,” she finally said.

Kara was thinking about the priest she had fucked, and then the blow they had done afterwards.  And the three other times she had gone back.  But fuck it, she thought, I don’t want to spill all my secrets.  It’ll take away all my mystery.  I’m a magician now.

Evan remembered his phone.  He fished it out of  his jacket pocket and went to the web browser.  It had only 3% battery left.  He googled “stolen art,” and there it was on the Houston Chronicle site.  Five months earlier, 11 paintings and 12 sculptures had been stolen from a Houston museum.  A few of them were Rodins, a few others, Rothkos.  They still hadn’t found the thieves.  Then his phone died.

It was an endless cycle, day and night, and then day again and then night again.  But then Evan realized.  It had always been.

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The strip-out false shuffle was a move of unsurpassed beauty, like Beyoncé.  It looked like you were shuffling, but you were really just setting up the deck for cheating.  You knew the location of every single card in the deck.  It was a door opening onto immense possibility.  It made everything that followed it more stunning.

Back when Evan was working on it, though, there had been one last little bit that had

eluded  him.  In doing the move, you have to remember three things.  First, make it look like you’re shuffling fairly.  Second, make the moves look like they’re not even moves.  And third, don’t hesitate, never hesitate.  Relax, be chill, don’t ever pause.  If they see you think, you’re dead.  So he practiced it over and over again, but he ran into trouble on that last little bit.  He had trouble bringing it up to 100%.  So he had asked his mentor, Bodine, the dude with all the moves and every minute slice thereof.

“Why can’t I get it up to 100%?”

Bodine had sat back in his chair in his sunny dining room and sighed.

“You got to get some air into the deck,” Bodine had said.  “Squeeze the deck back, squeeze forward, and that puts some air back into the deck.  Then the cards will strip out like hovercraft.”

Air, that was the thing.  It made the cards slicker, the strip-out reliable.  And that’s what he was trying to do now with John.  Get some air back into the deck.  Sometimes, all the answers to all the questions in the world were contained within a single deck of cards.

Evan thought about John sleeping upstairs.  He thought about climbing the stairs.  Peering into the dark bedroom.  The sound John would make while sleeping.  He thought about standing over John’s body.  He thought about waking him up with a whack to the face.  Maybe he would use the Rodin ballerina.  Maybe it would break his cheekbone.

“I’m your son,” Evan would say.

Evan would have to wait for the look on his face, that was everything.  John would be  holding his bloody face, and then, through the pain, Evan would see the look on his face.

“I’m your what?!”

That look would be payback.  Then, the sound of the gunshot echoing through the bedroom would give him such deep and intense pleasure.

In his hospital bed, Evan turned his head towards Kara.  He suddenly realized what the ancients had meant when they wrote that “the scales fell from his eyes.”  Everything was different now that he had a plan.  He could see clearly.  All that was false was suddenly laid bare.  Jolie and her bogus quietude.  She hated Evan.  All the food they brought him.  Food was bullshit.  All the cash he had pulled in.  Just green stuffing.  Pancho and his silence.  Aka rage.  Sebastian and his bad jokes.  A middle finger to the world.

Only one thing seemed true.  Kara had laid her heart out on a slab for him.

She was staying with him day and night.  She was the only faithful thing in his life.  He could see the vast faithfulness in her eyes.  They were puppydog eyes, trusting everything.  It might also be hurt, and a bad childhood, and being buffeted by the winds of her lack of discipline, but what he was entirely sure of was her fidelity.  So he looked her straight in the eyes like he had never looked at her before, unafraid, all there.

“Honey, I’m going to kill John,” he said flatly.

Kara blinked.  She stared at Evan for a long moment.

“Don’t joke about that,” she finally said.

“I’m not joking.”

“You better be joking.”

“I’m not.”

“Honey, it’s the drugs talking.”

“It’s not the drugs.  I have a gun in the car.”

“That’s ridiculous.  I’m not listening.  I’m going.”

Kara walked out the door and up the back stairway and she was gone.  It was another half-hour before he realized that all the pills were gone, too.

Evan was dead.  Surely Kara would tell John.  He was so stupid, so fucking stupid.  Or, at best, she would never return.  Leave him to rot in his padded-restraint prison, to kill his father himself, an act that was nothing less than a gravestone.  He tried to lift himself up, but his muscle spasm laid him out again.  He was like a rabid dog on a chain.

This must be how Dai Vernon felt when he had that famous accident, Evan thought.  Vernon had been a successful closeup magician in New York City in the Roaring Twenties, and in 1926, had become known as The Man Who Fooled Houdini.  He was a brilliant thinker, perhaps the best of all time.  But by 1932, work had become scarce for everyone and he took a construction job.  He was working high up on scaffolding.  He was carrying a heavy pail in each hand across a wooden plank when it cracked and broke, and he began hurtling through the air.  On the way down, he hit other planks with his arms and hands, the nexus of his art, the focus of all his musculoskeletal accomplishment, destroying all that his life had been about, plunging six floors down and into the icy East River.  When he woke up, he was in the hospital and the doctor was telling him that they wanted to amputate his arms.

That’s how Evan always felt lately, hurtling through the air and hitting things on the way down.

Three hours later, just when the lack of painkillers was starting to whip Evan’s ass, Kara returned.  She stared down at him, her eyes suspicious, as if seeing him for the first time.  She didn’t even say anything, just stood there.

“Why?” she asked.

“You know why.”

“I want to hear you say it.”

“It’s what I’ve been silent about for weeks now,” Evan said.  “It’s what came between us.”



And then Evan was stuck in his lies again.

“Because he’s a bad man,” he said.  “He’s everything that’s wrong with the world.”

Kara looked at him sideways.

“Or is it because your uncle is your father.”

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Evan looked away, and there was a silence that lasted for about 99 hours.  Kara just staring at him.  Finally, she reached into her purse and took out a knife.  It was one of those big, long knives that you buy at Bed & Bath and that you chop bell peppers with.  The moment foreshortened for Evan, like the way time slows down when you’re in a car crash, the way that each moment breaks down into little eternities that can be examined minutely, like an insect pinned under a microscope, and he realized that this was how he was going to die, restrained to a hospital bed and not really having much hope left, anyway, in fact, part of himself welcoming blackness with open arms, like all of this suffering would finally be over.

“There was something I didn’t say to you earlier,” Kara said.


“That sometimes, I want to die.”

Evan opened his eyes and their eyes locked.  They were twins, if just for a moment.

“I love you too much,” she said in a thin voice that was from somewhere far, far away.

Kara moved towards him and he flinched, closing his eyes again.  But when he opened his eyes, his restraints had been cut off and she was holding out Swann’s pistol.

“Let’s do it tonight,” Kara said.

[This is an ongoing work of fiction.]

On Reaching My Dad’s Age

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

Donald Groves Positive Thinking

My father Donald Groves in his twenties

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

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

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

“I’m sorry, Dad, I’m sorry….” I said.

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

Donald Groves in his fifties smaller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


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.”


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.


“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.

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.


“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?”


“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.


With that kind of green stacked onto the table, John needed a bodyguard, too.  He was a muscled guy with hard eyes who called himself Pancho Villa.

“I know this is a stupid question,” Evan said between games, “but is that your real name?”

“Let me tell you a little piece of wisdom you never learned in college,” Pancho said.  “Never use your real name.”

Drunk 1a

The young Russian brought in his own security, which John told him was an FSB officer.  The mark himself was so impatient that it was easy, but then Evan turned around too soon during a deck switch.  Evan looked at him.  Their eyes met, and then Evan looked away, at the FSB guy, whose eyes he also met, and so in desperation, he looked out the window.  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 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.

A long minute passed.  The bodyguard looked away.  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.

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 he’d picked up from Pancho’s garage, and then afterwards, drive it back to the garage.  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.


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.


“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.


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.”


“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.


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.


Three weeks later, Evan showed up for a game with a Brazilian soccer star’s brother.  Strangely, Pancho Villa wasn’t there to greet him, so he just 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?”


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.


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.”


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.


“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 4 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.

20090305172751-L cropped.jpg

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.


“So what’s up?” John said.

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


“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.


“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.


“Yeah, whoa.”

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

“But…it’s not exactly….”



“Yeah, but didn’t you say 4k a day?”


“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.

Comparison 2a smaller.jpg

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.”


“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?”



“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.”


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.


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.