Secrets of the Lottery Winner
CHAPTER 21: CREDITS AND DEBITS
Sel Hash sat across from Gari in the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Next to Sel was his assistant, the adorable Kitty Saint. They were as alike as two sand kernels on a pristine California beach. They weren’t related—except in that both had been raised around L.A. and both had attended UCLA—but they could have been fraternal twins. They were blond and their hair was closely cropped. Their skin glowed golden. Their eyes shone ocean blue. They were long and rangy, but in a complimentary athletic fashion. They dressed casually in bright polos and kakis, the difference being she wore a skirt and he slacks. And, naturally, they were young, or at the least appeared to have a combined age of no more than fifty.
The three had just finished lunch. The pair had eaten fruit platters. Gari had devoured an obscenely expensive hamburger and fries and had immediately regretted his choice, not because the two had arched eyebrows over his selection, but because he knew he should have picked a salad or a fruit platter. The truth was even before moving to L.A. two months ago he’d already packed on several pounds. He’d taken to dressing like other ample Californians in lose shirts that hung outside his pants and draped over his stomach like camouflage. Emily, by contrast, had flourished in the golden land.
The Garibaldi’s had bought an old place—a house with character, as Emily called it—in Pasadena. She placed her career as a budding eBay entrepreneur on hold as she occupied herself with restoring the house to its original glamour, a considerable task. As he’d observed that night in Jamaica, she had changed physically. He hadn’t taken real notice until then. Truth was, as he switched his gaze and high-wattage smile from Sel to Kitty, Emily could have passed as this girl’s older sister, both of them siblings of California’s mania for youth, vigor, and good looks. Which was the other thing about Emily: She’d grown more attractive, sexy actually. He found he wanted to make love to her. These days he wasn’t much of a slacker. He had no time for excusing himself as he built and headed the California office of Lefton & Associates, was president of the West Coast Division, as Larry liked to call it, and had Vanguard Shoes as his anchor client—the name change of which he had explained to Emily as yet another round of trademark pugilism, with the KO his. But there were days when he wanted to chuck his responsibility and spend the afternoon in bed with his wife. He often found himself fantasizing about Emily and him romping on the leather sofa in his office.
“You’re in the presence of genius, Kitty,” Sel said.
Kitty blinked. Her eyes moistened. She seemed seconds from bounding from her chair onto Gari’s lap. She was new to Vanguard Shoes, hired by Sel a mere month previously, the direct result, according to him, of Gari’s spectacular campaign. Gari figured Sel was screwing Kitty, whose full name was Kitten, and who had a brother named Cougar. L.A. exerted a weird influence over people too long exposed to its liberal vapors. Gari, upon reflection, attributed his affair with Loretta to the noxious effect of his visits and his defenselessness against the L.A. miasma.
“Please, Sel, genius may be overdoing it.” Gari was feigning modesty, assuming the cloak of humility. After all, Victor and Sel were right; he had proven his genius to them, as well as to Larry.
“You’re a genius at promoting, Gari, no doubt about it. But your diet—really, you’ve got to lighten up on the red meat, hombre.”
“It’s in my blood,” he said.
Sel ciphered for an instant. “Hey, I get it.” He nudged Kitty. She smiled but Sel and Gari knew she was lost. “He’s from Chicago, you know.” Still nothing registered on her except the sparkle of her youth. “The stockyards,” Sel said, thrusting forth his hands for emphasis. “Christ,” he blurted, “meatpacking.”
“Sure,” she said.
Sel draped an arm over her shoulders. “She was an art major. She only knows about beautiful things. Isn’t that right, Kitty?”
She smiled her assent.
This was the thing about L.A. conversation: It was vapid. On and on the talk would go about clothes and style, sports and training, playing at the beach or in the mountains, and incessantly about the weather. This Gari found notably amazing as the weather rarely changed in L.A. Each day was a duplicate of the day before—sunny, dry, and usually smoggy. But the chatter about it went on endlessly, and was especially intense when Angelinos discovered their fellow conversationalists hailed from locales like Chicago. Then superlatives flowed like deluge from the spring mountain streams that eventually found its way into the L.A. waterworks and quenched the thirst of Angelinos. Counterpoint to the L.A. praise was the disparagement of Midwestern weather; whether winter or summer, it was inferior to the L.A. species. The Southland weather made it all—the expensive housing, the horrendous traffic, the debilitating pollution, the piled-on crowding, the unrelenting crime, and above all the impending catastrophe—worthwhile.
“The weather’s not good in Chicago, is it?” she said.
While Kitty’s non sequitur dialed Sel back a notch, Gari simply slid his sleeve to reveal his watch to his gaze to assure himself lunch was following a predictable course and would end in five minutes or less. Usually when lunch or other events verged on concluding, left field entered the room, and oftentimes it presented itself garbed as a weather discussion (whether or not the beloved subject had opened a conversation, lunch, or party, which often it did).
“Shitty three-hundred days of the year. Plain crappy the other sixty-five,” said Gari, with account management agreeability.
“What about the three-hundred sixty-sixtieth?”
Gari went blank but did manage to exclaim, “Huh?”
“Do you Chicago people get a good day in a leap year?”
Really, he wondered, UCLA, and Sel had assured him she’d graduated. “Well, Kitty,” Gari said in a tone approaching sonority, “that particular day starts out crappy and turns to absolute shit by five.”
“Too bad,” she said.
“Yeah, it is.”
“Hey,” interjected Sel, pointing toward Gari’s watch, “look at the time. We’d better head back to the office, Kitty. We’ve still got a lot of shoes to sell today.” His laugh was like milky sunshine.
The three rose. Sel and Gari shook hands. Kitty tossed an arm around Gari and brushed a cheek against his, which he had discovered was the L.A. woman’s manner of greeting and expressing goodbye. Stranger or lover, it didn’t matter.
As they left, he sat to wait for the check. Here was another thing about L.A.: Service was erratic. In one restaurant the servers rushed you and concluded by making you wait for the check. In another, service was leisurely until the check appeared, when the server lingered around you impatiently. And in others the entire affair was languid, as if your main occupation was dining and you had the entire afternoon in which to do it. The Beverly Hills Polo Lounge was such a place and Gari settled in for a five-minute wait, or whatever it took. He lounged and observed the crowd. Yet another feature of L.A. It was the middle of the afternoon, just after two, and the place was packed. No doubt somebody was waiting for Gari’s table, and he would gladly relinquish it if Pammy, the server, would show up with his check.
But the wait wasn’t unpleasant, especially at the Polo. There was much to dislike about L.A., but what there was to like was simply great. And this got him mulling what he adored about the town: the women. Generally, L.A. women were beautiful. Young or old, it didn’t matter; they were great, great, great in the looks department. That they resembled each other, as if poured from the same mold, didn’t trouble Gari in the least. In fact, he wished the good Lord had had the wit to use this same mold for all women. The L.A. look was sleek. The women were tall. Even if they were short, somehow they managed to convince Gari they were tall. L.A. women were lean. Gari figured their leanness resulted from their diet of yogurt and fruit and salads. He’d never seen as much colorful food consumed as in L.A. In Chicago, everything was brown, with dabs of white when a cream sauce was involved. While L.A. women were lean, by no means were they skinny. Any L.A. woman could hop out of bed and run or swim a mile with the best of them. That was to say the L.A. woman was toned. And her color—there wasn’t a pasty white woman to be found in L.A. An L.A. woman could be three steps from keeling over and Gari would never guess it. They looked as if they could live forever. As for age, the old looked young, and the young dazzled you. L.A. was the land of dreams, indeed.
Had Gari’s lunch occurred several months earlier, he could easily have succumbed to a woman like Kitty. Well, he had, though Loretta wasn’t fresh from the prom. Now Gari was a different man—experienced and scared twice into a condition best described as frigid gonads. Fathering a child with a woman nearly a stranger and almost losing his testicles due to his attraction to a chocolate confection engendered his restraint. And now he had someone at home who could match the native L.A. woman as a temptress.
Months earlier he would not have imagined himself affixing such a descriptor to Emily. However, from the night in Jamaica when her transformation really struck him, he was attracted to her as he hadn’t been since their dating days. The move to California had increased her appeal. She was tanned. She was more toned and had him believing he had a different woman in his bed. She was blond. And she dressed to attract attention—his solely he hoped. But if others ogled her, it didn’t arouse his jealousy. Rather, visions of such desire enflamed his passion for her. He loved having what other man lusted after.
Pammy appeared on that note. Gari paid the bill with his corporate credit card, a new wrinkle for Lefton & Associates and one he’d insisted upon. He didn’t want to wait for Larry to get around to paying expenses he incurred on behalf of the agency; Larry was pokey in this department. He sold Larry on the idea by telling him it was how big companies did it. Larry, especially with the expansion in L.A., wanted everybody to regard his business as big.
As Pammy wiggled away, he enjoyed his view of her ass. He hadn’t noticed it before, which must have been the double effect of Kitty radiating sexual tension at lunch and the idea of gaining release with his personal reinvented sex kitten at home.
It was when he diverted his gaze from Pammy that a woman in a red sundress caught his eye. Certainly, she was beautiful, formed wonderfully, tanned delightfully, coiffed magnificently, shoed sexily, but what woman wasn’t in L.A.? These weren’t the qualities that arrested his attention. What did was realizing he knew this woman. But, of course, it wasn’t possible, since by his count—which he recounted in his head watching her saunter beyond the Court into the hotel—Loretta should have had the dimensions of an economy car about then.
When he lost sight of her from his chair, he jumped up and rapidly walked to the Polo exit. Pammy, who was returning to his table with his credit card and the receipt to sign in what in her world was record time, spotted him. She charged diagonally across the restaurant flapping his card and the receipt calling, “Mr. Garibaldi, you forgot this.”
These words reached him as the woman, who could have been, but certainly couldn’t be regardless of what his eyes told him, Loretta, disappeared into the hotel lobby. Impatiently, he waited for Pammy to get to him. He snatched the card and receipt. He used the reception podium to etch out his signature and a twenty-percent tip. This wasn’t his usual practice but he didn’t have time to calculate seventeen and a half percent, his regular tip, a bit of rub off from the earlier version of Emily.
In the lobby, he saw plenty of people, and a number of women in red dresses, and at least two in red sundresses; but none of the women were Loretta. Turning around in the lobby, he admitted anyone of the women in her red dress could have been the woman he’d seen. And what if it had been Loretta? What difference would it make? He’d left her; he didn’t want to be involved with her; and he didn’t want to see her again, ever. But what if she hadn’t had the child? What if she’d aborted it? No, she wouldn’t kill the kid. What if she’d miscarried? That caused pain to twang his head. What a heartless cad it would make him.
“What a surprise—but I can’t say it’s a pleasant one.”
The voice shot sharply from behind him, and he recognized it. Yes, Gari had chased after the woman in red and he had wanted to know if it was Loretta. He might even have desired a conversation with her, wherein he would explain himself, since guilt did torment him. And perhaps he harbored the notion he might have assuaged her and thereby have earned his surcease. However, he’d wanted the advantage and the option of initiating their tête-à-tête. The result of this development was befuddlement, a creaky beginning, and lots of scrambling.
“Why Loretta, it’s great to see you.” Maintaining an upbeat tone with her wasn’t as easy as it had once been.
“Here’s the man who went out to buy a pack of cigarettes.”
He granted her the bitterness, but he didn’t appreciate her sarcasm. He wondered why they couldn’t put the past behind them; or at least discuss it like rational adults. He supposed women would always be a mystery to him.
“The minute I hit L.A. I said, ‘I’ve got to call Loretta.'”
“I’m sure. When did you roll into town? Last week? Last month, probably. Or I bet you never left town. You left me, though.”
“No, no, look, it was a business emergency. L.A. was crazy, and then Chicago was going bonkers. Those guys back there, they couldn’t manage to find a lighted exit at night let alone run an account. After the L.A. crisis, I had to get back to Chicago ASAP.”
“They invented the phone, Gari, in case it slipped by you, you being the busy ad guy.”
He could see she was happily headed down the recrimination road. He attempted shifting direction by ignoring her attitude.
“You really do look great.”
She folded her arms and blistered him with her stare. “I suppose you mean I don’t look pregnant.”
He stumbled and mumbled and nothing distinct elicited from him, except the implication of embarrassment and hints of guilt.
“Don’t concern yourself. You’ve nothing to worry about. It was a false pregnancy.”
Immense relief swept through him and he tried mightily to hide it, managing a soggy attempt at empathy, “Oh, sorry.”
“I find your sincerity overwhelming me,” she replied with undisguised disgust. When he fidgeted without answering, she continued, “I guess it was hope on my part. I was an idiot to ever think you were somebody who cared about me.”
Really, he admitted, it was his own fault. He botched the affair. He assumed Loretta was like Catherine—good times without attachment or expectation. Meeting Loretta in the Beverly Hilton bar, bedding her that very night, having more sex with her than he’d had with Emily in the past year—the past two or three years, and wilder too. That she hadn’t asked for money—well, some women like he supposed her to be gave it away if the guy was superb, didn’t they? He hadn’t thought of himself as such a man, until Catherine. Definitely, he possessed something. Catherine adored it and he naturally assumed the same was true of Loretta. His mistake, and he freely admitted it was his, was seeing her again, and again, and the topper, seeing her in her apartment. He practically set up shop. So maybe she had been justified in regarding him as more than a customer. But allowing herself to become pregnant and compounding the disaster by expecting him to be daddy to the kid, now that had been too much.
Since winning the lottery, discovering his innate business acumen, and earning two promotions, Gari had never been at a loss for words. But here he was in the lobby of the glamour capital of the world in front of a woman who he’d once screwed with delightful abandon and his word box was fully depleted. Honestly, the man didn’t even have a decent lie in him at that moment.
“So, Gari, what do you have to say?”
Nothing. He had nothing to say. And yet he had to say something. Then words dripped, dripped into his box and it filled slowly at first, then rapidly, until like a bucket under an open spigot he overflowed and was compelled to empty himself before his head burst.
“Okay, Loretta, I was an asshole. Yes I was, leaving you like I did. I don’t know what to say. You’re right. I ran away. Hell, I was scared. I never expected I’d be a father.” He hesitated. “After she died, I mean, I never thought of myself as a guy meant to have a wife again, or children, or a real home where I could hang my hat each night. I figured I’d always be the kind of guy I was when I met you. Go from place to place. Spend all my time doing business here and there. I’d get wealthy, but never find a good use for it, you know what I mean?”
Indeed she did, as he fathomed in her misty eyes and cracking voice. The thing he’d learned in these past several months was: They wanted to believe. Just as he had wanted to believe he could be a millionaire by doing nothing more than buying a lottery ticket; Victor wanted to believe he could sell more shoes than anybody in Chicago; Larry wanted to believe he could run a major agency; Sel and Kitty wanted … well, Gari wasn’t entirely sure, but it might have been as simple as each other, at least for the time being. And Emily too wanted to believe, in her case that he was the husband of her dreams. And the strange thing was he’d only realized this now, after months of exploiting it. Truthfully, he didn’t quite know how he felt about the neediness of people and his willingness to use them.
But this was no time for philosophizing and delving the motivations of humans. Loretta was speaking and he had to listen closely to understand her. She was uttering, “Yes, I understand. Gari, I always wanted to believe the best about you.”
The words flowed, as if somebody had installed a pump in his box and was push, pushing with unrelenting glee: “Loretta, there is nothing best about me.” Self-deprecation was the ticket he was punching. Humility—it was a virtue, wasn’t it? Who could humble himself better than a man who had once been sincerely in the clutches of perpetual supplication? “What did I do when you needed me most? Where was I when I believed you were having a—I mean, our baby? Out the door is where.”
“Gari,” she said, moving closer to him and gently resting a hand on his arm, “maybe you’re being unfair to yourself.”
“No, Loretta, I was scared. I ran away because I couldn’t face up to what I had done. There’s no other way to say this: I was a coward. And I left you holding the bag.”
She quickly hugged him. “Gari, I think I expected too much from you. Our relationship was going along nicely, you staying with me when you were in town. It was comfortable. I got comfortable. I assumed that since you stayed with me and we did all those wonderful things together and were happy even when we did nothing but lay around the apartment … well, I assumed you loved me.”
“I did, Loretta.” Though his way was purely sexual, Gari figured expanding his protestation of love to the nether regions wouldn’t help his cause, which was as yet obscure to him.
“I know you did, Gari. But it wasn’t the kind of love I thought we had. It wasn’t the kind that lasts over the long run … that leads to marriage.”
She slipped her arm in his and thus locked together, they left the lobby of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Stepping into the murky L.A. afternoon sun, he said, “You’re right. I’m just not made for marriage. And if I did marry you, or anybody, I’d be a lousy husband.”
She laughed. “I have no doubt. You’re married to shoes.”
Would Emily burst into laughter or cry if she knew that a woman had compared her to shoes? He’d know if he was breathing after the paramedics had scraped him off the pavement.
“My shoe people are tough customers. I just finished lunch with them.”
“Oh,” she said. The inflection indicated disappointment.
“They are your typical California health nuts, you know. So now I have a hankering for dessert. How about joining me?” He followed her eyes as they drifted to his waistline. “Okay, maybe I’ve had a few too many of them lately. I’ve got to trim down. But today’s special, our reunion. How about it?”
She assented. They executed an about-face and returned to the Polo Lounge, where they were seated in a corner at a table for two. He ordered ice cream for them from Pammy, who thanked him with a wink unobservable by Loretta.
They bantered while waiting for Pammy to return with their treats and upon her arrival, against his better judgment, he agreed to meet Loretta Sunday for a pleasant afternoon, perhaps in Griffith Park. No night duty, as she said she was tied up. That conjured cherished naughty pictures in his mind.
Halfway into his ice cream the reality of what he’d committed to struck and he developed a mild case of the shakes. When he caught her eyeing him, he embraced himself and vigorously rubbed his shoulders. “Ice cream. Does it to me every time.” She smiled.
As he stroked himself, his cell phone chirped for escape from his jacket pocket and he reached for it. He glanced and caught the first three digits, the Chicago area code, and opened the airwave figuring he’d hear Larry Lefton prattle on about one thing or another, most likely a tirade about Gari’s propensity to dine in the finest restaurants, entertain extravagantly at L.A. sports events, and otherwise blow the agency’s profits, remonstrations to which Gari had lately adopted the tactic of ignore, ignore, ignore.
However, the voice microwaving to him from distant and nearly forgotten Chicago was the melodic and erotic chime of the mistress of the Conductor’s Club, Catherine Lourdes.
“Gari,” she said brightly and deeply, and not a little sexily, “long time no screw.” And indeed it had been several months since they’d rode the Metra to Fox Lake and Conductor Jimmy of the big key set had cleared the bi-level to afford Catherine the privacy in which to induct Gari into the club of rail rouges and ravagers. Fortunately, he was sitting and the table hid his lower regions from Loretta’s attentive gaze, who certainly wouldn’t have minded Garibaldi tumescence as the two had reconciled and his expansion would simply affirm what she had always accepted as fact, even in the dark days of desertion; namely, Gari the mighty ad mogul was unable to contain himself in her presence.
Quickly, he cupped the tiny phone and excused himself. “It’s Sel, my shoe guy. We just finished lunch and already he’s is back at me. Sometimes I hate this business. Mind if I take this?” This last he uttered with the boyishness he might use to excuse himself to pee. Maybe as extreme as pee-pee.
She demurred with a matching girlish headshake and he strode toward the lobby talking to Catherine.
“I interrupt something important?” she cooed.
“Finishing a business lunch.”
She allowed the line to crackle sufficiently to drive home her innuendo. Then, “I called for two reasons. First, you’re not having trouble accessing your account?”
“None at all. Why? Should I?”
“Customer service, Gari. I want to be sure you’re a happy Mid-Con customer.”
“Excellent. Now for the second reason. I’ll be in L.A. tomorrow.”
“Why?” he asked, too hurriedly he thought the instant the question shot clear of his lips. He feared she’d get the impression he didn’t want her in L.A. or within a thousand miles of Lefton & Associates West.
“Business?” There he went again, this time spinning a bit of accusation into this tone. It felt like the beginning of a death spiral.
“Movie business,” she said gaily, taking delight in the exchange.
“You’re going to be in a movie?”
He was in the lobby squirreling his head this way and that on guard for what might happen next. With two of his women frothy over him, what he really needed was for Emily to saunter through the lobby. But, of course, in the lobby were the usual collection of little stars yearning for bigness (and maybe, occasionally, though not on this occasion, an already monumental star in the form of a Nicole, Sharon, or Julia).
“In your professional opinion, you know, as an old L.A. hand, you think I could be in a movie?”
Well, he wished to say, you have movie star looks; you have a seductive voice; you’re smart; and you’ll almost—correct that—you will do anything. “Beautiful woman like you, Catherine?”
“Thanks, Gari. But no. I’m afraid I’ll be there on dreary financial business. We’re hoping to put some money into a new production company. I’ll be in town to cut the deal. But the good news is the producers have invited me to a party to celebrate the release of their first film. I can take anybody I like. How about coming along and seeing the stars?”
Partying and seeing the stars with Catherine would devolve in to a sexual romp, he had no doubt. Earlier, with Loretta, he’d pondered how Emily had become more appealing to him and how their sexual relationship had evolved into something satisfying and consuming. No, he didn’t need to bed other women, not anymore. Yet his tingling libido indicated he might be arguing with himself in vain. Catherine so long not seen, smelled, tasted, or felt held the power of allurement over him. It was bad, very bad; he could swear he caught whiffs of her frangipani, her hair, her skin, her silky secretions hijacking the electronic signal between Chicago and L.A. Each time a remembrance hit him, he reacted as if jolted by a bolt of electricity and there in the lobby of the elegant Beverly Hills Hotel with stylishly clad folk milling about him and the unrelentingly cool California attitude caressing him he found himself growing an erection and with the growth came the urge to take the embodiment of the voice surfing the waves on rollicking ride on one of the plush sofas in this very lobby of the hotel with the sophisticates viewing. Damn it! How could he say no to the Hollywood party?
Dialing back a couple of notches the enthusiasm surging in him, “I’d love it.”
“Great,” she said, her tone communicating she’s had no doubt he would. “The party’s at the Beverly Hills Hotel, but I’m staying at Raffles. Why don’t we meet in my room, say around five?”
No one had to confirm a degree in Hollywood parties on Gari for him to know that odds of such an affair starting at six or seven, nine even, was as likely as Judgment Day arriving first thing in morning. “I’ve love to, but I’m tied up all day. By the time I’m back, washed, dressed, and out the door, oh, it’ll be—” he plucked a time from the rarified air of the lobby—”ten or so.”
“Okay,” she said, finally, dragging her resignation out like warm taffy.
And during his conversation with Catherine, he’d wandered through the lobby and around it and finally navigated back to the Polo Lounge about the time he signed off.
“Your ice cream melted,” said Loretta, when he arrived at the table.
He heard this simple statement of fact—his ice cream was liquid—as accusatory. Of what, he wasn’t entirely sure. She probably figured him for a two-time splitter.
He sat and ladled some of the sugary soup into his mouth. “It’s the way I like it, sometimes,” he said, emphasizing his relish with two more mouthfuls. “When I was a kid, I’d let the stuff melt. Then I’d stir it until it was a watery paste. The best. How about you?”
It was the new quality Gari possessed, his ability to be engaging, to divert attention from the unpleasant, to pull at the heartstrings, and have them play a sweet tune. Of course, Loretta, who still glowed in the apparent reconciliation, only a little perturbed by his disappearance now that he had returned and she wasn’t deserted again, said, “Look, I’ve done the same with mine.” She tipped her bowl toward him to afford him a view of her swirling work. It meant something, he knew. Everything means something; nothing was random; life’s big and little things had meaning. The meaning of ice cream soup: They were simpatico. They could restore and rebuild a relationship. Though how sturdy could it be erected on ice cream soup?
“Look,” he said, “I’ve got to run. Sel and the gang need attention.”
“What time Sunday?” Loretta asked.
He did a quick calculation. Up at eight. Breakfast with the family. A trip to church. Emily had been insistent on starting up on church again. She viewed it as putting meaning into their lives, meaning beyond the almighty dollar and what it would buy, which he found amusing considering the agony to which she’d subjected him during the years when he was an economic slouch. Then brunch with the family. Sunday was family fun day, according to the new rules established by Emily. An event would follow lunch, but not this Sunday. He’d apologize for having to work and promise something spectacular for next Sunday. Maybe an all day adventure at Disneyland, a sure winner, and vanquisher of sorrows.
“One,” he said. “I’ll pick you up here.”