Secrets of the Lottery Winner
CHAPTER 6: LAND OF MAMMON
It was a huge bowl simmering that time of year, scoured and scorched by the Santa Anas, clouded in smoke boiling off the flaming hills; but from Gari’s perch two thousand feet above, it was the mirror of heaven, the temporal wing of Elysian Fields. He traversed it in first class, musing the entire trip if anybody famous occupied the cabin with him, or if they were all, except for him, frequent flyers lapping up what airlines labeled luxury for free. He gave up on this speculation only when the plane lumbered over LAX in a wide circle that afforded him a spectacular view of the arched gateway landmark, familiar and yet exotic when viewed for the first time in the hard concrete of itself. Anticipation and excitement of what awaited him—only good, wonderful experiences—jellied his bones and superheated his blood until his skin nearly burned as hot as the fires scorching L.A., and instilled in him the urge to explode from his seat and start his second life, his secret life, right away.
On the ground, he made his way to the Enterprise car rental phone. He waited outside the terminal for the bus in heat, drenched in sweat before he stationed himself on the concrete island. Ten minutes later the bus picked him up. It held a family—husband, wife, and two boys—like his own. The parents, about his age, were worn and bedraggled. They were hardly up to the effort of restraining the boys, who assaulted the baggage rack twice during the shuttle. And it was a transfer with more twists and turns, gobbling more time than he’d thought possible, to rental cars just outside the airport. He’d chosen Enterprise because it promised him what he wanted and needed for his first foray into L.A.– a great car. Not a Chevy or Ford, or any of that sort. Leave those to the companion family. He required a BMW, Mercedes, Jag, and he’d demanded his version be a convertible. Even if Emily had allowed him a second car, and even now when he could easily afford a second car, he would not buy a convertible in Chicago, where maybe in the best of years a person could look forward to a hundred good days, and not all would be in summer when the convertible was practical. Here it was all together different. Though he retreated a bit on this idea, as the heat was the very definition of oppressive.
L.A. was the kind of town that flung disappointment around like a tribe of incensed chimps slinging shit, and Enterprise splattered him with a load at the check-in counter. He waited for the abuse nearly twenty minutes, too, while a fellow who had no driver’s license squabbled with the clerk. If Gari on been in the shoes of the clerk, he would have summoned the LAPD nineteen minutes earlier and then campaigned for a dose of street justice. As it was, the man’s wife or girlfriend—Gari guessed the latter as she was simply too attractive and dressed exotically in tight and revealing clothing—rescued him. She, apparently, had the wit to bring a diver’s license to a rental agency.
The clerk, after Gari had presented himself and offered up his reservation number, tapped at his keyboard, frowned at his screen, tapped more, frowned more, and continued the exercise for five minutes, until he gazed at Gari in exasperation.
“Were you in love with the idea of a Mercedes?”
“‘Cause if you were, well, I hate to break your heart, but the last one’s about to drive off the lot.”
Gari, somewhat numbly, said, “A BMW will do.”
“Don’t have one.”
“A Jag is okay, too.”
“Nope, none of those either.”
“But I reserved a luxury car.”
“You sure did. Says so right here. The problem is we got shortchanged on luxury today.”
Gari sighed. “Fine, a Taurus then.”
“Last one just went.”
“What have you got?”
“A couple of Ford Focuses.”
“What? But I specifically reserved a luxury car. Look,” Gari said sharply, jabbing his confirmation form. “L-u-x-u-r-y.”
“It’s the weekend. It’s L.A. There are no cars.”
“But this is a car town.”
“Exactly,” said the clerk, triumphantly.
“I’ll take the Focus.”
“Great. Red okay with you.”
“Well … “
“All I got is red.”
“Then why did you bother asking?”
“Customer service,” replied the clerk, no hint of mirth in sight or aural range.
Gari flourished a hand in resigned acceptance.
The car was in stall twenty-four and unmistakable as the red approached neon in it brilliance—loud, garish, ugly, thoroughly obnoxious. Red wasn’t in his pantheon of favored colors and here was a version of the color that would turn a fan cold. Worse, his family companions were busy piling into a black Mercedes—the last one! They noticed Gari and smiled; the little girl waved; Gari flapped a hand a couple of times.
Maneuvering the car out of the lot, he wanted to hunker down into a low-rider position. Maybe, he thought, he wouldn’t need to use it much; but then this was L.A., where they burned rubber not shoe leather. He’d be more careful the next time about where he rented a car. This trip was a scouting mission anyway to get the lay of the land.
He took the 405 north, nearly missed Santa Monica Boulevard, and almost tipped the Focus jogging across two lanes. He took Santa Monica into Beverly Hills and with great embarrassment drove up to the entrance of the Beverly Hills Hilton. He’d wanted to stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel but the place was booked. By way of consolation, he planned on dinner there, or lunch tomorrow; after all, it was sophistication Mecca and he couldn’t miss it.
They stuck him in a room on the fourth floor, and it duplicated every hotel room he’d occupied in his life. He really didn’t know what to expect from the Beverly Hills Hilton, but certainly more than he got. After all, this was Beverly Hills, home to the stars, to folks who made more money in five minutes of … of playing, for that’s what it looked like to him, just playing; nothing compared to facing Victor Lubeck after a typographical error, or Larry Lefton flushed with rage and sputtering with fear at the prospect of losing Lubeck’s business. The point was these people, more than most, knew from luxury, demanded pampering. But upon the departure of the bellman, when he’d settled in the chair by the window and took in the view of the shopping center nearby, it occurred to him that the stars lived here, ergo they probably didn’t rent rooms at the Hilton or most any other hotel in town, at least not for sleeping, by which he meant the normal rest people expected at night in a hotel room. The Beverly Hills Hilton seemed eminently satisfactory when he viewed it in that light, as dim and disappointing as it was.
It was Friday evening just shy of eight when he set forth. He was ready for dinner and he sorely wished to eat at the Beverly Hills Hotel in the Polo Lounge with the hope of catching a notable or two. However, the scene of pulling up in the red Ford Focus launched waves of revulsion in his gut. Not familiar with L.A., he settled for dinner at Trader Vic’s in the hotel, where he washed down his fruity meal with a Zombie. Emily wasn’t a drinking woman and he wasn’t much of a drinking man; but he was growing to enjoy a glass more often than not.
It was an interesting room and the meal was good, but it could have been Trader Vic’s at Palmer House, or any place in Chicago for all the personalities he saw.
After dinner, he retrieved the Focus from the garage, relieved the hotel didn’t require he use the valet service. The night was hot, but he drove with the windows down to feel the rush of air, and smell and hear the city. It was a strange night, even for the people of L.A. The sky glowed red in the west and north, colored by the fires along the coast around Malibu and in the San Gabriels ringing the city. The town was bright, unnatural, as if lit by huge sodium floods.
He took a turn around Century City. It was as lively as downtown Mundelein. He entered Beverly Hills via Santa Monica. Except for Rodeo Drive, it was quiet. Everybody was at home, maybe on their roofs preparing for a standoff, garden hoses against the wrath of vengeful Indian deities.
He passed through West Hollywood, north on Brea and hit Sunset. He traveled down it and saw the clubs and restaurants, crowded with people milling in the street, conveying the impression that if the fire was to take them and the town away it was better to be found in front of a fashionable joint. He swung around, passed them again on his way west. Farther southeast Sunset turned dicey—ramshackle and dangerous.
He pulled into a Rite-Aid parking lot and consulted a map he’d picked up at the hotel. It was a tourist map with images of the sights exploding off the page. It wasn’t rendered to scale, but it worked and he found himself on Hollywood Boulevard in front of Grauman’s and the Kodak Theater within a minute. He parked and surveyed the scene, which wasn’t much. This space appeared larger on television dressed up with red carpeting and crawling with movie stars. In person, up close, unadorned, it disappointed him.
Gari returned to his room after eleven. He’d grown weary in the car, driving around at night, sightseeing; he came back with strained eyes and a dull ache at the base of his neck. But in his room, suddenly he revived and grew restless. He thought a drink might help him sleep. He considered the mini bar, but preferred a beer with people around him. He went down to the lobby bar.
He sat at the bar and ordered a Sam Adams. He sipped and surveyed the room. It was almost empty. If people were at the hotel, they were in the International Ballroom, which on Fridays and Saturdays transformed into the Coconut Club. He’d been at his station for about ten minutes and nearly at the end of his beer, contemplating another round, when a woman took a stool one removed from him on his right. He saw her first peripherally and then for a better look he glanced quickly in her direction as she ordered a drink, a Rusty Nail, which struck him as old-fashioned. Rusty Nail was something people drank way back in the sixties, maybe the fifties. He motioned for another beer.
“Are you in the movie business?” she asked.
Gari was watching the bartender pull the bottle from the case and at first didn’t realize the question was directed at him. “Me?” he said, startled.
She saluted with her glass.
“No, not me. I hardly see movies. You in the movies?”
“Do I look it?”
In his years, Gari had learned certain truths about women. Primary among them was: You could never go wrong with a compliment, no matter how outlandish or unfitting. (Except for Emily, which just proved the validity of the truth, she being the proverbial exception.)
“Starlet,” he said, loading his response with a double dose of flattery. Not that there wasn’t a modicum of truth to his words. Facing her, he saw she was a blond, with a mane falling off her head on onto her shoulders like water over a falls. Her face was angular, but not sharp or harsh, rather toned down, sufficient to lend her an aristocratic countenance, something along the lines of a young Lauren Bacall, maybe the actress in her early thirties. The rest of her was slim and toned, exactly as he imagined California women. She wore a simple dress, red, with slide heels. He didn’t think she wore stockings, maybe not a bra as he was sure he could see her nipples pressing again the dress.
In this department of sex, Gari regarded himself an average man. When the old Emily had been willing to have sex with him, they made love two or three times a week, and a bit less as their marriage wore on. The past few years she’d not wanted him and his feelings about her had changed so he didn’t mind. Imagination and a good right hand served him well most of the time. However, had she been willing, he could easily have made love to her several times a week, as he’d proven when his promotion and conjured increase in pay had sparked her libido. In other words, Gari was average in that sex often disrupted his thinking, and average as he was ready for it at the drop of skirt.
“Well, if you aren’t in the movies, you should be,” he said.
She pushed her drink toward him and shifted to the stool next to him. “You don’t mind?” she asked in a tone that assumed if he did he was a queer fellow. “You’re not from here.”
“No tan?” he said.
“Too gray,” she replied, indicating his outfit.
It was true. Gari was a drab and inexpensive dresser. Emily selected and purchased his clothing. As a result, he owned three suits in two shades of gray, and the other blue. His long-sleeved shirts were white, she reasoning they would do double-duty as work and causal attire. He owned six ties equally divided between shades of maroon and blue. In his closet were two pairs of kaki slacks and two pairs of blue jeans. His underwear was Fruit of the Loom, his socks all black Gold Toe; his shoes, a pair of cordovans, and a pair of athletic shoes completed his wardrobe. The suits and white shirts came from Joseph Banks, the shoes from Lubeck’s, and the rest from Target, usually off the sale rack.
“Married?” she asked, focusing a long, hard stare on his left ring finger.
Observing, he wondered why he hadn’t removed the ring. Maybe because he was trying to convince himself: This with the woman in the bar at the Beverly Hilton wasn’t why he’d come to L.A. Perhaps he’d played out little frolics in mind, but this was normal behavior for a man, wasn’t it? It didn’t mean he wanted to set up housekeeping in another city with another woman, did it? Or maybe it was as simple as he couldn’t admit to himself his motives for deceiving Emily about his winning the lottery: Lauren Bacall, and Catherine Lourdes too.
“I was,” he said, curious himself why he said it and where he was going with it.
“Divorced? It’s as common as coconuts around here,” she said by way of solace.
“Deceased.” He asked himself where that came from. Certainly not wishful thinking.
“I’m sorry,” she sympathized, reaching for his hand. Her touch was soft and reassuring.
He nodded and watched as she caressed the back of his hand lightly.
“How did it happen, if it’s not too painful for you, I mean?”
Gari had a suddenly dead wife on his hands, a lot of explaining to do, and only the picture of Emily in her coffin—a sight that had him shivering briefly and earning from his commiserating companion a quickened caressing—in his head as his starting point.
“It was an accident.”
He saw Emily in the car careening around a curve, maybe the sharp bend on Route 176 west of Hawley Street, zooming across the highway down the embankment into the field. Of course, she always had the boys with her when she drove. Regardless that now he was a dastard, he could not condemn them to such a fate, not even imaginary.
“My wife liked working around the house. She was something of an expert handyman … handywoman I guess I should say. She was a good carpenter, not bad with mechanics, but her weakness was –”
Here he halted and his pause sounded to her like a hitch in his voice, an indication of his grief. Her response was to purse her lips and to employ both her hands in stroking his. He was wondering fiercely what that weakness might be until it sparked to life. “Electricity. She wasn’t good with electricity. It’s dangerous stuff, you know.”
“I know,” she said, heavy with compassion. “I got a shock once turning on the lights in my bedroom.”
“I hope you weren’t hurt.” Good, good, he thought, showing concern is good.
“My finger was numb for a while.” She wiggled an index finger and he considered kissing it to make it better but judged it too early to render that level of empathy.
She mistook his perplexed countenance as the kind of vacancy some display when regressing into a feeling like sorrow.
“I’m sorry. Here you’re telling me about your dec– your poor wife and I’m making a thing of a little numb finger,” she said, her voice fluttering and her face reddening.
He shrugged. “There’s not much more to tell. She hated the light in the kitchen. It was what they call a light cloud. You ever see one? No? They look a little like a cloud, white colored. Well, it doesn’t matter. I mean that you don’t know what a light cloud is. Point is she hated it. So one day off she went to the Home Depot. She got something she liked. Nice choice, too. I had an electrician put it up later. Anyway, she got to work. She touched a live wire with a pair of pliers. She should have turned off the power, but like I said, she wasn’t good with electricity.”
“How horrible. She was electrocuted!”
Nodding in accent, he considered leaving it at that. However, he owed his dear wife Emily a more spectacular exit from this world, and he proceeded to embellish.
“If only, but no. She was up on a stepladder. The jolt sent her flying. On the way down, she cracked her head on the counter.”
“Oh my God, that’s horrible.”
“I found her unconscious when I got home from work.”
Bacall’s reincarnated hand jetted to his check and stroked him as the rest of her followed, leaving her leaning off her stool into him.
Refraining from smiling was difficult, but he managed, as he added, “To make matters worse, if that was possible, I didn’t get home ’til late.”
“And you found your wife dead in the kitchen.”
“God … I’m sorry, I’m Gari, and you’re?”
He preferred Lauren as it struck him as sophisticated. Loretta had a country twang to it. But then, he didn’t intend making Loretta his second wife, did he?
“She was alive, Loretta. Barely, but alive.”
With this, the stroking ceased as Loretta cupped the soothing hand to her mouth to hide her shock.
“To make a long and agonizing story mercifully short, she lingered in the hospital for six months before … “ He left the end to her imagination.
With trepidation, she asked, “You didn’t have to, you know?” She removed her hand from her mouth to illustrate.
“Oh no,” he said, when her meaning dawned on him, “no, I didn’t have to pull the plug, thank God.”
She nodded as she stared at his gold band. Her expression conveyed pity, sorrow, perhaps befuddlement; Gari couldn’t decide. She was reacting and that was all that mattered. He touched the ring. “I wear it to remember her. It’s been six months now and I’m feeling better.” He certainly didn’t want her concluding he was in a constant state of mourning, like an old Italian widow who wore black for a year, often more; or a man who dwelled on death, someone too weak, too dependent on the past to get on with life.
“Hey,” he said with theatrical high spirits, “this isn’t a wake. How about I buy you another of those.”
“Rusty Nail. Sure,” she said, adding as he ordered, “So what do you do?”
He hesitated. Truth or another lie? Concocting a dead wife was simple compared with constructing a new profession. What did he know apart from advertising? Nothing. Topper was he possessed no abilities around the house, let alone knowledge of stock trading or moviemaking or anything else Loretta would find the least bit promising. For he had no doubt on that score: In the eyes of a woman, a man was the sum of all his parts whereas, in most cases, a woman’s appearance was the sum total of her for him. No, the truth seemed right to him, with some exaggeration, of course. He reasoned advertising was nearly as glamorous as filmmaking to people who didn’t realize it was just another job, though with a higher bullshit and aggravation quotient.
Her Rusty Nail arrived as he mentioned he was in advertising.
For the first time, she regarded him skeptically and he knew exactly why. He, being gray and buttoned up, didn’t present himself as the creative type. Mythologized advertising people were wild folk, and he looked tame and conventional.
“I’m on the business side. I’m an …” He stumbled here, not sure account manager would mean a damned thing to her. Hell, it didn’t mean much to him. He toyed with taking over the business, but even he didn’t find himself convincing as an entrepreneur. He settled for, “A vice president. I’m in charge of our accounts. I’m the fellow who ensures everybody does their best to keep the client happy.”
“Like a customer service guy.”
Gari bridled at her demeaning his self-appointed executive position, though by her wide-open face he had no doubt she labeled him with the best intentions and might even have regarded customer service as noble employment.
He laughed lightly. “I suppose you’re right. I do my share of placating, especially when the creative department drops the ball. Believe me, it happens more than you could imagine.” He was tempted to go further, to tell her the creative genius at his agency couldn’t distinguish a hole in the ground from Courtney Love’s elevated ass, and therefore couldn’t find her asshole. But, really, there was no reason for a bitter and crude display, not when Loretta radiated vibes of attraction.
“But actually, I run the show, especially in L.A. I’m heading up our effort to break into this market.”
Well now, he thought, this is quite peculiar as it is both true and false. In his invented life he was in charge of the Vanny’s shoe account in Los Angeles. This was certainly truth in Emily’s mind and if it was truth to one person was it not truth? He certainly was comfortable with the idea he was managing an account in L.A. Then there was reality. But what rich man from the beginning to now ever lived in reality?
“Something I know?” she asked.
Best to create a world you populated with the familiar as it was easier to manage. He had no intention of hoisting himself on his own petard; that is, blowing up his pleasant little world for the want of knowing how to make a film or turn a widget on a lathe. Best not to stray too far from the real.
“Oh,” she cooed, using her eyes to direct his to where he saw she was extending a very long, lightly tanned, subtlety muscled, glisteningly smooth naked leg, which he inspected up to a promising thigh and down to a lovely foot capped by beautifully pedicured toes painted bright red and shod in a red slide. Gari wasn’t a devotee of feet but staring at hers he easily understood why some developed a fetish for them. “Guess what these are?”
He laughed, which she interpreted as his reaction to her coquettishness. Actually, he was acknowledging his own perspicacity in sticking close to his shoe leather.
“May I?” he asked, motioning at her feet.
She extended a leg until her foot rested in his lap. He grasped it and ran a finger along the slide’s vamp, allowing it to stray to her skin. Her flesh was as smooth as it promised and warm, cozy, and quite inviting.
“Well?” she prodded, twisting her foot as if executing a dance step.
“No doubt about it. Bruno Magli. The vamp is a dead giveaway.”
“That’s amazing,” she intoned in a mix of giggles and amazement. “Most men—I mean, no man knows from shoes. And here I thought you were feeding me a line.”
Gari tossed her an exaggerated frown.
She shrugged happily. “Who knew?”
“Caution is wise in this world,” Gari pontificated, adding solemnly, “If only my wife had lived by that credo.” She projected polite downcast and he responded with: “I don’t know this town well. I’d like to see some hotspots before I head home.”
“Don’t your clients like to get out?” she asked, innocently, though he detected the first light of disbelief lurking in her voice.
“Shoe guys. What can I say? They’re grinds—all business, no play.”
She removed her foot from his lap and slid off her bar stool. “Something tells me the hottest spot in town is upstairs in your room.”