Secrets of the Lottery Winner

Secrets of the Lottery Winner …

… tells the story of how winning a small fortune transforms a man into the dynamic business leader he always dreamed he might be. Gari Garibaldi, feeling he has nothing to lose now that he is a millionaire, exerts himself at his small ad agency and discovers a business genius lurking within himself. But success proves a bit trying for Gari. He drops the reins of his life, involving himself in an affair, getting kidnapped by Caribbean revolutionaries, and producing a movie. And then his real problems begin. Click here for the complete novel.

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Secrets of the Lottery Winner: The Complete Novel

CHAPTER 1:  MAN OF MISFORTUNE

It was the Chicago 7-Eleven near the heart of the city with a tiny parking lot in front, seven stalls, an urban oddity in that it offered parking, and the parking was free. If it had not been in the heart of the city, and not had a free parking lot in front, and if Augustus Garibaldi, known to everyone since childhood as Gari, had not cruised into the city in his dated balloon car, his Chevy Caprice with rust gnawing the panel under the driver’s door into a memory, he might have not purchased the lottery ticket.

He’d driven in and splurged on parking the beast in anticipation of leaving early to meet a prospective client up north in Lake Bluff, a swanked up town on Lake Michigan with light industry in tired office parks on its western edge, well away from the nice stuff. But the meeting fell through. The prospect’s company phoned with regrets that Albert Manning was down with a cold and they’d have to cancel.

Gari, gripping the receiver and absorbing the excuse, did not appreciate having to file an expense report to recoup the insane cost of parking in the city based on, “I thought I had a meeting.” He wondered how a grown man could contract a cold in the middle of July. It struck him as abnormal or a lie. He concluded it was probably a lie. No doubt once he considered it, Mr. Manning wanted nothing to do with him and Lefton & Associates but lacked the guts to tell him to get lost face to face.

Since the meeting had evaporated and left him with ugly expense-account-battle residue, he decided cutting his day in half was a sort of justice. Who had to know his meeting had been scrapped? He was an account executive, at least in title, a man of responsibility, as limited as it was, who put in the required hours for the agency, at least in a cosmetic fashion. He’d file a fictive report and treat himself to a little aimless driving, a stop in a park reserve, some idleness in sweet surroundings. He deserved to sniff the flowers, grass and trees, didn’t he? “Damn straight,” he affirmed to his cubicle wall.

Gari navigated his balloon-mobile into the 7-Eleven lot and hopped out to grab a sandwich and a soda. A man couldn’t contemplate nature on an empty stomach. The gurgling and growling would be too distracting; these intestinal noises would interfere with his enjoyment of the gentle rustling of the leaves, the chirping of birds, and the rest of it. And while he was in the store he figured he’d buy a lottery ticket. What was the harm of wagering a dollar to win millions?

Plenty, according to Emily. His wife harassed him regularly for barely bringing home enough to get the family through each month.

“Make more money and you can spend more,” she harped.

He didn’t believe her, not for a second. She was careful by her own admission. Careful was her word for her penurious proclivity. Gari called it cheap, not even frugal, which seemed to him too righteous. He could pull down a million a year and she’d still carp about a store-bought sandwich, or a lottery ticket.

When he got like this, splashing in the icy pool of his resentment, he rebuked himself with the truth:  He really didn’t earn enough. Then he compensated by praising her as good wife, good mother. But this wacky dichotomy wasn’t sufficient to alleviate his turmoil. He sputtered internally until his throat turned hoarse, railing deep in his innards that living with her cheapness was akin to settling in with a dudgeon mistress, shackled in the hole.

And he hated his allowance. Emily doled him a few bucks a week for his personal expenses. She labeled these personal indulgences, as if having a coffee in the morning was an extraordinary activity engaged in by him alone. Had the woman never heard of Starbucks?

How had he fallen into this predicament? It happened the year she’d gotten pregnant—”We conceived,” she phrased it, but he thought contrived was truer—with their first child.

They lived in the city then, and he knew that wouldn’t last, couldn’t really. The city was no place to raise a child, contended Emily. He agreed, though he actually disagreed. He was raised in the city, on the South Side in the section known as the East Side. He turned out okay, hadn’t he? Good enough to marry, to father children.

Emily insisted they move to the suburbs for the sake of their first child and future children. He went along, though he enjoyed the city, liked getting to work in a few minutes; loved their neighborhood, too, though their friendships were as substantial and long as a Chicago spring.

They bought the house a month before Teddy arrived. The purchase turned everything into a hassle. Her doctor was in the city at Northwestern Memorial. She writhed with contractions in their car as he crept to the city down the Edens, and then nearly parked on the Kennedy. He could have pointed out living in the city, at least until Teddy’s birth, would have simplified matters; but he’d kept it to himself. A row on the day of their first son’s birth wasn’t what he wanted.

Later, with Teddy home, he suggested they consider purchasing a second car. Not even a decent used car—a used would do to ferry him back and forth to the train station. She informed him they’d manage just fine with their one car.

“It’ll be good for you, Gari,” she’d said, eyeing him top to bottom. “You have a tendency to chunk out. Walking will do you a world of good.”

As he entered the 7-Eleven, he was mumbling, “A tendency to fat. Oh, yeah, as if you are Mrs. Perfection.”

At the self-serve deli, he was in full-blown rebellion, stoked to heights that would shame his red shirt namesake. If he wanted a sandwich, he would have it. If he thirsted for a Big Gulp, damn tootin’ he’d have that too. At the counter, he decided to toss in a lottery ticket.

The jackpot was only five million according to the posting on the ticket machine. Fifty-million would have been better, but so what? Five would be pretty good and it’d serve Emily right, him strolling in with the paper and showing her the ticket and his numbers matching the winners. She’d have to retract every debasing spendthrift barb she’d ever hurled at him. Then whenever he wanted he’d buy as many 7-Eleven sandwiches and Big Gulps as he could stuff into himself, visit Starbucks daily and add a scone to his order, too, any old time he liked.

“Before you finish there,” Gari said, “I’ll have a lottery ticket.”

“Which one? We got a shit load.”

“The weekly. Just give me a minute to fill out the card.”

He felt the clerk’s yellowed eyes scorn his lack of preparation, as if he was a jabroni preventing the raddled minion from making a train. He wilted under the glare, flaring with umbrage and his inability to express it, rather explaining docilely, as if he needed to win the clerk’s understanding, “I’ve got to play my lucky numbers. I’ve been playing them on and off for a couple years now.”

“Most people got them on cards they carry,” snarled the clerk, as if Gari suffered some huge deficiency of character.

Gari mumbled incoherently, angered himself, then pressed extra hard on the lottery card with the pencil provided by the clerk, filling until the dots of graphite winked back at him.

As an inveterate player, he had carried a filled-in card with his lucky numbers pre-blackened, until Emily had confiscated it. Just as well, for he’d rediscovered the magic of darkening the circles each time he played. With each press of the pencil, his brain transformed into a cerebral piggybank jammed with dollars.

When he had them glistening to his liking, he handed the card back to the clerk, who regarded it warily, as if it might have traveled to regions best left unmentioned. Annoyed that this guy now had him feeling like a leper, Gari shoved money at him to cover the ticket, his sandwich, and Big Gulp. In clamorous seconds, the machine spit out his lottery ticket. The clerk handed it and the form to Gari. Gari crumbled the form and stared at the ticket while sucking on his Big Gulp straw. Everything vanished but the ticket, and to him it was a Eucharistic host of redemption.

Before leaving the 7-Eleven, he nested the ticket in his wallet. No reason for Emily to know he’d blown another dollar on the Illinois Lottery.

He left the 7-Eleven sure he was on the verge of winning the lottery. He had a week to cherish and embellish the hope.

* * *

It was a hell of seven days for him. His major client, Lubeck’s Shoes, “The Shoes Smart Chicago Wears,” called him on the carpet for an error in a sale ad that appeared in the Sun-Times. No matter that he’d often pointed out the tagline was senseless. Chicagoans might wear Lubeck’s Shoes and by a method mystical, mysterious, and certainly unknown to mortal residents of the city, might even be smarter for doing so; however, he ranted on average twice a year, when his frustration boiled out his ears and then his mouth, Chicago the city, Big Shoulders and all that, could not possibly wear shoes. Well, he blared this at the agency creative director, who he considered perhaps a hair more creative than a hare. To direct his protestation at Victor Lubeck, inheritor of the Lubeck’s Shoes empire, would have been fatal. Victor Lubeck was not patient or understanding when it came to Lubeck’s Shoes and the work of his sainted father, the enshrined Gregor Lubeck. Gari didn’t doubt for a second the rumor floating around the agency:  Victor Lubeck carried a relic of his father in a snack baggie in his wallet; which, of course, meant Victor sat on his old man everyday, but no matter. The tagline was the invention of the venerated Gregor, who devised it with a snap of his fingers in the bacon-scented air at breakfast shortly after opening his first shoe store.

He withered on the carpet of Larry Lefton, who Gari liked in the way a masochist enjoys his fingers tucked neatly in the jamb of a slammed door. Larry was no more than ten years older than he and served to remind Gari of his shortcomings as a rising advertising executive, as if he was in need of reminding with Emily at home willing and able to do a nice job of it, thank you very much. What he liked about Larry was the man proved with absoluteness that a witless individual could make it in this world. The man was the incarnate hope of the hopeless.

Larry demanded if Gari comprehended what his little mistake could cost the agency. Gari refreshed the president on a few facts:  He didn’t write the copy. He didn’t lay out the ad. He wasn’t the proofreader. Larry’s retort was:  Lubeck’s Shoes was Gari’s account. It was a damn good account, which he empathically emphasized by slapping his desk with a fatty hand. Gari was responsible for everything—every little thing. If Gari screwed up, he would have Gari’s balls, the squeezed demise of which he indicated by clenching and shaking his fist.

After wincing at the prospect, Gari’s blood boiled high. But he suppressed the urge to tell Larry he didn’t need Victor Lubeck, wouldn’t wear Lubeck’s shoes if his life depended on it—though he stood before the president in a pair of Lubeck’s loafers purchased by Emily for him because Lubeck’s granted agency personnel a discount and Emily appreciated a bargain and because on his salary, she complained, bargains were all they could afford. And he didn’t need the agency.

Gari sighed. He nodded his understanding, and Larry took it as tacit pledge it wouldn’t happen again. But Gari preserved his pride, as he wasn’t sniveling about it, at least by his own measure. He exited Larry’s office wondering why people loved triteness as much as they did and continually demonstrated their affection by elevating Larry Leftons to heavenly heights.

There was a ritual to goof-ups. At his desk, he picked up the phone and pressed the speed dial connection to Victor Lubeck’s office. Gari paused a respectable second, and then delivered his apology with the firm, unshakeable, reassuring, and, he prayed, fully assuaging supplication.

At home, the weekend progressed as fine as it could, as well as it ever crept along, until Sunday evening, when, while Emily was putting away the laundry, she decided to flip open his tri-fold wallet. She leafed through the photo sleeves, where he kept her and the boys’ photos so they rode along wherever he and his backside went. Then she peeked inside the billfold pocket. No harm done as Gari stored his meager allowance there, and it was empty, as Emily restocked him Monday mornings. But she didn’t stop there; she moved on to explore the secret, though universally known, compartment where his stowaway resided.

Sunday night the house filled with Emily’s sulfuric fuming, and it was quite a stinking time for him. Most of what she spewed was familiar. He’d endured each hot missile perhaps a dozen times, until she ejected something novel.

She said, “You’re a deceiver, Gari. I just hate deception.”

He understood the reference perfectly. It was to the fact—he couldn’t and wouldn’t deny it—that he’d hid the lottery ticket from her. He had to, he told her, because he didn’t want to endure the very character assault to which she was subjecting him.

She demanded to know what else he was hiding. Not women, she chided, for she was confident no women in possession of their sanity would want him. Which amused him and caused a smile to blossom on his lips. This, naturally, incensed her and she redoubled her effort to insult and demean him.

The next day, checking his wallet during his commute to the agency, he saw she had shorted him one dollar. In its place was a scrap of paper—she saved any paper with blank space for reuse—scrawled on which was this pointed message:  “I’m on to you, so don’t do it again.” Her cheapness and pettiness oftentimes stunned him into another county. In these moments his mind wandered to basic questions, the most elementary of which was, “What the hell did I see in her?”

The truth was pedestrian:  He’d fallen in love with her looks—her tall, slim figure; her aquiline features; her black eyes and even blacker hair, the shade of hell with the fires extinguished it turned out; tapered legs that ran up to an ass just broad enough and sufficiently defined to rivet his gaze every time she turned her back on him. What he hadn’t noticed about her then, or may have glimpsed but ignored, was her overpowering need to control every aspect of their lives, which over the years had transformed into her dominant trait. So powerful and repulsive was it that only necessity could drive him near her, and, finally, not even that primal need sufficed.

If he won the lottery, he promised himself, he’d walk right out the door, straight into the world, and maybe, if his luck continued, into the arms of a gorgeous woman who might actually appreciate him.

CHAPTER 2:  CLEVER FELLOW

Gari bought the Tribune at the Mundelein train station from the vending machine. “Why do you need a paper, when you watch TV for free?” harped Emily anytime he foolishly commented on an event read in the newspaper and stupidly prefaced with, “I saw this in today’s paper.”

He settled into his seat on the Metra coach next to the window and was opening the paper to the page reporting the lottery numbers when a fat man dropped in next to him. Normally Gari set the portions of the paper he wasn’t reading on the seat beside him, the train signal for:  “You’re not welcome.” But it was Thursday. He was eager to read the lottery results. And upon sitting, he tore into the paper with sharply piqued hope, painful almost, and forgot to claim the entire seat.

The fat man landed like a boulder in a pond, hardly ignorable as he launched undulations of quake proportions against Gari, who reacted by fumbling his paper between his legs, allowing the guts to drop on the floor. As the fat man was a seat-and-a-quarter passenger, overflowing flesh pinned Gari to the window and severely reduced his mobility. With difficulty he maneuvered his window arm between his legs and retrieved his newspaper. The fat man wiggled and glared, demonstrating his perturbation at Gari’s invasion of his space. Gari contemplated shoving back, but feared the fat man would render him a red blot on the window, like a bug splattered on a windshield.

Squeezed and hunched, he opened the paper the span a baby would have if a baby possessed the dexterity and wit to read a newspaper. He scanned down page two to the lower left where the Wednesday lottery results appeared. As he read the numbers, his chest welled and his throat seized. He recognized these numbers. They were his numbers. Every single number was his. But, of course, it was impossible. Though every lottery purchase came with a boxcar of hope, it simply couldn’t be. Account-executive-for-life, minion-for-eternity, Gari Garibaldi could never, not ever in this or any lifetime, win something as huge as THE LOTTERY. In other words, the monumentality of the prospect overwhelmed him with self-doubt.

Five million dollars!  He just had to look at his ticket to be absolutely sure.

With the magnitude of his prodigious fortune flashing before him in red neon, he began to slide his arm between himself and the fat man. He managed to insert it in the gap created by the inward slope of the man’s pear form fuselage. His tactic worked to a degree, but once near the back of the seat he had to angle his hand down to the wallet in his back pocket.

Perhaps a gentleman would have excused the rear-end activity as unintentional and harmless. Or not able to dismiss it, would have settled for grunted displeasure. The fat man, unfortunately, was endowed with a generous helping of belligerence. He growled, “You like my ass, you goddamn pervert?”

“I was just reaching for my wallet,” Gari offered as humble apology.

“My ass,” scoffed the fat man fortissimo, impressive in his obsession over his hindquarters, as if ass grabbing was a common annoyance due to his magnetic adipose.

Gari furtively scanned the coach mostly by casting his eyes about, too timid to swivel his head, afraid he might latch onto the eye of someone who would be thinking, “Damn queer bastard. Can’t even ride the train these days without them grabbing your ass.” But this was the big city, or at least the train rumbling into the big city, and indifference and ennui rode along, and either his fellow commuters had no interest in what was transpiring or were engaged in the time-honored practice of avoidance, the latter being Gari’s best guess, accounting for the fact everybody had his or her eyes glued on everything else—newspapers, books, the scenery, or the invisible molecules in front of them.

“Really, I just need my wallet.” If you weren’t the size of a barnyard animal … but the molten thought went unsaid.

“You want your wallet?” declared the fat man. “Well, you’ll have to wait ’till we get to the station.”

“Look, it’ll take just a second.”

“Yeah, then you’ll want to put it back. No twerp pervert is grabbing my ass twice. You got it. If you don’t stop it, I’ll get the conductor to toss your skinny ass off this train. How you’d like that?”

Judging the situation hopeless, Gari retreated his hand to his lap where he stationed it for the balance of the trip to Chicago’s Union Station.

At the platform, Gari rushed off the train and into Union. He nearly whipped out his wallet on the concourse flooded with hundreds of freshly disembarked and intense commuters, everyone surging to jobs or appointments. But then as if the location had discharged the powerful urge that had seized and ultimately embarrassed him on the train, he restrained himself. What was the hurry? Savor the moment. Wasn’t anticipation two-thirds the enjoyment of anything? Sure. He knew he wasn’t wrong about the numbers. They were like old friends he’d palled with for years. He decided confirming the numbers deserved whatever dollop of ceremony he could muster and an appropriate setting.

So instead of his usual route up the escalators, he shot past the Amtrak waiting room, detoured right, and skipped into the Great Hall. Here was the perfect venue for revealing to himself what he strongly suspected, achingly felt certain of—the mythical ship that had fueled him week to week for years had docked at the Garibaldi port. It would have been nice if Teddy and Sammy and, yes, Emily too, were there to celebrate with him. “But what the hell,” he said softly, lowering onto an empty pew seat.

He opened the paper to page two and laid it beside him on the pew. He drew his wallet from his back pocket and from it the ticket. He stared at the ordinary lettering—Illinois Lotto, Five Million Dollars. Million – oh, that word, simple yet soaring and charged with delightful high-flying avarice. He held the ticket tight with two hands and still his grip seemed tentative and was definitely shaky. It glittered in his hands, like burnished gold, transforming the light in the Great Hall into flashes of equatorial high-noon glint. It was too much for him and he looked away, pulled his eyes up to the great rotunda, and stared at the flag hanging down, fluttering in the heat currents that traversed the vault. Oh, yes, it was a great country, a great state, the great old Northwest Territory, where men had come to seek their fortunes, where fortunes were built, some of the greatest in a nation of great fortunes. And now it was Gari Garibaldi’s turn at great, good fortune. It was now in his hands, simple paper, dull colors, plain type, unpretentious but glorious as they declared him:  Millionaire!

Fearful to gaze too long, as if the ticket might vanish in a poof, he drifted his eyes up to the flag, over the ceiling, down the marble-clad walls, back to the ticket and his special numbers, and then to the newspaper next to him, and the numbers printed on it. One by one he mouthed them silently as he screamed them in his mind, slowly, like a grand countdown to a special launch, a rocket ride into parts unknown; he shouted each long and loud inside his head until his throat turned raw and painful. Good God in heaven but didn’t he feel like an explorer setting off into an unexplored world, the great man vilified by everybody but confident in his own destiny, brave enough to seize opportunity and mold from it a spectacular, historic even, life for himself. And when he finished with the numbers and they indeed matched, a chorus of hallelujahs burst forth in his rattled and aching noggin. Gari Garibaldi was indeed a millionaire proclaimed his chorus.

To the few idlers in the Great Hall, who if they were inclined to observe him—which they were not as staring at other pew dwellers was not only impolite but sometimes dangerous—would have detected nothing indicating the heavens had descended on the man in the pew near the center under the rotunda. In spite of the emotion exploding in him, his exterior was like a pot on a stove—inert, the same whether empty or full, unrevealing as to whether it was bubbling hot with tasty fare or empty awaiting the cook. Gari Garibaldi could not move, not even twitch a facial muscle to indicate he was anything but an inanimate object, a mere decoration in the Great Hall, Johnson’s “Double Check” set down on the pew to illustrate to passersby how people once in this room read, conversed, slept, fiddled, fidgeted, and otherwise occupied themselves before commencing trips to destinations nationwide.

But this lasted maybe a minute when the energy building pressure in Gari blew out every pore and hole in his body but particularly his mouth as a series of exhilarated shouts that to anybody in earshot must have sounded like the ravings of a lunatic. The jig he added convinced everybody who dared to look that he was a madman, the Madman of the Great Hall.

Gari buttoned up when he saw the strange station folk scoping him as if he’d just stepped off the pages of Weird Tales. He carefully returned his ticket—now revered as THE FORTUNE—to his wallet. He slipped it into his back pocket, but instantly removed it, recalling the advice of a famous cop lecturing on television about protecting yourself against pickpockets.

In his entire life, even when he dressed with a modicum of fashion sense before the arrival of Teddy, Gari had never had his pockets picked. But as life could quickly and often did spiral into totally insensible, debilitating, harrowing, and crippling chaos, he reasoned if he was ever ripe for victimization, it was now. He vibrated. He radiated wealth and vulnerability. He was on a wavelength detectable to thieves from the three corners of Chicago. So he slipped his wallet into his left front pants pocket, where it pressed reassuringly against his thigh.

He left the Great Hall, cruised up the escalators, and exited onto Adams, headed for Lefton & Associates. Then he stopped abruptly. Wait a minute, wait a Big Shoulders’ minute, what’s this about work? What does millionaire-hood have to do with working—slaving, really—at Lefton & Associates? He was nothing but a glorified shoe salesman, even had to work the floor for a week to get to know the business, to get one on one with the customer, as if this made a thimble drop of difference, since Lefton & Associates churned out work of one ilk only:  crap. Maybe he should stroll in and tender his resignation? He didn’t need Lefton & Associates any more. Gari Garibaldi was a millionaire.

But did five million qualify him as a true millionaire? With ten million, twenty-million, sure he could kiss Lefton & Associates goodbye. Not even frugal Emily could object when he would be bringing in, say, a million a year. But five, well five was another story. Sure, it was wonderful and he could certainly live nicely on a yearly income of a quarter of a million. But—was he in fact sufficiently rich to be legitimately ranked a millionaire? Okay, he wasn’t in the same league as Gates, Buffett, Crown, Pritzger, Zell. But not many were. Five million definitely placed him in the upper echelons of moneymakers in America.

He was still splitting the hairs of what constituted wealth when he arrived at the Thompson Center, the building an honorific to Big Jim, a twice-elected former governor. Here was an odd testament to longevity. The structure resembled a cockeyed collapsed top hat, or maybe a tipped birthday cake decorated incongruously in baby blue and salmon. Loping through the rotunda of this monolith to tenure and power awhirl with bureaucrats, pols, bagmen, early lunchers, and flatland gawks, he contemplated the monument he’d wish erected to his memory, for he expected, now freed from the grind of quotidian life, he might accomplish great things, things beneficial to his fellow man and woman of the type that had obstructed his path to glory. Certainly not anything as grand as this joint and definitely not as kitschy; dignified and classy, fluted columns, masses of stone, inscrutable carvings—this was more his style. But before he could move on to the architectural details, he bumped into the building directory. He found the lottery suite number on the building directory and rode an elevator up.

The office disappointed him, and he wouldn’t have known it was his gateway to a fabulous life as a rich man if not for the promotional posters and gewgaws. The receptionist, a young woman appearing to be not much older than twenty, greeted him and asked if she could be of help. He proffered his ticket, announcing, “I’m Illinois’ newest millionaire.”

Balloons did not drop from the ceiling; not a shard of confetti glided through the air; no blaring band strutted from behind the counter. However, the young woman did accept the ticket, smiled, and phoned for someone who appeared in under a minute. She effused she was the office manager, shook Gari’s hand, accepted the ticket from the receptionist, examined it quickly, and compared it to the sequence of numbers representing easy street for the fortunate holder.

“Well sir, it looks like you’re the winner. It’ll take just a few minutes to authenticate your ticket. Then we’ll notify the director and set up a time to present you with your first check.”

She wrote and handed him a receipt for his ticket, asked if he could wait a moment, and disappeared into her office.

The seating was government-issue vinyl, hard, lumpy, and slippery, and he squirmed this way and that until he settled into a comfortable indentation. Strangely, mild depression settled over him. Five million was a lot of money, he acknowledged. In singles, it would probably fill this office. It would be fun to see that. But twenty, now twenty was real money. A man could live like royalty on twenty-million. He could stride into Larry Lefton’s office, raise his middle digit, and tell the schmuck where to insert the Lubeck’s Shoes account. Oh, wouldn’t it be pleasurable? If he’d won twenty, he’d sacrifice a million for the delight. But five, five he wasn’t sure. He began calculating. If he took the money over twenty years, it worked out to two-fifty per annum. Not bad. But the government got a cut, a big cut, he figured. He wasn’t sure as he’d never made nearly enough money to get within sniffing distance of the top tax bracket. He thought forty percent sounded pretty good. One-fifty, then. Still nice. If he continued working, he’d be pretty close to two a year. Real nice. That should get Emily off his back.

He wondered how they paid it. Certainly not every two weeks like Lefton & Associates. Maybe monthly. He could live with monthly, though he’d have to adjust. Of course, it wouldn’t be hard with Emily around running things. Or they might dole the dough out yearly. Yearly could be a problem. His mind reeled with hundreds of ways to dump huge loads of cash. Conceivably, he could run out of cash halfway through the year. No chance, not with Emily around spoon-feeding him an allowance. If experience sustained, she wouldn’t care they were pulling down nearly two hundred a year. Emily thought poor. Gari sometimes speculated the woman liked being short of cash. Why not? It gave her control over him. Not a thing he could do without her knowing. Hell, not a move he could make without her permission.

No, five million wasn’t what it had seemed at the 7-Eleven or in the Great Hall … but still, it was huge. He could live very well, very high on it. If he didn’t have Emily or Teddy or Sammy, oh boy, he could live. How did he live before Emily and the boys? It was so long ago, so vague, buried so deep dredging it up was a project akin to archaeologists raising and restoring a Roman trireme. He plumbed deep and recalled:  His life had been his own. He’d had freedom to do what he wanted whenever he wanted to do it, whatever it had been. What had it been? Really, not much. He recalled a car, a Mustang. Emily would never allow such a car. “You can’t fit the boys in a car like that. It’s not practical.” Without them, he could have the Stang, or maybe even a Vette. He had the money for a Vette now. Why not? Well, Emily wouldn’t allow it. One car was enough, a practical sedan, maybe a new van for transporting the boys and groceries. This wasn’t Gari’s idea of fun, not a fun way to spend his new wealth. But that’s exactly how it would be with Emily. And she’d want to save money too. Twenty years? Twenty years was a blip on Emily’s scope, which seemed to have more longitude than the expanding universe. In this vast and tenuous cosmos of hers, the money could vanish in a blink, and then where would they be with two boys in college and them contemplating retirement? No, she’d want to stash most of it, maybe every penny, in a safe money market account, and Gari, his only enjoyment would be staring at the zeros on the monthly statement, dreaming about what he could do with it, if only …

What he needed was a real life, an independent life. He needed what he saw on TV. Cars. Clubbing. Women. Sure, why not? He wasn’t Quasimotto. He was straight of limb, young, relatively. Maybe a bit challenged on the rooftop, but Christ, didn’t women see behind the façade of appearance to the inner person? Who cares, reverberated in his noggin. Bottom line:  He was prime, in his thirties, and now, the maraschino cherry, rich. What woman wouldn’t find him the perfect package? Maybe even this one coming at him, a smile showing teeth as big as the Holy Name organ pipes, where maybe he should pop-in to offer thanks to the Great One.

The woman introduced herself as the Illinois Lottery Director and trilled of her pleasure meeting the state’s newest millionaire personally at the very moment he was discovering his great fortune. Gari assessed her from behind a benign smile. She was a tall milk chocolate woman with cascading strawberry blond hair, a die job, but expert and obviously expensive, testifying that she lived quite well without a lottery score. Even this woman Gari suspected might be primed for him, though, upon reconsideration, perhaps not this one as five million didn’t seem up to her standards.

She approached with her hand extended, ruby red nails thrusting at him, filling him with a passing fear she might puncture him and deflate his distended self.

“You must be excited. Can’t wait to tell your family and friends, I’ll wager.” She paused a beat and Gari realized she’d cracked a joke. He laughed politely. She seemed pleased and continued:  “Well, it’ll take just a moment to set up a time to present your check to you.”

Gari wanted to ask why they couldn’t do it right now, right here, but the words stuck in his throat. She suggested four in the afternoon. Why waste time? They’d catch the early evening news. Maybe get two mentions since it ran an hour and half and attracted the arriving-home brigades in the last half hour. It was then that an inchoate idea began gestating.

“Sure, I can be back at four. I work in the city,” he stammered, waving an arm in the general direction of Lefton & Associates, suspecting at the urging of the tiny kernel in his head he’d committed an error, though he wasn’t sure.

On the street navigating toward Lefton & Associates the idea slowly expressed itself in the form of passing women whom Gari sensed were attempting to catch his eye, who saw he was a new man, a reborn guy spawned from cold hard cash, the manna and mantra of women, so he concluded from his life with Emily. Except these women were different. Hoarding wasn’t on their collective minds; rather, they contemplated endless good times. There it was too in the cars whizzing by, ridiculous in the city, but nonetheless magical. He lingered on the Mercedes, the BMWs, the Jags, and the rare heart throbbing Vette. He combined the two—the women and the cars, placing the women in the cars, inserting himself in the driver’s seats, changed the scenery from cityscape to California coastline, around Malibu, on the Pacific. Oh, it was nothing less than Elysian and he could have it, yes indeed, except for the sideshow, the presentation for the benefit of TV and the Lottery hawkers.

Come on, Gari, he nudged, a problem easily solved. Don’t tell a living soul you’re a lottery winner. Hell, five million is nearly like not winning at all. Might as well work the rest of your life. A quarter million a year, it was what decent pay should be, what Larry Lefton should be paying him to manage the Lubeck’s Shoes account.

He spied the building a block away, when it occurred to him he could tell anybody who asked he received a promotion. Emily would ask for sure if he brought home a few extra bucks. He had to bring home something. He could hide his win from her, but he couldn’t deprive her and the boys of the money … of some of the money. He could deflect her suspicion by pretending he’d received a raise. Sure, Larry Lefton, after these long years, had recognized his value and given him a hefty raise. Good God in heaven, would she buy it?

Faking a promotion and representing the additional money he’d present to Emily as step up in his career seemed an excellent idea—but for three problems. First, the Lottery people planned publicizing his win. Second, if he used his excess money, the money he didn’t turn over to Emily to buy a car and other toys, she’d definitely know something was up. Third was how to move the money into his checking account without arousing suspicion. After all, he couldn’t ask Larry Lefton to do an old pal a favor and include it in his payroll direct deposit.

He spent the day slogging through this troika of problems. He sat at his desk and doodled ideas, none of which seemed workable. Victor Lubeck phoned concerning the big Lubeck’s sale ad appearing in the city and suburban papers. This was a very good day as Victor praised the ad. Gari was a hero and he hoped the accolades would make their way to Larry. Then he caught himself and wondered why he cared, why he should care, since he was independently well-off. Larry could can him tomorrow, today at four if he wished, and it would matter not a bit to Gari.

Or perhaps it would, if he proceeded with his plan to hide his new stash from Emily. It would be better if he had a place to go and the familiar pay deposit to forestall any suspicion on Emily’s part. Then it occurred to him he might make something more of the job. He could give himself a real promotion as the head of a new office out of town. As for the money, well, Larry could be paying it to him in the form of a bonus—maybe quarterly, which would explain why it appeared as a separate deposit. It seemed plausible. Emily was cheap, but she’d never worked outside of the house in her life; she didn’t know how the business world operated. He was the shoe king, wasn’t he? It wasn’t beyond the pale for Larry to elevate him, if he brought in a new shoe account. Of course, he’d have to bring it onboard out of town. They couldn’t service another shoe account in Chicago as it would be competitive with Lubeck’s Shoes. Emily was sufficiently versed in the business to understand this. No, the new account would have to be in another city, a city far, far away. And poor Gari, well, Emily did want him to get ahead. She had been at him to advance himself for the sake of the family. Now he had and there was a price—travel. He’d have to divide his time between Chicago and the new city, the far away city. Distance meant he’d be gone for extended periods, including weekends, especially weekends.

Gari loved the idea, chortled over it, smacked his desk in delight, attracting the attention of a dozen pairs of eyes peering at his cube, attempting to x-ray into his brain to comprehend this reincarnated being, the former sad sack account guy. He hunched as if he actually had to hide and giggled about his secret knowledge.

But… but … but the impending media conference was the monkey wrench in the precision plan he was concocting. Emily wasn’t a television person, but even she gave it an occasional glance. She disliked the expense of newspapers, but she perused them from time to time in the supermarket.

TV will turn out for a mere five million? Sure it was a fortune to him. But in lottery terms, it was pocket change. One hundred million, fifty-million, even twenty-million—these were news. Five? The day was much too hot to load into the van, drive to the Thompson Center, schlep through the summer sightseers—they busy trying to understand why their elected officials would blow wads of their dough on something that resembled a bunch of sixties school buildings stacked thirteen stories, to watch a slub like Gari gush about a sum any McDonald’s could top in a typical year.

Gari departed his office for the payphone in the lunch joint nearby. He phoned the lottery office and asked for the director. He announced he wasn’t feeling well and would be leaving early for home. When she asked if he’d be in tomorrow, he said he didn’t know. He claimed a chronic condition; it could lay him low for a week or more. She said she was sorry to hear of his illness, wished him well, and, cheerily, said his winning was indeed good fortune. He agreed and asked if she wouldn’t mind sending his check to him.

“Certainly,” she replied, “we have your home address.”

The mention of home sent a spark of terror racing up his spine. There wouldn’t be much of a plan if a quarter-million dollar check appeared in his mailbox.

“Could you send it to me at my office?” he asked.

“Certainly,” she said. “You can change it anytime you wish, Mr. Garibaldi.”

“Good to know,” he replied. He thought he’d be changing it very soon.

CHAPTER 3:  SORT OF A PLAN

Gari had difficulty containing himself. He yearned to tell Emily from the moment he crossed the threshold. He might have, too, but immediately she attacked him for his lateness and reeking of alcohol. What admirable restrain he exercised, for he desired nothing more than to shout he could afford a drink, ten drinks if he wanted them. Hell, she could afford a new dress, something lively and designed to excite him and inspire him to cart her off to bed, Teddy and Sammy be damned for an hour. But he zipped tighter than size-too-small pants and the evening was about as uncomfortable as if he’d been wearing them.

Truth was he’d stopped at the Metro Deli and Cafe next to the Great Hall, where his new life had commenced hours earlier, and bought a scotch, the expensive single-malt variety. On the train, he sat in the refreshment car, a first for him, and drank two beers. He wasn’t much of a drinker and it telled as he wobbled home and there struggled against the lubricant to curb his tongue, afraid he’d leak his secret while wishing he could scream it in her face.

Finally, to flank her assault, he said, “What would you say if I told you I got a promotion?”

“I wouldn’t believe you for a second,” she sniped, working her eyes over him as if he had crawled from a corner in her kitchen.

He weaved a bit, grinning. “I kid you not.”

She stared at him, attempting to discern the truth of his statement in his eyes, she being a believer in eyes as windows on the soul.

Her scrutiny unnerved him, and he sensed guilt bubbling up his throat, or maybe it was the scotch and beers. “Yeah, wouldn’t you know it,” he said, “a promotion for keeping Victor Lubeck happy. My reward is more shoes.”

“They gave you a new shoe client?” she said, disbelieving. Gari couldn’t tell whether her tone was amazement Larry would assign him another account or that he was a shoe man squared.

“Who?” she asked.

Who indeed. He hadn’t the faintest idea. He worked on conjuring a suitable shoe name as he stalled, “You wouldn’t know them.”

Skeptical, she challenged, “Oh no? Try me.”

It had been less then a minute, but what a minute for Gari. Transfigured in a single minute. He traveled round the world in search of a shoe client. For him, a shoe operation had to have a real name, which meant a family name. English as in Church? Italian like Bruno Magali? Too chic-chic. Emily would never believe Lefton & Associates could win an account the caliber of these. She knew what a schlock joint Larry ran. Low costs, high margins equated to a sailboat on Lake Michigan, and nothing else mattered to Larry. Besides, if by wild luck or dementia on the part of the entrapped concern, Lefton & Associates did acquire such an account, never would she believe Larry would put her husband in charge. Gari reverted to what he knew— small ethnic family business. Eastern European, Slavic rang true to him and he thought it would to her too.

“Vanoyvich Shoes.”

“I’ve never heard of them.” She screwed her eyes tight; they were like a double-barreled microscope tuned down to view the minutest flaw in the web he wove.

“Well dear wife of mine, I’m not surprised. Not in the least little bit. Who in this xenophobic place could pronounce Vanoyvich? Please, give me a break. Not even you, and you’re pretty good with strange names.”

Her eyes remained narrowed.

“The chain’s called Van’s Shoes.”

“You mean those Van’s sneakers, the ugly ones kids like?”

Gari barely heard the end of the sentence for he was busy castigating himself. What a shoe man he was. Vans!  Why not Nike, for Christ sakes? Hey, Payless, now there’s an original name. As good as Florsheim. Why hadn’t he just made up a senseless, stupid name? Good God but a little shoe trade knowledge indeed was dangerous.

“What a headache,” he blurted.

“You have a headache?” Eyes still slits focused for error. Damn that must hurt you, he thought.

“Not my headache,” he said. “Vanoyvich’s headache. Excedrin headache two-fifty, if you follow. Lot’s of screaming and yelling about trademark infringement.” Who knew, but it listened like the real thing.

Her eyes seemed to relax, and Gari sensed progress. He plowed ahead. “They renamed the stores Vanny’s Shoes. Easy to say, easy to remember. By the way, it was my idea.” He actually swelled his chest with pride. Anyway, if the situation had been true, maybe it would have been his idea. Contrary to what some at the agency thought, he did have ideas occasionally. “My idea won the account for Lefton & Associates.”

“And from gratitude they gave it to you?” she said with shock.

Here was a woman who knew Larry Lefton and his type.

“I know. Hard to believe since Larry has never done anything like this for me in the past. But, you know, people change. Hey, all this time, Larry really appreciated me. So he finally got around to showing it.”

Sure he sounded naïve, the innocent lamb. But Emily, though a miser, was rich with the grace of everlasting hope that people—even him—under the right circumstances were good and would do the right thing. This one soft spot, her Pollyannaish weakness regarding the innate character of people, this he figured was his salvation.

“Well, I for one find it hard to believe.”

Christ, he thought, she was starchy. What a skeptic. “Okay, you’ve got me, Emily. There is a catch, and I’m afraid it’s a big one. You may not like it.” He paused for effect. “I’ve told you about client conflict. You know, you can’t have two clients in the same business. Who you going to do your best work for? But having the same kinds of retail companies in different cities makes a difference. The ideas might be the same—not that they would be—but since they’re different audiences there’s no conflict.”

Those narrow eyes were now mere slits. “You’re trying to say what? Vanny’s is out of town?”

“Exactly.”

“Milwaukee, Madison, Peoria. How about a little help here, Gari?”

Gari hesitated. He drew a deep breath. At his feet lay the Rubicon. All he had to do was cross it; start now by dipping his toe in it. Then his reward would be—well, he wasn’t entirely sure, but certainly better, much better than what he had now. Just get the toe in the water. Just do it, Gari, chirred a little voice in his head, “Do it!”

He exhaled, “L.A.”

“California?”

“Exactly.”

“But, Gari, how will you run the account from here?”

He swept an arm up, up and away. “Can’t. Got to be there.”

“You mean we’re moving?” He detected a hint of excitement in her voice.

“No. Travel.” He flapped his arms to illustrate.

They’d begun this conversation in the family room and wended into the kitchen, though for the life of him Gari knew not how, so absorbed was he in forging the river. Lying required tremendous effort, he discovered, and he wondered if it was worth it. Maybe the truth was best, at least easier. But wait. Did Caesar second-guess himself? It was the little voice, harsher now, “No!”

“But not inordinate travel, Emily. Not every week. Probably once a month. Maybe twice depending on campaign development.”

“Are you sure?” she asked, dropping into a chair at the kitchen table.

Her question calmed and reassured Gari. She believed him and for an instant warmth and affection for her crept over him. He settled a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

“Absolutely. Look, I don’t always show it, but I love you, Emily. And I respect how you put Teddy and Sammy, and me too, ahead of yourself. So I made it clear to Larry I’d love the job, but only if it didn’t interfere with what I love most—my family.” He shuddered with emotion; he feared he was overdoing it, icing the cake too thick.

Emily stood. She draped his arm over her shoulder. She snuggled up to him, a position she hadn’t assumed in … well, Gari couldn’t remember when.

“How much more money?” she asked.

Hmmm, a mercenary at heart, but she raised a good question. What would be an appropriate amount? Enough to bring a smile to her face, maybe encourage her to loosen the purse strings, since he’d still have to live by her fiscal rules in Mundelein and Chicago, where he’d be spending most of his time.

A number popped into his head and it felt right. “Twenty-five a year.”

She pulled away and probed his eyes. He feared at first she was searching for the lie. No, she wasn’t probing at all. She was admiring him.

“Why, Gari, Larry’s giving you a thirty-five percent raise.”

He couldn’t restrain himself. “Is that good?” Who knew? Maybe she thought it too much for the job, for Lefton & Associates. Maybe it was just too much to believe a guy like him could command money like his make-believe Lefton salary?

“Oh, honey, it’s fabulous.”

He laughed. “Will you give me a raise?”

She caressed his cheek. “Of course, dear, and a little extra too. Teddy and Sammy are at the playground with Candy and her kids. They wouldn’t be back until dinner.”

* * *

At dinner, Emily was effusive. She apologized for the plain fare as she gushed the news of their good fortune to the boys, who picked up her enthusiasm, transmogrifying it into requests for new bikes to replace the second-hand wrecks they rode and more toys, toys, toys. Excited as she was, invigorated as well by the early evening romp with her husband—she was testing the concept of him as the man, the guy she could count on, the breadwinner instead of the crumb bearer—still the steel frilling her character had not softened completely. “We’ll see,” she answered the boys.

Instead of retreating into the family room and planting himself in front of the television, he stayed in the kitchen and helped her clean up. He was amazed how he was drawn to her, how he wanted to be close to her. And while drying a dish, he began to doubt himself and sour on his deception. Though staring at her, swiping idly at the dish, he could see it was reality to her. She caught his gaze and smiled. Even if he wanted to reverse course, how could he disappoint her?

“Traveling for business. You must be thrilled about it, Gari.”

“Well, I’m happy, sure. But I hate leaving you and the boys.” Had he uttered these endearments two hours earlier, they would have been as hollow as the chrome legs holding up the kitchen table. But now he sensed the words might be sincere. He didn’t plan hanging around, but he would miss them when on his excursions. Maybe he’d take the family along once or twice. But probably not, as their presence might complicate the fraud, especially if Emily wanted to see what kind of deal she could get at a Vanny’s.

“When’s your first trip?” she asked, removing the plate and towel from his hand and drying what his ineffective swiping had missed.

In adopting a new softness, she hadn’t lost her touch, it being delving, unbalancing, and thoroughly disconcerting. How could she always stab effortlessly at his weakness? Such an innocent question and the gyrations within him were innumerable. He could leave tomorrow. Okay, not tomorrow. After all, he had to pack, and he needed the lottery check. Where would he cash a check for a quarter million? At the Jewel? The local bank?

“A month or so from now,” he answered, figuring the state should produce his check by then.

“What day?” she asked. “It wouldn’t be so bad if you traveled in the middle of the week.”

Not for Emily, no. It would be perfect. But how could he hold down his little job at Lefton & Associates and vacation every few weeks? If his plan was to succeed, he’d have to travel on weekends. But how would he manage that? How could he explain weekend business travel to Emily?

“Gari, honey, what day?”

It was as if she’d slipped a vise over his head while distracting him with caresses and sweet talk. Here she was spinning the lever, tightening the mad device. Already his brain felt smaller, from melon to melon ball. He knew the day, but he didn’t know why.

“Friday,” he squeaked.

“One day, that’s not too bad.”

“No. Friday night.”

She pushed him away. “Friday night? You’re kidding, right? Nobody travels for business on a Friday night.”

Gari was sure some people did, had too, but he was at a loss to cite a single individual. With a brain the size of a desiccated melon ball fast on its way to transforming into the often spoken of pea brain, the ideas didn’t come, slowly or otherwise. And then the melon expanded large and more succulent with lies than ever.

“I did warn you this promotion has a downside. I have to manage the Lubeck’s account during the week, then zoom to the coast and shape up the Vanoyvich group.”

Instantly, Gari detected amazement and the rebirth of disbelief manifesting as frown lines around her mouth. “You mean to tell me the people at Vanovich —”

“Vanoyvich,” he corrected happily, emphasizing the “oy” with such flourish he thought the family might actually exist.

“Vanovich or Vanoyvich, it’s hard to believe they’re working on the weekend to accommodate your agency. Isn’t it usually the other way around?”

“Not usually,” he nearly sang, “always. Really, Emily, I didn’t realize you knew so much about my business. But this is an exception because we took the business contingent on it.”

“You really can’t be serious, Gari. Even Larry Lefton isn’t such a cheap son of a bitch.”

Here was irony and it nearly knocked Gari off his feet. However, he was engaged in serious, challenging finagling and he kept his course true. “You know, Emily, until this very moment, I didn’t realize you understood what I had to put up with everyday. You couldn’t be more right about Larry if you were his wife.”

She shook her head. “I just can’t believe it.”

“We’re short staffed,” he explained, succumbing to the ruse himself. “You can believe that knowing Larry.”

She regarded him stolidly, but he wasn’t discouraged; he was determined to carry the day.

“They wanted us for the work we’d done with Lubeck’s. We usually do crap just to get by and get paid, but this brand of crap worked for Lubeck’s. I was in on the presentation.”

“You were?”

“Sure. I’m the Lubeck’s guy after all.”

“I don’t remember you traveling anywhere, and certainly not to Los Angeles.”

Really, his brain whirled, you have to admire this woman. She simply will not slip into neutral. Always at him, she was. Absolutely merciless.

“Never did, my dear. Larry wouldn’t have it. Waste of money and time, he said. But like I said, they wanted us, and they came to us. Join the club in the shocked and amazed department. I was stunned and Larry, well he thought, Christ, I’m running a real live ad agency here.”

“Honestly, Gari, this is unbelievable.”

“It is, isn’t it,” he agreed. “I mean, when Larry gave me the account he nearly knocked me off my feet. And the raise, huge. Who would have guessed? Yes, unbelievable is exactly the right word for it.”

He observed her closely, saw her eyes relaxing, sensed she wanted to accept the inconceivable, felt her resistance crumbling.

“But Larry’s still Larry. Sure he gave me the account and the big raise. But now I’ve got to pay.” He reached for her and wrapped her in his arms. “We have to pay,” he said, pecking her cheek. “He should have reassigned the Lubeck’s account to someone else in the office. It would have been the decent thing to do. But, Emily, you know it’s not in his character. Let’s get more mileage out of that poor slob Gari.”

“You’re not a poor slob, Gari,” she consoled, pressing against him.

“Well thank you, Emily.”

“But shouldn’t you talk to him?”

Gari gripped her shoulders and pushed her away enough to look into her eyes.

“I already have. He said Lefton & Associates couldn’t pay me my new big salary if the agency had to hire another account exec to nurse the Lubeck’s business. Either I took the promotion and the money or I didn’t. I was thinking of you and the boys. I know it’s going to be tough on me, but I’m willing to do it for my family.”

He considered the last part with eyes fastened on hers and judged it brilliant. Make her feel guilty. Though he was feeling similarly in light of the consideration and affection she was showing him.

“Linchpin, Gari,” she pronounced, twisting from his grip, her eyes blazing with determination. He sensed danger.

“Linchpin?” he repeated, genuinely in the dark as to her meaning.

“Gari, he needed you to win the account. He can’t very well run it without you. You’re the linchpin. I bet without you Vanovich …”

“Vanoyvich,” he corrected, rolling his eyes.

“Yes, Vanoyvich would leave. But you don’t have much time.”

“No?” he said.

“Yes. You have to hold Larry’s feet to the fire on this now. I never thought I’d be saying this to you, but you have to deliver an ultimatum while you are the linchpin. Either he gets somebody for Lubeck’s Shoes or you walk.”

“I quit?”

He was truly shocked, not at forfeiting his job, for he didn’t need it; but, rather, that Emily was counseling him to jeopardize his ersatz position. Conservative Emily certainly underwent a transformation in the course of an evening.

“Don’t worry. You wouldn’t be leaving and he wouldn’t be firing you. He gave you a big raise because Vanovich means lots of money in his pocket.”

On the verge of correcting her, he decided not to play the pedantic. Why antagonize her? And he realized he was at a dead end, at least for the evening.

“I’ll do it,” he said. “You’re right, I am the linchpin in this operation.”

She hugged him. “Ah, Gari,” she trilled, low, with regard he hadn’t heard in years.

CHAPTER 4:  PASSION IN BANKING

Why did Gari select the Mid-Continent Trust Company as the repository of his fortune? Of course, it was Lefton & Associates’ bank, and thus fit neatly into his plan. But there was more, for the truth was he held not another Chicago financial institution in as high regard. In Gari’s experience and indelible in his mind was this:  Mid-Con, as it called itself, was home to the rich and well heeled of Chicago. It exuded prestige, housed old money, represented cliques and useful associations. Really, Mid-Con was the only financial home for him and his new wealth.

Gari sat in the Private Bank, reserved for the crème de la crème, where he could breath the wealth; it filled his nostrils as fine woods and aniline leather, expensive colognes and perfumes, and charmed his ears with quiet, rippled gently from time to time by the swish of a skirt or a soft voice offering assistance.

He sat in an area that shamed his living room. Torchieres illuminated subtly. At his knees was a mahogany coffee table; and on it was coffee in a white porcelain cup that rested on a saucer, a presentation he hadn’t enjoyed for years, the world now enamored of mugs, as quantity counted for more than taste and elegance.

He’d been in this comfortable circumstance for five minutes when a whispery voice aroused him from near somnolence.

“Mr. Garibaldi, I’m Catherine Lourdes. It’s my pleasure to meet you in the flesh.”

Casting his eyes in the direction of her low, comforting hail, he believed in that instant he was living a miracle, as a vision had surely descended from the heavens. Catherine Lourdes hovered tall and willowy, blonde and fair, with blue eyes and pouting lips subdued by matte maroon lipstick, on more leg than possible, attired in a conservative suit that looked anything but dowdy as it clung to her like lustrous blue ink. She could have been in her mid twenties, but Gari guessed by her title—vice president—she was thirty, maybe a bit beyond.

“I’m pleased to meet you, too, Ms. Lourdes.” He detected a fleeting twinkle in her sapphire orbs and realized she understood how deeply he meant the normally reflexive reply.

Gari followed her to her office, a half-wall cube outfitted with a handsome mahogany desk landscaped with the accoutrements of refinement—a yellow-shaded banker’s lamp, a leather blotter, a matching set of leather-clad pen and pencil in holders with letter opener mate, and a sparseness bespeaking an individual either well organized or not busy. He seated himself in a leather armchair in front of the desk.

“I won’t take much of your time, Mr. Garibaldi. I’ve completed the paperwork for you. Simply review it and sign where I’ve indicated and we’re done.”

He accepted the papers she proffered, breezed through them, and signed where she’d marked with Post-it notes, using the heavy chrome pen supplied by her.

“Excellent,” she said. “I’ve talked to the State and arranged for your annual payment to transfer directly to your account. Half will deposit in the money market and half in the checking accounts you’ve authorized today. Does everything look correct to you, Mr. Garibaldi?”

“Everything certainly does, Ms. Lourdes. Thank you very much,” he said, skating the papers across to her the glassy desktop.

She scooped the documents with long red-tipped fingers, jogged them to uniformity on her leather blotter, dropped them into a file folder, and returned it to the drawer behind her desk. Then she glanced at her watch, a woman’s Rolex.

“It’s nearly lunchtime. Would you care to join me?”

Gari flipped his eyes down at his own watch. It was eleven-thirty. Not quite lunchtime, but what’s a half hour between a fellow and his banker?

“I’d love to,” he said.

She sped through a litany of cuisines and he settled on Italian. She strolled him off the private bank floor, through the lobby teeming with commoners, who surprised him by queuing for teller service, a practice he assumed was extinct, onto Monroe, and then to Trattoria Italia, a chic door he passed often but had never entered, barred by outrageous prices, insufficient funds, and lack of time.

They walked downstairs. The hostess greeted the banker by name, as if Catherine Lourdes was a principal in the restaurant. She escorted them to a table for two, away from empty tables that awaited their diners who at that very moment were departing their offices for the place. It would provide them privacy, after the throngs descended.

“Do you drink, Mr. Garibaldi?”

He was taken aback by the question. She noticed and clarified:  “I mean, do you occasionally drink at lunch? Many people don’t these days.”

Nobody at Lefton & Associates, for certain. Larry’s rule was, “Don’t order and neither will the client.” The man knew more ways to save a buck than Emily, and she was quite the expert.

“Usually no, Ms. Lourdes. But today’s special, isn’t it?”

“Catherine, Mr. Garibaldi.”

“Gari. G-a-r-i.”

“Interesting spelling. An Italian thing, I think.”

“More like an Augustus thing. I guess my parents had second thoughts about the name.”

She smiled and his stomach fluttered.

A waiter presented himself liveried in black and white and a tuxedo bowtie. He asked if they’d like to start with drinks.

“Why not?” Gari said.

She ordered a Campari and soda. He was about to ask for a beer, but switched to a single malt scotch. It seemed sophisticated to him.

“What are your plans, Gari?”

He blurted, “Move to Los Angeles and lead a wanton life.” He groaned inside:  This without an ounce of scotch yet in me.

The waiter delivered their drinks and saved him momentarily from issuing further ridiculous remarks.

She toasted him. He toasted the two of them for a reason he couldn’t pinpoint. Then the scotch hit his brain and sedated him. He leaned back in his chair.

“What about you?” he asked.

“I’m happy with the bank.”

“You should be. You’re a vice president.”

She shrugged. “It’s not the same.”

The waiter surfaced to take orders. Hers was a salad, which didn’t seem like much of a lunch to him. His was a salad and the chicken pasta.

Watching the waiter depart, he felt good, light, agile, and, best of all, independent.

“So,” picking up where she dangled, he asked, “not the same as what?”

“As vice presidents where you work.”

He screwed up his face. “I work in an ad agency. A small place. Believe me, vice president means nothing. In advertising, it’s just a way to get away with paying people less.”

“Similar to banking.”

“Kissing cousins,” he said, blossoming crimson. He slugged his drink as if it might extinguish the fire kindling in him; but, of course, the scotch was gasoline. “What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know. I’ve been a banker for five years.”

“Never too late to make a change.” He thought this was superb advice emanating from somebody who wasn’t even a lowly vice president and never managed to leave Lefton & Associates. Now he was a millionaire and he still couldn’t leave. This indeed was an absurd world.

“What kind of things do you do when your banker’s uniform is in the closet?”

Her giggle startled him. Here was a banker, a vice president, a woman who leaked sophistication as ordinary people did sweat, chortling like a pigtailed schoolgirl.

“I paint. I mean I attempt to paint. I wish to paint.” She paused, thoughtful. “Well, what I really mean is I paint a little. Passable stuff. Middling. I’m taking a painting class at Columbia after work to improve.”

“What do you paint?”

“Me?” she asked, pointing a red tip at her breasts, which he had no trouble following.

He spread his hands, saving himself from uttering the threadbare, “Whatever,” though it was rattling around in his head and close enough to his mouth to take up a leaping position on the tip of his tongue.

“Figures.”

“Figures, as in people?”

“Yes. Nude people. The human figure.” She outlined her torso with a lovely, smooth motion, mesmerizing and enamoring him. “It’s beautiful.

“It can be,” he agreed. Especially on somebody like her, though he wasn’t sufficiently lubed to utter this.

“What kind of figures?”

“Women. Men are too shy, I suppose, to pose. How about you, Gari, would you pose nude for a bunch of students?”

“It would depend.”

“On what?”

“On whether they were real artists or voyeurs.”

“Well, I think they’re a bunch of artist want-to-bes.”

“Too bad. I prefer voyeurs.” What? And only one drink.

She giggled again. “I’m half voyeur.”

“Aren’t we all, Catherine?”

Gari surreptitiously surveyed the restaurant. It had filled, and he felt as if everybody in the place was listening to them flirt. He stunned himself with this word. He hadn’t flirted with a woman in several years. He feared he’d lost whatever meager skill he’d possessed in the art, and was pleased to see he was holding his own, actually doing fine. The situation stirred memories of grammar school when he and his pals whispered about the girls. The nuns circled with radar in their habit bonnets, attuned to chatter just like his conversation with Catherine.

“Which half of you is the voyeur?” she asked.

He knew how he wanted to answer, like the guys in the music videos who clamped hands on crotches. He settled for pointing at his eyes.

Lunch arrived as he pulled up his eyes. A second round would be a disaster, but he was polite and asked if she cared for another. She said he was filled with wonderful ideas. He agreed and sent the waiter off for two more as the bus served their orders.

The waiter quickly reappeared with their drinks, asked if all was to their liking, and vanished. Gari was grateful for the waiter as the interruption had cooled whatever it was that he had sensed was heating up. He conceded it was for the best.

He tucked into his salad and turned his eyes up at her to ask how hers was, when he noticed she wasn’t eating. She was toying with the top button of her blue suit jacket, working it in and out of the buttonhole, giving the impression she was undecided as to her desired state of dress—proper or dishabille.

He was kindling again and thought he might offer encouragement, but nothing came to mind; at least nothing he was comfortable repeating to her, foremost among the nothings, “Unbutton the other one while you’re at it.”

He suspected she possessed telepathic abilities because she took his direction. She wore a white bra, little as far as he could discern and diaphanous as well. The bra cupped and lifted two tanned breasts and pushed them ever so slightly together to produce a stimulating display of cleavage. Enjoying the exhibition, he realized he’d missed a lot as an average Joe, or in his case, a poor slob.

“Warm in here,” she said. “Must be a problem with the air conditioning.”

He acknowledged with a smile she wouldn’t mistake as sly, or worse, lecherous.

“It’s such a lovely day, I was thinking of playing hooky this afternoon,” she said. “You ever take an afternoon just for yourself, Gari?”

Hardly ever, he realized. Larry Lefton blew like Vesuvius on days Gari took off for legitimate illness. Skipping out rarely occurred to him. He needed his job, and Emily would murder him if he lost it over something as capricious as taking an afternoon to himself. She’d see nothing but selfishness in such behavior. Now, though, he was in a new world. He was no longer poor Gari, slave to his job and his family. He was rich Gari, independent, free to do what he wished. So what if Larry didn’t like it? Technically, he didn’t need the job any longer, except as a cover. And, well, he did plan to skip work in the future. If he was going to live part-time in Los Angeles, there would be times when he wouldn’t want to, maybe couldn’t, get back to put in an appearance at Lefton & Associates Monday mornings. Larry would just have to get used to his absences. After all, Larry couldn’t manage an account to save this life, and Gari was the linchpin. Nobody in the joint could stand Victor Lubeck. Not that he could, but he was inured to Victor.

He returned Catherine’s smile, trying to keep his as crafty and wise as hers. “Life’s short, so we may as well enjoy it while we can.”

“You know what I like to do?”

He had a few ideas, but none seemed appropriate to voice. He settled for shaking his head.

“I love to visit the Art Institute. Days like today are perfect. The place is deserted.”

Gari tried to excite himself about wandering through the museum with a beautiful woman, and he attempted mightily to reply without hint of disappointment. A trace did slip in despite of his effort. Riding under his hardly repressed feeling, perhaps even unknown to him, was relief. How would he have responded if she’d suggested what he suspected was on her mind? Emily, again spoiling things for him. She insinuated herself into his lunch as his responsibility, as the person to whom he owed loyalty. Contemplating what he had been thinking … allowing Catherine’s display to mesmerize him … taking his banker up on a harmless walk through the museum, these felt to him like betrayals. What was he thinking, he wondered, when he’d hatched his secret lottery plan, when he’d decided to create a second life in Los Angeles, when he reveled in deceiving Emily? Wasn’t someone like Catherine Lourdes part of his plan? Part? The whole plan and nothing but the plan?

“I haven’t been there in years.” The sentence exited his mouth effortlessly, as if concern, trepidation, and regret weren’t his companions.

“Well then, come on, let’s finish and go. I’ll show you my favorite exhibits. And I’ll bet you right now the museum’s empty.”

Gari insisted on paying for lunch, the fare for which he regarded as contemptuous robbery. His indignation lasted no longer than it took him to realize he was reacting as Emily would. It was then that he really felt like a new man, his own person, able to spend whatever he pleased on anything he fancied. Before leaving the table he checked the bill a last time and felt pretty good about it. He felt free of Emily and her niggardly oversight.

Catherine suggested they walk. Gari, however, was lethargic. He’d enjoyed an unusually large lunch—normally he ate a simple sandwich prepared with lightweight generic bread, a thin slice of a cold cut, head lettuce, and a dab of mustard, which always irritated him, for how much could mustard cost? He railed and marveled at Emily’s cheapness. I am a free man.

Gari also had two scotches in him, and he never drank at lunch, and rarely at home. His head reeled from the drinks, though when they stepped outside he was beginning to regain control over himself.

He said they’d probably walk plenty in the Art Institute and flagged a cab. She thanked him for his consideration, because obviously he had observed she wore four-inch heels. Her shoes hadn’t really registered with him until that moment, and then they struck him like an erotic bullet. He was quite aroused and expressed his roiling sentiment as, “Nice shoes.”

She entered the cab first. He noted her long and shapely legs as she extended the right maneuvering into the cab. Entering and exiting cabs was always a trial, but in that instant it occurred to him the auto designers might have had in mind an experience such as he was having. After she was settled, he folded himself next to her with a blatant and not all together intelligent toothy beam on his face.

He hunched within a foot of her, just on the outskirts of what he defined as his inviolate personal zone. It was a barrier Emily invaded regularly, not for intimacy, but simply to make a silly point about saving, demonstrating frugality, or asserting herself. Larry Lefton, occasionally, acted like Emily. If he wanted to scold Gari for a violation of the Lefton & Associates business code, which had little to do with uprightness, forthrightness, and general customer satisfaction, and everything concerning the best way to screw the client, he’d break through Gari’s personal barrier and get directly in his face so he couldn’t help but catalog every food and beverage the man had consumed for a week. Gari hated having his personal space, about the only thing truly his in the whole world, violated. Though he did admit to himself he would not mind Catherine Lourdes scooting a few inches closer. This was the brand of violation he could tolerate, actually invite.

She fanned herself and moved closer, knowing she had crossed the line, using the motion of her hand to indicate how nonchalantly she regarded her little invasion. “Sitting near an open car window is dangerous for a girl’s grooming.”

It was a reason, but he suspected a guaranteed quarter of a million a year it wasn’t her compelling motivation. Sure his attitude was cynical. However, to believe the world worked any other way, that a woman like Catherine Lourdes would want to be near a middle management and middling man—yes, he was middling until that Wednesday—was purely delusional. He now possessed the sweet grease that lubricated the world. And so it was natural that Catherine would slide toward him in the bank, the restaurant, and the cab.

He moved in her direction, saying, “It plays havoc with mine, too.” It elicited a laugh from her.

As the cab bounded along, the conversation flagged, and Gari, not a person to tolerate a conversational vacuum, injected, “So what is your favorite part of the museum?”

More coy lip maneuvering from her:  “Well, you’ll just have to wait and see, now won’t you?”

Gari supposed he would, if he could survive the cab ride. The temperature, her nearness, her frangipani, cloying in the heat—goading him to perceive her as shapely candy—and her excursion into coquettishness, saccharin perhaps, but nonetheless enticing, had him suppressing the mounting urge to twitch obscenely on the sticky vinyl, and wishing he had a satchel to lay across his lap, as his pants were tenting as the cord connected to his imagination tightened.

Thankfully the cabbie, who’d circumnavigated around Rush Street, a practice Gari despised as a ploy to jack up fares, stopped in front of the Art Institute. Handing money to the cabbie, he was aware some of Emily’s cheapness had rubbed off on him. Maybe the adage about married people was true. Maybe they did grow more like each other the longer they remained together.

Catherine led the way on the long climb up the wide and sweeping stairs, wending through the crowd, mostly young who perched on the broad steps, some in groups engaged in animated discussions and others singly or in pairs leaning back, sunning themselves. She halted at the top, catching him by surprise so he almost rear-ended her. She turned, and he did the same.

“I adore the city view from here,” she said brightly. Gari focused on her face, not just because she was beautiful, but also to see if she was genuine. He concluded she was, and the view of South Michigan Avenue was pretty damn good, too.

“Beautiful,” he agreed, keeping his tone enigmatic. He was demonstrating he could be coy too.

She inspected him with hooded eyes. “Let’s go in,” she said.

She was correct; the place was as lively as the city morgue with the staff out to lunch. He lowered his voice over concern it would reverberate through the chambers and rattle the classics and unnerve those few contemplative souls who had sequestered themselves here on a sunny summer afternoon. But their conversation was minimal while she dragged him from exhibit to exhibit, joyfully getting full value from the admission fee he’d paid. He couldn’t say truthfully the teapots, paperweights, sculptures, and most of the paintings moved him. It wasn’t that he was insensitive to fine art; he liked the stuff as much as the next fellow, especially if it resembled or enlightened the familiar in his life. Forget guys like Kandinsky, Rothko, Picasso—you name an abstractionist, and Gari didn’t care for him or her. He wasn’t very fond of Monet, Degas, Renoir, and those types either:  much too fuzzy. Still, he discovered himself emitting affirmatives like “Oh,” “Yes,” “Hmmm,” which he employed with such frequency he found himself modulating from time to time to pretend his reactions were varied and thoughtful. Catherine loved, adored, cherished, praised, marveled over, was moved by, welled tears in response to, and about fainted before every article of art angling into her line of vision. To display indifference or, worse, boredom, would certainly have devastated his stunning banker; Gari didn’t wish this for he understood niceness begat niceness, or perhaps even something greater. His barely inaudible agreement and concern for her served him sufficiently for Catherine to announce after two hours of art traipsing that it was time to visit her favorite place in the entire museum, favored even more than the Impressionists, which had been the only exhibit to render her speechless, temporarily.

This place was deep down in the museum out of sight of casual visitors. The sign on the door leading to this special enclave warned “Employees Only.” When he hesitantly pointed out this was a restricted area, she said, “I have connections.” A woman like her, he didn’t doubt it.

She rapped on the door and a mismatched redhead opened it and invited them in. The woman was perhaps ten years older than Catherine, tall, bulky in the breasts and hips, and short in the legs. Her voice was harsh like she’d answered Catherine’s knock straight from the restroom where she’d been working sandpaper in and out of her vocal cords. Gari might have found this attribute enticing, but he didn’t care much for her shape and tossed-on appearance.

“Toni, this is Gari Garibaldi, a client.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” Toni said, extending a hand. He took it and her grip, powerful as a carpenter’s, shocked him. “You must be rich. My friend Catherine likes her men rich, don’t you Catherine?”

“Never mind her, Gari. She’s a starving artist and likes her men the same. She lives in a garret.”

“I thought we only had attics in Chicago.”

Toni stared hard at Gari as if he’d dropped in through the ceiling, a male creature strange in many regards who bore watching. She emitted a sharp laugh, followed by a drawn and phlegmatic cough. “You’re sharper than Catherine’s usual fare,” she said when she’d regained her voice.

“Anybody around this afternoon?” Catherine asked.

“Does anybody include me?” Toni retorted, pausing for effect. “Didn’t think so. Place is empty today. They all had something to do.”

“Nobody would mind then if I showed Gari around?”

Toni regarded them with twisted lips. She might have been attempting a smile, but just as easily sneering. Gari couldn’t tell. She glanced at her wrist, which Gari noted was bare. “Gee, look at the time. I was supposed to be upstairs five minutes ago.”

“Please,” he said, having reservations about being alone with Catherine, who, as attractive as she was, was losing a bit of her appeal and raising goose bumps on his scrotum, “don’t leave early on our account.”

“Have to. I’m in the middle of a war over the color yellow.”

Gari’s face veiled in perplexity.

“Don’t worry about it. It’s an art thing. I’ll be back in around thirty,” she said, disappearing into the corridor.

Catherine closed and locked the door. He drew a deep breath.

“Don’t you love the smell in here? You can almost feel the good things they do—Toni and her crew.”

Wood, paint, pungent chemical odors permeated the workshop. The space reminded him of a hardware store of the old, vanished variety, with wooden floors that creaked under your feet and goods stacked to the ceiling and in an order meaningful only to the flannel shirt clerks who prowled the aisles. It was difficult to know what to say, but beauty in a place of beauty, at least the part on the floor above, inspired him.

“They’re preserving beauty.”

She registered appreciation, as if he’d read her mind.

“Of course, beauty. You’re kind of sensitive, aren’t you, Gari?” she murmured, sidling next to him and entwining an arm around his.

Moisture percolated up in the valley of his back and trickled down to cozy with the goose bumps. He shuffled. “We ad types are like that.”

“Sarcasm is appealing too.”

She unwrapped from his arm and raised a hand to his cheek. He watched it rise, and it seemed she moved in slow motion. Her fingers were long, slender, and her nails glistened in perfection, like red mirrors, pristine, as if they’d been fashioned that very morning in anticipation of this very use. Lightly, she dragged the red tips across his cheek and traced the borders of his lips. She was half a head shorter than he and rose on her toes until her lips leveled with his. She touched them with hers.

Those lips were soft and sweet, warm marshmallows, new creations reminiscent of Teddy and Sammy’s, whose images stirred uneasiness deep in him, but not the urge to stop her. He sensed her breath behind the lips, also sweet and sensually heated. His instinct was to push back, escalating with a tad more pressure than she’d used. Instead, he stepped away, out of the range of her mouth and the lusty smell of her, the boys again prickling him.

Catherine pursued him. She placed her hands on his shoulders to halt his flight and draw him closer. She pressed full length against him and kissed him hard. He succumbed and reached around her and embraced her and returned her kiss through opened lips.

She gripped his necktie and undid it neatly and slowly, as he slid her jacket over her shoulders and down her arms, she obliging him by dropping each shoulder in turn. With his tie undone and her jacket on the floor, she removed his jacket. They resumed their embrace. She was a furnace in his arms, and delicate, almost unsubstantial, too. Pushing the cups of the little nothing of a bra he’d spied in the restaurant, her nipples, pink and erect, burned like torches against his chest, superheating his libido. She edged him back until something stopped his progress. He glanced behind and saw a waist-high table clean except for a t-square. When he’d diverted his eyes from her, she’d gone to work on his belt, unfastening it, and by the time he’d turned back to her, she’d shoved his trousers and underwear down to his knees. Shrugging the pants and underwear to his ankles, he unzipped her skirt, reaching behind her, sliding his hands into her panties along the curve of her ass after the skirt had fallen to the floor. As he held and caressed her and glided his lips to her neck, she stepped out of the little clothing puddle. He hoisted her unto the table, placing her face slightly above his. She bent forward to kiss him viciously before falling back on the table. For ten minutes, they put the table to a use not in the manufacturer’s design.

This was not anything like lovemaking with Emily. Emily expected a build up. Early in their marriage, he’d considered foreplay fun; but it had transformed into a labor over the years, work he was willing to engage in until recently, when the reward had become so meager it didn’t warrant the effort. In those early days, she demanded more than flopping into bed, him directly into her, and the next instant into the bathroom, out as fast and on to other things. Catherine was a woman who did not require kindling. She was already scorching when the time came. Moreover, Emily rarely initiated their lovemaking. Apart from when she was determined to have children, the job was entirely his. With Catherine, banking had been on his mind. Maybe a little sex, the fantasy of it, when she’d toyed with her jacket button in the restaurant. Obviously, she’d had more than bank service on hers. Or maybe a romp in the restoration room of the museum constituted management and client service in her administrative manual.

When they finished, a shimmer flashed between her breasts and he realized he hadn’t removed her bra. He bent to taste the sweat oozing from her, and to expose her breasts with a nudge of his nose, to lick her nipples through the translucent fabric, still erect and bright pink, a color he hadn’t seen in years. But she sat up abruptly and he bumped his nose into her sternum. She hooked her index finger under the misaimed proboscis and lifted. “Time to go,” she pouted. She pushed him away and bounded off the table.

She was dressed with her hand on the doorknob while he labored with his shirt buttons.

Gari gestured at the table. “Shouldn’t we … you know?”

She glanced and said, “There’s nothing to clean. We’re neat fuckers.”

In the corridor, they passed restrooms and she informed, “I’m ducking in for a second to freshen up. I’ll meet you right here, so don’t wander off.”

He went into the men’s room feeling like an old married hand. He was an old married hand, he corrected himself, and this is exactly what old married hands did, tell each other to wait in front of restrooms. It was like a day at this or that place with Emily and the boys, planning rendezvous to avoid losing a child or a wife, and usually in front of this or that restroom. Except, of course, when he waited for them he wasn’t feeling drained, or guilty.

It was three when they left the Art Institute and, as near as Gari could discern, around ninety outside. She suggested he walk her back to her office, and it turned into a long trek as she stopped to examine the displays in the Carson’s and Macy’s windows and gushed over clothing and chattered incessantly about how she just had to get her wardrobe in shape for the fall. Gari marveled at her and the situation. Emily never talked about clothing and never fretted over dressing for seasons. Emily was a woman of pedestrian and frugal tastes. Her daily outfit consisted of a pair of blue jeans, a tee-shirt, and sneakers in the summer and sweater over the tee in winter, sweats more often than not evenings, a dress and flats that fit like boats, her feet looking big but still floating in them, on Sunday mornings.

An hour later they arrived at Mid-Con, where Catherine pecked Gari’s cheek. “If you ever have questions about your account, you know where to reach me.”

Gari wanted to snap a quip, but he was completely at a loss. What, he wondered, do you say to someone who suddenly appeared to have fallen victim to a colossal case of amnesia?

CHAPTER 5:  NEWLY MINTED MAN

Should he or shouldn’t he? He didn’t have to, never again; but then his plan of independence required he do so. His commitment to his plan brought Gari back to Lefton & Associates intending to toil until five, or toil as best he was able with the scent, taste, and sensation of Catherine Lourdes, Private Banker to the rich man, on and in him, along with neap guilt.

Perhaps he’d been manning his desk for five minutes when Larry Lefton’s head loomed over his cube wall and startled him like the trolling devil himself. Except this version of the demon sported a pasty white complexion and an agitated demeanor that, from experience, Gari knew presaged a presidential tantrum. Gari attempted to defuse the impending explosion with the incomplete truth.

“Sorry, lunch ran long. I was with somebody from Mid-Con.” Gari’s idea was to give Larry the impression he was on the trail of a prospective client, when, in fact, he should have realized his commander-in-chief knew Mid-Continental Trust Company was out of the agency’s league, having nothing to do with shoe leather, tires, autos, or sundries.

Larry said, “Stop the bullshit, Garibaldi. In my office, now.”

Gari leapt, used to responding like a lapdog. He shuffled behind Larry into the president’s office. During the familiar journey, he questioned the very nature of his relationship with Larry Lefton and the agency, which was easily summarized as, “Larry says jump. I leap very high.” Gari wondered why the hell he was hunched and following like a railroad coolie. He was more than Larry Lefton’s equal that afternoon and for every afternoon thereafter. These fulminations didn’t prevent him from following; but they did result in Gari pulling himself erect.

In the office with the door closed, Larry castigated him.

“While you were out doing whatever it was you were doing, Victor Lubeck called about the ad in today’s Sun-Times. You’ll never guess his complaint.”

“Typo,” Gari responded, boldly adding, “missed again by our crack creative squad.” He squared his shoulders and remarked to himself how satisfying forthright dialogue between an employee and his boss could be.

Larry regarded him with disbelief, as if Gari was a rare creature of the type confined in a zoo, or preserved by taxidermy in a museum or hunter’s collection. It was the insolence, a shade of Gari that had never presented itself. “Your typo, Garibaldi. Lubeck’s is your client, so you’re responsible for everything we do for him.”

“Please, Larry, if I were responsible, we wouldn’t do what we do for him.”

Larry scrutinized Gari. “What’s gotten into you, Garibaldi? You’re late returning from lunch. And now …” Not able to characterize Gari’s behavior, he let the comment drift.

“What I’m saying, Larry, is that if our crack creative crew did better work for Lubeck, he wouldn’t be bitchin’ all the time about a typo here and there. Typos happen and they don’t seem such a big deal when the general body of work is good. No, when it’s excellent.”

“Look here, Garibaldi, our creative product is excellent. Best in the city for retail. And if you don’t believe it’s good enough, well, it’s your fault. You’re the account manager.”

“They do it because they know they can get away with it, Mr. President.”

“What the hell’s gotten into you, Garibaldi? You got a case of indigestion?”

What’s gotten into me, Larry, is a boatload of money. This is what banged desperately at the back of his teeth for release. But he kept the white gates locked because there was the plan, which he realized he was jeopardizing. If he hung around, he might really let lose, feeling, as he was, unbound, uncaged, like a wild animal again free and on the prowl for fresh meat. There was only one way out of this.

“You’re right, Larry, I got some bad food at lunch. Probably food poisoning. It’s laying me low here. I think I need to head home.”

Well, Gari did look different to Larry; perhaps not like a man ready to drop from ptomaine, but certainly unlike himself. He wondered if Gari’s aliment was contagious. “If you’re not well,” he said, “going home’s the best thing. You can handle this on Monday. I’m sure Victor will understand.”

Gari moved quickly to the door to disguise his look of utter surprise. Given his assertiveness, he fully expected Larry to pitch him out the door, maybe out the window. Gari had never known the man to allow a subordinate—that was the right word, as this precisely described Larry’s view of those he employed—to address him as Gari had. But upon reflection, he concluded the situation was more like no one addressed Larry as he had for fear of an overwhelmingly horrid response. Gari, on his way out the door, out of the agency, and onto the street, speculated this was Larry’s strategy:  Keep them off guard with expectations of the worst, and in this manner protect and perhaps strengthen your authority. Indeed, he thought on his way to catch the train to Mundelein, perception is everything, or at least close to it.

On the train, though, the importance of reality struck him full force in the form of Catherine Lourdes and the restoration table. That had been very real and in moments he would confront another reality:  Emily, his wife, the mother of his boys, the woman who since that spectacular Wednesday had done her mighty best to reenergize their marriage, and had even, certainly against her best judgment as Gari could not see her changing stripes entirely, loosened the purse strings, a sufficient amount to have put real money in his pocket, the very cash he used with banker Lourdes, the dollars that had helped put the young woman on her back on the table and him between her legs. This weighed him like Marley’s chained cashboxes.

“You’re home early,” Emily said, as he entered from the garage. It was one of those suburban habits he’d picked up, coming into the house every night through the garage, though he didn’t drive to and from the train. It seemed nobody in the suburbs used their front doors, except on those occasions when fundraisers visited, and he often wondered what purpose the front door served. Physically eliminating the front door seemed a sensible architectural progression, something like the disappearance of a vestigial organ. But then there was tradition to consider; after all, people liked the useless, as he well knew, it being his job to foist such stuff on the local populace in his role as advertising man.

She followed with, “Dinner won’t be ready for an hour, and the boys are at the playground with Candy and her boys.” She conveyed this last bit of information as she slid next to him and touched his hand.

His hand was okay, as he’d washed it several times between the museum and Mundelein; it was the rest of him that was in question, compromised as it was by his private banker. Questions raced through his mind as she traced the back of his hand with a finger and waited for a reply. Had the city and Metra worn away Catherine’s scents? He could explain them—I rode home next to a woman who obviously held a significant investment in Revlon. But the other scent was different. He recognized the drift of Emily’s maneuvers, a definite syllogistic pattern:  no children, empty house, therefore ideal time to roll in the hay. A consequence of being a well-off and unconventional man was creating excuses at light speed.

He arranged his face in a big smiley countenance and gripped her hand in his two with enthusiasm. “I was with Victor Lubeck this afternoon with my new account guy squaring things away. Went okay, I guess, though I have to say Victor’s not entirely excited about sharing me. The new guy’s okay. His name’s …” He hesitated, but not long enough for Emily to suspect he was scouring the ethers for an appropriate name, a real ad guy moniker, which he read, miraculously, on siding of the neighbor’s house. “Brick Front’s his name.”

“What a peculiar name,” she cooed, on top of him, her head nestling his shoulder. Gari saw only her nostrils pucker slightly as she breathed in the musk of his earlier encounter. He could actually see her vacuuming in the molecules and sensed moisture rising in the valley of his back.

“Just one of several peculiarities,” he said, racing to the reason he might have the fragrance of bouquets about him. “His name’s actually John. He picked up Brick when he was a kid, since he lived in a brick house and his last name was Front. Get it:  Brick-fronted house?”

She laughed politely and sucked in volumes of the fragrant frangipani nimbus he imagined surrounded him.

“But the thing about Brick is he wears too much cologne. I don’t know what it is about some guys these days. They think they have to shower in the stuff. Expensive stuff, too. Cabbing with him in this weather, well all I can say is nobody wanted to sit near me on the train.”

This engendered heavy breathing on Emily’s part, which made him worry his fabrication was over the edge.

“I don’t smell anything,” she said.

“You don’t?” He struggled to keep the surprised tone subdued.

She stared at him quizzically and shook her head. He detected the hint of suspicion in her widened eyes.

“Maybe it’s just me. You know, over reacting to Brick. You know, concerned he’ll do a good job with the Lubeck’s account.”

She nestled again, and he decided he was safe.

“Why don’t we take advantage of the situation?” she said. She demonstrated her eagerness by rubbing her head lightly against his neck.

“I’ll just jump in the shower first. I feel kind of grimy,” said Gari.

He undressed in the bathroom, where, as he unstuck his underwear from himself and muttered, “Ouch,” the scent of Catherine Lourdes suffused the warm air and chilled him. Perhaps he was simply over sensitive to the fragrance, as to his mind it pungently represented his betrayal and the dread of revelation. There was something else too and it was like an ice cube racing the length of his back, imparting the shivers that impelled him to crank the shower to hot, which in turn induced him to sweat and freeze simultaneously.

This other thing was what the magazines and television ads called “performance.” Women—these were women in novels and the movies—they were usually forgiving of their men who, for one reason or another, couldn’t perform. Of course, that was pure fiction. Gari knew performance mattered, because it conveyed meaning beyond a good squirt and temporary relief to women, especially women who were wives. If the man couldn’t perform then something was wrong. If something was wrong then she had to understand the nature of the problem. This led to a discovery process described best by and probably the ideal definition of “agony.” And, having endured agonizing probing, as women liked to scrutinize every nook and cranny of a man’s psyche in relentless pursuit of the muck, then yet another problem presented itself. Women internalized the thing causing men to fail, taking it on as their fault, a failing in them, and some inadequacy of theirs. They were too fat or not sufficiently succulent in the right way. They were too intense or too lackadaisical, both intimating and deflating to the man. Or they were too worn, depriving him of that snug fit he craved, and that often transformed a three-minute experience into one, one and half if she was lucky. Or too dry, resulting in pain all around.

Rinsing off the lather, he came to the one on his mind. This was the big one, the really big one. Stated directly and simply, as no woman would unless very angry to the point where she’d lost control of her vocabulary, you can’t perform because you already shot your wad in another bitch. Yes, he could wash away the scents of Catherine Lourdes; but he could not restore the full load of seminal fluid she’d drained from him. And wives were not forgiving, understanding, or self-deprecating in the face of an empty hose as were new acquaintances, girlfriends, and mistresses.

He toweled off and devoted a minute to examining his limp and shriveled dick. He stroked it couple of times, hoping for a resurrection. But the damned effort … well, it just flopped. In this state, reduced mentally and physically, he entered Emily’s den, previously known as their bedroom.

As the pejoration of the old aphorism goes:  Necessity is the mother of erection. Once in bed, in Emily’s arms, comforted by the knowledge that this woman who once loved and then fell out of love with him, this woman again seemed to love him and see him as more than a sad sack. She now beheld him as a man, a hunter who successfully tracked down the big game of an elevated position and increased income. And, he couldn’t explain this but definitely sensed it:  Her mythologizing transformed him into the real man she desired. Catherine Lourdes efforts actually paid him dividends in bed with Emily, as the private banker had allotted him the time necessary to properly stimulate his wife and bring her to climax during coitus, a feat he hadn’t accomplished in … the years were lost.

Lying on his back, a fine sheen of sweat and Emily’s head resting on his chest in a light doze, he knew being a rich man was the best. Could things get any better?

* * *

Yes, indeed they could, and they did during the next week.

First and foremost was Emily and the new attitude she developed toward him. He was the man of the house, a knight, and she honored his new royalty with meals—real meals with an entrée and two side dishes and a salad and a bottle of beer, not a sandwich or a slapped together casserole, usually yellow tinged with brown. And the boys tucked in so they could talk like adults in adult volume. As a result, he didn’t have a single sore throat, not an instance of raspy voice, the entire week, where normally these conditions plagued him once, often twice a week. For some reason in their house the adults couldn’t, for the most part, help but carry on conversation with the boys in anything but high volume. In these post-lottery, post-ersatz promotion days, he often discovered his ears tinnitus from the silence.

Since the boys were in bed early, Emily and he were not exhausted by the time they retired. They had marvelous energy the entire evening, which they used to talk to each other, mostly about their past together—how they met, where, their wedding, friends from the city they never saw after they’d crossed the Chicago border, and the like—and he discovered he liked her, they still shared much, and she was in her matured and experienced way an attractive woman.

Then there was Larry Lefton who on Monday instead of tearing into Gari for his Friday performance greeted him civilly, and on a couple of occasions in meetings concerning the Lubeck’s account treated him deferentially. It was as if Larry knew Gari now possessed the wherewithal to leave the agency, and that, after all, he was an essential part of the Lubeck’s account, if as nothing else than as a deflective whipping boy.

Midweek Catherine Lourdes phoned. He froze for a second at the lilt of her voice, thinking she wanted to tryst with him. The downside of the week had been that his guilt over cheating on Emily—by Wednesday he was no longer terming it an indiscretion, or excusing it by claiming any red-blooded man would have done the same—had increased by a factor equal to her steadily improving treatment of him. Damn but he should have said no to Catherine. Fortunately, she wished nothing more than to inform that his first payment from the state had landed in his Mid-Con account. Hearing this, he felt like the real article—a rich and free man. It was a wonderful salve for his guilt.

So much so he accelerated his planning and booked his California trip.

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?”

Gari blinked.

“‘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?”

“Loretta.”

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.

“Shoes.”

“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.”

CHAPTER 7:  HEAVEN ON EARTH

Everything was clear and simple Saturday morning. He was a man who had emerged from a gratification desert. A rejuvenated wife. A transformative woman, Catherine. And now the woman who lay beside him. Well, more than beside him. She nestled in his crooked arm, her head tucked under his chin; and his free hand casually trolled her breasts.

Her full name was Loretta Heavencrest, which he quickly upon their undressing deconstructed and rebuilt as Loretta Heavensent, earning him a room service cart of giggles and go-ons, as well as accolades to his wit and charm, which until he’d won the lottery he’d never realized—and still doubted, regardless of female flattery—he possessed. Of course, she was taken with him for the same reason as Catherine and the reinvigorated, passionate Emily, of this he had no doubt.

Yet he sensed something in addition that Saturday:  He was a man of palpable power. Weeks earlier, he’d been, at best he admitted, an average Joe. He had been a man traveling though life invisible. Those who did catch his shadow didn’t hold high opinions of him. Among these folks, he classed his dear wife, the PLW (that is, pre-lottery win) Emily, and his much disliked employer Larry Lefton.

What accounted for Augustus Garibaldi now striding through every aspect of his life with visible confidence? This confidence—about which he harbored no illusions—had been engendered by mere chance. But in bed at the Beverly Hilton with the beautiful and fully satisfied Loretta in his arms, he could have cared less than zero about chance. Luck was finally in his corner. He was reaping the rewards. He was a confident player in life and he didn’t care this state had materialized through no effort of his own, except for the little required to stop and buy a sandwich, a Big Gulp, and a lottery ticket at a 7-Eleven.

Loretta stirred, as if disturbed by the crackling taking place under his skull. She opened her eyes and blinked at him. They were marvelous eyes, gray and luminescent, and now brimming with mirth and satisfaction at her happy state, in the bed and arms of a man finally branding the world with his mark. Gari’s brain was hot, steamy, and cooking rapidly as he ran his eyes over her.

She’d been gorgeous and irresistible in her red dress perched on the barstool. But just how stunning he’d not fully appreciated until she’d slid off the little red thing in the dim, soft yellow glow of the room. Every inch of her was golden, a woman kissed by beauty and the California sun. Her perfection had transfixed him. He had been paralyzed before her, unable to do more than watch her as she’d bent to remove her slides—canting, as she did, her legs first this and then that way, cast them aside, raising her arms and with them her breasts, gliding her hands into her hair, under it, flipping her blond mane even more golden in the tungsten light—this hair that was absolutely buoyant and bounced of its own accord as it fell back upon itself. When she was in front of him nude on her toes working lose his collar button—for so riveted had he been he hadn’t started getting out of his clothes—he was hit by the thunderclap of realization:  She’d removed nothing but dress and shoes. She’d been in the bar on the stool chatting him up naked under the red dress; naked and, combined with her demeanor, accessible right there in the bar. Could she be more alluring, more tempting, sexy to the point where he might explode into a pile of reproductive goo? She before him—the perfect golden West Coast princess—and the idea of her naked under her clothing—if he’d been … been what? What was he searching for? Ah, if he’d been a nineteenth-century coxcomb, a Victorian dandy, a devotee of aestheticism, he’d have swooned. But he lowered the heat long enough to doff everything below his waist, while she made short work of the upper, and then fell into bed in her embrace.

After a while, he discovered he wasn’t alone with Loretta. There on his shoulder like a hen escaped from the barnyard was Emily. The damn woman didn’t say a thing. She was simply there, standing, sometimes dressed, sometimes nude like Loretta, but, of course, not in the least like the princess. He knew Emily’s purpose. She was present to load him up with guilt and—oh, this was too cruel—deflate him. He drew comparisons. He couldn’t help himself. It was as if Emily was part of him, attached to him, embedded in him, and short of the deft application of a surgeon’s scalpel, she wasn’t leaving. She was old. She was lumpy, flaring in the belly and the hips. She was disproportional, having more length above the waist than below. She was shopworn, with lightly veined breasts, stretch marks streaking her abdomen, and veins visible in her legs. Was this fair of him to compare her to Loretta? Not a bit fair, but the woman deserved it, as she wouldn’t stop haunting him.

Emily rarely wore dresses. Blue jeans were her preference, when she wasn’t in sweats. Sweats were the worst and there on his shoulder when she appeared dressed she was in them. Her ass in sweats was, let’s be honest, repulsive. The seat was shapeless and hung down as if it was overflowing with something and the something was utterly revolting. And this unattractive and unflattering clothing was cheap. Nasty, ugly attire a person who respected herself and her husband wouldn’t wear, not even from necessity. Her underpants—really, he couldn’t deign to label them panties—were the worst of a bad lot. They were big baggy bloomers, white sacks better suited to hauling trash than a woman’s ass, which in Gari’s opinion was an article of art when trim, tight and proportioned, as was Loretta’s.

Loretta hadn’t been wearing panties, but if she had stepped into them before leaving for the Beverly Hilton bar, he had no doubt they would have been red or black. They would have been tiny, little things that functioned less as underwear and more as an invitation to fantasy and arousal. They also would cost more than Emily’s entire daily wardrobe.

Ah yes, he was in the perfect spot with the perfect woman, and an entire Saturday stretched before them.

“I wonder if the star tours are running today?” Her voice was muffled and slurred with sleep’s remnants, but more enticing for her condition.

His face blossomed with a smile. She observed closely and said, “I’m guessing you haven’t taken a tour.”

“Never.”

“But these fires,” she said, propping up on an arm, kissing him lightly, and glancing toward the window. They’d drawn the curtains last night, but a sliver of murky sunlight angled through slicing the room, the bed, and them in half. “These are the worst I’ve seen since I got here.”

“Movie star houses burn down?” he said with sufficient incredulity to convey he might just be a hick from the hinterlands. What were these people, demigods exempt from the laws tormenting humanity? In the future, he’d have to check his awe.

She laughed. “Don’t get the idea Sharon Stone puts her dresses on any different than me.”

Well—he kept this to himself—you and Sharon Stone have more than that in common. It’s what you both don’t wear under the dress.

“No, no, it’s that, I guess I don’t know where the movie stars live.”

“Damn.”

“Damn what?”

“Damn but I can’t believe your shoe guys didn’t take you around the town at least. I thought everybody did that. Christ, I have to do it for every relative who gets past Vegas.”

She might have expected ready wit, especially from an advertising man, but he was too stuck on the word relative to respond immediately. Relative shocked him a bit, as he’d been viewing her as an entity without connections. No parents, brothers or sisters, other relatives, and no friends. Nobody to think about, to report to, to care for, or to care about her. It seemed odd to see her this way, when he considered it. She was a person just like him. Consequently, her life was more than perching on a stool in the Beverly Hilton Hotel bar and then devoting her attention and life to him. After he returned to Chicago, she would be getting back to something here in L.A. It occurred to him they’d been as intimate as two people could hope to be, and yet he knew nothing more about her than she moaned softly when she made love.

“Me or you?” she asked.

“Huh?” lost in himself.

“The curtains. Who’s going to open them?”

“Oh, sure, me.”

He slipped from under the covers and padded to the window. He drew them back a few inches.

She said, “More. I can’t see anything. Nobody will see you. Open them.”

He opened them completely and felt a rush of excitement. It wasn’t the day, sunny in a dusty way. It was his state—naked in front of a window. At home, he could not recall the last time he’d pranced around naked. Or if he’d ever gone around the house, or his bedroom, without some clothing. Certainly not after Teddy toddled. With the kids, privacy vanished. Not even in the bathroom, where the boys had been known to intrude as he sat on the toilet.

“Christ,” she yelled, nearly in his ear, startling him. She came around from behind him and almost flattened her breasts against the window. “It’s a smoky day. I guess the fires haven’t let up much. I guess they won’t until we get some rain.”

“When’s that?” he asked, interested more in running his hands down her waist and over her hips.

She must have read the desire in his eyes for she grabbed his lecherous hands and clamped them on her slim yet tantalizingly flared hips. “December, maybe,” she answered, soft and sultry, so the room felt as if the fires had insinuated themselves into the corridors of the Beverly Hilton. “We’ll get tickets over at Gruaman’s.” She was pulling him to the bed, and then falling onto it, her legs splayed slightly, leaving him to watch. “So what star palaces do you want to see?”

He was dizzy and blank. He said, “Sharon Stone’s, maybe.”

Loretta broke into a convulsive laugh.

She said she was hungry and she hated room service. It was something to the effect that hotel rooms were for two things only, and they’d already used theirs for both.

They taxied to Hollywood and ate breakfast at the Roosevelt Hotel. She told him it was haunted and took him up to the mezzanine and guided him through the exhibit to prove it. They caught a star tour at two and bussed around Beverly Hills, Holmby Hills, and Bel Air, up and down the hills between West Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley, and on Mulholland Drive past the spot were James Dean was supposed to have crashed his Spyder (though Gari knew the spot was miles and miles away, near Bakersfield). The fires weren’t up in these rich, exclusive hills, but the smoke from those burning near Malibu was. It wasn’t thick, probably no denser than smog, but it colored the landscape brown and filled the air with an acrid smell. Amid the ohs and ahs, the tour driver jolted his charges by saying, “Lucky you’re seeing L.A. today. Tomorrow it could be ash.” Nobody believed him, but they laughed nervously nonetheless as they contemplated the evening in their L.A. hotel rooms. And in the end, Gari never did see Sharon Stone’s house.

They spent their evening at Ivy, one of the restaurants de jour. He’d asked Loretta in the morning where she’d like to dine that evening and she’d said, “Ivy would be nice. You’ll see famous people.” While he’d lost interest in watching the famous eat, he was very keen to please and impress her. Naturally, being a gravitational center, securing a legitimate reservation on short notice was impossible. However, just as in Chicago, Gari figured money would move mountains. And it did. The Beverly Hilton concierge got him a reservation, after Gari persuaded him with five hundred dollars. Forking over the C-notes, he had visions of the apoplexy this would have caused in Emily. Five hundred dollars would have bought food for a month, new school clothing for the boys, as well as this and that—and none of it would have been wasteful or fun. Spending money on bribery hadn’t been a pleasure for him, but then he was in the big time and he understood big time living could be expensive.

What the five hundred had bought him was a one hundred dollar bar bill at Ivy waiting for a reserved table that opened two hours late. Where were the stars on Saturday night? Loretta apologized they were not at Ivy. The meal was okay but overpriced, though he did not volunteer his true opinion to her. For her ears, Ivy was fabulous, nothing like it in the sadly benighted backwash of Chicago. Of the hinterlands herself, she laughed agreeably. She was in L.A. to escape.

With no stars to ogle, they talked about her over dinner. He had said enough about himself. Anymore and he feared he might get hung up in the complex web he found himself weaving. She’d come from near him, at least when viewed from Ivy in L.A. Danville was her hometown. Gari was something of a dolt about Illinois, as he supposed most who lived in and around Chicago were. He did know two facts and used them with good effect. First, the women’s penitentiary was located there. Probably the place’s main industry these days was her observation. As far as she was concerned, the town was a giant pen and she was a fortunate escapee. Second, Rob Petrie hailed from Danville. This puzzled her. He discerned bewilderment in the way—cute way, in his opinion—she flared her nostrils and set her nose to twitching. Well, she was young, and Rob had been a Sixties guy, and Gari devoted a fair amount of his time to such fare on TV Land. The old “Dick Van Dyke Show” with Mary Tyler Moore, he clarified. She recognized Mary Tyler Moore.

By the time Rob Petrie had slipped by, she was on her third martini, and now their potency had gripped her, and Gari had the sense she was revealing information she normally would have withheld, and probably secreted from others like himself, for in his mind strangely sharpened by an extremely expensive single-malt scotch he knew there had been others, though he wasn’t sufficiently mellow to say this didn’t present tremendous difficulty for him. He was the only one for Emily and, irrationally as even he regarded it, he expected this of Loretta. Naturally, the only sensible recourse was to repress his knowledge, which presented no immediate problem for the prevaricating man.

Loretta rambled down her alcoholic memory lane, from girlhood to womanhood. Her father was a prison guard and her mother a homemaker. Her father demanded order, and that included an ice-cold Stroh’s waiting for him the instant he clomped through the front door after a hard day keeping society’s recalcitrant females in line. Possibly as a result of his vocation or perhaps simply because he was seriously anal, he brooked no rebellion at home. Complying with his wishes was no problem for her mother, whose name was Sandi, short for Sandi Louise. Sandi was, in the vernacular, wrapped tight, her personal twine so tensed she couldn’t dance, and barely could bend over to put in and pull out Clyde’s—that was her father’s name, which she found comical for a big old tough guard of bad broads—casseroles. Yes, he was a casserole aficionado, eschewing steaks and burgers and other man fare for what, in Loretta’s view, amounted to daily chemistry experiments. She marveled the house still stood on its foundation and that Clyde and Sandi still lived; and, in fact, that neither had ever found themselves in the emergency ward, except once for her dear brother.

“Richard was his name,” she said, wiggling her martini glass. Gari signaled and another was on its way.

He’d been known as Ricky. It seemed adorable when he’d been a tike, less so when a teenager, and not at all when a man. She told Gari the strict observation of the conventional was Heavencrest house policy. She balanced on the line, asserting herself in small ways, most of the time known to her only, unless she mentioned an act to Ricky, who usually sneered at her effort, labeling it “Pi-Ti-Ful.” Big on her list was not wiping water spots off the glasses when she set the kitchen table for dinner. Clyde was a stickler for cleanliness and would always comment to Sandi about the spots.

Ricky was a flagrant rebel, a perfect successor to the original rebel without a cause. Though she corrected herself and admitted her brother did have a cause:  to rebel demonstrably against the rigidity of the Heavencrest house. By twenty, Ricky suffered unto himself and those surrounding him every affliction known to American teen rebeldom. He was an alcoholic and drug addict. He was a petty thief. He managed two girlfriends, both of whom left him after he abused them. Clyde disowned him, as if he had anything to disown him of, then backpedaled by allowing him to live in his room. Sandi wept for him. Loretta figured Ricky for what he’d been:  a self-destructive jerk. At twenty-one, just five days short of his majority, he overdosed on heroin in his bedroom.

Loretta supposed her brother would have found the discovery of his body satisfying. He’d been in his room in a coma from dawn to dusk. Clyde came to rouse him for dinner and discovered him sprawled on his twin bed, sideways, legs and arms extending off each side. He knew an overdose when he saw it, having seen them from time to time at the prison. Clyde and Sandi hauled Ricky to the hospital, where he died as the admissions clerk inquired about Clyde’s insurance coverage.

It was at this point in her life’s tale that she said, her mouth operating at half speed, “Whoa, but this is too much. I can’t imagine what you must think of me.”

Gari thought her to be an expensive woman, for at the very moment she ended the story of Clyde, Sandi, and Ricky, the waiter sealed it with the bill. It was two-fifty. With the bribe and the bar tab, the evening cost him nearly a thousand dollars, and they weren’t back at the hotel yet. Here, he thought, was a woman who certainly had ventured far from her humble weed patch, a woman as opposite Emily as existed in the world.

It was late. Thankfully, she was too inebriated to move on to another L.A. adventure. They cabbed back and finished the night in Gari’s hotel room, with him undressing her and putting her in the bed, where she passed out instantly.

The next morning they did what Loretta hated and ordered in breakfast, as she was in no shape to face the sunny AM, again dulled by smoke and ash. All for the best, Gari informed her, as he had to catch a noon flight back to Chicago. She asked if he could postpone his return, stay another day, and end their weekend on a glorious note. He was tempted, but this was his first excursion away from Emily and he didn’t think pushing it was advisable. Besides, he had to show up at Lefton & Associates as usual Monday morning. And he was exhausted.

In the last hour, she became fretful and agitated. Gari figured it was the after effect of booze.

“I hope I’ll see you again,” she said, pensively. “You haven’t said anything.”

Gari panged with guilt. During this short weekend, he had become infatuated with her. Her life story put him off a bit; it twanged with more than a smidgen of hillbilly messiness. But then sex does smooth the rough edges of a budding relationship and fosters much fantasy regarding the other party. Hillbilly history was dim in his mind, way back in the recesses with depriving his grass of its weekly mowing. His weekend in L.A. was the most thrilling sustained sexual experience of his new life; he wasn’t prepared to end it. He craved more and toyed with modifying his plans as Loretta pouted in front of him. Those lips of hers, they were full, fluffy pillows of delight, unlike Emily’s razor pink slits.

“I’ll be back in two weeks,” he said. It simply popped into his head and seemed like the right interval. It was like everything in his rich new life:  spontaneous.

Her face cleared and brightened, as if the fires shrouding L.A. had extinguished and the soot and stink had blown out of town, leaving the place crystalline, and he found himself ecstatic over the transformation.

She wrapped him in her arms and rose up on her toes and touched his lips, his nose, and his eyelids with her cushy lips. “You’ll stay with me then?” When she saw doubt shadowing his face, she said, “I insist on it. You’ll stay with me. I’ll cook for you. Wake you in the morning for your meetings with the shoe louts. Welcome you home at night.” This she sampled and emphasized with a volley of little kisses.

“We’ll see,” he hedged. “My schedule’s usually hectic.”

She laughed as if she had a middle name and it was frantic.

“I’ll call you,” she said. “What’s your number?”

Gari, while now a new man, a man of wealth, of position and importance, a man on the verge of residency in two states of the grand ole union—this man of pending sophistication had yet to shake off all his Emily-induced penny-pinching habits. In short, he hadn’t acquired a cell phone and worldwide reach and accessibility.

“You know what, my cell conked on me Friday afternoon. Damn thing just up and died. No wonder, I guess. I’m on it all the time. Chicago and L.A. L.A. and Chicago. Back and forth.” He saw her excitement dim a watt or two. “I’m replacing it tomorrow. It’s first on my list. As soon as I have it, I’ll call. Heck, you’ll be my test case, Loretta. I’ll phone you when I’m giving it a try.”

These words were akin to him injecting a stream of charged particles into her lips so brightly did she flash her smile.

After this, he ached to take her to bed. However, time was short and with Loretta bedtime could easily stretch until … well bedtime. So he hosed his libido, gave her fifty for the cab home, wherever that might be, settled up with the Beverly Hilton, and tore out of the parking garage in the red Ford Focus, vowing next time it would be a red Jag, or some such car. After all, his status demanded such wheels and sweet Loretta deserved them.

CHAPTER 8:  LIES AND IDEAS

Had it had been any other night but Sunday at six, he would have headed directly to a telephone store to purchase a cell phone. Since he figured none would be open on Sunday, he went where pandemonium erupted, what with Teddy and Sammy clamoring with joy at his return and asking what presents he’d brought them from California.

His jet-lagged brain functioned well enough to explode a huge “Ouch” behind his drooping eyes. Loretta had completely eclipsed the boys and Emily. On his way to LAX, his thoughts were of Loretta weeping in the cab taking her home, and crying up a river in the bedroom of her apartment that he imaged to be mildly glamorous, at least in that it was occupied by the single L.A. woman with whom he had tryst the better part of his first weekend away from home as a man of independent means. The place was probably a box; the glamour came in the furnishings; and especially in the closets, which he imagined packed with more slinky red dresses and tiny bras that were barely there, and thong under things hardly objects at all, and rich floral scents. This wasn’t all he had on his mind; there was the cell phone, too—when to get it, where to get it, what cool style to get. But there were no boys and no Emily.

There was, however, prickly guilt. It had crept up on him Friday night when he was imagining what was under Loretta’s red dress. He’d beat it back, caged it as he would a frothy beast. Now he was in the house and it sprang free, mauling him with claws branded Teddy, Sammy, and Emily. As much a Scrooge as she was, if Emily had been away for a couple of days, she would have returned with at least trinkets for the boys. Sure these would have been junk, but to the boys they would have been treasures of inestimable value. He focused on the boys who tugged at his pants, afraid to face Emily’s castigating eyes, afraid she might be right, afraid they might be pipelines to his soul, to the blackness in him.

The scene could have passed for a Rockwell, except he knew he was an adulterer.

However, he wasn’t about to own up to neglect. I’m not a self-centered guy who thinks only of himself, he raged to himself. I’m not the type who looks forward to getting away from the family, who regards business trips as glorious regenerating retreats from reality. These things he wanted to shout into Emily’s judgmental gaze.

He realized, then, that was the crux of her complaint:  He’d put business before the boys. Nothing truly grand, or indicating she understood the double life he’d mapped for himself and her. Her complaint was a simple slip of the mind.

Relieved, he dug into his jacket pockets for anything and latched onto two booze bottles, two Chivas miniatures he had leftover from the plane. He was desperate for a gift and the boys wouldn’t care what he gave them. It was the thought that mattered, wasn’t it?

Teddy and Sammy regarded the bottles as riddles and they presented them to Emily for a solution. Gari saw the red at the base of her neck and knew she was livid. The woman couldn’t speak, but he knew she’d have plenty to scream about after the boys departed the room.

“They’re souvenirs,” he said. “They aren’t toys. They’re little mementos of Daddy’s trip. He got them in first-class on the airplane.” He took the one Teddy held. “You put them on your bookshelf, see.” He illustrated by lifting the miniature bottles and placing them on an imaginary shelf. “Then you admire it. You think, ‘Boy, Daddy sure has a good job.'” 

He returned the tiny Chivas bottles to Teddy and Sammy, and the boys dashed off to their room, presumably to ensconce their tokens on their little bookshelves.

“Gari Garibaldi, how could you?” said Emily. Tears welled in her eyes.

“Okay, Emily, I’m a cad and a lousy father. Don’t tell me what I know. But, Christ, I was busy. Those Vanny’s people are worse than Lubeck’s. Larry’s not paying me enough for this, forcing me away from you and the kids and putting up with Vanny’s bullshit.” As he spoke, he’d sidled up to her and draped an arm over her shoulders. “I didn’t have a second to spare. I came this close,” he indicated with pinched fingers, “to missing my flight. You don’t think I wanted to get something for you and the boys? There just wasn’t any time.”

She snuffled doubt. Waving at him, she said, “When did this drinking start?”

“Drinking? What drinking? I’ve had a few drinks with clients. Sure. But I wouldn’t call it drinking drinking. You know, like in the drinking you’re thinking of. With this new job, I’ve got to drink with clients sometimes.”

“These clients were on the plane with you?”

“Plane? Oh, no, they’re back in L.A.,” he said into stern, unbelieving eyes. “Come on, Emily. Didn’t I just finish telling you this trip was murder? I had a couple on the plane to relax. So what?”

But he knew there was something to it. He had noticed himself drinking more. Even before L.A. and Loretta, with Catherine at lunch, and in-between before leaving for L.A., he stopped in a couple of nightspots in the city to check out the action and have a drink. Just unwinding he told himself. It was tough living as a poor slob, when you were the opposite. And why? To hide your good fortune from your wife. To live a new, wilder, expensive life in secret.

“Well, maybe this new position of yours isn’t worth it, Gari. Not if it means being away from home and the boys, and drinking on top of it.”

Had she been reading his mind? Did she know more than she was letting on?

“Christ, Emily, isn’t the money nice? Isn’t not scrimping nice for a change? Don’t you like giving the boys presents for no reason?”

“You mean like two liquor bottles?”

He wanted to storm out of the room, out of the house. But he couldn’t; his guilt was like cement shoes, the kind gangsters wore to hideous ends in Lake Michigan. In his case, they weighted him in place. The best he could manage was a glare.

“You can’t be serious?”

But her expression testified she was. Money and what it could buy meant nothing to Emily.

“Okay, look, no more drinking. Soda pop from now on. Scout’s honor,” he said, raising a hand and grinning wide, hoping he didn’t look like the Cheshire cat, but the adorable, supplicating husband he knew he should be at the moment. And seeing her soften a bit, he added, “I’ll talk to Larry, see if I can persuade him to lighten my load.” In a burst of bravado, “Hey, I’m the top producer for the agency, right? The linchpin. I deserve a few concessions, don’t I? Damn right.”

She’d been hard in appearance and pulling away during their conversation, until this declaration. She cracked a slight smile and moved toward him. He met her. They embraced and from the recesses came this, which might have been prompted by guilt and true feelings:  “I didn’t intend for this to be a problem for us, Emily.”

“It’s not, Gari. It’s just me, I guess. I’ve just got to get used to your success and what comes with it.”

Gary’s throat hitched. It could have been gas from the airplane food, which in first-class was a cold, soggy chicken sandwich; but really it was a monster growing in him. This scene would have been so much better if the promotion had been real, if his own effort had transformed him into the success he’d deceived her into believing he was.

She noticed and said, “You okay?”

He thumped his chest. “Airplane food. I shouldn’t eat the stuff.” He said it matter-of-factly, as if this indigestion was a longstanding concern.

She stroked his cheek lightly. “Well, maybe I have been hard on you. Being home alone with the boys over the weekend hasn’t been a picnic. They missed you, and I did too.”

The guilty demon snarled and flared in him. His head ached and his stomach burned. “I missed all of you too,” he managed. “But I’ll be home for the next couple of weekends,” trying desperately to recall what he’d promised Loretta, wondering how long he could stand being away from her. Under the weight of these questions, Gari’s eyes and the corners of his mouth sagged.

She read his face as filled with concern and regret and perhaps an amalgam of other emotions, the sum of which indicated this step up in life was as hard on him as it was on the boys and her.

“We should get to bed early tonight.” She emphasized her intent with more caressing.

He couldn’t dispute the merit of early to bed. Loretta, L.A., the flight, the time change—all exhausted him. And while he was a rich man who, from a practical standpoint, didn’t have to work, he was still tethered to a job and thus had to appear on time at Lefton & Associates. Then there was Emily herself. She was wearing her sweats, mismatched grays, baggy top and seat-sagging pants. She looked drawn and old, as if she’d aged ten years between Friday and Sunday. Then there was what the sweat suit hid, what had taunted him at the Beverly Hilton, and his evil comparison, which was how he viewed it; for how could he dare to compare the woman who loved him, who gave him two boys, who cared scrupulously—maddeningly—for his and his children’s welfare to … a paramour? And that he was sufficiently well off to afford such a high-class description of a woman in L.A., this he couldn’t believe either.

“You’re so right, Emily. Sleep is what we need. A rejuvenating night of sleep and we’ll be good as new tomorrow.” Breaking from her, he yelled, “Teddy, Sammy, time for bed. Daddy’s putting you to bed tonight.”

The boys presented themselves and voiced their protests. They weren’t tired. They wanted to play more. Wouldn’t Daddy play with them? It was too early; bedtime wasn’t for another hour. Gari conceded. He’d been away the entire weekend and they’d missed him. He’d deprived them. This wasn’t conceit on this part, but stark and painful truth that cut him and obligated him to give into the boys, and thus salve his guilt about his lousy parenting. He played Candyland and Chutes and Ladders with them until Teddy and Sammy each had won a game. After, he put them in their beds, kissed each goodnight, and headed for his bed, in which he prayed Emily had fallen asleep.

She was reading a magazine, propped up on two pillows, perfumed, and wearing a pale blue diaphanous nightgown through which he could distinguish her narrow breasts and their dark tips. Since Emily slept in shorts and a T-shirt (flannel nightgown in the cool and cold months), sleep didn’t seem an option, unless his invention was particularly fleet. But he was too drained for speed and undressed with a dull smile. Putting off the inevitable, he said he needed a shower as the heat and travel had made him a little gamy.

The shower gave him a small jolt of energy, sufficient for him to suggest, upon slipping into bed cleansed and nude, “You’re doing this for me, I know, Emily. But it’s not necessary. Not that I don’t want to. Oh, I do.” He enforced this as gospel truth by wrapping an arm around her and kissing the hollow of her neck. “But I know the kind of weekend you’ve had. Thirty minutes with the boys did me in. I can imagine how you feel after a weekend alone with them.”

Well, it was the best he could manage in his enfeebled state, and it was pretty good, demonstrating understanding, concern, consideration, probably other feelings he was unaware of. While right and good, it was exactly the wrong tactic on this night.

When he attempted retracting his arm, she pulled it back. “These past couple of weeks have been the best we’ve had in a long time. I’ll admit it. Your promotion and the money, even the travel as much as I hate it, it’s all made you more attractive. I don’t want you to think I’m superficial, having these feelings for you just because you’ve got a better job and all. Sure it’s part of it. I don’t deny it. But I’ve always loved you, Gari, even when it didn’t seem like I did. I just wanted the best for you and the boys, and I guess I was frustrated, you know, because you weren’t providing it.”

Her confession of affection stunned and dumbfounded him, leaving him limp.

“I appreciate you telling me, Emily.”

Loretta had drained his libido, now flaccid below and above in his head where it counted. Could he overcome this and perform? Loretta handed him salvation in the form of her little red dress. He rose to the occasion with Emily, and his reward was a long, delicious night’s sleep.

* * *

He awoke earlier than normal feeling better than usual. Emily was up before him and already busy in the kitchen when he strolled in for a cup of coffee. This morning was different, as Emily was in the midst of preparing what he rarely enjoyed at home, or anywhere for that matter.

The breakfast was huge:  coffee; eggs done as he liked them, sunny side up, wheat toast, butter, two types of jam, bacon, and biscuits. She joined him and ate with him, notable because this hadn’t occurred since Teddy was born. As they finished, Teddy and Sammy straggled in, wiping sleepy eyes and dragging a menagerie of plush animals.

Indeed the world had changed and continued changing, he thought, strolling to the train station. He was weighing his new life on the scale of justice, the good and the bad, and the scale tipped in favor of good.

Gari arrived at the office early. This struck him as strange. Before, when his job mattered, he showed up at his desk within the vicinity of eight. Time had been an approximate concept for him. He was among the class that worked its way through college and was a somewhat proud graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago. He labored—and it was real labor, putting his desk jockeying at Lefton & Associates to shame—afternoons while college was in session and ten-hour days during the summer. He’d started in the warehouse of Jennifer’s Direct Mail Services, Inc. receiving customers’ advertising, placing it in inventory upon arrival, and transporting it to the shop floor when it was ready for assembly into a direct mail package bound to annoy somebody. He’d been good at the job, not that he found it challenging. His co-workers were deltas. His boss, Carmine—the owner who’d honored his first born by naming his business after her—had appreciated his intelligence and his hard work. He’d received several promotions until he was supervising the evening shift. His problem was arriving at work on time. Of course, he was better than anybody else in the shop, many of whom could easily miss starting time by an hour and sometimes a day or two. While his ten-minute late arrivals would have driven most bosses to habitual harangues on timeliness, Carmine ignored this aspect of Gari’s otherwise stellar work ethic. Larry Lefton was another matter.

The problem, as Gari saw it, was everybody at Lefton & Associates worked. They were ambitious, and for reasons Gari could not fathom, they respected Larry Lefton, or at least paid deference to him by observing his wishes, among them that everybody appear in the office by eight and on Monday’s assemble in the weekly status meeting by eight-thirty ready to answer whatever inane questions he might ask. Gari managed this feat more often than not; but he wasn’t consistent and consistency was what Larry demanded.

So it was no surprise when Larry acknowledged Gari’s timely arrival at work and to the status meeting. Normally Gari would have ignored Larry’s indirect method of sharing his displeasure with the assembled agency staff; however, this day his sense of power at having challenged Larry the previous week surged in him, enhanced by his weekend in L.A., for which he’d left early on Friday. He nodded his acknowledgement. A few arched eyebrows indicated some had noticed.

Larry knew Gari had ducked out early on Friday. Larry might have missed the big picture occasionally, usually at the crucial junctures in the agency’s history; but he never missed a nit of the minutiae. Were the wall clocks off by ten seconds? Ask Larry. Did the cleaning people dust the desks and replace the wastebasket liners over the weekend? Larry knew by eight-fifteen on Monday. Was a company initiating an agency search? Don’t ask Larry, unless you didn’t mind knowing after the search had been completed and reported in the Chicago Tribune‘s marketing column.

Larry attempted to skewer Gari with a question regarding the state of spelling errors in Lubeck’s ads. But, of course, this was stale news that when it did possess a fresh stench hadn’t clung to Gari. And Larry had been aware of it only because Victor Lubeck himself had transmitted a jolt of his anger over the landlines, special delivery to the president.

“Victor Lubeck says all is forgiven. Accidents they do happen is his sentiment.”

“Indeed, Mr. Garibaldi,” intoned Larry. He enjoyed elevating his words with haughtiness in contests such as this. He believed his tone conveyed royalty, assertiveness, and leadership. In fact, it was the signal to the subject Lefton employee to relax and allow Larry to erupt. Experience assured normalcy would return shortly.

However, Gari wasn’t backing off this morning. This morning he was a superman.

“Indeed, Larry,” Gari responded, “Victor said those very words to me Friday afternoon, when I turned up at his office.”

Larry couldn’t disguise his surprise. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Gari smiled, slyly as he envisioned himself squared off with the big boss. “Larry, do you really want us,” he said, sweeping his arm to involve everyone at the table, “to ask permission each time we do something? If so, may I ask your permission to use the restroom? I had a little too much coffee before the meeting.” Gari knew precisely what Larry wanted to do at that moment, and would have done, if Gari hadn’t followed on seamlessly with:  “Of course you wouldn’t. You’re too smart an agency man.” He meant it sarcastically, and he was sure Larry knew it; but Larry’s adorning fans took it as a show of respect, a dollop of expiation for the preceding insolent remark, and general good survival sense. The fan club neutralized Larry. “Victor sends his regards and says it was savvy of you sending me over. It demonstrated how much you respect the Lubeck’s Shoes business.” Nice touch, he complimented himself, for he’d both insulted and placated Larry, avenging himself while enhancing, he was sure, his position in the company.

This proved the highpoint of the meeting, though the conclave staggered and limped on for over an hour before Larry mercifully put a bullet in it.

Afterwards, Larry motioned Gari into his office.

“Is it true? You went over to Lubeck’s Friday? He said he liked how we showed respect for his business.”

“Absolutely, Larry.”

Larry regarded Gari silently for what seemed to Gari to be the rest of the morning. Another moment and he would have broken into a nervous sweat. But Larry laid a hand on Gari’s shoulder before the water began flowing. “I like the initiative you’re showing these days, Garibaldi. Good work. Keep it up. Listen, do you think I should give Victor a call? You know, add cement to the bridge of goodwill you’ve already built?”

Gari suffered a spasm of terror. “No,” he replied, fighting to maintain his composure, “I’m headed over there this afternoon for another session. I’ll mention you send along your regards.” After a pause, “Let’s save you for the really big stuff.”

“Great idea, Garibaldi. Great job. Keep it up.”

Gari returned to his desk feeling as if he really had been promoted and recognized by Larry as a key man in the Lefton organization. This fostered deep reflection on a subject usually far, far from Gari’s mind. He contemplated how he might improve, maybe even expand, the agency’s relationship with Lubeck’s Shoes. At his desk, his first act was to phone Victor Lubeck. Gari asked if he could see him in the afternoon. Victor was busy and told him another time. Gari knew Larry and he suspected Larry would be on the phone to Victor by Tuesday morning. Perhaps later today, but most likely Tuesday, as Larry had a sluggish brain.

“We’ve been working on a few terrific ideas for Lubeck’s Shoes here, Mr. Lubeck,” he said, desperate to change Victor’s mind. “We think these can really improve your business.” He waited no more than a second for a response before adding:  “Not only that, these ideas could actually bring you new customers for less than you’re spending now.”

Victor grunted into the receiver. “I don’t believe that. Not coming from Lefton.”

“If you give me ten minutes, I’ll prove it.”

Gari listened to Victor breath loudly, and then got what he wanted. “Okay, be here at three. Ten minutes, and I’m putting my watch to it.”

Gary was pleased. He would be able to cover his tracks with Larry. But his pleasure quickly dissipated when he realized he’d committed himself to a plan that didn’t exist.

CHAPTER 9:  ADVERTISING GENIUS

Gari viewed Victor Lubeck as a swami of cheapness. He was a real Pole, a refugee from post-war Warsaw who fled in the arms of the Blessed Gregor with the Russians nipping at their heels. “This close,” he’d illustrate with pinched fingers, concluding with the testament to good shoes uttered by Gregor the Great:  “The boots, good boots, off a dead German son-of-a-bitch, the boots they saved us. That’s why I sell shoes, you know.” However, it didn’t explain why Victor was in the cheap shoe business. Nevertheless, Victor deserved a left-hand compliment of sorts:  If Emily required advanced lessons on niggardliness, though she was horrifically adept on her own merit, she could find no better mentor than Victor Lubeck.

Victor was personally cheap to the point where Gari often felt himself extravagant in the presence of the man. He never saw Victor in anything but rumpled suits, spotted shirts, stained ties, and worse, considering his business, scuffed shoes, sometimes with holes in the soles, which Gari couldn’t miss as the man was in the habit of sitting with a calf perched on a knee, as if so expansively endowed he couldn’t cross his legs completely.

Sure Lubeck’s Shoes was the agency’s biggest account in billed dollars; but shrewd, miserly Victor extracted twice the service as other clients, rendering the account below average in profitability. Larry Lefton cared about this; however, he regarded Lubeck’s Shoes as prestigious and he liked how its revenue inflated his agency’s reported billings; for Larry, it was like wearing elevator shoes so he didn’t feel such a crawfish in a town of jumbo lobsters. Consequently, Gari tread carefully with Victor. Antagonizing the man threatened the account and a jeopardized Lubeck’s account would cost him his job, which wouldn’t have particularly troubled Gari now that he was rich and engaged in the grand plan of enjoying his wealth; except, of course, he needed the front. Consequently, Gari’s afternoon trip was a daring expedition.

“Remember, the clock is ticking,” Victor barked, dividing his gaze between Gari, anxious in the chair fronting his desk, and his watch.

The proposition was simple. Gari explained how Victor could save money and vastly improve the effectiveness of every marketing dollar by employing store mapping and direct mail. He said it was an application of the eighty-twenty rule, which as far as Gari could see governed every aspect of life. Only a handful of people within the trading areas of Lubeck’s stores, he contended, were good customers, core in business lingo. Identifying them was the trick. Then ensuring they bought their shoes exclusively from Lubeck’s would be a snap. How to accomplish this feat? Present them with special offers they couldn’t resist.

“Like in that movie,” said Victor, “An offer you can’t refuse!”

When he considered Gari’s argument, Victor was somewhat like Godfather Brando—large, lumbering, and quietly deadly, at least as concerned Gary’s career, which he couldn’t believe he was actually worrying about, in light of circumstances.

“Sure,” Gari said in happy agreement, advancing the idea with the magic marketing word:  database. “All you have to do is have your clerks capture the names and addresses of customers each time they make purchases. Then you stick the information in a computer. After you’ve accumulated enough information, you do a little analyzing; you know, look for people who buy regularly. Figure out what they buy and when. After that, it’s just a matter of sending them reminder postcards to shop for their shoes at Lubeck’s. You can dress it up too with a Lubeck’s Special Customer’s Club. Maybe give them a free pair of shoes for every five they buy.”

“Ten,” Victor declared decisively. “Ten there’s more profit and they’ll be happy. We’ll do some of those cards in Polish for the store on Milwaukee.” Victor quieted and occupied himself with the brushing of his ample self, as if this might add a shine to his genius. “What about the advertising?”

“Absolutely have to advertise, Mr. Lubeck.”

Victor shifted in his chair, apparently uncomfortable, reminding Gari of the baboon at Lincoln Park Zoo shifting from foot to foot, swiping a puddle of what looked like its own piss with each pass until the liquid dripped from his rump hair.

“Of course, you won’t have to do nearly as much. But some, since you’ll want to keep the Lubeck’s brand out there. It’s important for snagging new customers.”

Victor grunted, “Makes sense. So, what’s the bottom line? I got to spend more with Lefton for this?”

Gari was experiencing a new and confusing sensation. His heart raced; his palms sweated; his face flushed; he found sitting without fidgeting challenging. He could be on the verge of a heart attack, or a stroke, or might have contracted an exotic disease in the cab on the way over. What a time to drop dead, he agonized, until he understood he was in the throes of full-blown exhilaration brought on by … by success. It was like winning the Illinois Lottery again, but by virtue of merit this time.

“You okay there, Garibaldi?”

Gari reined himself, rubbed his hands on his pants, and said, “Sure, sure, just the heat,” though the room was an Artic experience without the inconvenience of travel. Gari continued, “Actually, in the beginning, you will spend less than now.”

“How’s that? Larry Lefton doesn’t do anything for free. The son of a bitch is a bigger tighterwad than me.” Gari detected a hint of respect.

“Very perceptive of you, Mr. Lubeck. We expect to make a considerable profit on this. No doubt about it. You see, we’re suggesting we run this as an experiment. You pay for materials and processing work. No creative charges. We take five percent of the gross receipts generated by the program. We make money only when you do.”

“So this might cost me more?”

“Maybe, if we’re lucky. In which case, you’ll also make more. And you’ll always be ahead. You see, we share in the gain and the pain.”

Victor chewed this cud for a while, gnawing his lower lip with such vigor Gari prepared to dash out of range of the bloody gusher he expected at any moment.

“I like it,” he mumbled, finally, his lip intact. He cleared his throat loudly, almost as if he’d nipped off the bit of his tongue and it had slid down his gullet. “I guess my letter got Larry off his ass.”

This jarred and deflated Gari’s contained exuberance. Perhaps he was leaping, but it appeared this account was in jeopardy and Larry hadn’t leveled with him, the guy who’s supposing to be managing it. What was Larry waiting for, for Lubeck’s to walk?

Gari shuddered, understanding fully what such an event would mean for him. Even being Illinois’ newest millionaire—no one had won since he had and the pot was building and he was continuing to buy lottery tickets as he believed, as in nature, lightening could strike twice, and a man could never be too rich, as this apparently duplicitous holdback on the part of Larry Lefton proved—did not soften the verity that Larry Lefton planned to cut him loose if Lubeck’s severed ties with the agency; though those who, in his estimation, should go were Lefton’s creative chowderheads. And here he was saving Larry’s ass. He had a mind to tell Victor to forget everything he’d said. But he couldn’t, because reality set in hard:  He needed the job—not for the money but to perpetuate the grand deception that was becoming his life.

“I’ll take this back to Larry …”

“Wait there, he doesn’t know about your plan.”

“Your plan” resonated in his ears like the sweet breath of strummed violins. It represented luscious recognition of his ability to think on his feet, to devise plans agreeable to shrewd old bastards the caliber of Victor Lubeck, to validate he was more than a maligned bag carrier; he, rather, was a man with business know-how. He would have delighted in lingering over the phrase and its meaning and the elation it brought him, but the context in which it had appeared, while cool and controlled, was laced with suspicion that, perhaps, was more … was understanding that what had transpired was Gari Garibaldi operating on the fly.

As much as he wished to assume full credit for the plan, he knew he couldn’t. Doing so would not set well with Lubeck or Larry, and Gari didn’t need both angry with him.

“Certainly he knows. He and I brainstormed together.” Uttering these words was about as pleasant as a proctologist probing his colon, but he had no choice. “I just need to let him know you agree and come back to you with a written proposal. You know, formalize it.”

Victor grunted. “With numbers in it. Good numbers, Garibaldi.”

Oh, they’d be good all right, thought Gary, exiting Victor’s office.

Normally, Gari would have zipped to the train station and gone directly home. Why give more to Lefton & Associates than necessary? He received nothing but a meager living in return. But his meeting had set him ablaze. He was a hunk of white hot metal burning with inspiration and drive. So, it was back to the office, where exiting colleagues found it necessary to point out he was heading in the wrong direction. He smiled and waved and enjoyed a new sensation as a Lefton employee:  He had a purpose.

He fired up his computer, opened a blank document page, drummed his desk for a moment as he contemplated the blinking cursor, and finally keyed in a title:  A Plan for Increasing Business and Efficiency at Lubeck’s Shoes, Prepared by Gari Garibaldi, Account Manager. For the next two hours he tapped his ideas into a ten-page proposal he regarded as pure wizardry. He decided to print it and take it home to Emily as proof both of his business acumen and his rise in the organization. But before he hit print, he revisited the cover page and changed his title to Vice President & Management Supervisor, which he esteemed he should be and would be upon selling the idea to Larry Lefton and securing Victor Lubeck’s final agreement. That this successful sequence mattered to him sent him home happily perplexed.

* * *

Gari walked through the door at eight and faced a clearly unhappy Emily, fresh from wrestling the boys into bed, fighting mightily their protests, “Not until Daddy gets home,” and “We want Daddy to put us to bed.”

She began, “Thank you very much for the courtesy of a phone call. You had me thinking you were headed back to L.A.”

What registered with Gari was:  She’s obsessed with L.A. What does she think I’m doing out there? He knew the answer, and was startled she asked the question, as if he really was doing something out there—useful, that is, other than gratifying of his libido.

He produced his proposal and held it high, as if it was a placard proclaiming a surprising and important pronouncement. And in a way it did, that being he’d really made it and he was really accomplishing something and his life wasn’t worthless, as he suspected she thought before he’d sprung the big promotion on her.

She squinted at the cover page. “You told me you had this new Vanny’s account in L.A., and Brick was handling things for you? So what’s this for Lubeck’s?”

He answered by sliding an index finger back and forth, back and forth across his title:  Vice President & Management Supervisor. “It means I’m responsible for more than one account.”

“What about Brick?”

“Brick handles the day to day stuff, Emily. I thought I explained that. Basically, he’s the bag carrier. He’s the guy who makes up the timetables. He helps me. But strategy, Emily, it’s all me,” he declaimed with some pride, pushing his freshly printed proposal at her. “Look for yourself. Let me know what you think.” He felt he needed an opinion as to whether the meat he’d hung on the skeleton he’d presented to Lubeck was substance enough. Maybe he was only imagining it was good. While Emily was a housewife, a homemaker, the little woman, and Gari railed at her tightfisted control of the household economy, he also respected the skill with which she planned and executed her cheapness.

“I don’t have time for this,” she said, grabbing the proposal and flourishing it to make her point.

“Teddy and Sammy are in bed. It’s early. Ten minutes. Fifteen tops. You’ll really be helping me. You know, supporting the big guy,” he said, turning the request into playfulness.

“The pans are in the sink. The dishwasher’s done.”

“I’ll take care of them. You read.”

She sat in the family room and read, while he emptied the dishwasher and scrubbed the pots. She’d prepared macaroni and cheese for the boys and had neglected the pot and the cheese was glued to the bottom. He was scrubbing away the scum when she sidled up to him.

“It’s good, Gari.”

“You finished fast. You think so?”

She wanted to say she never believed he had it in him the way he always wanted to toss around money and laze at home. But this was her new husband and his transformation had elevated her respect for him.

“Absolutely,” she said. “Spend less on each customer. Make more on each sale. What’s not to like?”

Plenty, thought Gari. Like a shift of revenue from tried and true media billing to less certain receipts. Like convincing squeaky-tight Victor Lubeck to give up a piece of his shoe action. Tough sells, he knew. “Why couldn’t you be Larry Lefton for a day?”

“If I was, I’d say yes to this. And I wouldn’t allow my married employees to work past five.”

Her tone was light, but Gari knew there was no levity in the comment. He defused whatever rancor she might have had with:  “The fate of the single.”

“That’s what they’re made for. Besides, it’d keep them out of trouble.”

He laughed. “You missed your calling. You should have been in human resources.”

She smiled, “Maybe I’ll get another chance when the boys are bigger. When you’re done, come up stairs.”

“I probably should look this over another time. You know, edit to perfection.”

“You owe me,” she said.

More than I hope you ever realize. “I’m right behind you.”

The next morning on the train it occurred to him that life as a rich man was work. True, it was of a different sort than he had been used to. For years he dreamed winning the lottery
— which he always imagined as winning big, huge—translated directly into quitting the work-a-day world and entering the stratospheric realm of the leisured few. But here he was on the same train headed to the same office, and even earlier than was usual in the past. What in the world had changed?

Well, really, if he wasn’t intent on leading a double life, if he wasn’t married to Emily, he would not have to trek to his desk at Lefton & Associates.

This particular commute, though, was different from all his others. He wasn’t merely traveling to plop at a desk and rot for eight hours, nine counting lunch. Today, he planned to make his mark at Lefton & Associates. Stealthily, he reached his hand to the side of his thigh on the window side and pinched himself.

His plan was damned sound. It was the right way to handle Lubeck. Lubeck’s agreement said it all. With Victor, the details were nits he was sure the two could resolve. Whatever Lubeck was, he was shrewd.

The problem was Larry. He was stupid when it came to business. Okay, stupid, idiot, dumbbell—these words were inappropriate. Gari understood they were expressions of his resentment. But, it wouldn’t be too much to say Larry lacked vision. He was a man of the moment for whom the immediate encompassed all. To Gari the size of the agency, a pipsqueak of a shop in a big market like Chicago, was proof. Then there was the quality of the personnel, especially the woefully misnamed creative department. The group performed terribly on the Lubeck’s account. He was certain, and had been for years, that they had stunted his advancement in the business. It was his excuse—no, his reason as he saw it, his perfectly understandable reason—for being trapped all these years at Lefton & Associates.

Who would hire a guy who essentially had fulfilled the role of mere bag carrier on a hack account? Nobody, and so he’d never bothered looking, though Emily, early on, had encouraged him to explore his options—her words; she gave up after several years of strenuous effort. He couldn’t recall clearly but he suspected she’d intensified her crusade of frugality about that time. He thought more kindly of Emily. She had recognized his promise, encouraged him, and resorted to her characteristic cheapness as a kind of family self-defense.

As far as she knew, he’d finally lived up to her expectations. He had, sort of, by sheer luck, hunger, and the 7-Eleven. At least he was bringing home some of the money. But just money would not cut it with her. She valued the enterprise—his enterprise—as much as the money. On this score, he knew she’d be disappointed in him. Thus, he concluded he had done the right thing in keeping his lottery win a secret. But now he had to make good on the second half by actually advancing.

CHAPTER 10:   GOLDEN TONGUE

When Gari arrived at Lefton & Associates, the agency was empty. He stood at the entrance perplexed. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d had to open the office—maybe he’d never opened it. He required a minute to remember he’d been presented a key for occasions like this—occasions he guessed Larry’s gang of sycophants encountered with regularity. He’d attached the key to his key ring, which was paltry by comparison to those he’d observed carried by others, including women; his ring held his car keys (used solely on weekends or for special business meetings, such as the one that never happened with Albert Manning, who Gari would happily thank if he should ever meet the man), a house key (never used as he entered through the garage door like every self-respecting suburban resident), and an oxidized key.

Miraculously, the key worked. Entering, he couldn’t believe a company would not change its locks … well, the exact number of years eluded him, but they were many. No secrets worth stealing at Lefton & Associates explained it. And the equipment, forget it. At Lefton & Associates they made do with antique technology, except for the marginal creative group; Larry allowed them to splurge on expensive computers, excusing the expense with his mantra that great creative was the product, the lifeblood, of the agency. He closed and locked the door to the snickering peal of his own laugh.

Inside, he found the light switch, he started the coffee, and he settled down at his desk. He read his proposal through twice, tweaking it here and there each time until he was convinced he’d written the new definition of perfection. He was certain Victor Lubeck would buy it. He devoted the rest of the early morning to devising a pitch that would win over the dense, narrow, and blind Larry Lefton.

Before eight, a few employees straggled in, surprised to find the lights on and Gari playing in his pen. To the person, they checked their watches to be sure it was Gari who was early, not they who were late. A minute before eight, Larry pushed through the entrance. Gari knew he was in the agency by the clock and the cloying scent of cologne. Larry confused sophistication with unrestrained dousing.

Gari was in the threshold of the door to Larry’s office before the man had dropped into his chair to begin his daily routine of … whatever.

“Look, Gari, I have a busy day here. Lots of messages,” Larry said, tapping the phone.

“I don’t mind waiting,” sounding as if he could and would happily encamp for the entire day or the week for that matter. He flopped onto Larry’s couch to illustrate his resolve.

“Okay, okay, let me just see who called.”

Larry picked up the receiver and grimaced at the phone as he listened to his message headers. Setting the receiver down, he said, “I thought it was odd you being here first thing, but now I know why. There’s a message from Victor Lubeck. What did you screw up this time? How bad? Because if it’s bad …” He trailed off and allowed his flushed cheeks to speak for him.

Ordinarily, Gari would have taken umbrage; but he knew what Victor Lubeck had to say; or was about to gamble he did. “You think Victor’s calling to tell us he’s taking the account somewhere?” Observing Larry with cool detachment, he thought this is the look the day he has his heart attack, face flooded with blood and keeling forward. He wondered if he would call 911 immediately, or give the mutinous heart a minute or two.

“It’s probably another damned typo. Why can’t you read the ads carefully before you send them to the papers?”

“You truly believe that?” Gari asked. Disgust welled in him and some seeped into his voice.

“It’s always the same thing with you, Garibaldi. You should realize I’ve been thinking for a while that the Lubeck’s account is too big for you.”

Gari nearly snickered. Larry was such a stupid bastard he couldn’t recognize himself as the Lubeck’s account problem. If Victor booted the agency, the kick would be due to Larry’s own incompetence. The fool was as creative as the chair he sat on, and at least the chair did useful things like roll and tilt. This was so ironic; really, restraint was difficult; he relished surfacing Larry’s flaws and rubbing the dolt’s nose in them. He didn’t need Larry’s demeaning lecture. He didn’t need Larry. He could walk out the door right now. He was a man without money worries, the independent man. But what about his secret life and Emily? He could find another job, another cover. Maybe now was the time to change careers. He had other interests and skills, though at the moment he couldn’t recall one; but he possessed them, he assured himself. And if he bolted, Larry would certainly lose the precious Lubeck’s account. Gari had saved the account. Well, almost.

Yet, Gari couldn’t bring himself to walk. Doing so would mean Larry had defeated him. Sure this was the normal course at Lefton & Associates. Larry was the owner and he always had the final word. Had anybody ever bested Larry in a business argument, when it was Larry’s money on the line? Nobody came to Gari’s mind. He was determined to be the first. He was standing his ground. And he might beat Larry, since he had leverage on his side:  no need of the job and the knowledge the account was in jeopardy.

“I can increase how much Victor Lubeck spends with us,” Gari said.

“What are you talking about? Lubeck’s not going to spend a dime more on advertising. Especially when the shit is wrong as often as it is. Not when we’re pretty much running him everywhere all the time.”

“We can get more from the account and advertise less too and make him happier.”

In a whore’s business, did heresy exist? Larry on the cusp of fulmination indicated it did.

“It’s here,” Gari said quickly to forestall Larry from exploding.

“What’s this?” Larry bellowed, as he snatched the report.

Holding fast, Gari said, “I don’t know whether I should share it with you.”

Larry released the document and petulantly shoved his hands into his pants pockets. “Keep it.”

“Though if I were you I’d want to read it.”

“Why’s that?”

“Oh, only that it’s the product of a conversation Victor Lubeck and I had yesterday.”

“You talked to him? Who gave you permission to talk to him?”

“We’ve been over this, remember? I’m supposed to be the account manager. I need permission to talk to my client?”

“The agency’s client,” retorted Larry, grabbing the document.

“Then maybe the agency would like to write its own proposal.”

Larry eyed him uncertainly, and Gari knew the tide had turned. Indeed, the account was threatened. Larry was bankrupt of ideas for rescuing it; save cutting lose Gari. “Okay, it’s your account.”

“Sure but there’s a condition.”

“Condition? I haven’t read your damned proposal and there’s a condition? A condition from a guy who can’t spell shoe?”

Gari edged away from the desk. Then he reassured himself Larry was desperate and this was no time for retreat.

“If this saves the account, I’m the agency V.P. and Management Sup. With the appropriate raise, of course.”

“What makes you think you can make demands?”

Because I can deliver, he wanted to say. But Larry wouldn’t accept such bravado. Though Gari had detected a shift in Larry’s attitude toward him, he was sure it had nothing to do with renewed confidence in him as an account manager. What he needed was to enlist support and inspire credibility. He said, “Listen to your message from Lubeck.”

Larry stared at the phone pensively.

“Go on, Larry. Listen to it. Hear all about my latest screw up.”

Larry picked up the phone, dialed into his voicemail, and listened. As he did so, he massaged his eyes, as if the image forming was too unbelievable:  Gari Garibaldi, Savior.

As Larry gingerly set the receiver in the cradle, Gari said, “So, ready to read it?”

Larry gazed at the plan. “He said if your plan looked as reasonable as it sounded, he’d guarantee us six more months. If it worked, he’d re-sign our contract.” He tapped the proposal. “What the hell’s in this thing?”

“Read it and find out.”

“I don’t have to read it. We’re doing what’s in it.”

“And me?”

Larry interlocked his fingers, twirled his thumbs, and studied them closely, as if he stared long enough maybe Gari would disappear.

Gari nudged. “This thing doesn’t go without me. You know that, Larry.”

“Welcome to top management, Mr. Vice President and Management Supervisor.” He smiled feebly. “Now tell me about the plan.”

“After you tell me about compensation.”

Gari grumbled about Larry’s concept of a substantial increase and talked Larry up to six figures. He couldn’t wait to surprise Emily—doing such an exceptional job, sacrificing so much for Lefton & Associates, Gari Garibaldi, you deserve even more.

Larry didn’t care for Gari’s plan. Larry understood advertising. It was simple and getting compensated was simple too. Gari’s plan, while short in length, was high in complication. And there was risk as well, which Larry abhorred more than complexity. Yet, he had no choice but to go along, and in the end he was happy to have Gari in charge. Better Gari screw up than he, if things didn’t go as planned.

CHAPTER 11:  SURPRISE

She’d been nervous the first time he came to her apartment. It was two bedrooms, one tiny, the other adequate. It had a galley kitchen, all white, and an alcove dining area in which she had fit a round table for four. The living room was rectangular and funneled down to a narrow foyer bordered by a closet. The place was carpeted in a neutral tan nylon. Her furnishings were Scandinavian, because she liked the clean style, and she could buy whatever she needed cheaply at Ikea. The apartment was in West Hollywood, north of Santa Monica Boulevard just before the land rose into the hills where the stars lived. It had no balcony, which she wished for, but did have a pool where she lounged and tanned herself most days of the year. Loretta liked her apartment very much. It was superior to any place in Danville, but mostly because it wasn’t in Danville.

What had unnerved her that first time was Gari’s position:  vice president. Her experience with vice presidents was they liked and expected the finest in food, drink, accommodations, and women. Since she was a Midwesterner, she was naturally a realist and as such knew no vice president would like her apartment. She wondered why she’d invited him—and having been with him only once.

His routine was to visit L.A. twice a month, arriving on a Friday and leaving on Sunday afternoon. Some might have found working on weekends strange, but she herself had been a weekend worker since shortly after her arrival in L.A. She’d started waitressing and moved on to more lucrative trade after a couple of months. She understood odd hours, but there was an extra weirdness to his work; he seemed to do little of it, perhaps two hours on Saturday afternoons. She didn’t complain, for she enjoyed his constant companionship. And he treated her well. Weekends when he was in town consisted of lazy days at the beach and the Santa Monica pier, dinners in the city’s chic restaurants, and nights partying at the clubs in West Hollywood and on the Strip. They also shopped on Rodeo, where they occasionally saw the stars, but mostly people like themselves, affluent, aggrandizing themselves with trinkets, and on the sly hunt for celebrities. Summer had given way to autumn and the week before Thanksgiving she sat in her apartment drinking tea and realizing that Gari Garibaldi was the longest relationship she’d had with a man since high school, and that hadn’t really counted for much, just rebellion on her part and hormonally induced groping on his. For the life of her, she couldn’t remember his name; maybe he hadn’t had one. She believed her relationship—she wasn’t afraid of the word—with Gari might be the real thing, and she began wondering what living in Chicago might be like. It was a cold place, as cold as Danville; but in Chicago she’d have love and money to keep her warm.

The fact was she’d felt a change steal over her, and it coincided exactly with the appearance of Gari Garibaldi in the lobby of the Beverly Hilton. It manifested in different ways:  elation and depression, anticipation and dread, acceptance and rejection, desire and disgust. She rode an emotional wave, never knowing which mood would shape her day, and often parts of her day, for she was more variable than Midwestern weather.

On November 2, All Souls Day—recalled from Sunday school and strangely vivid in her mind as if she’d attended only that past Sunday—Loretta knew she was changed. No more ordinary Loretta Heavencrest. Now heavenly Loretta, for the ethereal surely did illuminate her and the life she saw unreeling before her.

On November 2, well before Gari’s arrival, she discovered herself burning with pure joy. Around the apartment, softly and loudly, she sang, “I’m in heaven, I’m in heaven.” She knew life could be this good. She knew it deep in her heart the second she’d passed the city limits of Danville, out of reach of the town’s crushing gravity, the kind that guaranteed her a shanty and rusted pickup and food stamps. Blissfulness existed in life. And she was breaking off a piece for herself. It was no joke:  She did live in the City of Angels.

This was the Loretta Gari was coming home to in November. On the way glancing out the plane’s window at a world newly brown, transitioning into a long gray season Gari never much cared for, he was looking forward to seeing Loretta. Not that life at home in Mundelein was bad.

Actually, it was quite good, vastly improved and a stark contrast to how it had been the week before he’d become an Illinois millionaire. Emily would now qualify as the perfect wife. She was always pleasant. She prepared better meals, more of what he liked. She dressed better. No more baggy sweats, at least when he was at home. She wore fitted slacks, pressed blouses, leather shoes often with heels, which was his preference. She’d gotten herself into shape. She ran every day and regularly trotted three miles around the neighborhood after delivering the boys to school. He gradually came to realize this during their lovemaking, which had settled into a comfortable twice a week affair. No, life at home was better, as good as he remembered it being when they’d first married.

He looked forward to his time with Loretta because she was different than Emily. Gari thought of her as his change of pace. Loretta enjoyed a good time. She wasn’t a homebody. It was nice having opposites on opposite sides of the country. And now that he was busy with the Lubeck’s Shoes account, he needed his getaway.

Gari knocked on Loretta’s door at what had become his usual time, eight p.m. Friday. On his mind was what was usually there when he hadn’t seen, smelled, touched, felt Loretta in weeks. What wasn’t remotely on his mind, as it was something he expected of Emily and wholly did not expect of Loretta, was a meal. Loretta preferred restaurants. She didn’t even like takeout or delivery. And here she’d prepared him a meal with her own hands, as he could discern with a peek into her galley kitchen where pots and pans adorned the stove and sink, piles of them, which he figured he’d be washing and putting away, for while the woman might manage a meal, she certainly wasn’t the type for housewifery.

She’d kissed him passionately at the door. Nothing unusual for Loretta, as she was always passionate with him. After the kiss, she maneuvered behind him and coaxed him with dainty pushes toward the table, saying, “Surprised?” a couple of times, stopping only when he acknowledged he couldn’t have been more surprised than if any car rental company in L.A. had offered him something other than a Ford.

“I’m happy,” she said. “You’ve made me so happy I had to do something … Oh, I don’t know—spectacular … out of the ordinary … for you. You know, I can cook. Home Economics, Danville High School. My best subject, and what I hated most.” She blew a puff of air up and rustled her hair. “But I’m glad I took it.”

Her remarks were more frenzied than anything preceding them; and every word she’d spoken to him since he walked in had possessed a squeaky enthusiasm, akin to the kind game show contestants exhibited when winning the grand prize, usually a shiny new car.

She sat him at the small table. She poured him a Chianti and excused herself. He heard plates clatter in the kitchen, and she emerged after a moment of rattling with two salads. They were bright green and flecked with red pepper and tomato and fresh and crisp as he discovered when he forked a helping into his mouth. “From the Farmers Market. You know the place.” He nodded. He certainly did. They’d breakfasted at Charlie’s and lunched at La Korea, on barbecue of all things. “I went first thing this morning and got everything before it’d been picked over.”

“Delicious,” he complimented. He raised his glass of wine to her. “You’re an amazing woman, Loretta.”

She blushed. “You really mean it, Gari?”

“Absolutely. Beautiful, charming, and look here, you can cook too. So, where would you like to go tonight?”

“Tonight,” she answered, “I thought we’d stay in, maybe watch a movie. I picked up a couple at Blockbuster. Or talk, you know, about anything and everything. Do you think we talk enough?”

Talk. He could talk at home. Emily was great at talking. She chattered incessantly about the neighbors, about Teddy and Sammy, about their school, about the intrigue of Mundelein politics. Much had changed about Emily, but her capacity and desire for meaningless conversation hadn’t. In Emily’s world, if you weren’t talking and receiving a response, you were disconnected. Even if you weren’t connecting physically twice a week, as they were now, as along as you talked, your marriage was sound and solid.

With Loretta, the situation was different, another opposite he enjoyed. Sex was it. Sex was the connection. Conversation was simply a means of communicating what restaurant you’d be eating at, what club you’d be dancing at, what you’d be doing on the outside, outside the apartment. And the apartment was the place where you plugged into each other, and the bed was the transformer. Or so had been his impression. Further, he assumed Loretta and he were in agreement on this crucial point upon which their association turned.

“Talking. I don’t know, Loretta, I talk constantly on my job. Tomorrow, for instance, I’ll be at the agency for two hours and every single minute I’ll be talking.” He rubbed his throat. “Just talking about it gives me a sore throat. Great salad by the way.”

Silently, she gathered the plates, trudged to the kitchen, lingered there for several minutes, and returned with two large restaurant-style plates on which rested two (on hers, one) succulent lamb chops, asparagus, and mashed potatoes fragrant with garlic. As he tucked in, she refilled his wine glass. God, he thought, she’s spent a fortune on me.

Naturally he was convinced she liked him, perhaps loved him; the latter he regarded as good and bad. He already had a love. A second lover was sufficiently complicated; a second love was unthinkable.

They passed the rest of the meal in idle chatter. The talk revolved around the weather in L.A. Loretta reported fine conditions, the best weather of the year, her favorite California season; she didn’t miss, not an iota, the foul fall in Danville. And was it cold in Chicago? He was concentrating  on the chops cooked medium in a manner he could become accustomed to if he ate more often in restaurants back in Mundelein, or if he could argue Emily into putting meat on the table more frequently. In the beginning days of newfound wealth, Emily had been accommodating. Recently, though, she’d adopted healthy eating as the family’s lifestyle.

They finished around nine-thirty, and Gary offered to help with the dishes. He wasn’t the best dish dryer but he’d make a special effort for Loretta. Why not? She might be a good cook, but he didn’t expect to see another meal like he’d just finished anytime soon. Loretta simply wasn’t a homebody, of which he was praise-God happy.

“It’s pleasant spending a quiet evening together, Gari, isn’t it? Just you and me?”

He lost his grip on the plate he was swishing with the dishtowel and bent instinctively, catching it before it shattered on the floor. He reacted without looking and thumped his forehead on the counter’s edge, nearly losing the plate again, and consciousness.

Loretta dried her hands hastily, relieved Gari of the plate, and examined his forehead. “Let’s put ice on that before it swells,” she said, already opening the small refrigerator as he realized her tone was decidedly matronly, strongly reminiscent of Emily’s when she was helping Teddy or Sammy after they’d fallen or crashed into something. Three shocks in one evening struck Gari as three too many. He was in this for the fun, for the difference, for the sex. He wasn’t on the make for a second home and a second wife. One home and one wife were plenty for him.

“Why don’t we sit in the living room?” she suggested. She fashioned an ice pack with a clean dishtowel and nudged him from the kitchen toward the sofa. “You sit and I’ll get us … sorry, I mean you a drink. Scotch or a cognac?”

“Cognac,” he said.

She brought him the drink in a snifter and herself something clear in a tumbler.

“That’s a lot of vodka,” he said, motioning with his snifter.

“This is just water. A glass full of vodka, well you’d have to pick me up off the floor.” She emphasized by feigning a swoon.

True, Gari had not known Loretta her entire life, and there very well may have been a time when she sipped water, and certainly water was the craze these days, people hydrating themselves everywhere into soggy dough; but from the day he’d met her, he’d not known Loretta to drink anything not alcoholic, except coffee in the morning and tea. Early on, she’d even consumed Bloody Marys at breakfast, on top of a hard night of drinking. For this woman to forsake a vodka or a gin, her preferred beverages, something had to be up. And the foreboding settling over him as he took his first pull of cognac warned it couldn’t be good. Maybe, he feared, she’d reformed since his last visit, and now sex was taboo.

“So, what’s the subject?” he asked, warily, ready to be banished from her bed and the caress of her long lovely legs.

“The best subject in the world,” she replied, brightly. She was so cheery that Gari was finding her for the first time since the Beverly Hills Hotel bar unbearable.

She sat next to him and waited, as if he should know what the best subject in the whole wide world was. Football on Sunday? Drinks at Musso & Frank? Sex on the little dining room table of hers? Who could answer such a question with anything other than, “Well, honey, what is the best subject in the world?”

“Us,” she said, her countenance quizzical, as if “Us” should have been, should always be, right there on the tip of his mind, ahead of such commonplaceness as running the Lubeck’s Shoes account, dealing with his idiot agency president, keeping his wife happy, worrying about the ultimate effect on his children if he wasn’t careful.

But these notions merely flashed in his mind until he could crystallize what was actually lurking in his mulling into a coherent phrase. He bought more time with an astonished, “Us?”

She moved close to him and took hold of his arm. She laid her head on his shoulder. She was purring, he was sure of it.

“We’ve been together for four months. Isn’t that as ‘Us’ as any two people can be?”

He did the calculation. November was just beginning, and didn’t he make his first trip to L.A. in late August? He’d concede two months. But wait, he’d been in L.A. a total of five weekends. If he was generous, they’d been “Us” for two weeks.

“Seems like a long time,” he said.

“It does,” she answered, lifting her head, pulling away slightly, switching off the purr.

“No, no,” he said hastily, “I don’t mean long, as in long and boring. No, I mean maybe it hasn’t been a full three months. You know, not ninety days.”

“Gari, you can be such a … a bean counter when you want to be. Has anybody ever told you that?”

Bean counter, no nobody had used the term to describe him. Emily had been the bean counter. Counted their collective beans every day and shoved the bean total under his nose every night. Can’t afford this. This is an extravagance. Yes, Emily had been a supreme bean counter. Recently, a reforming bean counter; but a counter nonetheless. Larry Lefton, he was the worst sort of bean counter. Counted the damn beans to his own detriment. What right thinking person would break his back for somebody who rewarded you with a one hundred dollar bonus at Christmas? It had been a terrible shock the first year. He didn’t believe it. He was embarrassed to ask around, so he went directly to Larry, who informed him, yes, indeed, one hundred was the bonus. Everybody received the same. Very egalitarian of the president. And very cheap. He should have quit on the spot, but he’d invested a year in the job and the company and maybe things would be different the next year. He knew bean counters, and he wasn’t of their ilk.

“No,” he said, “you’re the first.” Because this visibly took her aback, he followed with, “Kidding. Watching the details goes with the management territory I suppose. Sometimes it spills over.”

She resumed snuggling with him. He was forgiven, he assumed.

“Don’t you think about me back in Chicago?”

“Well sure, I think about you.”

“Every day?”

“Yes, every single day.”

“When? You know, when you wakeup? When?”

“Sure, when I wakeup, when I shower, on my way to work, pretty much throughout the day.”

“That’s nice,” she purred.

“It is. Yes it is,” he purred back.

“We don’t have to be with each other to be us. It’s more than physical contact, don’t you agree?”

Disagreeing might have ended a good thing. Besides, he did like her. Sure, there was the sex. Fantastic. And it made him a better lover for Emily too. Absolutely, he adored squiring a beautiful woman around town enamored of arm candy. If she wanted him to say he liked her, he would without hesitation. He’d go further, too, and admit to liking her very much.

“Gari, you really do think about me back there in Chicago, don’t you?”

He squeezed her. “You’re my most pleasant thoughts when I’m back there.” She smiled and her happiness encouraged him to go further. “I miss you when I’m in Chicago. And then I look forward to the time when I can move here permanently.”

“Oh, Gari, really?”

“Yes, dear,” he said. This was the first time he used the word “dear.” Not just with Loretta, either. He couldn’t recall a time he’d addressed Emily with this term of endearment. Emily had asked him about this early in their marriage. No dears, no honeys like other couples; didn’t Gari love her? He’d told her he loved her very much, but he eschewed corny expressions like those. People had names for a reason was his argument. She’d accepted this. Gari was a maverick, and didn’t people who were independent often become the most successful? Then Teddy came along and when he could talk he called Gari “Daddy.” Gari seemed happy about this, but Emily couldn’t restrain herself. She reminded him about his conviction regarding names of endearment. He answered that Teddy was just a child, and children were different. So, “dear” departed his lips with calculation and disguised easiness.

She pushed tight against him, nearly bombinating, and said, “You’ve made me so happy, Gari. Now I feel better about our news.”

It was unmistakable:  His underwear was filling with an ocean of sweat, pickling his bottom and his scrotum, which shrank and dwindled until he was sure his testicles resembled raisins—miniscule, wrinkled, and dark in their concentration. It was probably the result of the river of sweat cascading down his spine, probably directly into his shorts and through his gluteus canyon to his balls and dick.

“You all right? You’re sweating.”

“It’s L.A.,” he said. “Everybody from Chicago sweats in L.A. in the fall.”

She squinted at him as if he was revealing the first in a long series of chromosomal defects. Pity the poor children seemed to flit across her face.

“You’ve got the shakes,” he said, grateful for the little sign of imperfection in her.

“Nothing.”

Regaining her composure and her position, she snuggled close to him. She could live with the sweat as it seemed to be a temporary condition.

“What’s our news?” he asked bravely, hardly flinching at all.

“Honey, we’re pregnant.” She put a husky spin on it, so it actually sounded sexy and definitely agreeable.

On the surface, that is, and at first.

CHAPTER 12:  LAMENTATION

Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah.

Into his terror crept his realization of a misconception.

Oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no.

Loretta was a creature created for sex, for pleasure, for his enjoyment, and possibly, probably for a line of men before him. She was not a breeder. No, not made for having children. For that there were women like Emily.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck

If he had known, he would have asked about protection. He would have supplied his own protection. Had he misjudged Catherine too? No, not Catherine.

And in the end it boiled down to:

Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck …

CHAPTER 13:  THE OUT CLAUSE

He’d had enough of that purple word—it always appeared deep purple to him, passionate purple—when he realized this was exactly what had brought him to this pass. He was a man with a wife and two boys at home in Chicago—and now was a man with a mistress who was … was … fuck. “Fuck” the word resurged, but it was getting him nowhere. What would Emily say about this? Not about Loretta and him, but about a couple of television characters, or neighbors, in his situation. No, not her comment, for no doubt it would be deprecatory. But her advice on extricating oneself from such a situation. She was a storehouse of advice and never tired of dispensing it. Where the fuck was she when he actually, really, and without a shadow of a doubt needed her? Women!

He glanced out the window. The sky was phosphorescent, hued red by sunset, reminiscent of the fires of summer. The night was cool, and her small electric baseboard heaters hummed irritatingly in the background. The secondhand of his wristwatch hadn’t moved but a second or two past where it had been when she’d announced her pregnancy. Not she. When she said we were pregnant. Pregnant was sufficiently miserable. But we thrust the situation into a horrific dimension. Without explanation, he knew precisely what she meant by we, and its ramifications.

“You know what the best part is, Gari?”

She radiated good cheer and an inner pleasure that should have tipped him off as soon as he’d crossed the threshold. And the apartment itself, Christ, what a dumbbell he’d been. Why would a woman who was periodically, from time to time, sporadically was the right word—why would this type of woman tryst in the place where she lived? Wasn’t this against the rules of … well there was part of the problem:  He couldn’t bear to call her—not even in his mind—what she was.

He dragged himself back to the question. No, dearie, how could it possibly get better?

She said over his silence, “You’re the first man I’ve wanted to have a child with.”

He nearly groaned audibly. It had just gotten infinitely worse. He attempted to purge his panic with a deep breath, but his lungs were as flexible as concrete jugs.

“Are you all right?”

Her concern ran deep, he noted:  She’s wondering how she and the kid will survive if he keels over before the main act in their relationship got underway.

“This smog can be a killer,” she said.

He wanted to laugh, as the air was pristine in L.A. with the wind driving off the ocean and shoving the crap over the mountains.

Finally, he gained control of himself and asked, “How long?”

“Two months, but I only found out about it two weeks ago. I was feeling, well, odd.”

He listened and nodded. When did they begin puking? When had Emily started? She’d given birth to Sammy too many years ago for him to remember the minor details, like the day she had her first bout with the porcelain, how often after that, and for how long. Well, he did not intend to hang around and relive the miracle of birth with Loretta. This would not happen. No.

“What else did the doctor say?” he asked. He’d tightened his vocal cords until he nearly screeched.

“I haven’t seen a doctor yet. I wanted us to go as a couple. I set up an appointment for tomorrow, three-thirty at the UCLA Medical Center.”

He’d done an excellent job of holding himself together, but now he was on the verge of blowing into a thousand pieces. “Could I have a real drink, Loretta?”

“Sure, Gari,” she said releasing him and rising. She patted her stomach. “But you’ll be drinking alone.”

He smiled thinly. “Scotch, neat.”

She disappeared into the kitchen and he kicked his noggin into overdrive. He told her he was a widow. Here was the consequence:  He was a candidate for marriage. No, she hadn’t said it outright, but she radiated her intention. They had a relationship. They had a child on the way. They were about to be a family. They should formalize it by marrying. After all, would he want his child growing up a bastard? This was too much, really, really too much. He heard her opening the cabinet, closing it, followed by the gurgling of the scotch into the glass and the sounds scared away his panicked ramblings. He breathed deeply and sucked in her scent. What was that perfume she wore? Not like Catherine. This was sweet, an old woman’s fragrance, cloying, its purpose partly to cover up decay. Why hadn’t he noticed it before? Was she wearing something different in the bar at the Beverly Hills Hotel that night? When the hell was that night anyway? He drew breath and coughed.

“Hope you’re not catching something. You know, I probably can’t take anything now.”

Women are the most beautiful when they are pregnant. He’d heard that aphorism so often when Emily lumbered about with Teddy, he had to hold his stomach, push very hard, to prevent himself from regurgitating everything he’d consumed from the last time he’d heard it. Truth of the matter, as far as he was concerned, there was nothing beautiful about a pregnant woman. Perhaps they did radiate an aura of sorts, though sweating and grunting and shifting and constantly moaning about their aches and pains never struck him as saintly or attractive in any way at any hour of the day or night. Pregnancy was yet another biological function woman romanticized while navigating through it peevishly. In short, they and their engorged wombs were a great big pain.

She reentered the room with his scotch. It looked skimpy to him and he was tempted to send her back for a topper; but he needed a hit desperately and who knew how long it would take for her to return. The first drink had been in the making for a day it seemed.

He thanked her and downed it as if it were a Big-Gulp. His scorching throat diverted him from his predicament long enough for him to give its solution a few seconds of thought.

“Good lord, if you’re thirsty, drink water.”

He shook the glass. “How about another?”

She was sharp with him. “How about you tell me what this is about.” She made “this” clear by jabbing a well-tended, red-tipped finger at the glass.

He rubbed his forehead until his skin was nearly permanent white. “It hurts, Loretta. Really, another drink would help immensely.”

She snatched the glass wordlessly and went to refill it. In her absence, he shifted his thinking into overdrive and by the time she’d returned he concocted a plan—wobbly, but a plan nonetheless.

He sipped the fresh drink, which was as short as the first one, but which had the virtue of dropping unto a base. He was benefiting from a small buzz.

“Did I mention I was in the war?”

“This war?”

“No, the last war, the Gulf War.”

She shook her head.

“I suppose I was waiting until we had a little more time together. You know, until we were sure about us.”

She nodded. “Us” being “We” in another form, she understood. “What does the war have to do with us?”

“I’m afraid a whole lot.”

“How so?” she asked, sitting next to him.

“I was wounded in the war. Got a Purple Heart.”

“Gee, Gari, I’m sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry about. It was my choice to go. It was just one of those things.”

“You were shot?” she asked tentatively, having read somewhere sometime that warriors spoke of their war experiences reluctantly, many never.

“I wish. I really wish I had been shot. You know, shot doing something noble and brave.”

The hum of the radiator serenaded them for a minute. For Gari, the pause was for drama. For Loretta, it was an indication of her compassion for his pain and a willingness to allow him as much time as he required to tell his story.

“What happened?” she coaxed, gently.

“I broke my ankle practicing,” he said, extending his right leg and wagging his foot.

“What were you practicing?” Her expression was pure innocence.

But the question was challenging. What the hell was he doing to break his ankle and miss his big chance for heroics? Running, running in formation like they do in the Army for whatever reason. He never understood why they ran in packs and never having been in the military nobody had ever explained it to him. Running was out, though. How wimpy could he be breaking an ankle while taking what amounted to a jog? Jumping. Easy to break a bone jumping if you landed the wrong way or you jumped from a considerable height. He could have been one of those parachutists.

“Jumping,” he said, pointing at the ceiling. “You know, from airplanes.”

“You were Airborne in the Gulf War?”

Tentatively, and hoping the tone went undetectable but to him, he said, “Sure.”

She said in staccato, “Third Army, Eighteenth Airborne Corps.”

“Sure,” he said, adding woefulness to his response, “what else? The best.”

“Did you know Rusty Capeton?”

“Big Corps,” he said, reflexively and a smidge more confidently.

“Sure, sorry. I hate it when people do it to me, assume I know everybody in Illinois just because I lived in Danville. Lucky for you you didn’t. He was a mean SOB.”

“He was in the right place then. The meaner the more we liked them.”

“Well, you’re not mean.”

Oh, oh, wait, he thought. “No,” he said, “but guys like your Rusty helped fill our mean quota.” Whatever that meant, he didn’t know.

“Okay, you were wounded. You broke your ankle.” She opened her hands to him.

“Drifting, huh? Sorry I’m being longwinded here, but really I don’t like to talk about this.”

“About what, Gari, what are you talking about?”

“My infirmity,” he uttered softly, to good effect. “My male shortcoming.” He pointed to his crotch.

“What shortcoming? I’ve never known you to have a shortcoming in that department.”

“No, no, not like that. Performance is not a problem. No, it’s the Gulf War Syndrome.”

“You have it?”

“No, thank God, no I don’t.”

“Okay, I’m officially lost.”

“Birth defects,” he said.

“Birth defects.” Her hand shot to her mouth and trepidation took over her face.

He grabbed her hand concerned he’d gone too far. “Don’t worry, this baby wouldn’t have any defects, at least not from the Gulf War.”

First this relieved her and her features relaxed into their normal pleasantness. But then perplexity appeared, as Gari went on to say:  “I had a vasectomy a couple of years after the war.”

She pushed away, her face and voice exploding with surprise. “You what?”

“A vasectomy,” he said with a measure of hesitancy and doubt. Perhaps this wasn’t the news to break to a woman who was certain she was having your baby, and probably was, though he never considered himself a particularly potent stud—nor placed much personal self-esteem in being such. Fact was, conceiving Teddy was a trial, and as time had worn on Emily had hinted artificial intervention might be in order. Of course, he’d produced, twice no less. (And what of Catherine Lourdes? Would she be calling him about a child too?)

Gari realized he didn’t know Loretta well, though she claimed their relationship was three-months old. For all he knew, she might hop up, dash into the kitchen, return with a knife, and geld the gelded on the spot. She might wait until he was sleeping and eviscerate him in bed. Why not? We’re animals, all of us, he thought, territorial creatures; and he had invaded hers and left a deposit from which he was now running. Maybe she had one of those feminine handguns around the apartment, a pipsqueak .25-caliber job, just large enough to do the job.

“You are kidding me, Gari? You are.”

He wouldn’t exactly describe it as kidding. He was serious. He did not want and did not need another child, or another wife. Christ almighty, he wasn’t a bigamist.

“No, I’m not,” he said. “It was the war.”

“The war? The war’s been over for …”—her mathematical powers eluded her—”for forever.”

“It’s the Gulf War Syndrome. I mean, it was the Gulf War Syndrome.”

She stared at him, a scary mix of impatience, disbelief, and anger. He wondered again about the .25. Did she once mention guns in the family? Wasn’t her father a prison guard? Didn’t law enforcers have weapons around their houses, on the ready to give bad boys a nasty life-shortening surprise?

“You remember when it was in the news. Soldiers were getting sick for no reason. Well, then, nobody knew whether you could pass the disease on, you know, to loved ones. I didn’t want to pass my disease on to a child, not if I could help it. I had a vasectomy. Believe me when I say I didn’t want to do it. But I had to, to be responsible.”

“But you’re normal,” she shouted, waving her hands in the direction of his crotch. “You’re the most normal man I’ve met in a long time.”

“Vasectomy doesn’t make me abnormal, Loretta. Not sexually. It just means I can’t conceive children.”

He watched as her tumult of emotion coalesced into concentration. “Look,” she said after thought that flushed her face, “when a woman has a breast implant, she has a scar here.” She illustrated by reaching her hands under both her breasts. “It must be the same with your vasectomy.”

Who knew about operations, but he did know there was just one answer to her question. “It’s different. There’s no scarring.”

“I want to see for myself,” she demanded.

“There’s nothing to see. It doesn’t scar,” clutching his belt, as if he feared she was on the verge of attacking him.

“Well, I’m pregnant, Gari, and you’re the only man I’ve been with for months.”

“You’re sure?” he said.

He spoke his mind and as the short sentence exited he knew it was trouble. Speaking your mind to women was always trouble, as he learned from Emily. He discovered life was more bearable if he told her what she wanted to hear. He might do the opposite, but after a few years of unhappiness he knew never to contradict or disagree with her, and certainly not when money was involved. Loretta was a different kind of woman; at least he believed this to be true when he began this affair, which was exactly the word for what they had between them though he understood “affair” would be a taboo word with her. But her expression now of shock and abhorrence showed him in this regard she was Emily’s twin. It was best to tell her what she wanted to hear, or something close to it.

Gari embraced her as he said, “I’m sorry. It came out wrong. I meant to ask, are you sure you’re pregnant?”

She was weeping softly. Her tears were real; he felt them seeping through his shirt. He wondered if they were sincere. This was Hollywood, after all, and she did aspire to stardom, or at least featured character roles. He’d never seen her act. Or maybe he had without realizing it. Her professed love for him, her bedroom hijinxs, these could be manifestations of her ability as an actress. She might be acting now.

“I used e.p.t. The box said it was nearly one-hundred percent right.”

“When did you test yourself?”

She shrugged in his arms. “Two weeks ago. I wasn’t feeling well. Sick in the morning, you know.”

“Gee,” he said, innocently with a dash of perturbation, “I wish you’d waited.”

“Why?”

“Well, if, you know, we’re going to have a kid, well, you know, I’d like to be here when you test yourself.”

“Didn’t you just say it couldn’t be yours because you had a vasectomy?”

“You know how I feel about you, Loretta. If you think you’re pregnant, I want to be here with you. To support you, you know.” He was stumbling but that was how it was when you were running broken field. That’s how he pictured himself: zigging and zagging, weaving here and there, dodging burley women who intended striking him a crippling blow.

She burrowed into his embrace. “I saved it.”

“You saved the test results?”

“Yes, for the baby’s scrapbook.”

“Scrapbook?”

“Sure,” she said, lifting her head, glowing at him. “When our child is older, we’ll share it with him, or her.”

Emily, to his knowledge, had no scrapbook of Teddy or Sammy. In fact, she kept few photos of the boys around the house. Emily’s view on this was she saw Teddy and Sammy every day. She would remember the boys as they were when they grew older, and the boys would care less as teens, or twenties.

“How does the test work?” he asked. “What does it look like?”

She popped off the sofa and headed toward the bedroom, where the bathroom was, chatting to and from, explaining the test procedure. She was back within a minute with a slip of paper.

“See,” she said, cradling it in her palms, as if it was the baby itself. “There’s a plus sign. When there’s a plus sign, it means you’re pregnant.”

“A boy?” he asked.

Her eyes crinkled and there it was again, a cute radiance. “You’re silly, Gari. The test doesn’t tell you the sex.”

“Oh,” he said, as if this was a revelation.

“You are silly,” she said, her crinkles deepening, obviously happy he was kidding with her.

Carefully he said, “Gosh, Loretta, I honestly hope this is my baby. I’d like to be a father.”

“Well you will be, Gari, in a little less than nine months.”

“You know how guys are. We like to be sure.”

The crinkles fading, she said, “What do you mean? It is yours. I’ve told you it is.”

They were at a dead end, he knew, and he began mulling his option:  the out clause. She’d demonstrated she would not listen to reason. He wanted to do the right thing, which in his view was to support her and the baby. But only if the child was his and the proof was incontrovertible. He was within a few words of suggesting a DNA test. She’d ignored his claim of having a vasectomy. She’d never agree to a DNA test. Even if she agreed, she wouldn’t believe the results. No, he was convinced she wanted a husband, a child, a family, and Gari was the man to provide it, and that was that. And why fight with her? He didn’t battle with Emily, and she was his wife. Invoking the out clause was the easiest way to resolve the situation.

He reached for her and embraced her. “Yes, you did tell me it was mine. I guess I was a little surprised. Hey, haven’t you ever acted goofy when somebody surprised you?”

He felt her head nodding against her chest. “Uhuh,” she said.

“Okay, good it’s settled. We’ll get a good night’s sleep, wake up fresh for tomorrow. Maybe we’ll do the Grove. Hit the beach, too. And dinner out. You’re not going to have much time soon for dinners out.” He patted her stomach for good measure, causing her to giggle.

“Don’t forget the doctor,” she reminded.

“How could I?” he said.

They undressed in the bedroom and as they did he observed her surreptitiously. She was the same Loretta. Her legs were long, slender, lightly muscled, and silky. Her ass was round and snug. Her stomach was flat as always. Her breasts were wondrous. She was the same—and yet in the most important way she was different. She wasn’t fun anymore. She wasn’t someone to play with. Now she was someone to escape.

When she nuzzled him in bed, both naked, he claimed the travel and the drinks had drained his spirit and he’d be better tomorrow.

But he knew he wouldn’t be better again, not with Loretta.

CHAPTER 14:  MAN OF INSPIRATION

Gari rose from bed early after a restless night. Loretta had slept peacefully and soundly and woke briefly to inquire where he was off to so early. He replied to the 7-Eleven for coffee and pastries for their breakfast.

He did buy two coffees, light for her with sugar and black for himself, and several pastries, cheese-filled for her and cherry for himself. He adored cherries, a worship he attributed to his Midwest upbringing and proximity to Michigan. She’d asked him about it after their third dinner date, as at each he’d ordered a cherry desert—Cherries Jubilee, cherry pie, and cherry ice cream. When he explained where he believed he’d acquired his love of cherries, she scoffed she was a Midwesterner too and had no affinity whatsoever to cherries. The difference, he’d pointed out to her, was she was from the south. Michigan could have been on the far side of the moon for all a Southerner knew. She’d laughed as she thought he was joking, not disparaging.

He paid a clerk not unlike the Chicago fellow who’d sold him the winning lottery ticket, except this distant skinny and denser copy sported a healthy tan. He bought a lottery ticket and secured it in the secret compartment of his wallet. With his coffees and bag of pastries cradled in his arm, he asked the clerk if he’d like to make an easy fifty.

“Who do I have to kill?” quipped the clerk, who like many in this town aspiring to stardom credited themselves wits.

Gari placated the clerk with a sly smile. “Write this number down. Go on, write it.”

The clerk searched for a pen and finding the stub of a pencil under the side of the register scribbled Loretta’s phone number on a 7-Eleven napkin. Gary handed him two tens and a five.

“Call that number in exactly thirty minutes and I’ll be back fifteen minutes later with the rest. Say, ‘Is Gari there? This is his office.’  Write it down.” He repeated it slowly for the clerk. “Now say it.”

The clerk balked.

“Christ,” Gari said. “It’s like reading a script, like acting.”

“Yeah, you think I can act?”

“You’re a natural.”

The clerk glowed like a dusty bulb as he read the lines.

“Cut,” Gari said. “Print.”

“What’s it about, anyway?” asked the clerk.

“Life and death,” Gari said. “My death, if you don’t call in thirty minutes.”

Back at the apartment, Gari made an elaborate show of breakfast. He set the table, microwaved the 7-Eleven coffee until it steamed, placed the pastries on a platter, and summoned Loretta to the table with a deep kiss, helping her with her wrap, guiding her to her chair, pulling it out for her, and settling her in it. He told her it was a beautiful fall day, perfect for an afternoon picnic in Griffith Park. He suggested they tour the Griffith Observatory and for kicks rent “Rebel Without a Cause” and say to each other, “Hey, I’ve been there,” as if they were in a theater in Danville trying to impress the silhouettes surrounding them. She giggled delightedly, declared she loved the idea, remarked how thoughtful and inventive he was, and that these were yet more reasons she loved him and was happy to be having their child, as if she developed amnesia about the made up consequences of his imaginary war years. It was then the telephone rang.

She answered it.

“It’s for you,” she said, “your office.”

Brightly, he said into the receiver, “Hello!”

Then his sparkling demeanor degraded to worried and displeased. “Of course. Yes, yes, of course,” he said, “no, no I’m not upset. No, not with you. It’s just … well never mind. I’ll be there.”

The clerk must have thought him a nut, for all he could say was, “Huh? Huh?” and “Don’t forget my twenty-five.”

Slowly, as if the phone was as weighty and ungainly as an albatross, he set it back on the hook. He sat, obviously agitated.

“What is it, Gari? Not bad news.”

“Very bad.” He embraced her tightly. “It was from my office. Our shoe guys want a full-blown sales campaign by Monday morning, nine a.m. And the office can’t find the creative director. He took the family to Arrowhead for the weekend. He didn’t tell anyone where he’s staying. I can’t blame him. He’s been at it hard everyday. Nights too. He deserves the time. So, I’m afraid it’s up to me.”

“You mean you have to leave? When?”

“Now. We’ve only got until Monday morning. The staff’s too young and green to pull it together without him … well now without me.”

“No Griffith Park?”

He squeezed her hard. “God, I wish, Loretta. I don’t look forward to this, not a bit. To tell you the truth, it makes me a little nervous, too. The reason is I haven’t done creative work in a couple of years. I don’t even know if I have it anymore.”

“Sure you do, Gari.”

“Positive?” he said.

“Oh yes, positive.”

He kissed her. “Good. It means a lot coming from you.”

“But I don’t know anything about advertising, except what I see on TV.”

He patted her stomach. “But you know everything about creation.”

She slumped in his arms and wept, and he knew it was from joy.

When she calmed, he stood. “I’ll phone you later, let you know our progress. Who knows, with luck …” He allowed the words to drift over her and anesthetize her with hope.

An hour later he was returning the Ford to Enterprise and riding the bus to the terminal. He’d used his time productively, phoning ahead on his cell to exchange his Sunday flight for an early Saturday afternoon departure. In the waiting area, he called Emily and told her he’d pushed his team hard and he’d be home a day early and in time for dinner with the boys and her. She was pleased and effusive. She said she had a big surprise for him. He pressed her, but she told him he’d have to wait. It was something he had to see to appreciate fully.

He was pleasant with her on the phone. However, the instant he hung up worry started gnawing at him. Could she have learned about his lottery win? Had she called the office and discovered his subterfuge? Maybe she’d spoken with Larry, protesting about how hard he was working poor Gari; she wasn’t happy about his hours and his travel, he knew that. But her tone seemed to disaffirm these possibilities; she was happy, which had become a more common emotional state for her since he announced his first promotion and the increase in their income. No, he steadied himself; she hadn’t discovered his ruse. If she had, at best she would have been quiet. It was something else. During the flight, he had an extra drink to quell his nerves, jangled badly by Loretta and now Emily. Good or bad, Emily’s secret was troubling. Gari didn’t care much for secrets, unless they were his own.

He arrived home before seven and expected Emily to clobber him with her news as his foot crossed the threshold. Instead, he discovered dinner warming on the stove, the boys playing in the basement, and she humming around the house, almost singing hosannas at his return. She served veggie chili and beer, prepared a bowl for herself with a glass of red wine. The beer and wine were extraordinary. Perhaps not the beer, as she’d loosened her restrictions on his drinking at home, not that he was much of a drinker in the house. She, however, never drank at home and rarely in restaurants, not that they’d gone to many before their new life. She claimed drinking at home with children was dangerous.

It must be something—this preoccupied him as he impatiently watched her sip her wine. He counted the sips, two, and then the spoonfuls of the chili, three. She went on so long in this manner he felt his skin ratcheting tighter and tighter until drawing a breath was labored and painful and he wanted to jump up and shake himself loose. But he held fast and picked at his food.

“You don’t like it?” she asked, punctuating with her spoon.

“Oh no, I love it. It’s just; well, I’m curious about your surprise.”

“You want me to tell you now? I was waiting ’till we finished and I’d put Teddy and Sammy to bed. That way you can focus on it.”

More waiting—bad omen.

Gari countered now was the best time, when the boys charged up the stairs yelping their joy he was home and demanding the plunder he brought them from California. Peregrinating L.A. with Loretta, he let his guilt over the potential detriment of his actions on the boys, his fear of how they would judge him if Emily discovered his affair and distorted him into the incarnation of the devil himself, guide him in buying token gifts for them. Upon his return from his second trip laden with Mickey Mouse caps and T’s for the boys, Emily kidded he was spoiling them, and besides he shouldn’t feel guilty about his absence. After all, he was providing for them, and it wasn’t as if he was traipsing over Southern California for the fun of it. It had taken him aback, but just a bit; it was the surprise of juxtaposing fantasy and truth, and how thoroughly Emily had accepted his story as real. He was convinced it was his promotion and the newfound money and the security accompanying it. He’d told her she and the boys were constantly on his mind while away and these small gifts made him happy and assuaged his sorrow over depriving the boys of two parents by his absence (and over the Chivas fiasco, unsaid). And this had pleased her; she’d said, “You’re too sensitive, Gari. We’re doing fine.”

He gave each a plastic yellow kazoo emblazoned with the advertising motto in red:  “Hollywood’s a Whooping Goodtime.” Teddy and Sammy intuited the purpose of the toys and began blowing. A headache blossomed at the base of his skull and migrated slowly up and forward. He pinched his brows with thumb and index finger and found Emily’s hand on his forehead, her voice soothing, “You don’t have a fever, but you never know what’s floating in the air on an airplane.” Certainly true, but of more concern was what was floating in the air of the Garibaldi house.

She fetched him a couple of aspirins and water. He swallowed them and settled into a chair in the family room. He watched two programs, the type where people tape themselves, their loved ones, and their pets engaging in stupid and often dangerous behavior in the effort to win fame and piddling fortune. Normally, he enjoyed watching people endanger themselves and those around them for the sake of rising above the mundane, even if it meant proving to the nation you were halfway to the loony bin. This night the shows were shadows and not as much as a chuckle rang in the family room.

Finally the boys wore down and Emily put them to bed. He came in when they were under their covers and kissed each goodnight.

Undressing in their room, she said, “Now for the surprise.”

Gari suppressed a groan. Before the lottery, before Mid-Con, before his promotion, before his trips to L.A., sex always occupied his mind, intruding on whatever thought he might be having every few seconds, even without the aid of a sashaying female ass on the horizon. But not anymore, or at least not for now under the weight of sexual consequence.

Emily donned a nightgown, sat on the bed, and he sought shelter in the bathroom doorjamb. She signaled she desired him beside her by patting the bed. He moved reluctantly. There was the possibility she did have sex on her mind; she was wearing a diaphanous nightgown, not her usual opaque cotton wrap.

He sat, and she took his hand. “I’ve decided to work,” she said.

Work? Well, what with his lottery annuity and his promotion, what they’d always lacked they now possessed in abundance. Work? If she had announced this five years ago, two years ago, even this past March, he could have understood and would have been elated. But now, when it wasn’t necessary and also might be disruptive for him, and yes, for the boys too—her declaration was senseless. This tumult of thought came out as, “Why?”

“Because of you, Gari. Don’t look so surprised.”

“I can’t help it,” he said. “Why?”

“You inspired me.”

“I did?” croaking with startle.

“Yes. You know, Gari, for the longest time I had my doubts about you. You just didn’t have the oomph to be successful. You seemed happy showing up at work and not doing much of anything, getting nowhere.”

“Hey now,” he protested, stung by her demeaning.

“Then, suddenly, you proved my concerns about you wrong. You turned into the Gari I thought I was marrying, the fellow determined to amount to something.”

“Thank you.” He was meek about it, but it wasn’t modesty, false or otherwise, accounting for his humble timbre.

“No, thank you, Gari.”

There were moments in his life when he’d experienced discomfort, when he couldn’t stand still, or sit without squirming or jiggling his legs; when he broke into profuse sweating; and these were reactions usually to a pointed question from Larry, or the result of an extravagance he attempted to hide from Emily; or when younger, from fear he had disappointed his mother in school, church, or just generally in the neighborhood engaging in foolish mischief now lost in time. This was worse than all those instances combined, and yet he couldn’t fidget, or for that matter budge a digit on either hand. Emily’s simple thank you transformed him into a hunk of ice, like the cryonic posture he assumed as a kid playing freeze, except now truly cold of heart and mind.

In this state, he managed to move his lips to ask, “Inspire you to do what?”

She smiled broadly. She drew breath in deeply, which had him anticipating a grand announcement, maybe too grand for his taste. She leaned back a bit, and she took his hands in hers. Hers were warm, and he wondered if she’d notice his were like meat fresh from the freezer.

But she didn’t seem to as she broke the exciting news to him:  “I’ve decided to become an eBay entrepreneur.”

As if her words were a furnace arch, he transformed to fluid, and as liquid is hard to contain without the proper receptacle so his emotions began spilling here and there until he feared he would laugh over her words and directly in her face.

“But we don’t own a computer,” he said, levelly.

“We do now,” she corrected, rising from the bed and striding to their closet. She opened it. A computer occupied what had been a good portion of his side of the closet. Tower, monitor, and printer were on a wheeled cart. “See. And whenever I want to use it, I just roll it out like this.” She demonstrated by pushing it to the dresser on which sat their bedroom phone. “It plugs in this jack and there you have it.”

“Why?”

“Why what?” she asked, returning to her spot on the bed.

“Why everything—the job, the computer, this thing about eBay?”

“Why, you, of course. I just told you. You’re my inspiration. If you can do it, so can I.”

“But what about the kids?”

“EBay entrepreneur,” she said in the annoying singsong favored by ‘tween girls. “I work from home. I’ll rummage garage sales when the boys are in school. And weekends, you’re here, and when you’re not I’ll take them with me. It’s perfect.”

When Teddy had arrived, he prayed she would decide she needed a job to help support the family. Instead, she’d chosen to stay home and raise Teddy. She argued they could conserve and live well. She conserved, but as for the well part, well … With the arrival of Sammy, she didn’t wait for his suggestion she seek a job. She said with Sammy remaining at home was doubly important. They—she—would conserve more, and they would survive nicely. They’d survived. She’d jabbed him when he’d protested, if he wasn’t happy he could either get a raise or a second job. She knew how to shut him up. Now, when there was no reason whatsoever for her to take a job, she shocked him with a job. Not that eBay entrepreneur was anything like real employment. If she earned anything, it would be pennies. After all, what was junk worth? They’d conducted a couple of garage sales—these were her ideas for raising money to buy Christmas gifts for the boys, her personal Christmas club, she liked to say. The sales brought in a few dollars, but so little the take may as well have been pennies. It was the principle of the thing, he told himself. When they needed money, she wouldn’t earn it. Now that he was doing as she had challenged him to do years ago, she wanted a job. He was inspiring. There was no doubt it was all about success and money. Life with a woman was just that simple.

He switched his hands over hers and rubbed them, mostly to warm his own. “Well, I think it’s great. Sure you don’t have to work, but you want to.” He paused to observe the effect:  Her eyes moistened. Then he launched a little dike opener and the tears spilled:  “You’ve inspired me, Emily.”

She hugged him. “Gari, I’ve never loved you more than right now.”

The gusher rose in him, and his eyes misted, as she nuzzled his chest. He wanted to be happy knowing Emily loved him, respected him, and was inspired by him. He told himself he deserved this. He had earned a promotion. He did win the higher salary they’d both desired. She had abandoned her affair with rigid frugality. She had warmed to him and satisfied him sexually. He had everything he could have wanted, except the ability to feel happy about his abundance. Because he also had a secret income and a secret lover who had used him and betrayed him and for whom he had affection still and whom he had deserted when she needed him and counted on him most. With Emily in his arms, his eyes did mist, but satisfaction and joy had little to do with his emotion.

Emily pushed softly away from him and slowly slipped the nightgown off her shoulders. He watched, feeling distant, with the urge to run from the room, or at least tell Emily it had been a long, grueling trip in contradiction of his early arrival and profession work had proceeded better than he’d expected. He wanted to say let’s lie close in bed, sleep, and maybe in the morning make love. Instead he kissed her, fondled her breasts, laid her on the bed, and with her observing hungrily—an attitude she’d exhibited on each occasion they had sex since he’d announced his promotion—he undressed.

And he screwed her before they slept.

CHAPTER 15:  TWO SURPRISES

After his promotion to Vice President & Management Supervisor, Gari developed the habit of arriving early to the office, making the practice of opening the front doors his new hallmark. His idea of building a database of customers, employing targeted direct mail (and coming soon, television) to entice customers into Lubeck’s Shoes stores was working beautifully. Lubeck’s sales were up and the calls he received from Victor were stuffed with glowing praise, though sometimes they were left-handed, as in, “Who knew you were such a genius?” The agency was making more money on the account, too, which won regular accolades from Larry Lefton, who before rarely spoke to Gari and when he did left the impression he was considering whether or not Gari was so much deadweight. At the Monday morning staff meetings, Larry glowed when Gari presented his reports on the steady improvement in the Lubeck’s Shoes account, and followed up Gari’s conclusion by urging all present, “Take a page from Garibaldi’s playbook. We’ve all got to be producing like this.” Which, of course, meant the staff, as Larry Lefton regarded his elevation of Gari as his claim to superior production. After all, he reasoned, wasn’t this the job of top management:  to recognize talent and let it run with the ball? Though Larry was never much good at understanding “it,” and was a lucky winner when Gari’s variety of “it,” long in hiding, had surfaced.

In addition to arriving at the office early, Gari made himself available to receive calls anytime a Lefton or Lubeck’s staff member felt compelled to phone him. The calls, while infrequent, rang while he was at home and supported nicely his promotion and his new importance at Lefton & Associates; they convinced Emily he was indeed a big man. Thus Sunday, when his cell phone rang as the Garibaldi family finished dinner—it was a roast (very lean) done medium with baked potatoes and hot green bean salad with tomato, a meal less than a year ago he believed he’d never see in his kitchen—he assumed it was a business call. He opened his clamshell with an insouciant flip, again communicating to his brood his importance.

“Hello, Gari, Catherine Lourdes. Am I disturbing you?”

The clamshell wobbled, as if Catherine’s voice was weighty, the opposite of what it was:  light and playful. Even if she was disturbing him, she certainly wasn’t, and her tone said she knew it. Smoothly, for this was a skill he had cultivated and mastered, he winked at the family while saying, “Not at all, Catherine. Just let me get someplace where we can talk.” He cupped the phone, rose, mouthed business, and took off for the living room.

He stood by the front window and watched the hallway. “Catherine, it’s been a while.” In fact, it had been months. They hadn’t spoken since he’d taken her to lunch and she’d introduced him to the restoration room at the Art Institute. What with Loretta and his checking and sweep accounts working flawlessly, Catherine had been reduced to a memory, but very sweet, like the aftertaste of Godiva. “This about my account?”

“This is about your train, Gari.”

“My train?”

“Yes, I was reviewing your account last week and your train materialized in my mind.”

“My train? My account? I’m confused.”

“Specifically, the twelve-thirty five a.m. from Chicago to Fox Lake. That train popped into my mind.”

The best Gari could manage was, “Huh?”

“It’s time for you to join the Club.”

“The Club?” And she seemed leveled headed—well, almost—when I met her, he thought, as he repeated her words.

“The Conductor’s Club. It’s a mile-high club for ground travelers.” Gari had these thoughts in rapid succession:  Never again. Not after Loretta. This is wrong. What could I tell Emily? How would I survive the next day? She buying dinner before? It’s her turn. “I have a membership in the Metropolitan Club. Drinks and dinner on me and then down to the train.”

“Why?”

“I like you, Gari. Doing it on a train with you would be fun. It’s an adventure. That enough why’s for you?”

“Plenty.”

“Good. I’ll meet you at Sears Tower at seven.”

Returning to the kitchen, he began working on an excuse.

“What was that about?” Emily asked. “You look like you’re in a daze.”

“Oh, Victor Lubeck wants to meet tomorrow late in the day. We’ll probably go to dinner. Make a night of it. You know, wine and dine the client.”

“But you said Catherine.”

“Catherine?”

“Yes, Catherine, when you picked up the phone.”

“Oh, Catherine,” he said, lightly slapping his forehead and crossing his eyes. “Catherine’s Lubeck’s secretary. Imagine, a secretary. These days probably not even the president of GM rates a secretary.”

To head off conversation on the topic, Gari asked the boys if they’d like to play outside, to which they responded by bounding from their chairs and directly into the backyard. Gari played catch with them. Lobbing the ball back and forth he castigated himself for allowing Catherine to finagle him to dinner and … well, damn, sex on Metra was intriguing. Did people really do it? And how? But, stop, he cautioned. Hadn’t he learned anything from his affair with Loretta? Worse, Catherine was a short drive or train ride from his house, and unlike Loretta she knew who he was, where he lived, and that he was married. She also knew he was a lottery winner who had set up a new account to receive his winnings. He had no doubts about her intelligence. If he offended her or if she became pregnant—now a possibility foremost in his mind, she could cause him problems. He mulled this as he reprimanded Teddy for hogging the ball and Sammy for losing his temper and kicking Teddy in frustration. He concluded he’d done the right thing with Catherine:  It was best to keep the woman happy and if a little kinky public sex did it, well there was self-interest to consider. But he cautioned himself to be careful, as it wouldn’t do to be caught and arrested with her for indecent exposure and lewd behavior on Metra.   

Once the vision of sex with Catherine on Metra occupied his mind, concerns and worries and their concomitant caution vanished. He discovered himself growing tumescent playing with the boys and telling himself that sex with Emily would be the kind and considerate way to assuage whatever anger or resentment she might harbor about Monday night.

He thought they fell asleep happy that Sunday, or at least content. Morning confirmed it. Emily was up before him and finishing her preparation of breakfast when he appeared in the kitchen seconds ahead of Teddy and Sammy, in time to hear her thank him for a wonderful evening, which he graciously deflected by crediting her for tolerating the craziness he’d been subjecting the family to since his promotion. He was on the verge of promising a more regular schedule when the boys saved him from himself.

* * *

Larry Lefton had scheduled a private meeting with him immediately after the Monday morning staff festival. Settled later in Larry’s office with coffee and Danish at hand and a warm and cozy atmosphere permeating the room, Larry praised Gari for his work on the Lubeck’s Shoes account. Spectacular, outstanding, if I had known years ago and the like, should have blushed Gari’s face; but Gari now believed he deserved every hosanna Larry tossed his way. Gari calculated he’d personally doubled the great president’s income. Recognition was the least Larry could give him, and it cost the man nothing.

“Gari,” Larry said, addressing him as a familiar, as he had been since the Lubeck’s save, “I believe you’ve earned a reward for your work on Lubeck’s.”

Well, it’s about time, thought Gari, growing a bit more rigid in his chair, and forgetting the recent promotion and salary increase, which most would certainly construe as recognition and compensation for his contribution to the success of Lefton & Associates.

“Your work on Lubeck’s got me thinking about expanding the business.”

“We’ve gone about as far as we can with Lubeck’s Shoes,” Gari said. “Unless Victor decides to add stores, which I doubt.”

Larry smiled. Gari got the impression Larry saw him as a simpleton. Gari said, “You mean new business.”

Larry nodded. “But not just any new business.”

“No?” Gari said, strange dread tickling his spine.

“Shoe business.”

“Shoe business?”

“We’re shoe experts,” Larry said, flapping a conjoining hand between Gari and himself. “What better way to grow the business than by doing more of what we’re good at?”

“You don’t believe Victor will go along with us taking on another shoe account here.”

“Who said anything about here, Gari? This is a big country.”

“You mean another city, like Rockford?” Gari would have guessed Peoria, but Rockford was closer and by big country he cynically assumed Larry meant Northeastern Illinois, and not much of it either.

“Think coast to shining coast, Gari. Coast to coast. With shoe know-how, Lefton & Associates goes national.” Larry stood to emphasize his gigantic dream, as maybe coast-to-coast actually meant up and down, north and south to him, outer space to the molten core of the earth, misdirection Gari wouldn’t put past the president.

Gari ventured, “Milwaukee?” just because he could not imagine Larry possessed the imagination to conceive of parts farther.

But Larry could, fully evidenced when he said, “Please, I’m thinking L.A. Beautiful weather. Golf all year. People with plenty of money and in love with foot ware.”

“How do you know that?” Gari blurted in astonishment.

“You mean foot ware?”

Gari nodded.

“TV,” Larry said, “the Academy Awards, the Emmys. You ever notice the shoes those women wear?”

Gari certainly had with great admiration and a strong desire to peck at them in perverse foreplay. The connection, while vivid in Larry’s fervid mind, to expanding Lefton business was lost on Gari.

“Money, my boy, lots of it, and the desire to spend it,” clarified Larry, when he saw Gari wasn’t grasping the thrust of his vision.

Gari was stuck at the beginning of the clarification. He wasn’t a boy. He resented being called a boy. And he further resented it because Larry wasn’t much older than he, wasn’t yet gray domed, wasn’t balding; but presumed he could call Gari “my boy” because he had the notion he was his superior.

Oblivious to Gari’s consternation, Larry plunged onward. “We’re the shoe promotion experts. The job we’ve done for Lubeck’s Shoes is a great case history. Great.” He created a frame with his hands, looking like a caricature of a Hollywood director, and peered through it at Gari. Still he couldn’t discern Gari’s attitude. “It’ll play beautifully in L.A. We’ll win another shoe account.”

Gari did hurtle “my boy”; he caught up with Larry’s oral musings. And all he could envision was Loretta in various styles of foot ware:  stilettos, pumps, flats, and finally sneakers replete with thickened ankles. He hadn’t been back to L.A. since the day of the revelation and escape, and he had no intention of returning, perhaps ever.

“And you’re my shoe expert,” rambled Larry. “I know what a hardship this will be on you.”

“Hardship?”

“Well, I don’t think you can find an account and service it without going to L.A. I don’t mean you’ll have to move there. Though that wouldn’t be bad, huh?” Larry didn’t nudge and wink at him, but he may as well have. “In the beginning, while you’re getting the lay of the land, a couple of days a week.”

“You mean a month?”

“Gari, you couldn’t accomplish a damned thing a couple of times a month. Why you couldn’t even manage to wet your wick in that short time.”

You want to bet? It was the retort he wished he could fling. He settled for a shrug.

“Of course not. So I know it’s going to be a hardship for you and your family. To offset your sacrifice a little, I’m giving you a raise. Up another twenty percent. Plus your expense account—no limit. And this is just to win us an account and keep Lubeck’s Shoes producing. You win an account, well then we’ll talk about more.”

The irony of Gari’s new life was becoming unbearable to him. He sipped his coffee and gagged quietly staring at the Danish. It was and appeared ready to serve as a happy home for mold. When he ceased needing anything—not a loving wife, not a rewarding job, not a hefty salary, not the respect and confidence of his boss—it was then he gained it all. He paused to admire the absolute absurdity of life.

“We couldn’t look closer to home, Cleveland maybe?”

Larry stared at his star account man a long-time, unsettling Gari.

Larry pointed at him and broke into a phlegm-rattling laugh. “You almost got me. Almost. But I don’t trick so easy.”

“When do we start?” Gari asked, resigned.

“Let’s get this moving January 2. Start the year off hot out of the box. That’ll give you Christmas with the family. Sound good?”

“Marvelous.”

Gari meant marvelous he would legitimately be in the same town as Loretta Heavencrest, and there for extended periods. Yes, L.A. was a big town, bigger than Chicago. But Chicago was a big place too and how many times did he bump into acquaintances from the city and Mundelein? Often. Sure L.A. was big, but not really. Who cruised Glendale, or Covina, or Silver Lakes, or any of the dozens of areas that comprised the big town? No, when you went out, you went where the action was. West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Griffith Park. Places like these were magnets for people like Loretta … and him. Maybe the baby would prevent her from visiting the old haunts? Maybe he could do his job in the day and sequester himself in his hotel—probably apartment, he thought; I’ll have to find an apartment. But avoiding the hotspots would be impossible. Entertaining was part of building a business. And you didn’t entertain in Pasadena, unless it was tickets to the Rose Bowl. If she was on the town, he’d run into her.

“And look, Gari, I don’t want this interfering too much with your family life. I know it will to some degree. But I understand the family thing. You’ll see plenty of your kids, Jerry and Larry, right?”

“Teddy and Sammy.”

“The boys. What kind of father would want to be away from his boys for too long?”

Gari didn’t know if Larry meant this rhetorically, or if he expected a response. Gari took the middle road and shrugged.

“Right. If we find you’re in L.A. for extended periods, we’ll just have to get you an apartment. Then you could fly out the family occasionally. Spend time together.”

Gari found himself already in L.A. He could smell the smog and feel the slime in his nostrils and on his tongue. His eyes itched and he rubbed them with his fists. He could see the apartment, typical L.A. fare:  pool in center court, doors in pastels or primaries ringing it, a highway masquerading as a street bordering it and enveloping it in noise and exhaust, and motley people loitering about, many waiting for the big call, but most just waiting for anything. The boys wouldn’t mind the place. They liked sun and warmth and pools. Emily liked those too; but the apartment would be tiny compared to home, itself not large, but palatial compared to a California apartment. He’d investigated them when he was hot and heavy with Loretta and contemplating spending more time on the coast.

But the worst was that Emily and the boys would expect to see the sights:  the pier at Santa Monica, the homes of the stars, the tar pits, the Queen Mary. Emily wouldn’t want to cook in the cramped kitchen. Even if it was spacious, still she wouldn’t want to cook for the boys and him. She’d consider herself on vacation and would expect vacation treatment. There was a time when she would have been content with a rat hole room and cooking dinner on hot plates. But not now, not as the wife of a successful advertising executive. They’d be on the town, dining at fine restaurants, trendy places, the very types of venues he knew Loretta visited.

Larry saw Gari was fretting and understood why. He was a man who managed a large staff, after all, and he considered himself an expert on people. He offered an emolument. “Of course, all company expense, Gari. You’re doing us a favor by opening new territory. The least we can do is make the experience tolerable for you and your family.”

Gari smiled weakly.

“One more thing, did I mention you’ll have a new title? I remember how insistent you were about management supervisor. Well, I know how the movers and shakers think,” Larry said, puffing up, straining the buttons of his shirt, communicating he should too, as he was a member of the M&S class. “You’ll need a more impressive title. How does executive vice president sound to you?”

Gari’s smile firmed. “I like it,” he said. He didn’t say he would have liked it more a year ago.

“Good. Well then, go out there and get the ball rolling. Let me know your plans by the end of the week.”

CHAPTER 16:  THE CLUB

“You’re advancing in the world, Gari.”

You talk beautifully with your mouth stuffed, he thought.

Catherine and he were dining in the Metropolitan Club on the sixty-seventh floor of the Sear’s Tower. They were in the member’s dining room looking north over the city. Though the view was magnificent, she occupied his attention as she devoured a filet mignon. The animal was barely dead and from vengeance stained her teeth red. Gari couldn’t believe with what relish she ate, especially as she appeared quite sophisticated in her severe but finely tailored blue suit, which she wore this evening again. What a carnivore! 

He was having the same. However, his was definitely dead, pink inside the way he liked it, and he wasn’t making nearly her progress cleaning his plate. He couldn’t restrain himself from comparing her to his other women. He savored the words for a moment. My women. There was a time when he simply wished for a woman; and then a time when he wished for something on the side; and now here he was with a surfeit. He couldn’t decide whether he was lucky or unlucky, for his circumstances were both wonderfully surreal and fraught with problems.

Catherine sipped her wine and stared at him expectantly. She was waiting for his response. She hadn’t asked him a question, not directly at least. But like Loretta and Emily, she required conversation. She preferred it to be back and forth and an approximately even exchange. He was already behind, she speaking two or three sentences to his one. He wished he could be like the technician in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” just step back, engage the computer, and allow it to take over this conversation.

“I can’t turn around without bumping into a raise or a promotion these days,” he contributed.

Suddenly, she reached across the table, fortunately missing his beer glass, though narrowly, and touched his hand. He wondered if she intended they slip to the privacy of under the table. Based on his experience with her, it was possible. She said, “For luck.” Retracting her hand, she added, “Now with that dose of your luck, imagine how much luckier I’ll be by tomorrow. Maybe I’ll make executive V.P.”

“Maybe,” he said.

They arrived at Union Station an hour before the twelve-thirty departure. They didn’t need another drink but there wasn’t much else to do, except perhaps camp in the Great Hall and watch the derelicts try to settle in for the night and the Metra cops hustle them back onto the streets. But Gari figured Catherine wasn’t the type who enjoyed taking the pulse of Chicago’s low-life; the Metro Deli and Cafe was a better bet with her. She ordered a wine and he a club soda, already sensing potential softness in the equipment due to excessive indulgence at the Metropolitan Club. She didn’t remark about his choice and sipped her wine contentedly. Gari allowed his change, a ten from a twenty, to float on the bar in case a single goblet didn’t measure up to her thirst.

They could see the Great Hall from their stools, and Gari aimed her attention at the seats. “See the first pew there,” he said. “That’s where I confirmed I was a lottery winner. You should have seen me. I howled like a madman.”

“You must have fit right in,” she said.

He regarded her askance. Yes, her tone put him off, as if he was deficient of the acute humor necessary to distinguish between sarcasm and weary late night commentary, and especially the kind additionally burdened and blurred by abundant drink. But upon instantaneous consideration, he discerned the fact he knew nothing of her, just what he’d garnered during two meals, two cab rides, and one bounce on an art restoration table. It was in the realm of possibility this was her manner—a woman of piercing wit. Now that would be a lifetime of trial for some slob.

In serious fashion, she expanded, “The other nuts probably took you for one of them.”

“Yeah, a regular king rat. I suppose I was lucky there wasn’t a cop around. My subjects might have turned me in for disturbing their peace.”

Before they could progress to real zings, it was time to board the Metra to Fox Lake.

Catherine, in her business suit, wore sandal slides, which he’d noticed earlier and registered as sexy:  simple to slip off, perfect for rapidly preparing for sex. Though he was the type who would have enjoyed her legs around him and the shoes dangling in the air and occasionally clapping against her bare soles, punctuating his thrusts and drive to plunge deeper and faster. What she wore would probably fall off with her first turn.

He sensed he was arousing himself. He got himself under control and thought more and differently about those shoes. The damned things screamed presence, demanded attention, and would have captured it, if, unluckily, anybody had been in the station. It was twelve-fifteen and anybody he knew would certainly have been home hours earlier on a Monday night. For this he was grateful as he did not cherish being an attraction. As he’d learned in L.A., you simply never knew and the damnedest surprises could be awaiting you.

At her direction, they boarded the bi-level coach behind the engine. In it, they climbed the narrow stairs to the upper deck. They sat in the middle seats that paralleled the atrium, giving them a view of the lower level. He looked around. With five minutes to departure, the coach was empty. And when that time had expired and the engine jerked the coach forward and started squealing down the tracks into the midnight world, still nobody had entered the coach.

The coach remained theirs alone as the train lumbered and wagged into the open air. The view from up top was spectacular. They looked back on the city from the fork of the Chicago River, down the waterway through the canyon of towers, all ablaze for no reason except perhaps to accommodate the cleaning crews that crawled through them in the night. Even the drawbridges winked light at them. She slipped her arm in his and sighed softly. He figured the city lighted itself just to create a romantic panache for lovers, as well as for those like Catherine and him who were playing in the lower bases of romance.

As they approached Western Avenue, the conductor strolled into the coach and as if he’d forgotten he wasn’t on the five o’clock, yelled, “Tickets. Tickee, tickee, tickees.”

He stopped below them and Catherine said, “Hi, Jimmy.”

Jimmy replied, “Hey, Cat, long time no see. Keeping late hours again?”

Gari dug for his wallet and paid their fares, plus a couple of bucks more because he hadn’t purchased the tickets in the station, which seemed to irritate him more than he thought it should.

Jimmy lingered for chitchat and Gari couldn’t contain the speculation that began frying his brain and raising his temperature like successive lightening strikes. It was apparent they were familiar. But how familiar? What he knew of Catherine, he guessed very, intimate actually. For all he knew, Jimmy was the president of this Conductor’s Club he was about to join. Maybe he’d initiated Catherine. But maybe her trips back and forth on the train were innocent. No, not Catherine’s trips. A woman like her, she had to live in the city. Why would she be on the Fox Lake train except for an event like what he anticipated?

Jimmy was burly, taller than Gari at over six feet. He was a guy who defined barrel-chested. He owned eighteen-inch arms, huge hunks of steely meat. His belly was flat, as if he was the city’s crunch king moonlighting. His thighs strained his pants. Jimmy wasn’t the kind of guy Gari would want to excite, unless he was aching for a week’s rest in the hospital.

He wondered where President Jimmy conducted Club business. Probably in this very coach, in these very seats that would work as a narrow bed.

Jimmy wore a cap with a metal placard over the bill proclaiming “Conductor.” His short-sleeve shirt stretched in the chest and arms, testing the polyester material’s tensile strength. Keys dangled from his belt and he was armed with a single-hole puncher in a holster like a weapon. When he moved, which he was doing chatting up Catherine, he rattled.

Gary wondered if Jimmy clanged and banged and chimed when he welcomed Catherine into the Conductor’s Club. Where up top did Jimmy usher her into membership? On the very seats on which he and Catherine rested? He saw big Jimmy lying her down across four individual seats. It was night and Jimmy reflected in the windows as he undid his big locomotive belt buckle and slid down his blue polyester regulation pants, and with them his chiming keys and his holstered hole puncher. She was before him, very pretty in blue and white, hiking her skirt as Jimmy’s big hands worked off her red thong. Gari smiled as he generously gave big Jimmy credit for not inserting his fingers into Catherine. After all, back and forth, here and there on the train, with passengers from everywhere, with passengers who practiced excellent to miserable hygiene, who knew what crud had set up housekeeping under his nails, which Gari observed where long and surprisingly well tended, maybe manicured judging from their trimness and the manner in which they reflected the white light of the overhead florescent lamps. Big Jimmy mounted her and began grinding, starting slowly and increasing his thrusting as she groaned—Catherine was a noisy lover, if Gari remembered correctly, unlike Emily who whimpered girlishly, and Loretta who enjoyed a good chat and who he imagined could easily conduct a phone conversation while being pumped. As they went at it on these very seats, on which Gari now shifted with uncomfortable excitement, Jimmy and his equipment crashed like cymbals at the end of a vigorous piece of music, ever increasing in tempo and volume until they climbed to an ear piercing conclusion, and then fell into dead silence.

“Nice seeing ya, Cat,” said Jimmy, double rapping the foundation of the up top. “Got to collect tickets.”

Swaying in time to the rock of the train, Jimmy disappeared into the vestibule that divided the back and front sections of the coach.

“Good friends?” asked Gari, the words raw with irritation.

“Old friend.”

“Oh.”

Seeing he was disturbed, she said, “Jimmy and I grew up together in Wheaton. I hadn’t seen him for years. Then when I returned from college, he was the conductor on the line running to Wheaton. I lived at home with my parents until I got a place in town.”

“Oh,” said Gari, betraying the fact he wasn’t entirely sure she’d answered his implied question.

She shook her head and tossed a coy smile at him. “Mr. Garibaldi, I believe you’re jealous.”

“Me. I was just … you know … maybe a little.”

As punctuation to the short-circuiting of his pique, the coach jerked to a stop and they docked at Western Avenue. Gari cupped a hand and peered at the platform. It was empty, actually desolate with used newspapers and candy wrappers swirling in eddies, the kind of place nobody with an ounce of sense would lounge at midnight.

Catherine pulled him away from the window. She turned him to get a straight shot at his mouth and kissed him, quickly. “Jimmy will be through in a minute,” she said, sitting back.

In seconds was the truth, for as she settled, Jimmy shouldered through the doors and into the coach.

“You guys see anybody come through here?”

“At midnight? Are you serious, Jimmy?” chuckled Catherine.

Jimmy clucked and shot them a finger pistol. “Got you covered,” he said, winking. “I think I’ll lock up just in case. See you two in Fox Lake.”

As the vestibule doors closed, Catherine stood, lolling in rhythm with the train’s bounding. She stretched left and right and up and down and Gari, already excited by his Jimmy and Cat scenario, repressed the urge to grab her. He restrained himself only because he enjoyed the undulation of her body, the slow and easy bounce of her breasts, and his memory of her well-exercised stomach rippling again in his new vision, and he didn’t want to stop her. What he held back was the desire to pull her down immediately, and stretch her over the seats and climb on board.

For a minute, she tormented him exquisitely until he feared the evening—at least the first half—would be lost as his desire to have her was quickly advancing beyond his ability to control his passion. Fortunately, she was a woman of impeccable sensitivity and timing. She stopped just shy of launching him into release. She bent to him straight from the hips and glided her mouth lightly over his, the kiss less than a touch, a brush like the fluttered wash of hummingbird wings. On the way down and up, her blouse, still as crisp as when the evening began, sagged to gravity and afforded him a view of her breasts and the valley between them, and in those seconds he thought for sure the evening would conclude.

But he was strong and it progressed. Her breath floated around and caressed his lips and spread over his face; it was soft and grape sweet and enticing and increased the difficulty of holding himself back. She further challenged his restrain by withdrawing from him, standing erect, and inching her skirt higher and higher until he saw her crimson thong, so thin it tapered to no more than string where it snuggled between her thighs, yet sufficiently substantial up top that he noted its delicate lattice design and, once focused, through it her blond hair.

She commanded him with suggestive rolls of her hips, smoothly, carefully and nicely finessed invitations. He knew exactly what she wanted. He leaned forward, grasped the thong on each side, and slowly pulled it down, down to her ankles, holding it until she stepped out of it, one foot at a time, deliberately, as if stepping out of a thong required a PhD in physics, bending her right knee and then her left, treating him to a pretty slow-motion tableau.

And there he was, holding the bag, bewildered as to what to do with … well he couldn’t call it underwear. Still riveted to her every move, the red thing burning in his hand, he knew he wasn’t returning the it to her. Instead he shoved it in the inside pocket of his suit jacket as she reached forward and guided him back with a finger, which for an instant became the whole world of his attention: her nail was manicured and coated with clear polish and mirrored the white coach light; the short nail was honed to a bowed point like the arch top of a church door jamb; her flesh was smooth, lightly tanned and cast with a sheen. In the line of this little finger, this one extended digit, he was swelling until it took every residual reserve of his will to remain inside his pants; and she gave him every reason to believe doing so would be his most important accomplishment of the day, the week, from the day in the Great Hall when he became legend as a madman.

She withdrew her finger after she had him where she wanted him; but she wasn’t finished subjecting him to pleasant torture. She took the very same finger and slid it up her thigh. His eyes fasten on it and tracked its ascent, up between her legs, where it vanished for a second. When it reappeared, it glistened anew and brighter, coated with a fragrance he could smell from back against the window. She touched him with the finger above his lips and drew a line right and then left, tracing a fine moustache on him and filling his nostrils with her scent, pungent in sharp, delirious contrast to the frangipani she wore.

With her elixir on him and in him, his brain burned and the sharp lines and the echoing hollowness of the Metra coach softened. Maybe he was no longer on the train lumbering to Fox Lake. He could have been in the city, in the Ritz, in a room with turned down lights, head against a window overlooking the town and the lake, on a satin sofa, with a mirror on the far wall in his view, and in it reflected … El Dorado. He could have been, because he couldn’t say if this was truth or illusion, not then.

She retracted her finger and bent over him, affording him another view of her breasts suspended against the drape of her blouse, still starched, a testament to her launderer—anything to forestall a premature explosion—and now coated with a fine glossy film of moisture. She pushed her lips against his and bore down, urging his lips apart with hers until she could insert her tongue, entwine his around it. With him pinned against the window, she straddled him, but didn’t come down on him; rather, she suspended herself above him, genitals over genitals. She reached down and commenced unfastening his pants. Then Jimmy’s voice blared over the intercom loud and fuzzy, yelping, “Healy. The next stop will be Healy. Only the last two cars open at Healy.”

“Don’t worry. Jimmy’s only opening two cars. Besides, nobody’s on the train on a Monday at midnight.”

He wanted to correct her, to say they were on the train; and to say you told Jimmy about this; and to say who else knows what’s we’re doing in this car; and to ask if afterwards Jimmy and his fellow conductors would hold a ceremony welcoming him into their Club; and to ask how many of them besides Jimmy—for Gari had no doubt about the old childhood friend—had had Catherine, just like him on the midnight milk run?

But then she had slid his pants and his underwear—his were the real thing, Fruit of the Loom—over his hips, past his ass, by his tumescent prick, fast approaching his knees on their way to the oblivion of his ankles. This entire time, which had seemed like years and years to him, but which had been mere seconds, she’d been wrapping her tongue around his and resting from the entwining by probing the hinter regions of his mouth, deep in the back where she nearly triggered Gari’s powerful gag reflect—doctors merely waved depressors under his nose and he choked. He fought to emit what was on his mind, what had struggled ahead of the really important stuff, such as her scent, her mouth, her breasts, and the impending instant when she would settle on him, that first glide into moist slick warmth:  “I’ve got a condom in my pocket.”

She pulled slightly away from him, screwed her eyes like she was astride a lunatic—and he was bona fides in that department, wasn’t he?—and whispered, the words damp and with erotic drama and urgency:  “Fuck the condom!  I’m your banker.” She lowered herself onto him and the really nice thing about joining the Conductor’s Club was Metra did the work for him.

CHAPTER 17:  WORKAHOLIC

Gari delighted Emily and the boys by arriving home early from work Tuesday morning. Emily remarked on his appearance, as she might, as his suit was rumpled, his shirt sweat-stained, and his countenance haggard.

Sipping a black coffee with three sugars—excessive, yes, but he hoped the sweet would reinvigorate him—he exuded, “I’ve got to tell you, Emily, this executive life isn’t exactly what I thought it would be.”

The boys were in the basement screaming wildly as they enacted a space fantasy. Emily sat across from him at the kitchen table. She patted his hand. “Hard.”

“Exhausting. I’m beginning to doubt I’m made for this. I’m thinking I’d be better off staying at home, watching the boys grow, being with you.”

She lit up. She was pleased for two reasons. Finally, Gari was providing for his family, fulfilling the promise of their marriage. And he had grown more sensitive and caring toward her, more as he had been during the early years of their marriage. She said, “It would be wonderful,” and caressed his hand.

He pondered her high spirits and her emollient words for a moment. “Yeah, but I guess it’s impossible. I’d better take a shower.”

“I’ll check on the boys and follow you up in a minute.”

He managed a small smile, hoping the boys would break into a fight requiring her refereeing as he wondered how he would manage if they didn’t receive his telepathic message and cooperate.

He stalled by hanging in the shower until his extremities shrank to white prunes. She worked in the kitchen to restore him with a proper home-cooked meal, second only to sex as her reborn wifely specialty. It was an hour before he presented himself, well scrubbed and draped in freshly laundered clothes, in the kitchen, where she served him a lumberjack breakfast. He studied the meal, grateful she’d foresworn her earlier rush into healthy gourmet cooking. After a few weeks of healthful eating, he’d thrown up his hands and cried the culinary cousin of uncle, regretting to her he was a pedestrian and crude eater, preferring hamburgers, sandwiches, steaks, roasts, and the like to five-star and longevity fare. He described his preference as “grub” to emphasize she was wasting her time and skills on him. It was an oblique attempt at assuagement, coupled nicely with his assurance she was far too busy with the boys and the house (and if she was an e-Bay entrepreneur then that, too) to impress him with her galley skills, though he acknowledged them as indeed towering.

He complimented her effusively but not insincerely as the meal was delicious and among his top five favorites. Of course, after such a feast what was a husband good for, and particularly a man who had worked with and entertained a man like Victor Lubeck into the wee hours? He hoped she would agree:  not much more than collapsing in bed for a long nap, maybe even a straight shot to morning. She was sympathetic and claimed to know just what he needed. She commenced his treatment with a gentle back massage followed by the massaging of others parts of him until he felt he might be up to performing his husbandly duties. But his fate was flaccidity.

His deflationary state troubled him on two counts. The first was astonishment. Limpness, failure to arouse to the occasion, raising the mast—this had never been a problem for him. He’d always been a once a day guy, whether Emily or anybody was available; and often he found himself at it twice in twelve hours. Was he getting too old for what he had always regarded as among the greatest pleasures of life, up there with driving a truly outstanding auto, and eating a dripping burger? He was not yet forty and already was age diminishing his life?

It simply couldn’t be. The second was concern. He’d always performed with Emily, regardless of her deteriorating appearance and the enlarging gulf between them. She expected him to respond, especially when she labored assiduously to prime him. Would she suspect a reason might exist beyond mere weariness?

They were on their bed. She was on her knees, finally convinced Gari was a lost cause. She crawled up to him, reared back on her heels, and grasped his face in her hands. She peered deep into his eyes and with such intensity he felt her piercing through to his heart where the truth of the past several months resided. He imagined she saw it all unreel like a B movie.

“God, Gari, you’ve been working way too hard. You need a break. You should ask Larry for some vacation time. Maybe we can get away to somewhere sunny.”

He didn’t mean to blink, but he could not believe his great good fortune continued unabated—except for the problem with Loretta and the black and bluing of his heart and his soul, if indeed he possessed such a moral core.

“What?” she said, with a hint of humor he hadn’t expected, “you’re so indispensable Lefton & Associates will fall apart without you. It’s only a week, Gari.”

Well, truth was he could use a vacation. A week in the Caribbean would be delightful. Being the agency star was hard work. He never would have believed it. It always looked like a snap. But, damn, you really had to work. You had to tell people what to do, because half of them weren’t capable of figuring it out themselves; and the other half that could were either too lazy or adopted the attitude of, “You do it. That’s what they pay you for.” Jamaica sounded good to him. He remembered an ad on television. It was warm there. The beaches were white. The sea was crystal blue. The mountains were green. And the women, they were dark and lusty. Yes, a week in Jamaica was an excellent idea.

But with Emily and the boys. The thought elicited a groan.

She slapped his chest lightly. Still it stung. “I never thought you’d be like this.”

“Like what?” he managed.

“A workaholic.”

This launched Gari onto a laughing jag; the type when you’ve struggled to regain control of yourself a new barrage bursts forth, and then becomes self-sustaining, a chain reaction of guffaws, until something causes the control rods to be lowered to abate your mirth; but that never happens before you’ve made a complete idiot of yourself; or in the case of guilty yukking, have aroused the suspicion of a mate perched over you.

He a workaholic? Well, he supposed, if you were viewing his life from the outside, as Emily was, it might appear he was a man consumed by his work. Who else would fly to L.A. to work weekends? Who but a work nut would open the doors of the office and practically close them at night? And who but a devotee of labor would disappear for a day and night simply to entertain a client? Yes, he could understand how Emily might label him a newborn member of the species. When he weighed his behavior since springing his account-saving idea on Larry Lefton, he discovered himself agreeing, at least to a degree; he might be putting too much effort into his job.

Emily interrupted his reverie. “What’s so funny?”

“You thinking I’m a workaholic.”

She chuckled, the shared memory real and tactile, as if it happened last week. “Well, what I thought of you before, it was true then. Admit it. You never worked enough, didn’t work hard enough; you know, no nose to the grindstone. But look what happened when you decided to apply yourself. Wham. You jumped ahead. Instead of laughing with you, I should crown you,” she declared, affecting peevishness.

“Huh? For what?”

“For not doing it sooner.”

“When you were pestering me about it.”

“That’s such ancient history I can’t remember when I did it.”

“You’re right. I should have listened. Things would be better now.”

She blinked. “You don’t think they’re good now?”

Quickly he said, “Now they’re great. But a few months ago they weren’t is what I meant.”

“You’re right.”

He took her in his arms and kissed her. “I’m sorry.”

“What about the vacation?” she asked, returning to the beginning; but actually to change the subject, as she was not comfortable discussing how their relationship had deteriorated because he hadn’t been the husband she’d expected; the husband she thought he had promised her. Earner was the word she wanted to use, but which she couldn’t form even in her mind, too crass did it ring.

“Sure, why not? I’ve earned it.”

She winced. He noticed.

“I mean we’ve earned it.”

She descended onto him and he felt warm where her skin touched his and after they’d snuggled in that manner for a minute, quiet, happy in the silence, he sensed in himself the ability to please her in every way she expected.

* * *

Wednesday morning he was back to his workaholic ways, for he now saw himself as a man—no, an executive, an individual of importance conferred upon him not by the blind, stupid luck of getting rich effortlessly winning the lottery—completely absorbed in his work, keeping Victor Lubeck happy and rich and filling the Lefton & Associates coffers to overflowing. Emily was right:  He deserved time to himself, time with his family.

After opening the shop, he settled in front of his computer, jumped on the Internet, and began researching his family vacation. Where to go was the first challenge, and he really had not the slightest idea. The boys would love Disney World, but he’d hate it. Tramping through a crowded amusement park wasn’t his idea of relaxation. Warmth with beaches, nothing to do but lie in the sand, scan the blue horizon, see nothing but the occasional bird wheeling against the azure canvas, snapping fingers for a fruity drink, leaving Emily and the boys to explore shopping bazaars—now that was a vacation. And so he looked into Jamaica.

Gari was an advertising man, and though he projected at times cynicism about the business, he was not much different than most of his type. He was lured and blinded, and blindsided, by advertising’s seductiveness. Had he deployed his antennae and dug deeper into Jamaica, he might have decided on Disney World. But, naturally, like the victim who knows he shouldn’t enter a room in which he suspects a killer hides, Gari booked tickets and a hotel for a week in Jamaican paradise.

CHAPTER 18:  THE AMERICAN CAPITALIST

Larry Lefton amazed Gari. He carped when Gari announced he was taking a vacation immediately. Larry said no doubt Gari deserved a vacation and time with his lovely family. He’d never seen anyone work as hard benefiting the agency as Gari had over the past several months. But in doing so, Gari had become the agency’s linchpin, gearbox; no, the camshaft (Larry was the engine, of course!) of the business’ newfound productivity. Without him, feared Larry, the joint would deteriorate into what it had been, a mere backwater in the Chicago creative community, a brackish pool of cruddy near-thought, and a cesspool of mediocrity.

Actually, these weren’t quite Larry’s words, but they were the sense gleaned by the wonderfully inflated Gari. In truth, Larry had said Gari was an important member of the management team and Victor Lubeck might not appreciate his key account person flitting off on short notice. But he acknowledged Gari had been grinding hard and probably deserved a break.

The following week cold winds blew and early snow signaled a long, hard winter for Chicago and Mundelein. Gari and family left for O’Hare warm and cozy in a black stretch limousine, which didn’t seem at all like an extravagance to Emily, who over the past several months had handily shut up her penchant for frugality in a little closet deep in her mind and tossed the key clear across to the other side of her cerebellum.

“This will be a first-class vacation,” had intoned Gari, when he’d presented his plans to the assembled family in the ubiquitous—and ubiquitously dreaded—family meeting. To which the assembled replied in unison, “What’s there to do in Jamaica?”

“Nothing but lounge and enjoy the sunny weather and the beautiful blue sea,” was his response, delivered causally, as if the superb logic of a restful, peaceful vacation was readily apparent to anybody with half a brain.

The boys answered empathically, “We want to go to Disney World.”

Emily added, “Disney World has beaches. I saw them in a brochure.”

Oh, what a pedestrian bunch he had there, he lamented in his cups; and then launched into effusive praise of the island and its charms. Bicycling on the winding, quaint roads; tooling around in serried pink Jeeps; shopping in the local bazaars; swimming in the pools at the grand and luxurious Hilton. He mounted his soapbox and issued continuous disquisition, ceasing only after they’d boarded the colorful Air Jamaica jet, and a tall, lean black woman closed and secured the cabin door, and this same ebony beauty began expounding in a British lilt on the virtues of the airplane, including its wondrous—in the unlikely event of a water-landing—flotation features.

After a stop off in Ft. Lauderdale—where the boys got the notion but none of the satisfaction of the family shooting up to Disney World, taking in the Magic Kingdom, and returning in time to catch their flight—the Garibaldi family disembarked at Norman Manley Airport. They instantly liked Jamaica, for unlike home it was warm. Not simply warm but a balmy eighty degrees—the blazing heat of a Chicago summer, and here it was winter. Gari vowed he could move here and live the rest of his life. He speculated to himself about shoe accounts on the island and wished he’d consulted the Agency Redbook before he left. Much better than L.A. and smaller too. He counted this as good, as he felt he was less likely to get himself into a jam in a small town.

Small country. Small city. No car necessary. Which is why the Garibaldi family rocked and rolled, steamed and sweated, argued and cussed during the twenty-seven-mile jaunt from the airport to the Hilton Kingston in downtown. (When he’d booked their rooms, he’d suffered an attack of fear chills. Was he fatally attracted to Hilton Hotels? Were they inevitably fatal to him? This would be the test. Make it a week in the Hilton Kingston and he’d be free of whatever curse had befallen him. It was a safe bet; he would be with his family.)

His first question when they’d pulled away from Manley was:  Where are the quaint and winding roads? They bounced into town in a sedan pleading for shocks on a four-lane highway that could have been Lake-Cook Road, if it weren’t for the palm trees and the heat and the ruts. His second question, when they arrived in town, was:  Where did this city come from? Emily’s response was, “It’s Kingston, Gari. It’s not Kingstown, you know.” He was tempted to demolish her remark with a smart aleck rejoinder; but they were on vacation, and, anyway, he was a blank, startled mindless by the mini-metropolis.

The Hilton wasn’t quite opulent; but it was big and delighted the boys who wanted to explore and get at it the second their little toes touched down on the grounds.

Gari, acting like the rich man he’d suddenly become, had booked them a two-bedroom suite. It cost a fortune and he knew, regardless of his lottery annuity and his greatly increased salary, paying the bill at the end of the week would hurt; but seeing Emily weep with joy and the boys careening around the miniature apartment like pint-size dervishes convinced him the outlandish expense was worth it. The place was loaded with restaurants, meeting rooms, and a large swimming pool. Emily said, “It’s got everything, Gari. We don’t have to leave here if we don’t want to.” The boys squealed that the hotel was great and they didn’t ever want to leave, and why couldn’t they have something like this at home. Gari thought, Disney World indeed!

On the dawn of their first day, wanderlust seized the family. We’re here, they agreed, so why not take in the place, though the boys yelped adventuring was okay as long as they returned in the afternoon to play in the pool. They visited Emancipation Park, quickly cruised around the Royal Botanic Gardens, and popped in and out of shops, where Emily and the boys bought two bags of souvenirs and gifts for family, friends, and mere acquaintances. Here was a woman gone wild—with money and sex. The first night, after tucking in the boys, she called room service for a bottle of champagne and finger food. She insisted they consume the goodies in bed in the all together, interspersed with vigorous lovemaking. He begged off the second night, claiming the day had exhausted him, which was the truth. The third day they rented a car and drove to Ocho Rios. He took the boys snorkeling. She excused herself from this activity because she didn’t care for the water, especially disliked salt water, and wasn’t a skilled swimmer, or any manner of swimmer for that matter; she was a pool floater.

By the fourth day, he truly was exhausted. He might have been less of a slacker since good fortune had smiled on him, but still he wasn’t much of a family vacation guy. Staring into blackness the third night, he calculated he’d taken three full vacations since their marriage, all of them before the birth of Teddy. After Teddy, it was a long weekend here and there. He’d been a slacker who liked doing his slacking at the office and in the city, away from his family. Now here he was a workaholic on the longest vacation of his life stranded on an island with his family, just at the halfway point, and yearning for a little isolation.

At breakfast, he said, “You know, Larry can be an SOB.”

“Sure. You’ve told me. What he’d do this time?” asked Emily.

“He wasn’t happy with me taking a vacation. Of course, he agreed I needed it. I deserved it. But he couldn’t spare me.”

“Well, Gari, it is nice to be wanted.”

“Vital,” he corrected. “I’m not complaining, Emily. Not about that. But that Larry, he had the audacity to suggest I take some time to check out the shoe business here in Jamaica.”

“They have a shoe business here? I thought it was tourism. People like us dropping American dollars like paper clippings. And aluminum. I think I read they do something with aluminum down here.”

“Shoe stores. He thought I might take a morning, an afternoon, something like that to see if they have a shoe chain like Lubeck’s.”

“You’re pulling my leg, right?”

“Come on. You know Larry. Doesn’t it sound just like him?”

She munched thoughtfully on mango she scooped from her breakfast fruit bowl. Gari found everything about her eating irritating—the way the juice dripped from the spoon, how she gripped the spoon, her habit of masticating the fruit by squeezing in her mouth, contorting her face sourly. He hadn’t paid much attention to these mannerisms before this breakfast, but suddenly he itched as he watched her consume her meal. What an herbivore she’d become!

“Well?” he prompted, a bit of irritation creeping in.

“I guess,” she finally acknowledged. He thought she gave him a squirrelly look.

“It’ll only be today. Christ, it’s work that’s paying for this.” He waved a hand to indicate the breakfast, the hotel, the trip, her upkeep. “You can lounge at the pool. You deserve the rest. Hey, isn’t that what a vacation’s about? The boys will love it.”

After signing for breakfast, Gari busted free for several hours, maybe an entire day, of aloneness from what had begun feeling like the yoke of his life. He suppressed that notion in favor of one more agreeable and to his mind more the truth:  He loved his family, and he loved his wife, but for the sake of his sanity he had to get away occasionally.

He strolled over to downtown directly after breakfast and was parading down Spanish Town Road by ten, and was grasping for something to occupy him by ten-fifteen, and by eleven he planted himself on a bench, forlorn, considering flagging a taxi, returning to the hotel, and camping at the pool with the family. Maybe two hours was all a man could endure. Maybe he was more married, more tied to the rhythm of family living than he’d supposed? Or perhaps he needed somebody like Catherine or Loretta in old Kingston town to enliven his vacation?

He was pitched forward staring at his shoes possessed by these ramblings and cooking in the sun, when a shadow descended over him. He looked up to see if a cloud had blocked the Jamaican sun. It would have been a first since their arrival and, he imagined, a big story on an island where nothing much seemed to happen that he could see, though the local news in the Daily Gleaner was pretty much like back home, with the added spice of revolutionaries lurking about on the island.

Lifting his head, he glimpsed bare feet, the shade of dark chocolate, dressed in spiked sandals, pink and very bright against the skin. His eyes drifted up over shapely legs, and a bright pink sundress suspended on strings tied in bows over lovely broad shoulders. The little pink dress draped over small, firm breasts, which, from politeness, he didn’t linger on, though this was truly his desire. He shifted quickly to the face. It was pleasantly ovoid and the features generous but in balance with their setting—mouth slightly too wide but offset by fullness; nose long but daintily flared at the nostrils; eyes large but housed in linear sockets; and crowned with glorious, causally curled red hair that looked almost natural. He settled his gaze on the eyes. They were rich green, nearly emerald in quality, bright, matching the island flora.

“Excuse me,” she said, “but are you American?” Her voice was British and only slightly corrupted with Jamaican patois.

“Yes,” he said, consciously suppressing his natural tendency to utter a sloppy yeah. “I’m American.”

“An important American businessman?”

“I’m an American businessman, sure, but I don’t know how important I am.” He praised himself for the deprecation. “Why do you ask?”

“I’m a student attending the University of the West Indies.”

She could be, he conceded. She was young, no more than twenty he guessed.

“What are you studying?” Perhaps the male anatomy?

“American Capitalism.”

“Oh, business. I studied business in college.”

“No, American Capitalism. Are you an American capitalist? You have the appearance of one.”

“What’s an American capitalist supposed to look like?”

“Like you. Your little belly,” she said, ogling his mid-section, “says you’re well-fed, happy.”

He rubbed his stomach involuntarily. It was getting out of hand, and he’d have to do something about it, maybe after vacation. “That’s bad?”

“Only when you eat all the food, use all the energy, and rape the world to keep yourself fat and happy. You Americans have raped Jamaica, you know.”

“We have? I thought the British did all the raping in these parts.”

“You’re making a joke. But I am not laughing.”

“Sorry,” he said, trying to impress her as meek and properly castigated. “Obviously, you haven’t studied the tourist industry.” He blew it, but he couldn’t help himself. Next thing she’ll tell me, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro were saints.

“Oink, oink,” she snorted. From her with a British twist, the piggy imitation was comical, and he struggled to push the urge to laugh down his throat. It tickled like hell.

“Lots of American kids would agree with you.” He wondered why he was continuing this conversation. But he knew:  green eyes, chocolate skin, hot pink. She was irresistible and a conscious blocker. Catherine, Loretta, guilt, all was forgotten.

“I have a project involving American Capitalism. I am writing a report for my class and I must interview an American capitalist.”

“You want to interview me?”

“If you’re a big American capitalist.”

Gari emitted a smirking laugh. “They don’t get much bigger than me. You know, I’m in the business that gave American Capitalism its reputation. I mean, mine’s the business that puts a happy face on American Capitalism.”

“You’re an American solicitor? A lawyer?”

“Please, just because you don’t like American Capitalism, you don’t have to insult me, now do you?”

“I despise American Capitalism, and I can do as I please.”

“Okay, sure thing, if you say so. You’re still interested?”

“Yes,” she said impatiently. “I have a mission.”

“Mission?”

“The mission is my report,” she said smoothly and with a grace she hadn’t exhibited since she’d approached him. “What is your job?”

“I’m an advertising executive.”

She smiled. “You are an American capitalist. You make people buy junk they don’t need.”

“Quite an indictment. We prefer to think of it as making people aware of products that will enrich their lives.” But the truth of it was she was pretty much correct. After all, who needed two or three pairs of cheap Lubeck’s Shoes? Not many. Not anybody, really. But they thought they did, because of him. Damn, he did feel good about it. He was doing his job, and doing it very well indeed, regardless of what this chocolate morsel thought with her American Capitalism attitude.

After harrumphing him, she said, “You will be perfect.”

“I’m happy,” he said, truly happy.

CHAPTER 19:  REVOLUTIONARIES

They introduced themselves in the jitney. He initiated the exchange with his everyman invitation, “Just call me Gari.” She said her name was Patricia and brushed off his prompt for a last name as unnecessary.

“Ah,” he retorted, attempting wit, “family names are a sorry American Capitalist tradition, no doubt.”

“On the contrary,” she demurred, “they are a pitiful commentary on the world, Mr. Garibaldi. They insolate people into small groups, where they consider their own needs greater than the good of all the people.”

“Gari, remember? Call me Gari.”

“Of course, Mr. Garibaldi, you appear to suffer from this unfortunate viewpoint more than most.”

He said, her irony missing him by a mile, “Gari. And why me more than others?”

“You are not simply an American. You are Italian-American, and the people of your ancestral country are notorious for placing family on a pedestal, family above all.”

Not much offended Gari these days, and certainly not when he was pursuing treasure; however, this young, extremely sexy woman was now strumming hard on his nerves. He wondered if what he expected would be worth it, and yes, Mr. Garibaldi was offended, truly so.

“Okay, what about the Spanish?” he demanded, confusing founding ancestry. Jamaica was in the Caribbean, wasn’t it? “They have pretty high regard for family.”

Ignoring his misplaced reference, she said, “And look at South America.”

This sent him into a mental stumble. What the hell did she mean? Oppression? Repression? Conquest? Revolution? Poverty? Maybe he’d have to dig up a copy of Nostromo to figure her out. But he was losing sight of his purpose.

They were trading barbs in a jitney wending through Kingston’s suburbs to her house. He knew their destination because he’d asked for the benefit of the jitney driver. He assumed he was on good and progressively better footing with her. Going to her house. For what purpose? To show him how well Jamaicans lived? To impress him with her decorating skills? He hadn’t thought so. Their intentions and expectations had been aligning as he’d hoped, until the prickly jitney exchange.

He tacked to the best course of action and raised his hands. “I surrender.”

“As you well should, Mr. Garibaldi.”

Reconsidering, he cautioned himself that weakness wasn’t attractive in a man. Therefore, perhaps conceding to her wasn’t advisable. He adopted silence as his new tactic. Let her do the talking; that was the ticket.

The next thing she said, after a few minutes of silence and winding through suburban streets that struck him as poor, or tacky if he was in a generous mood, was:  “This is my place.”

Her house and the others were close to each other. They were ranch houses of stucco over cinderblock and painted—well once painted—a uniform tan, now just dinginess that varied by degree from house to house.

Gari’s contribution:  “Driver, stop here.” He paid what might have been a fair or as easily an exorbitant fare; whichever, it was nothing to him, and to demonstrate this to Patricia, and mix in a little respect for the power of American Capitalism, he tipped the driver half the fare. She noticed, evidenced by her sneer and snicker. She was a hard case but in an oh so beautiful pink package. He coined her:  Patricia Pink.

They crawled from the jitney onto a worn dirt path leading to the front door. It was dulled colorless and splintered and opened into a modest room that by its furnishings—a rattan sofa and a chrome leg table with four matching chairs, a fifties kitchen suite—served as the main living area. A doorway in the back opened into a small galley kitchen, and there was door on a sidewall, closed when they entered. He assumed it opened into the bedroom.

“You have a bathroom I can use?” It had been a long ride and the coffee he’d drunk earlier knocked on his bladder door for release.

“Of course we have a bathroom. We aren’t completely uncivilized.”

“I didn’t mean …” Why bother excusing himself when he meant nothing more than he had to go? If she had to politicize something as common and human as pissing, then to hell with her.

“Is it in there?” he asked, pointing to the door on the wall.

“That’s the bedroom.”

“You have a roommate?” he asked, circumnavigating the room to sedate his urgency.

“No.”

“Do you have a bathroom in there?”

“Of course.”

“Listen, I don’t want to sound crude or be rude, but if I don’t get to a bathroom … well the consequences will be disastrous.”

She motioned at the door and nodded.

He thanked her and exited into the bedroom with as much decorum as a man could muster heading to the john under the scrutiny of a college woman. Virility was one thing; excretion was all-together another. It made him appear ordinary, when extraordinary was his goal.

The room was tiny, barely sufficient for the double bed crammed into it, and the night table, chipped blond veneer with faded black accent paint, modeled after a style popular in the U.S. in the fifties. On the bed was a bare mattress. It was spotted so as to confirm his image of Patricia’s true vocation and trigger sensations of disgust and the overwhelming conviction to thank her for her time and recall the jitney.

The bathroom had begun its life as white. When Gari entered, it was gray and brown; and it would have made him retentive had the coffee not been pressuring him beyond endurance and pissing hadn’t been the only business he had to conduct. After relieving himself, he covered the distance between the bathroom and the bedroom door in two strides, and in that small hop decided to tell Patricia he was sick. He settled on general, vague illness as sufficient to get him out of the house without too much effort. That she might prefer him to leave didn’t occur to him.

Reentering the main room, he saw he’d have to concoct another and more forceful excuse. Patricia and three other people confronted him. Two were men, both tall, rangy, ebony, in bright-hued pants, one wearing red, the other green, yellow flip-flops on their feet, loose rayon shirts imprinted with wacky floral patterns draped on their loose frames. The woman was short and fat and covered by a moo-moo. Her head was round and big and connected directly to her shoulders without benefit of a neck. She also wore flip-flops, pink her color choice. The man in the bright green pants, who Gari noted with fear, revulsion, and revelation that perhaps these were not mere friends of Patricia, sported a jagged, raw scar zigzagging down the exact middle of his face, rendering the tip of his nose and his lower lip cleaved. This morbid mask was scarier than what the man gripped in his hand. The object was a pistol, a little black block that could have passed for a toy, or a slab of licorice that the man carried about as a snack.

Gari’s thoughts rampaged in this order:  This is a joke, little Patty’s way of driving home her point, whatever the point was. The pair were robbers who found their way into the house and were sticking up him and her. These were her parents and uncle who either, a) resented his presence in their happy abode, or b) decided he intended raping Patricia and wished to take their revenge before the fact, or c) suspected their daughter and niece had, was, or would betray the family’s honor and elected to prevent her from doing so.

None were correct. The two men and the woman were not relatives but accomplices and the crime they were perpetrating was merely tangentially related to robbery. As Patricia eloquently phrased it:  “Mr. Garibaldi, you are a prisoner of the Jamaican Freedom Alliance. We accuse you of capitalist terrorism and perpetrating crimes against the Jamaican people.” She declaimed her accusation curtly, concluding by clamming up and signaling the men to seize him.

Before the man in the green pants had transferred the pistol—which Gari persisted in speculating might be a toy or food while he castigated himself as a grand idiot for allowing what was about to happen happen—to the black fireplug of a woman, Gari squealed, “Now wait a minute here.”

The men seized him and shoved him into the bedroom, where the one in red produced several lengths of mangy rope. He tied Gari’s wrists with the longest length. He wrapped the excess around Gari’s chest, binding his arms to his side. Then he shoved Gari onto the bed, which Gari found eclipsed the cinching in horror as the mattress was fouled, fearfully resembling a cultured petri dish, an artifact from the Kinsey research labs. With the shorter rope, he bound Gari’s ankles and took his Lubeck’s shoes. Gari’s response to this burst of restraining activity was:  “Patricia, what the hell is going on?” Her response was to signal the men from the room, retreat herself, and slam the door on him.

Though the bed was a breeding ground, at least he wasn’t as uncomfortable as if they’d tossed him on the floor; but the rope bit into his wrists and ankles and he wished he’d had the presence of mind to have configured his joints oddly like spies did in movies when they’d begun trussing him. Several minutes passed, though these constituted anything but ordinary time. These increments crept like hours. It was one thing to waste away time in your own bedroom or your office—God and his associates knew he’d been an expert malingerer; but these empty bedroom seconds and minutes transformed to eternal ticks of time, the old Chinese water torture treatment of time, tormenting with agonizing voids between drips, and in duration seemingly endless; very, very long, like the elongation of the word “long” where the writer sticks in a dozen O’s.

By the end of the first hour or two, which in actual time were his first ten minutes on the bed, he broke out in a profuse sweat, his muscles tightened, and involuntary tremors caused his legs and arms to bounce spasmodically. Strangely, as this should have been his first concern when the man in green pants had flashed the pistol, he finally grew anxious about his situation. No doubt about it, Patricia did not care for Americans and found capitalism, the underpinning of America, what distinguished Americans from others, repugnant. It seemed odd to him now, bound on her bed like fowl awaiting slaughter, that he found her and her tirade regarding his status as an American capitalist and despoiler of all pure and holy in a world otherwise better operated under an atavistic regime of her and her cohorts amusing.

Wallowing in his expanding pool of sweat and fright, he laughed uncontrollably recalling how badly he’d misread her intentions. The irony was stark and limpid:  She’d been forthright with him. Well, perhaps a little circumspect in that she didn’t flat out reveal to him she was luring him to his kidnapping—or at least he hoped this confinement was a kidnap and not simply out and out wholesale butchery to make a nutty revolutionary point to a world of people who might listen for a tenth of a second before munching down their pizzas, playing their Gameboys, watching their movies, grabbing naps, moving their bowels; he’d interpreted her orneriness as playing hard to get. After all, what woman in her right mind, especially when from a land of squalor, would pass up the opportunity to play with a rich American? Who knew what good would come of it? Yes, he’d been wrong; but, damn, it was understandable.

Gari figured the best he could hope for was a plain, old-fashioned kidnapping, where the kidnappers demanded ransom, the loved ones paid it, and the victim walked. Sometimes the kidnappers mutilated their captives. He was dredging the muck of his mind for an example and the best he could extract was Getty. What Getty, when and where? Paul rang a bell, and Italy too, where they flew off the handle regularly. It had been a Getty kid and his captors lobbed off an ear and mailed it to the rich and pathetically cheap family.

But, this was a new era—the era of the full-fledge run amuck terrorists who sawed off heads to make pointless points to which few acceded. Reflecting, it dawned on him:  Patricia hadn’t been bantering with him; she hadn’t been teasing him; what had transpired between them hadn’t been verbal footsies. She’d been serious. He was an American Capitalist. She wasn’t a student, unless it was of Castro and Marx and the whole discredited gang of communists. She was a revolutionary. This realization engendered several violent leg thrusts and a couple of arm twists, all of which served no purpose other than to hurt him.

Thing was he’d never heard of a Jamaican revolution. He couldn’t recall seeing anything in the papers or on television. He’d booked the trip and spent at least several minutes reading up on affairs on the island. He’d even glanced at the Gleaner. Sure the place had crime, yet what place didn’t? But it was the normal stuff. People robbing each other, stealing cars, killing each other over drugs, while drunk, the usual run-of-the-mill mayhem. There hadn’t been a word about revolution.

Twisting on the bed wasn’t accomplishing much more than the rope cutting into his wrists and ankles. He hoped he wasn’t doing permanent damage. Thinking negatively, as he was, he’d simply depress himself, and then what good would he be to himself? While they’d bound him, they hadn’t gagged him. He looked over to the window. It was brown with dirt and, worse, closed. He could yell for help, but would anybody hear him, except for his captors, who he assumed would not be pleased to hear him screeching? He didn’t precisely know what retribution they would inflict upon him, but that it would be unpleasant—he successfully repressed words like “brutal,” “vicious,” and “inhuman”—of that he had no doubt.

As he writhed and sweated and whimpered and mentally tormented himself, the door cracked open. He responded by stopping suddenly, though halting the twitching of his muscles was beyond his powers. Patricia stuck her head in and flashed her green eyes at him. He railed at the knowledge that she should be in the bed with him, and there should be clean sheets covering the mattress, and each should be freshly showered with her fragrant with jasmine and with him nuzzling her breasts on his way to licking the moist valley between them.

She said, “I trust you aren’t too uncomfortable, Mr. Garibaldi.”

“What’s the idea?” he demanded.

“The idea is to have your rich American capitalist friends buy you back for a handsome fee that we will use to wage revolution against you.”

“You’re nuts.”

“Tsk, tsk, Mr. Garibaldi, you know as well as I nuts is exactly what I am not. But, I have doubts about my colleagues.”

Suddenly in the throes of sphincter puckering, he exclaimed, “They’re nuts?”

“No, not exactly. They are committed revolutionaries who care less about the money they’d get than your symbolic value.”

“Huh?” was his pithy rejoinder.

“I’m sure you’ll understand that as the epitome of American Capitalist excessiveness your example would make a powerful point about the ultimate fate of your type and show the people the depth of our commitment to freeing them from your oppressive ways.” She radiated devotional adore as she spoke, which he knew something of having attended church with Emily for several years until his faith fell by the wayside due mainly to resentment over their poverty and her penny-pinching penchant. His religious period illustrated clearly the devoted could be raving lunatics about a cause.

Lush with revolutionary love as it was, Patricia’s answer struck him as roundabout and dense and a failure at imparting good feelings; however, any threat he sensed was vague. His problem was now similar to that of an ill patient in conference with his doctor: Did he really want to know his fate? He decided lying on the bed in partial ignorance was preferable.

What he liked mattered not a wit to Patricia, who said, “Naturally, the symbolic act is your execution. The question my colleagues are discussing is the method of your demise and how to maximize its media value.”

“You can’t be serious. You’re not going to kill me.”

“I, no. My colleagues, Mr. Garibaldi. That’s part of the problem with you Americans. You talk over people and don’t listen. If Americans listened more, perhaps you would not be in this situation today.”

“Patricia, come on, kill for what, wanting a little … you know?”

“Tail, Mr. Garibaldi. I’ve studied your American slang. One must understand her enemy to conquer him. True, is it not?”

Gari felt foolish carrying on a conversation with a woman dressed in pink and he tied up like a plucked turkey, a mindless victim, an example, a precious revolutionary symbol, a bloody diatribe against everything he’d come to embrace and revel in over the past couple of months. Thus was born inspiration.

“Patricia, I’m not a capitalist. I’m a working slob like everybody else. This is all a big mistake.”

“Everyday slobs, Mr. Garibaldi, do not display the arrogance you do.”

“Listen, really, I am a working stiff. Stiff as they come. My wife, she shops at Wal-Mart for Christ’s sake. I’m talking Wal-Mart here.”

“As a Wal-Mart shopper, you are a terrible abuser of the people. Your patronage simply encourages the proprietors to dole slave wages to the people who manufacture what you consume.”

“All right, look, obviously I’m not explaining this properly. Entirely my fault for not being clear. Here let me try this:  the lottery. Yeah?”

“We have a lottery in Jamaica. Yet another way to pilfer from the people.”

“Yeah, okay, maybe so. I played the damned thing for years. Thought I’d win someday. Didn’t really believe it. And then, wham, I’m an Illinois millionaire. No American Capitalism involved whatsoever. Just plain, blind, stupid luck. Could have happened to anybody. Could have happened to you, Patricia.”

“I doubt it, Mr. Garibaldi, as I never squander money on games devised to placate the people and divert them from their duty of overthrowing tyranny.”

“Sure, okay, but the point is I’m not an American Capitalist. Honestly, Patricia, I wouldn’t know the first thing about oppressing people. I mean the people.”

She smiled almost benignly. “American capitalists exhibit a common trait, Mr. Garibaldi. By your actions, I’m certain you are quite well versed in it.”

He devoted a few seconds of what was beginning to feel like a greatly shortened life span in an attempt at making heads or tails of her statement. He gave up and confessed, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Just this, Mr. Garibaldi:  Deception. You cannot lie here and claim you are not a practitioner of deception. Certainly not after what you had planned for me.”

More inscrutability. It seemed to be her specialty. He shook his head, partly from frustration and partly because he didn’t know how to answer her.

“You claim your intention in returning here with me had anything to do with my project? Please, Mr. Garibaldi, we both know why you returned here, and what you now wish was occurring on that bed.”

“For Christ’s sake,” he yelled, frustrated that this woman wouldn’t listen to reason.

“We’ll let you know our decision,” she said, again smiling pleasantly as she closed the door on him.

He discovered he was both drenched in sweat and exhausted by his exchange with his pink-clad revolutionary mistress. He worked on calming his nerves. He wouldn’t find an exit unless he was clear-headed. Relaxing was the key.

But the idea was easier thought than executed, especially when the murmur of voices injected with occasional shouts reached him. No doubt they were discussing him, and the need to know their plans for his fate overwhelmed his desire to drop back in the bed and retreat into sleep. He resumed his struggle and discovered the bindings on his ankles had loosened. With effort reinvigorated by stark fear, he was able to slacken them sufficiently to free his feet. He labored over his arms and wrists for a while. He loosened them but not enough to free himself.

Meanwhile, the conversation beyond the door grew more heated. He couldn’t make out what they were saying and this raised his level of desperation and panic. His feet were free and he figured that was enough for him to get closer to the shouting match and maybe hear what they had in store for him.

He twisted his body and swung his legs over the side and padded to the door and planted his telephone ear against it. Everybody has one, and he found he always eavesdropped best with his. Yet even with his best ear firmly on the door, he had difficulty understanding everything the men said about him. The women, though, spoke distinctly with British lilts, and what they said nearly caused him to empty his bladder and colon then and there.

“I believe we can learn from our Middle Eastern brothers,” said the fireplug woman.

The men yelled indistinguishably.

“Removing his head would certainly get the world’s attention. But my fear is it has been overdone. Beheadings these days are common.” Patricia rendered this observation in a cool, clinical manner, as a student in a lab might discuss her approach to her latest dissection.

The fireplug woman offered, “Perhaps we could do something novel with the head. I’m thinking we place it on the steps of the U.S. Embassy. If good fortune shines on us, the U.S. ambassador will trip over it in the morning and perhaps damage something vital.” She uttered these words with a nonchalance that turned Gari’s glued ear soggy with additional buckets of fearful sweat.

Shouting ensured, which Gari concluded was the tone and volume the two men used to converse. For all their loudness, Gari could not understand a word they said, though it must have had an impact on the women, as a hush descended on the other side of the door.

At first, this frightened Gari. They’d made their decision and now were preparing to enter the bedroom and separate his head from his body. He was sure he heard silverware clattering, as if they were in the tiny kitchen rummaging for a suitable knife. He resumed his furious effort at freeing his arms and hands. He’d been at this long enough to burn his arms and wrists and loosen the binding a bit, when Patricia spoke.

“It is different.”

More loudly delivered patois from the men followed. This time Gari was certain he understood at least one word, as the men repeated it several times. “Balls” they shouted. They hadn’t struck him as cricket types. He settled on soccer. But for the life of him, he didn’t understand what soccer had to do with him.

“Hmmm,” said the fireplug woman, “yes, it has possibilities. I’ll volunteer to do it, too. You men are all cowardly bastards.”

Patricia admonished her. “You can’t allow your personal feelings to interfere with what is best for the cause and the people.”

“Believe me, it is best for the women of the revolution. We revolutionary women will be inspired to greater fervor,” said the fireplug woman, igniting in harsh laughter.

Patricia observed, “But it will be such a bloody mess.”

The men immediately shouted, to which Patricia said, “Yes, I understand.” She was silent for a second, as if she was subjecting their comment to further contemplation, when she said, with a concerned timbre he was hearing for the first time, “But you think they are large enough?”

Of course Gari was outraged. First they wanted to geld him and drain him as if he were a pig. Then Patricia served up the insult that he might be small, insignificant, too diminutive to have the impact this band of deranged revolutionaries desired. Catherine had no complaints about his balls or any other part of him. Nor did Loretta, who still inspired excitement in him, while sending shivers up and down his spine and thoughts of a bastard child sprouting in the California sun. Even Emily, who always, until recent times, seemed to enjoy criticizing him, never complained about this aspect of him, though he wondered during the sexual drought years if she had been aware there had been more to him than an inadequate paycheck. He demonstrated his fury in the empty room by breathing hard and snorting.

The fireplug woman blurted, “In this instance, size is of no consequence, eh boys. The very sight of them hanging from the embassy doorknob—tied prettily with pink ribbon, I think, eh—will fill the American men with terror.”

The men mumbled support of the fireplug’s observation, and Patricia conceded that perhaps this was an excellent idea, and the decorative touch was nice, too. It would show these all-powerful American capitalists they were as vulnerable as the poor people they used.

The fireplug barked, “I have already said I will do it, and with glee. You bash him.”

Shouting erupted. Gari swore he heard Red Stripe yelled several times. Nobody rummaged in the kitchen, as it was probably empty. But after Patricia said, “Here,” the front door swung open hard, shaking the house, and the herd exited quickly. He knew the men had exited. He was almost sure that fireplug had followed them. He wasn’t sure of Patricia. She didn’t seem the type to guzzle beer, whether to work up revolutionary courage or simply devolve into drunken insensibility. But, then, he did admit he hadn’t suspected she was more than a young girl on the make. So, while he had a hunch she’d left with the crowd, if only to protect her interest—that is, leading them back to the house to make a sacrificial example of him—his track record with her had been abysmal. It was entirely possible she was on the opposite side of the door with her ear glued listening to him breathing.

He strained to hear her. All was silent on the other side.

He padded away from the door and sat on the edge of the bed. There was the window. If he could untie his hands, escape would be simple. But he’d been working them the entire time he listened to his captors debate the fate of his manhood. The room was bare, containing not even a lamp. The mattress was stripped and rested on a rickety wooden frame. Continuing to struggle with his bindings, he went into the bathroom. It was gray, rusty, and bare. Not even a sliver of soap he might use to grease the cruddy rope securing his hands. And then he noticed the medicine chest in the wall above the sink. This hadn’t caught his eye earlier and he very well might have missed it again if he’d allowed his disgust with the room to curtail his search. He’d nearly missed it because its mirror had been removed, leaving it to blend in with the debilitated décor of the room.

Gary bent toward the cabinet. He opened the glassless door with his chin. He stared at the bottom shelve and his salvation. It was an ordinary object, a simple water glass, but it held the power to free him. It was a dirty little glass, smudged gray and brown, matching the bathroom. To his eye, it didn’t look real. It could be plastic.

He turned his back to the cabinet and hoisted his arms high, but succeeded in touching only the lower frame. He bent as much as he could in the small space, rested his arms, and wondered how those Vietnam War prisoners endued torture like this:  arms trussed behind their backs and jacked up, confined in tight, inhuman spaces.

He felt stronger after the rest and was more willing to risk pain to snatch the glass. He positioned his back and hands toward the cabinet. He leaned forward and pulled his arms up until he felt the lower shelf. He was cocked so far forward he feared he might teeter and crack his head open on the fouled toilet. But he held true and was able to grab the glass—and it was glass—by its lip.

Carefully, with his back to the sink, he tapped the glass against the rim of the bowl. Nothing happened. He sucked a breath and hit harder and was rewarded with the sound of tinkling glass. He allowed the glass bottom he held to slide into the sink and then turned to see what he had. It was jagged and big enough to grip. He turned again, retrieved it, and commenced sawing his bindings. This process required more effort and time than he had supposed it would, and as he slashed and slashed he envisioned the men and the fireplug returning, tanks filled with Red Stripe verve and revolutionary ambition before he’d succeeded in slicing one rope; or Patricia might conclude whatever was engaging her and discover him in the act of freeing himself.

But none of that happened. He shed the rope in bathroom sink and walked gingerly into the bedroom, where he pressed his ear to the door. All was quiet on the other side, and he wondered if he might safely open the door and escape out the front. Patricia stopped him. He wasn’t sure of where she was. He decided it was best to leave through the bedroom window.

He went to it. He tried peering out, but it was encrusted with dirt and loathsome to touch. He searched the room for anything he might use to break it and found himself again in the bathroom. He took the cut rope from the sink and wrapped it around his hand. He struck softly at the wall with his fist and determined the rope would protect him from the glass. He drew a deep breath. He held it and listened for sounds in and outside the house. Then he shattered the window with his fist. He cleared away the jagged shards, shook off the protective rope, and scrambled out into daylight.

He didn’t wait to see if Patricia charged out the front door, or if the rest of the band appeared marching up the street. He darted down the street, intersected with a larger street, and discovered a bus stop, where, to his good fortune, a bus had just pulled up and people were boarding. He made it in time to catch it and reached for his wallet and to his utter amazement found it in his back pocket. That he discovered it there was pure relief, as the entire time he’d forgotten it was there, or was too preoccupied to realize it was there, or simply had assumed the revolutionaries more competent than they’d been.

Gari rode the bus to a thoroughfare. There he caught a taxi and was back at the Hilton in plenty of time for cocktails.

CHAPTER 20:  A SECRET

Gari was in the Hilton’s Japanese restaurant, which struck him as odd as Jamaica and the Caribbean seemed plenty exotic to him, with Emily, Teddy, and Sammy. He was sipping his second Sapporo. He’d gulped the first, eliciting a frown and restrained admonishment from Emily. He excused himself by damning the heat and running around examining shoe stores. Sorry, but he was parched.

Emily’s subtle antagonism began before the beers. When he’d arrived back at their room to find his family napping and awakened them, she’d expressed surprise at his foot ware.

After the bus had deposited him downtown in familiar surroundings, he’d dashed into the nearest shoe emporium. He couldn’t say what possessed him. Perhaps the revolutionaries had influenced him more than he’d supposed. He’d bought a pair of sunshine yellow flip-flops. He’d worn them with his black socks. This was both uncomfortable and made the flip-flops appear intensely yellow. No, he honestly couldn’t say why he’d bought them or why he hadn’t removed his socks. Obviously, he concluded, he’d been confused.

However, as Emily would never accept befuddlement as a reason, he’d told her it had to do with his long day of shoe store research. He’d suggested they grab a drink, buying fabrication time.

It was during the course of his second Sapporo, he launched into his story.

“I was in my fifth store, and believe me, Emily, these stores are more like shops. You know, shops are smaller than stores and their selection is limited. Shops are what they have here. They’re nice for a little casual tourist shopping. But, my God, outfitting a family like ours. They’re simply inadequate. But I’m getting a bit off track here. Okay, by the fifth shop I said, ‘Let’s see how they handle the sales process.’  It was a test, what we call a live test, so I had to buy something. The prices for shoes, my God, Emily, you’d flip. They are ridiculous. It’s probably because they have to ship in everything. Never live on an island. I guess that’s the lesson. That’s why I bought these. Cheap. I don’t mean they were cheap by our standards, just cheaper than other shoes I could have bought.”

He drifted to a stop after this, believing he did an excellent job of explaining his yellow flip-flops. But apparently not, as she prompted, “And?”

What he wanted to say was, “And what?” Instead, he plunged into why Lefton & Associates couldn’t work with Jamaican shoe stores. “They don’t get marketing. Not one bit. They expect people to wander in. Databases, like the slick operation I set up for Victor Lubeck, forget it.”

She allowed him to babble in this vein for several minutes before yanking his reins. “No, Gari, I just want to know what you did with your shoes.”

This stunned him into silence, where he remained in for a minute, covering up by draining his Sapporo and ordering another. In the wake of the waiter’s departure, he said, “See what I mean about primitive in the marketing department. What a way to tick off a customer, keeping his shoes. It’s warm down here. I was tired of hot feet. I wanted to wear my new flip-flops and be cool. I guess in the excitement I forgot my shoes. But, you know, they should have reminded me, even chased me down the street if necessary.”

His third Sapporo arrived and he started on it immediately not so much because he wanted or needed it—the first two already had him on the verge of reeling. He used it to occupy his mouth, to prevent himself from spinning to furiously, spinning beyond Emily’s bounds of acceptance. He eyed her over the beer to gauge how well his tale had settled with her. Her countenance was placid and he noticed this calmness smoothed her face and increased her appeal. And, in turn, this set off familiar pangs of guilt. Nothing had happened; but something could have, and it would have if Patricia had been anything but a rabid capitalist-hater. He was beginning to feel sappy and feared he might lose lachrymal control.

“Hey, how about tomorrow we visit the Bob Marley Museum, boost our reggae knowledge?”

Immediately, the boys chimed, “We want to go swimming, swimming, swimming.”

“Sure,” he said, “swimming sounds good to me.”

Emily’s demeanor soured further. “We’ve been to the pool every day. We can go to Diamond Lake any day of the week. Tomorrow we’re getting out. Tonight we’ll find a nice restaurant away from the hotel.”

Teddy and Sammy bridled. “No, no, we like room service.”

Gari threw up his hands. “Some vacation.”

Emily gathered the boys to her. “Yes, Gari, some vacation where you go to work and then lose your shoes and show up in … neon flip-flops. Come on, boys, it’s been a long day. Time for bed.”

As they departed, Teddy’s high voice trailed back to him. “Can we get room service ice cream?”

Gari hoisted his glass at his disappearing family and contemplated a fourth Sapporo. He thought better of it, though, as he was fairly close to collapsing; also, he feared Patricia and her gelding squad might be scouring the streets for him. Best to lay low in front of a television.

Gari didn’t last long in the electron glow of the tube. He watched it from the sofa, while Teddy and Sammy clamored for their ice cream. On reflection, he figured he dropped off—passed out was what Emily called it—just as the waiter entered the room with three bowls of vanilla sitting in a mother ship of a bowl filled with chopped ice.

* * *

Bob Marley was to nobody’s taste, not even his. Everybody but Gari was in the mood to view flowers, which is how he found himself in the Hope Gardens in front of a towering palm that had earned plenty of amazement and praise from his family. He wondered how this botanic garden was any different or any better than Chicago Botanic Gardens not more than twenty minutes from their house. But, of course, here were palms, bamboo, pineapples, a zoo, and delicious heat, so all wasn’t lost.

He covered half the gardens with them and then flagged, to Emily’s annoyance as this was a family event and Gari was detracting from its wholesome value. Nonetheless, he begged off to read the Gleaner, which for a variety of reasons he’d been lugging since breakfast without scanning farther than the top front-page headline.

Flipping the paper, below the fold this headline stopped him cold:  Brit Reportedly Kidnapped. He sped through the story. The Brit’s name was Brian Newberry, a writer working on a screenplay, and he was seen last in Kingston Market. Some folks remembered him with an attractive young woman dressed cheerily in pink. A group calling itself the Jamaican Freedom Alliance was holding Mr. Newberry and demanding five million British pounds for his release. If the money wasn’t paid by Friday, they vowed to execute Mr. Newberry in, as the Gleaner phrased it, “a most horrible fashion.” Lowering the paper, Gari found two small children watching him intently and giggling. Unconsciously, but certainly understandably, he was massaging himself below the belt.

As he became aware of performing this easily misinterpreted act, a shadow descended over him. Looking into its source he discovered himself staring at Emily. Teddy and Sammy shuffled behind her. The boys reminded him of lighted bottle rockets seconds from bursting into roaring explosions. He couldn’t decide on Emily’s mood. Scowl of disgust might be appropriate. Perturbed surprise might cover it, too. Though it didn’t much matter, since whatever nuance he assigned it, anger underlay her glare.

Quickly, he flashed the Gleaner at her. “The bloody revolutionaries are going to cut off some bloody blokes balls.” Wasn’t life the human comedy, which more than implied that most situations, including the most serious, contained humor, or could be portrayed humorously? Didn’t people, for instance, laugh like hyenas at funerals in remembrance of the dearly departed, and in some societies do it while shit-faced? Wasn’t Emily aware of any of this? And didn’t the poor benighted woman appreciate the English twist and smart alliteration he imparted to his comment.

No, Emily did not.

“Gari Garibaldi, I don’t know what you’re thinking, and, frankly, I don’t care. You’re just one sick bastard.”

She swept the boys in front of her and pushed them off in the direction of the exit and the Hilton, no easy accomplishment as they had gone off and rolled along announcing to all who would listen, and most did, “Mommy and Daddy are fighting.” Their tone was singsong and it lingered in the sweet-scented botanical air well after they vanished.

Well, naturally, he’d have to make this up to Emily and the boys. He couldn’t blame her as he himself viewed his absent-minded reaction to the story as downright obscene. He was glancing again at the Gleaner’s reportage when a bigger boo-boo than his absent crotch grabbing riveted him. Nowhere in the story did the reporter mention what part of the anatomy the revolutionaries promised to remove. Yes, you could infer balls, if you had a bent to seeing the sexual in every nook and cranny of life. But, honestly, he knew that if Emily saw the story, she would not immediately think of testiectomy as a method of execution. Which would leave him to explain how he’d drawn this conclusion from the vague Gleaner statement. Fortunately, she hadn’t proved much of a reader on this trip, and the boys, in retrospect thankfully, had commandeered the television; anything but cartoons was anathema to them.

Gari’s mood was sour. He wasn’t in a hurry to return to the hotel and commence the mending cycle with Emily. He decided to walk the couple of miles to the Hilton and see something of Jamaica, maybe stop in the Bob Marley Museum because it was on his way and soak up a bit of Jamaican culture.

He progressed a quarter mile, passed shops, ducked into a shoe store just to be in a familiar place, when he sighted a flash of pink that shrunk his testicles to peas. He calmed himself with a little mental speech amounting to:  What were the odds? Actually, quite good, as Kingston wasn’t a big city; the entire country contained fewer people than Chicago and the city itself was no larger than a handful of suburban towns like Mundelein bunched together. In the supermarket, the Home Depot, at the movies, he was forever bumping into people he knew.

He admonished himself. He should grab a jitney and race back to the Hilton. But he wanted to be sure, and maybe even give her a piece of his mind, perhaps say a few words on behalf of the Brit her gang held. Patricia wasn’t to be feared, not on the street by herself without the fireplug and the two incoherent cohorts.

He dashed to the corner wondering how half the population of Jamaica could wear flip-flops or their equivalents; a man couldn’t get up a good head of steam if an emergency arose, and if he did takeoff he’d probably lose his flip-flops, or worse crash head-over-heels. In short, he was thankful he’d packed three pairs of shoes and that he’d retied securely before leaving the gardens.

At the corner, he watched Patricia Pink lope through the intersection and disappear down the street. He determined she was alone. He decided to pursue her. What he would do if he caught her was a vague and vacillating thought in his mind. He would grab her, he fantasized, and shake, rattle, and roll her to death. He’d procure an ugly serrated combat knife and eviscerate her as she looked down and screamed her commie head until it burst. But he was a gentle soul by nature and the image of these atrocities revolted him. No, he would grab her for certain, to attract and hold her attention; and then he would pour forth his disgust for her and her incompetent band of rebels in the bluest language he could muster. He finished rehearsing the verbal lashing halfway down the street, where he spied her idling in front of a store. Okay, he was too much of a gentleman to dress her down in public. What he’d do is sidle up to her and say hello and go from there after gauging her reaction.

Approaching, he eyed her carefully, ducking from sight whenever he detected she might be glancing in his direction. In this manner, he edged up to her. In his effort to surprise her, he failed to develop a shocking greeting, or even a mildly disturbing one for that matter. Next to her, his mouth near her ear, he had only, “Remember me?”

She leapt and cracked his lower jaw with her shoulder. The hard and bony shoulder jolted him.

“Mr. Garibaldi, you are indeed a fortunate man,” she said with unnerving evenness.

“I see I was replaceable,” he replied, his tone a mix of bitterness and sarcasm.

She regarded him icily. Though she was cold and heartless and would happily remove his most precious possessions in the blink of an eye, she was appealing. His eyes drifted from hers to settle on her chest and re-ignite his sexual curiosity:  He speculated on the size and texture of her nipples. The confrontation wasn’t proceeding as he’d anticipated.

“I don’t have an inkling of what you’re talking about, Mr. Garibaldi. Now, if you will excuse me, I have an appointment.”

“I’m wondering, Patricia,” he said, refocusing, shifting his gaze to the oversize bag she carried, “if you have Mr. Newberry’s balls in that.”

“Excuse me,” she said, taking a step away from him.

Gari grabbed her arm. “Whoa there, Patty.”

“Mr. Garibaldi, if you don’t release me this instant I’ll call for the police.”

“Please, be my guest. Then we can tell them about Mr. Newberry’s wonderful Jamaican accommodations. I’m sure they would find that interesting.”

“You did not notify the police? Why not, Mr. Garibaldi?” Her tone was loaded with suspicion, as if she felt herself verging on discovering a dark Garibaldi secret.

Oh, baby, I had my reasons, you’d better believe it, or your charming, good God and I do mean charming, ass would be in the Kingston hoosegow this very minute.

He smiled. “Well, I’ll tell you, Patricia, it’s like rape. Literally, I was shocked into insensibility, completely frozen and unable to act. But it’s worn off, and the police seem like the right thing to me.”

“Do as you please, Mr. Garibaldi. But release me or it will be you dealing with our police. Once they hear of your predatory sexual behavior toward an upright Jamaican woman who is a student at university—Mr. Garibaldi, the situation will not be pleasant for you.”

He relaxed his grip and she pulled her arm away violently.

“Perhaps I’ll have the pleasure again,” she said, departing rapidly.

“Can’t wait. Just remember:  I know where you live.”

His return to the hotel was a fog to him as he’d actively engaged himself in a debate the entire distance. Instead of the Hilton, he should head directly to the local police station and report her and the rest of her Jamaican Freedom Alliance. However, the police were a nosey bunch and certainly they would investigate how he became involved with Patricia Pink. His response would have been perfectly true:  She presented herself as a university student engaged in a research project, and he being an individual entirely dedicated to the education of today’s youth, especially beautiful female youth (no, he wouldn’t utter this, no, no) couldn’t say anything but yes. How was he to know she was a revolutionary and a leader to boot? But why return to her home with her? Hey, it was her idea. A cheap hotel room would have done nicely; or even the beach would have been preferable to the stained and mold-infested mattress on which her semiliterate associates had deposited him. This is to say his internal conversation was borderline irrational, rendering Gari Garibaldi manic upon his arrival at the Hilton.

While he knew it would be disagreeable to Emily, stopping at the bar for an anesthetic was absolutely necessary; otherwise, his encounter with Emily would rapidly degenerate into a rabid argument during which some aspect of his haphazardly woven web might give way. Mello and slightly depressed was the way to deal with the approaching situation.

He ensconced himself at the bar, downed two scotches, felt the better for them, and appeared in the room to find Emily putting the boys to for bed.  They were little combustion engines the entire day until in bed, where they dropped off instantly, as a motor cuts off when it exhausts its fuel. He knew they were good for the night, barring an unexpected and very loud event.

When Emily was in bed, he slipped in beside her. He lay still and quiet for several minutes. He listened to her breathe. She sounded as if she was considering each breath.

“Sorry,” he said.

“You should be. Hanging out in bars. What example are you setting for these boys?”

The boys were hardly aware of what a bar was. Their tiny psyches would be just fine. He wanted to tell her this; instead he agreed with her. It was easier. “It won’t happen again. I don’t know what I was thinking. It must have been the day. It was grueling.” If he could tell her how grueling.

She turned to him and stroked his face. “Gari, you’re forgiven.”

“You’re looking mighty good these day, Emily.”

He could make out her expression in the faint light seeping through the drawn curtains. “I was waiting for you to notice.”

He drew her to him. “Oh yeah, well I’m noticing now.”

He kissed her. She pushed against him gently. “What if the boys wake up?”

“The boys are like logs, and they’re in the other room. I could fall out of bed and bark like a mangy mutt and they’d never know the difference. What have you been doing anyway?”

“Nothing much. A little diet. Some exercise. A bit of vein removal.”

He nearly yelped at vein removal and she stifled him with a hand.

“Where did you get the idea for that?”

“TV. Those makeover TV shows. I figured if they could do it, why not?”

“Why not?” he repeated. “Well, for the record, I like this improved model.”

He quietly made love to his transformed wife, did bark a couple of time, and the boys did sleep undisturbed.

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.”

“Delirious.”

“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.”

“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.”

CHAPTER 22:  GOOD LUCK

What a Friday!  Gari cerebrally dandled ditching the office and heading home; and the old Gari, Gari the minion whose sole interest had been dodging work, laboring adequately to preserve his job, would have leapt at avoiding an extra second in the office. Not that home had held much appeal for him; he’d have been going to a tiny house in dreary Mundelein, Illinois, where it was cold and uninviting most of the year, to a woman who had been slapped around by life, who was as appealing as a winter day in the dingy town.

Times had changed, though, and now he was the boss. It wasn’t much of a staff, just five people and him occupying a quarter of a floor in a Century City tower. But it was his, and the staff thrived on his guidance, moved to his sage direction, blazed off his creative spark, and happily marched to his strong leadership. Naturally, the reality paled to his imagination, but the truth at the least was he had to set an example for his staff, and he had to be certain his creative team, the duo of Gyl and Kennie, weren’t overly exercising their gray matter, the result of which could be frightfully bizarre, as these young guys possessed and expressed a decidedly skewed view of the world, and in degrees greater than their Midwestern counterparts as their ideas were filtered through the nutty prism of L.A.

In this town, creative talent populated the landscape as abundantly as corn did the flatlands of Illinois. This talent for the most part lusted after the movies and craved like past-due junkies the fame and fortune attendant upon Hollywood success. Which left business leaders like Gari with half-attentive creatives, wrung-out rejects, or those who wished the title of talent without the torture of wending through the Hollywood system. Gyl and Kennie were not entirely of this ilk, as they actually wanted to be ad agency creatives—ad agency superstars, that is. They squarely focused on building their books and reels. This meant producing outrageous material, the equivalent of high concept creative in the lexicon of the business, and hell-be-damned if it sold a trainload or didn’t move a single unit of whatever it was supposed to be hawking.

Since attitudes like theirs were anathema to Gari, how did his hiring the duo come about? Larry Lefton, who regarded himself as a man with a good eye for talent, claiming to be a latent creative himself, had flown to L.A. to join Gari for a week interviewing hopefuls lined up by an employment agency specializing in creatives. (Gari, incidentally, found the very pejoration, creatives, to be offensive, nauseating, anger-provoking; however, in the agency business there was no way to skirt the perversion of the language. Creatives created and everybody else bemoaned the atrocity.)  Gari figured the employment pros were really best at tickling a huge fee from clients; but he couldn’t convince Larry. Some of the talent they sent over did demonstrate the ability to sell off the page (as they liked to say in the business).

As it devolved, Larry had viewed the employment experts’ selections as hacks; husks sucked dry by doing the same hackneyed campaign over and over again. Gyl and Kennie, on the other hand, had wandered in and had struck Larry as True North. First off, they were as gay as could be—absolute, out front swishbucklers, with prettied up names, Gyl instead of mundane Gilbert, Kennie, not the pedestrian Kenneth, or the Barbie-loving Ken. Second, they came in with a knock-em-dead idea for Vanguard. It boiled down simplicity, incorporating everything the modern creative mind worshipped:  few words, for no one read anymore; big pictures, for ours was a visual society; loads of white space, for fragile beings could not deal with clutter; and, worse to Gari’s pedestrian and ancient mind, no selling, for people could not cozy up to calculating businesspeople. The ads were single words that seemed to have only the slightest connection to the shoes pictured:  Art and a man’s loafer; Excellence and an athletic shoe; Allure and woman’s heeled sandal. On and on it went, there seemingly being no noun in English that didn’t have something to do with shoes. As they presented, Gari envisioned his own ad:  Crap over a picture of Gyl and Kennie.

Gari had physically cringed—hunched his shoulders and crinkled his face in grimace—at the buffoonery of the duo. Larry had salivated over their work. He’d noted Gari’s reaction, exactly the reaction of a man downing a bottle of cod liver oil in a gulp. Sagaciously he’d said, “We’re creating great art here, Gari. An artful ad gets attention, makes an impression, builds the brand. Right boys?” Gari had found it absolutely disgusting how Gyl and Kennie’s heads rocked and bounced like those of demented bobbles. He’d agreed with Larry as much as Larry’s wife would have agreed the president’s claim he was the most attentive lover on the north side of Chicago. At least the boys had excelled—still did long distance with Larry—in three important skills of the ad business:  ass kissing, bullshit, and self-delusion.

It was three-thirty when he pushed through the glass front doors—reading in lettered gold Lefton & Associates, West Coast Division, Augustus Garibaldi, President & Managing Director—Gari figuring this was L.A., Hollywood, and he deserved top billing and an inflated title to match. And for this very reason he had chosen a prestigious location. Gari had spent a bundle—it set Larry to squawking for a solid week—to construct an impressive reception area—a minimalist affair, stark, but striking in red and yellow with reconstituted Bauhaus furnishings. He came to enjoy this part of any day, walking into his office suite, not because of the decorations, which he did like, but because he loved seeing the employee he hired without the meddling of Larry Lefton, and the employee he considered critical to the success of the West Coast Division.

Her name was Leslie Rodish, known as Red, due to her red hair, bright and naturally curly, sometimes worn up in a wild pile resembling a forest fire and sometimes down in thick ringlets that looked hot enough to singe an errant finger.

“How you’d get a boy’s name?” he asked, when he’d interviewed her.

“It’s androgynous,” she replied sharply.

“No offense, but, you know, it’s unusual.”

“Not here,” she sniped.

He’d left it at that and moved to mundane things, like computer skills and typing speed, when she volunteered, “My mother loved ‘Gone with the Wind.'”

Gari hated left-field tosses like Leslie’s, but people insisted lobbing them his way. Surprisingly, he hadn’t become adept at fielding them. He responded with a blank stare.

“‘Gone with the Wind,'” she prompted. “You know, Leslie Howard.”

That had rung a bell. Milksop had sprung immediately to mind, but his instinct had cautioned against uttering such a derogation.

“The noble confederate gentleman,” he complimented.

“The misguided atavist who helped organize The Ku Klux Klan and then terrorized and repressed African-Americans.”

Really, Gari agonized, in this day and age you couldn’t win, even when you towed the liberal line. Perhaps humor yet existed in the world; he ventured, “Dastardly bastard.” She laughed, and finally, he knew he’d hit the right note.

Leslie was beautiful, and serious about her issues, of which she numbered dozens, from the civil rights of African-Americans (who Gari believed had gotten them in the Sixties, maybe the Seventies and didn’t have much need for the angst and aid of well turned-out California girls) to the oppressed, mistreated, misused, and generally taken-advantaged-of illegal immigrants from Mexico, in whose cause and support she’d learned Spanish (which Gari found useful occasionally around the office and particularly in restaurants). She tempered these tendencies—beauty that could frighten men into silence and stridency that could offend even the likeminded
— with a bitchy sense of humor. Sure he’d considered inviting her into his office for private guidance in the pursuit of a career in advertising; but he hadn’t acted on his desire, as by this time Emily had recast herself and again won his heart and his sexual loyalty. Besides, he was never sure if another Patty Pink lurked behind the luring pheromones.

“Your lord and master has forced me to work this afternoon. Look,” she commanded, wiggling her fingers at him, “not even a spare minute to do my nails. And I’m on the town tonight.”

How many lord and masters could a man have? Some an army, but just two commanded Gari these days. As for Leslie, frolicking on Sunset Boulevard and campaigning on behalf of the less fortunate were her lords. Amazingly, she was able to meld her pragmatism and sloppy-hearted liberalism. She understood advocating for the downtrodden and general scum who shared Sunset was easier, and possibly more effective, from a rambling house with glass windows perched on a high mound in Hollywood Hills. Where’d she gotten the money, she never said.

“My wife?”

“You know, should we ever have an office Christmas party, and if we did and you suggested a game of charades to liven up the evening, and if you asked me to be on your team, well, I’d have no choice but to say, ‘Fuck off.'”

“Your way of saying I’m a lousy guesser.”

“Exactly. The brainiac from Chicago called half-a-dozen times. You’d better watch it. He’s on to you.”

Okay, she was acerbic. But that red hair—the sarcasm and abuse, it was worth it to gaze on her. Hell, her demeanor was nothing for a man who had survived testicle snipping Patty Pink. Besides, she projected a sharpness of spirit that fit the image he wanted for L.A.:  big city gruff, and smart. It helped, too, that Leslie wasn’t his sexual playmate. Theirs was purely a business relationship and, though he desired her, he was pleased to have it remain that way.

He’d provided himself with a spectacular personal office, again with plenty of flack from Larry over cost. But he was the agency’s rainmaker and, he insisted, this was L.A. and attitude was everything, including the chin-out appearance of his office.

What an office it was. It picked up the theme of the lobby—bright red and yellow walls, red leather chairs and sofa, these with modern trapezoidal stitching. His chair was black and high-backed. His desk was glass, faintly green. On it was a laptop, phone, and desk set. Not a scrap of paper was in sight. In fact, there was no paper in the office, and no file cabinets in which the pulpy articles could hide. The L.A. Gari Garibaldi was sleek in his furnishings and his person, except for the extra weight he’d accumulated, which he intended to attack the minute he had the office stocked with a couple of new clients and creatively shipshape. In other words, when he’d replaced Gyl and Kennie with a pair of really creative creatives and relieved himself of his creative director duties.

He dropped into his chair and swiveled around to face the city. His offices were on the twentieth floor facing west and from his chair he had a clear view to the Pacific. Among his greatest pleasures was rocking in his chair, gazing down and over Beverly Hills, beyond to Santa Monica, and past the glamorous glut to the blue of the ocean, while cajoling Sel, picturing Kitty in a variety of compromising positions, and chatting up the love of his life, Emily. Not counted among these enjoyments was fending off the ridiculous notions, requests, and protestations of Larry Lefton. Lately, it was as if Larry had forgotten Gari’s great accomplishments, as if the man believed he was responsible for the new coinage rattling in his coffers. And there it was, the wrinkle in Gari’s success, the barrier to ultimate achievement:  Larry owned the agency. Gari was merely a hired gun, entirely replaceable in Larry’s mind. Sadly, he was still a cog, though a considerably better paid cog than just a few months ago.

He picked up the phone and punched Larry’s private office number. “Good afternoon, Larry,” he said, when Larry answered. Gari managed to muster a pleasantness he didn’t feel.

“Victor’s pissed at us. Another goddamned typo. How many times have I said proof the goddamned stuff? How many?”

“A gazillion, to quote Sammy Garibaldi.”

“You think this is funny?”

“I think it happens because you don’t have a decent creative staff in Chicago. It happens because you don’t have a proofreader, like you promised Victor you’d get the last time this happened. And because I can’t do much about it as I’m two thousand miles away.”

“You can call him.”

“Fine, I’ll phone after we finish. Have somebody email the file so at least I can see what kind of knuckleheaded mistake your creative geniuses made,” said Gari, more direct than usual, his defenses worn down dealing with Sel and Kitty, by too much lunch, by the resurfacing of Loretta and Catherine simultaneously, and by Larry’s endless carping and incompetence, of which this was yet another irritating instance.

“I’m taking care of it as we speak,” which conjured visions of Larry summoning minions into his office via his antiquated intercom system, and jabbing in the direction of various parts of the agency, his stupid man’s sign language that every Lefton employee understood perfectly.

Gari detected a grunt on the line, indicating Larry found this satisfactory.

Then Larry asked a few perfunctory questions about the state of the Vanguard account, of which he knew little. Larry normally wasn’t much for details, by his own description a big picture guy. Gari knew big picture had about as much to do with Larry’s slovenly work ethic as compassion had to do with the job of funeral director. But Gari had also taken precaution with the Vanguard account, recalling his experience with Lubeck’s. He had to reveal his Lubeck’s plans to Larry else Gari would not have had the authority to execute his plan and thereby win his promotions. The downside was Larry’s involvement in the account. Larry’s contradiction was that while he lacked a constructive knack for details he had an immense capacity for nitpicking. He indulged his irrational passion until Gari was so crazed he might very well have charged down the street screaming glossolalia to the distress of onlookers. How was he expected to manage and grow an account with Larry Lefton constantly badgering him with insane questions? Often when summoned by Larry to answer a question, Gari fully expected an inquiry about the color of Victor’s underwear. Thus, Gari kept details of the Vanguard account a deep dark secret. Larry knew the size of the account, the various campaigns Gari planned, the budget, the income to the agency, and no more. And especially Gari kept the personalities of Sel and his other Vanguard contacts to himself. Larry fancied himself an astute judge of character and ability. But the man had completely misread Gari, so how perceptive could he be in this area?

Gari hoped the interrogation was ended, when Larry asked, “What other new business are you working on?”

Larry was displaying yet another of his bothersome characteristics. What an afternoon for this mighty display of annoyances. Gari was pooped and frayed and in a gargantuan struggle to contain his anger and bitterness. Here he was in L.A. Here he had uprooted his family on behalf of Larry Lefton. Here he had developed the Vanguard account from nothing to business with the potential to unseat Lubeck’s Shoes as the agency’s number one cash engine. And by the way, he was the guy, right here, who’d stopped the Lubeck’s money machine from hiking. Furthermore, here was a guy who now was West Coast President, presumably—no, proven—adept at steering his own ship—being subjected to the niggling of a man operating on one brain lobe, and that the one responsible for the guy’s autonomic functions. Indeed, it was a mammoth tussle not to tell Larry, “Take this job and fuck yourself with it.”

Well, if Larry was a contradiction, Gari was a living, breathing irony. He regarded himself as wealthy. He’d discovered he possessed a talent for business and he’d exploited it. He’d won again the love and admiration of his wife. And he’d proven to himself that Larry Lefton would listen to him and follow his direction. However, still he feared the power Larry wielded. Did Gari need his job? Often he asked himself this and each time the answer was, “No.” His lottery winnings were plenty. Then why tolerate—not even tolerate but kowtow to—the idiocy of Larry Lefton? Because his progress was like that between man and weakness. He’d acquired his new raiment before he’d sufficiently discarded his old, and the new garb was woven of luck and falsehood.

So, it was perfectly in character for him to behave like an over stimulated yorkie panting for a pat and answer Larry with:  “I’m working on some potential movie business.”

The articulated crunching of Larry’s ears pricking up transmitted over hundreds of miles of telephone line jostled Gari like a low-level Richter disturbance. “Why that’s great, Gari. Movies. Wow. What movie company? MGM, Fox Searchlight?”

Didn’t this guy go to the movies? And if he did, did he pay attention? Movie companies? “Larry, you work with production companies. These movie people set up production companies to fund movies.”

“Production company? Sure, when movie stars get big, they set up their own companies. Sure, I know that. So, what big stars are you talking to, Gari?”

“Well, Larry, you just don’t stroll into a big movie star production company and say, ‘Hey, let me create the advertising for your new major production.’  You’ve got to prove yourself. You know, like in the shoe business. It’s like advertising for the shoe business. We got Vanguard here because we had a track record with Lubeck’s in Chicago. To get the big business in Hollywood, we’ve got to build a track record promoting movies. We hitch up with one success and boom.”

“Boom,” repeated Larry, enthusiastically. “So who are you talking to?”

“Nobody you’d know, Larry.”

“Come on, try me, Gari. I know more than you think.”

No you don’t. Gari based this certainty on personal experience. If Larry could have seen Gari, he would have observed the sheen of sweat on his upper lip, the shirt limp and the underarms darkening with moisture, and the man himself somewhat slumped in his black leather chair staring at the million-dollar view but seeing nothing, except maybe the gelding he imagined he had averted. Then followed a rusty knife, and a dirty room, and humid heat, and babbled, slaughtered English, and poor Brian Newberry never writing his screenplay, and finally lots and lots of pink and the smirking countenance of Patricia. Ah, the creative process, the real article, was messy business, a stirring of the ugly stewpot of memory. But, damnation, wasn’t the result often times beauteous?

While eternity to Gari, his pause was but a crackle on the line to Larry, who wondered why the connection was never clear between Chicago and L.A. This flew from Gari’s mouth as Larry was conjecturing on telephony:  “Pink Productions.”

“Pink Productions,” Larry repeated thoughtfully, as if the name possessed serious intellectual gravity worthy of deep down rumination. “Sounds sexy.”

“Oh, yes indeed, the movie is sexy.”

More silent consideration on Larry’s part, until:  “Not too much sex, I hope, nothing to flagrant.”

Larry wasn’t much of a prude; in fact he enjoyed women and Gari figured at some time the boss had cheated on his wife. No, it was Mrs. Lefton who would be shocked and mortified and unable to hold up her head in church if a member of her congregation backslid and saw the movie. She could tolerate hugging and kissing. She didn’t much care for Frenching, an expression she couldn’t utter, but accepted the extreme if it was critical to the telling of the story.

“Sexy,” Gari said, “in a clean way.”

“Excellent. What’s the title?”

A key question he’d forgotten to ask Catherine, and here was a man he regarded as a notch below dolt asking it of him. Well, he had no choice but to do what he was best at:  “They don’t have a title for the new movie. They’re still working on the script.”

“They’ll need a name to market it.”

That Larry, he was an advertising sage indeed. “You need a good name, Larry. And you get a good name by listening to people.”

“Focus groups.”

“Exactly,” Gari confirmed.

“You’re setting up focus groups for them.”

“I’m discussing the idea with them. These creative types here in Hollywood, they think they have all the answers. Market research like this is a hard sell.”

“I don’t know, Gari. I think I’ve read someplace studios research audiences to see what kinds of movies they want to see. Even endings. Mrs. Lefton and I have attended a couple of movies where they asked us what we thought of the ending.”

“Oh sure, but we’re talking about research before they’ve made the movie. Big difference, Larry.” Gari exaggerated big so it sounded about the size of the Imperial Valley, the Salton Sea, and the stretch to Yuma tossed in. “This involves convincing the creative types, you know the director and those types, that they can learn something from their audience.”

“Okay, whatever,” Larry said, and Gari drew a picture of the man’s eyes glazing over. Either the conversation was beyond him or he was simply bored by the length of it. Gari didn’t care which; just that he was home free.

“When are you meeting with them next?”

Already in another place devoid of the pesky Larry Lefton, his commander-in-chief’s query took him aback, confused him, shorted-circuited his brain, and generally reduced him to a state of flummox. His condition was critical and accounted for him grappling for a date and finally admitting, “Sunday.”

“Meeting on Sunday,” said Larry with something approaching awe.

“It’s L.A.,” Gari depreciated.

“I’m impressed nonetheless.”

“Nothing.” He said it now with a hint of bravado but mostly oddly felt relief, as he did not really understand why he cared about Larry’s opinion and did not yearn for his approbation. He told himself he didn’t need Larry, the job, the L.A. office, or any of it, for he was a man of wealth in his own right. He needed none of it.

“Well, listen, I think I can make a contribution at the meeting.”

“You do?”

“You don’t?”

“No, you will, of course. But it’s such short notice. The expense, the inconvenience, you just surprised me.”

“I’d wish you tell Mrs. Lefton I have some surprises left in me.”

“Next time I see her I will.”

“Maybe you can do it on Sunday.”

“Sunday?”

“She’s been at me to take her to California. You know, ‘Now that you’ve got a California office there’s no excuse.’  If I take her once, I’m hoping it will satisfy her and I won’t have to listen to her carping.”

“Oh.”

“Where do you recommend we stay, Gari? She wants to see movie stars. I guess the Beverly Hills Hotel, right?”

“Oh sure,” Gari said numbly.

“Then Sunday Mrs. Lefton can amuse herself hunting for stars or taking one of those tours, and you and I can meet with our prospects. What’s the name again?”

“Pink Productions,” he said, hoping it didn’t sound like the groan it felt to him.

Now, Gari realized the next thing he said was a gross error. But his brain was whacked into near insensibility by this Friday afternoon’s turn of the screw and he twisted irresistibly with it. “We’re meeting during a party, Larry.”

“A party? What kind of meeting can you have at a party?”

“A Hollywood movie party. They do it all the time here, like I said.”

“Like doing business on the golf course?”

“Exactly,” from Gari, the man who didn’t golf, didn’t understand the attraction, and who considered strolling a course a waste of several hours, though when pressed, also the man who couldn’t, until recently, think of anything to do with the saved time.

“Okay, good. Mrs. Lefton will enjoy it, too.”

Gari, still gazing at the blue horizon, saw warning flares, bright red bursts, shooting up over the arc of the world. If Mrs. Lefton was attending, Larry would expect Mrs. Garibaldi also to appear, if for no other reason than to distract Mrs. Lefton. Gari sifted his memory for instances of Emily meeting Larry at the office Christmas parties. He couldn’t recall any. Christmas was the only time Larry sprung for a party—the man claimed to be a great keeper of Christmas—and it was usually a dismal affair held in the office. The partiers were people Gari saw and generally ignored every day. Chances were good Larry had never met Mrs. Garibaldi. He toyed with the possibility of allowing Larry to assume Catherine was his wife. But he reconsidered; Catherine might blow it and then where would he be?

“Larry, look, I’m talking hardcore business here. These Hollywood parties aren’t what you imagine. They’re real work. We can’t afford distractions.”

“Mrs. Lefton isn’t much of a distraction. For me, that is, I don’t know about you.”

Gari snickered, not because he found Larry’s comment witty or humorous in any manner whatsoever, but because he could hear Larry chuckling softly and thinking he’d scored a funny with Gari. Then there was the known fact of Larry’s absolute lack of humor, even about hilarious subjects and occurrences. That the man found anything funny, and even richer was congratulating himself on muttering a sarcastically funny line—this in and of itself was sufficient to cause Gari to erupt in gales of laughter, to where he might have become unpleasantly incontinent.

“Well, Larry, maybe she’ll find the party offensive, or she’ll want to leave early, before we’ve had a chance to transact our business. Then, there you go, a lost opportunity.”

“I don’t know,” said Larry. “When she learns of it, there’ll be no keeping her away.”

Gari shook his head at Century City, at Beverly Hills, shook hard so his disbelief reached to Santa Monica and beyond over the ocean who knew how far.

“If you don’t tell her,” Gari said, feeling merciful to the poor dope, “how will she know?”

Silence.

“For all she will know, you’re going on a business trip. You may as well be flying to Peoria.”

“Milwaukee,” Larry said.

“What difference does it make?”

“Mrs. Lefton likes Peoria. She says it’s the Midwest’s livable city. You know, she attended Bradley.”

It was Gari’s turn for a round of impenetrable silence. What could he say?

After an interim of expensive dead air between them, Larry said, “I like the idea, Gari. Just us two boys on the town. I’ll give it a try.”

Gari, after more ranging over a conversational wasteland, arranged to meet Larry—solo, he hoped—in the lobby of the Beverly Hills Hotel at nine.

When he hung up, he swung around and stared at his bright walls and furniture. In defiance of the sprightly atmosphere, he was gloomy and edgy, shaking his left leg furiously and laving his hands mercilessly. Sunday would prove to be one hell of a day. Emily and the boys in the morning. Loretta in the afternoon. Catherine and Larry in the evening, two he decided best kept apart. And a Hollywood party at which he’d have to feign the search for business. If he survived it, he promised to drop to his knees and praise the Lord, to attend church with Emily and the boys and keep his eyes open, to fill the cup of the first bum he encountered on Monday morning, and even to accept the next phone call from the local United Way representative. All this he swore to do if he could emerge from Sunday as the intact man of independent wealth, as the successful agency executive, and the reformed husband he’d committed himself to be before Friday had dawned.

CHAPTER 23:  THE REALIZATION

“Heathens,” Emily said.

Nine a.m. at the IHOP on Arroyo in Pasadena and she was on a rant. For Christ’s sake, if she needed heathens they were in front of her in the form of Teddy and Sammy who each at the moment were attacking his respective chocolate face pancakes like, well, pigmy heathens. Gari defended himself from this double assault on his sanity, averting his eyes, resting them on the long tanned legs of a blond in strap heels two tables down with a fellow in an improbable leather jacket. Not that the jacket wasn’t of the finest quality and elegantly designed; but it was already in the eighties, and thus wholly inappropriate for a man who had nothing to hide. All flash, just like L.A. was all flash. Even the priest at their church was tan and muscular, a Venice Beach stereotype, except he wore a Roman collar, most of the time. Father Roger was his name. It galled Gari not knowing the priest’s last name and constantly addressing him childishly and as a familiar on those occasions Emily managed to drag him to church. Father Roger exuded the impression he was due on the set immediately after he finished coaching the congregation to go forth and help their fellows. But, really, this was pure cattiness, and in spite of it all, he actually loved L.A.

Emily was of a different attitude, as evidenced by her next utterance:  “Hottentots.”

These boys, they were tiny Hottentots if Gari had ever seen Hottentots. He hadn’t, but he’d been imagining them since grammar school when a nun—her name eluded him—had declared everybody who was not a Catholic a Hottentot and a heathen. In appearance at least, these boys must have been what the woman had had in mind. They had readily acclimated to California. Over the weeks, their hair had lightened and their skin had browned and their attitudes had drifted to insouciance, a pleasant change from their Illinois intensity. He rather liked the effect. Emily, however, yet again was of a different opinion about these developments.

“You’re enjoying L.A.,” he said, the sarcasm intentionally syrupy.

“Pasadena’s fine,” she answered as she helped Sammy slash the happy face into bite-size pieces. “But this, these people aren’t for real. I mean you don’t think anybody here is for real, Gari? Please tell me you don’t.” With the happy face properly butchered, she leaned against the back of the vinyl banquette and attempted the feat of keeping an eye on Sammy while pretending not to watch him.

“It’s the movies,” he said.

She liked hearing the reason. It reaffirmed she wasn’t in Midwestern reality, and she would be returning to the real world of middle America, where people parked their own cars and shopped at the Jewel for ordinary food at prices vaguely like those of the CPI; where there were gray days; maybe too many gray days, but she discovered she required some to slow down, to sit back and reflect on her life; she couldn’t contemplate much of anything in the glare of the sun, not even the L.A. sepia variety.

“Speaking of the movies, Larry’s coming in today. This afternoon in fact. I’ve got to pick him up at LAX.”

“I thought we were spending today together. You know, Gari, Family Sunday. Church, breakfast, something in the afternoon, home, bed,” she reminded him with an accusatory tone.

No, he couldn’t deny he had promised her Family Sundays as a condition of moving to L.A. And they’d had one: church, breakfast, Disneyland; and he liked being with the boys and Emily somewhere other than home. Then work had intervened. Gyl and Kennie were the culprits. The bungling duo churned out a campaign Gari would not present to a one-eyed Tijuana whore. What he’d lied about months ago was now his real world:  He actually was working on weekends with an incompetent creative staff. And from his perspective, this Sunday represented lots of work. He emitted a small groan at what was to come.

Watching the creases lining his forehead deepen, indicating the revolution of his brain wheels, she asked sympathetically, “Is it worth it?”

“What?” She’d caught him off guard.

“These hours you’ve been putting in. The lunches with clients. Have you looked at yourself lately, Gari? Is it worth it?”

Sure he’d looked at himself and he’d promised himself he would attend to his gut. Hell, he was in California, in Dreamweaverville, U.S.A. He was living the dream. And, yes, pretty soon when things lightened up, he would take care of himself. But not right now. Now he had work to do.

This was a flash of defensiveness. But what he lingered on, what frosted him, was the irony. Oh, he was no dumbbell. He knew irony when somebody smacked him in the face with it. Why was he putting in the time indeed? Why was he bulging here and there? Why were they living in L.A.? Because this is what she wanted. She expected a successful husband. He could give her the money she seemed to like without the work. But for the satisfaction of having made a good marriage, that is a marriage to a man with his flag firmly planted on the top of the mountain, for that he had to put in the long hours. You didn’t climb Everest part time. He knew she enjoyed marriage to a president, a managing director, much more than she had to a lackey. She demonstrated it by the way she’d resurrected herself, the improved manner of her dress, and by the voracious sexual demands she placed on him. Not that he was complaining. He loved it all himself, and he loved the change in her. Still, this attitude she was developing. This ironic twist she was nurturing. Sometimes it was just too, too much for him.

Is it worth it? “Definitely, Emily, it’s worth it.”

His answer was firm, perhaps a bit off-putting, as she allowed it to hang between them before she said, resigned, “I guess the boys and I will find something to do this afternoon.”

And there in his gut just below his heart was the pang again. “I’m sorry. Next Sunday will be different, I guarantee it.” He believed he meant it.

“Of course you do,” she said, leaving no doubt she understood otherwise; something would come up next Sunday.

They finished breakfast in near silence, breaking it only to scold the boys.

As they left the IHOP, Gari felt compelled to come up with an activity as a way to placate Emily. Guilt was now a leaden knot in him, as it had been on other occasions, always engendered by the secret life he led. The panging had begun with the hidden lottery winnings. His binges with Catherine added weight. His affair and near fatal scare with Loretta had nearly pushed him to admitting his deviousness to Emily. Added to this was the guilt he’d carried about deserting Loretta after she’d confronted him with his impending fatherhood.

And now he contended with a new layer of guilt. He was working too damn much, and if Larry Lefton had his way, Gari would be working longer and harder, signing on new accounts, adding personnel, and generally performing every task he’d faked to portray his mercurial rising. Compounding the affliction was the renewal of his marriage, rediscovering he really did love Emily and she loved him—though, of course, he continued to speculate how much of his renewed attraction was him and how much was his sudden success. This welling collected in his gut where it mingled with the IHOP pancakes, coalescing into a big hard ball, resulting in a nasty case of indigestion and impelling him to make the following suggestion as assuagement:

“You know, Emily, we haven’t taken one of those star home tours the entire time we’ve lived here. Why don’t you and the boys do it this afternoon? It’ll be fun. The boys will like it.”

She stared at him. “Sure, Gari, they’ll like sitting in a bus for two hours looking at houses. Absolutely riveting for children.”

“Wouldn’t you like it?” he countered. “Why not do something you like? You deserve it.” He embraced her to reinforce he loved her and had her interests at heart. “I mean, come on, Emily, you’re with Teddy and Sammy every day, morning to night. You’ve done your duty.”

She interrupted him curtly. “I don’t consider what I do for the boys duty.”

Okay, that was an unfortunate word choice and it worried him Gyl and Kennie’s obtuseness might be rubbing off. “Please, Emily, you know me. You know what I mean. You’re a great mother, a great wife. You go overboard for the boys and me. You’ve earned a little time for yourself.” He spied a small smile. “Don’t you think the boys could get on with a sitter for a couple of hours? Isn’t there a girl on the block who could baby sit?”

“Jenny Ryder. She’s thirteen. No, fourteen. She turned fourteen last week. I remember because I ran into her and her mother, Joan, at Ralph’s …”

“Why not see if she can watch the boys for a bit this afternoon while you treat yourself. Take a tour. Maybe shop a bit. Stop and have a bite. I bet you can’t remember the last time you ate in peace and quiet.” Her eyes rolled as if she was searching for the last instance and it was nowhere to be found. He produced his cell phone. “I’ll get her number from information and we can call.”

He stared at her as he listened to the automated assistant, tried keeping the number in his mind as he punched it into his phone, as he waited for a Ryder to answer. She was corralling the boys and herding them to the car. She was in a light blue sundress. When she bent to grab a rascal, he glimpsed her breasts. He considered calling Loretta and canceling and using Jenny Ryder, if a Ryder ever answered the phone, to give Emily and him a quiet afternoon alone. Maybe it would be fun to take a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel, to make love, to lounge at the pool, to take her to the party. But, no, he couldn’t. Catherine would be at the party. Emily and Catherine together, now that held potential for an explosive disaster. But it would be nice to be alone with Emily. Next weekend, he promised himself, as a Ryder came on the line and he relinquished the phone to Emily, who was settling the boys in the car.

During the ride home, Emily was warm toward him. Teddy and Sammy talked excitedly in the back, seemingly pleased at the idea of spending the afternoon with Jenny, who Emily had painted as loads of fun. He introduced the idea of a Sunday to themselves and she responded by sliding her hand across the seat and gently touching his arm. He wished, fervently, he could have made it this Sunday. But it was impossible. He was on his personal racetrack.

CHAPTER 24:  PREPARATIONS

Emily had billed the girl as thirteen or fourteen; but upon her arrival the sight of her reminded him that young teens in modern life and especially in California didn’t look their age. Jenny showed up with piled-high blond hair, an aquiline face that brought to mind a young Laura Dern, a lithe body, including breasts that properly belonged on an eighteen-year-old. She came dressed for, well, Gari really couldn’t say, but babysitting didn’t seem to be it. Up top a belly shirt tented over her breasts, hanging somewhat north of her navel, forming an awning over the little porthole. While small, her navel was an eye catcher, glittering with a gold ring. Down below she was covered, barely, by short-shorts, revealing her legs for admiration.

Ordinarily, Gari would have found Jenny tempting, demanding a gawk and perhaps a brief fantasy. However, in his home, in her role as the temporary caretaker of his boys, she was off-putting. When he expressed his reservations to Emily, she remarked, “Gary, it’s a good thing you’re a shoe man, because you’re such a prude.” He went blank, turned white faced, detectable under the tan even, and she mistook this for umbrage at his implied lack of worldliness. She responded by squeezing his cheek, like his aunts used to do as they pursed their lips and pecked the cushion of air between them and him. She said, “You’re cute,” which was nearly synonymous with planting a sloppy kiss on him. The only saving grace was they were in the kitchen and Jenny was parked in the foyer, where they had left her when Gari practically dragged away Emily.

In the end, he had too much to do in the coming hours to dispute the virtues of a girl who gave every outward appearance of maintaining a residence in the Kingdom of Tarts, the province of BP, the Barely Pubescent. On the way to his Jag with Emily and Jenny settled on the family room floor with the boys playing Candyland—which in momentary reflection he found disturbingly appropriate, though of course the dolce dispensed by the babysitter was completely lost on Teddy and Sammy, he hoped—it occurred to him she might be the possessor of other skin adornments, maybe intriguing ink. If he were a fourteen-year-old girl, where would he locate a tattoo on himself, and what would it declare about him? Normally he would not have associated a youth like her with body art, as the deluded described it; but Jenny did have metal in her belly. In all innocence, if she indeed was marked, it was probably with Tweety or Minnie or other kid show character. Down the driveway, onto the street, and pointing the Jag at Hollywood, he prayed she didn’t use whatever might be on or just above her ass—for where else would a princess of Tartdom (he’d already elevated her to royalty) exhibit such an escutcheon?

“Why the smile?” asked Emily, as he glanced at his Pasadena domicile fading in the rearview mirror and told himself with certitude Jenny was changing the boys for the worse; and, if true, he would have to teach her a very serve lesson. Hoping Emily didn’t notice the swelling in his lap, he answered, “Oh, I’m just happy you’re doing something for yourself for once.”

She impelled herself closer to him but not on top of him as the center console proved an insurmountable barrier, at least at sixty miles an hour. When his tumescence had reared its yearning head, fear zoomed up behind it and before she could cast an eye down to check … whatever—his foot ware, the cleanliness of his pants—he’d mercifully returned to his everyday state of flaccidness, though left impressed by the power simple consideration had on woman.

He found a place to park at block from Grauman’s, where the tour hawkers congregated, and walked up to the theater. There he bought Emily a ticket on a deluxe two-hour excursion and waited with her until she’d boarded the van and it had pulled away and vanished around the corner. It was noon then and he retrieved his car and piloted it to the Beverly Hills Hotel. He waited in the lobby for Loretta, who wasn’t due until one.

He ensconced himself in a club chair near a plant and was able to watch surreptitiously as Loretta strode into the lobby. Often after her revelation of pregnancy he’d speculated about what had attracted him. He’d come to regard himself as an astute fellow with a discerning eye concerning the nature of the human animal, so how he missed the signals—there always were signals—she would transfigure into a clinging girl who only wanted caring for, was unsettling to him. The old Gari could and did miss signs. But he wasn’t his old self. It was as if the lottery money had arrived with a set of antennae tuned to cash and how to make more of it. Now he wished the gift had also come with a social setting. If it had, he might have detected Loretta’s neediness.

But as for what had attracted him to her, Loretta displayed it as she scanned the lobby for him. She was in her best color, red, in the form of a slight sundress that showed off her back and the tautness of her breasts to tantalizing effect. She perched on heeled sandals, in coordinating red. Her legs were tanned and sexily muscled. Her blond hair seemed blonder, whiter, and it appeared longer, down to her shoulders. He pictured it fanned on a bed of pink and nearly let slip, “Marvelous.”

Meeting her was dangerous, but it didn’t have to happen. She hadn’t spotted him. He could hide until she realized he’d done it again, deserted her. But he found the option and the consequence repugnant. Forever she would describe him as, “That bum.” Once she could forgive, but twice? Not even he could have forgiven himself such an act of callousness. Fending her off—for he was committed to Emily and vowed not to cheat again on her—was preferable to hurting Loretta or incinerating his reputation, even if only among people he didn’t know and would never meet.

“Looking for somebody, miss?” he said, having crept up behind her, no easy feat as she was shaming Mary Richard’s ability to twirl madly in a crowd.

“No, I’ve already found him,” she said gaily, entwining an arm around his, drawing close to him until the floral fragrance wafting from her skin caused him to break into a light sweat, and the mint scent of her breath tempted him to break his vow of spousal loyalty seconds after he’d renewed it in his imagination.

“Where would you like to go?” he asked.

“Oh,” she said with titillating coyness, “somewhere quiet.”

This could have meant a restaurant or a bungalow at the hotel, neither of which would place a suitable barrier between him and the temptation beckoning from under the red dress.

“How about Venice Beach?” he offered. It possessed the virtue of a crowd and spectacle.

She frowned adorably. “Have you been to the Getty?”

Gari was an intellectual bottom feeder, which probably accounted for his skill at hawking the mundane necessities of life, and why he certainly despised Gyl and Kennie, who presented themselves as avant-garde. But he’d been in L.A. long enough to know she was referring to the museum perched above the San Diego Freeway. At least it was a public place.

“No, but I’ve always wanted to see it. Let’s go.” Then he had a second thought, a cautionary creeping upon him from his Chicago days, from the first moments of his remaking into a man of wealth, position, and responsibility. “Do you know somebody at the Getty?”

“What do you mean know somebody?”

“Like,” Gari said casually, “somebody who works there, somebody, say in art restoration; somebody like that.”

“I wish I did,” she gushed. “It’d be fun to see, wouldn’t it, how things worked behind the scenes?”

“Loads,” he said.

They had plenty of time for conversation, compliments of L.A.’s twenty-four-hour jam up. She led off by praising his Jag. He didn’t want it to happen and he put forth a mighty effort to prevent it, but to no avail:  He puffed his chest with pride at owning a classy auto, at least by Mundelein standards. Here Jags were Fords and if you wanted to billow your feathers you’d better be driving a Rolls or Ferrari or something else in or above these class acts. But she was impressed, and that was enough.

“What have you been doing?”

“I’m in the movie business,” she exclaimed with enthusiasm so vividly realized it activated her seatbelts and she found herself pinned like a butterfly, a pretty blond and red specimen, to the mat, at which she giggled furiously.

He ventured, “You’re in a movie?”

“No.” She pouted like an actress pitching to the back rows. “I work in the office.”

“Still, it must be fun. At least you’re closer to the action. Who knows, maybe you’ll be discovered. Hey, I want to hear more, but I’ve got to get over.”

L.A. traffic was maddening and frightening. They were in a jam up moving at fifty miles an hour. Problem was Gari was in the outside lane with his exit approaching. He discovered himself in the modern version of Dante’s inner rings:  descending to the core was calculated torture he self-administered. He learned during his earlier trips in situations like this you had to maneuver immediately or before you knew it you were in Santa Barbara, which while beautiful was the wrong place if your destination was San Fernando, Santa Clarita, or the Getty. Sometimes, he’d discovered, you had to swallow hard, close your eyes, and jerk the wheel, exactly his actions at that moment.

Horns blared from all quarters and Loretta tittered with fear and excitement. Gari made the exit with a hundred feet to spare and not so much as a scratch on the Jag or an accident left behind on the freeway.

“Mr. Garibaldi, I just love a man who knows how to take charge,” trilled Loretta as they breezed off the ramp and toward the Getty parking lot.

“Please, ma’am, it’s just plain Gari,” quipping his catch phrase.

He deposited the Jag in the lot and they jumped the tram for the ride up the hill to the museum.

The Getty was huge and modern, with everything in good taste, including the signage. White was what Gari thought of it, big and white like Moby-Dick, which he considered pretty damned intellectual, if he did say so himself. He had a ready response should she ask him his opinion of the museum.

But, typical, she was in awe of the place and struck speechless, except for her piercing expressions of appreciation—”Beautiful,” “Incredible,” and “Look at the view,” which he had to agree was quite spectacular, affording panoramas of Malibu, the Pacific, downtown, and the Valley.

After an inordinate period enthusing over the layout itself, she said, “Let’s go in.”

Gari liked the place almost immediately. Admission was free. No matter how bad the experience, how boring, how exhausting, at least it wouldn’t cost him a cent, except for parking. That had to count for something as far as he was concerned. He smiled, he supposed like a simpleton:  more like the old Emily every day.

The Getty was a shrine to man’s creative and expressive mind that a person could not thoughtfully explore in a couple of hours. Instantly, Loretta was fretting she couldn’t see everything, absorb it all, and exit a new, improved woman. Gari, if nothing else now a superb manager of people and time, suggested they confine themselves to paintings. He reminded her there was always a next time for other exhibits.

Painting it was. Gari wasn’t a paint man. He didn’t even paint his own house, not that it and artistic painting were in anyway related, except for the paint. Paintings were dull. Religious subjects. Landscapes. Portraits of people dead hundreds of years. And a few nudes, many of men, which got him to thinking the Getty must be a favorite with Gyl and Kennie; but nothing with real pecker power, as he liked to characterize the impact of a good pornographic picture. What stood between him and an appreciation of fine art was:  no fine art was crystal-clear, imagination-free, like mundane reportage photography.

In fact, he was in the very middle of his rationalization, when they encountered “The Three Lovers.” It lured Gari closer for examination—it was about the size of typing paper—and to note the artist, a Frenchman named Theodore Gericault, Gari had to get real close and squint at tiny letters, speculating whether a client-hungry optometrist had a hand in preparing the cards. While the women portrayed weren’t to his taste, too chunky, the situation intrigued him. A man
— Gari could easily imagine himself as the lucky indulgent fellow—reclined on a platform bed. His arm embraced a woman. Her legs extended down at an angle and her dress was hiked to her hips. The two were locked in an intense gaze. Across from them on the bed was a recumbent nude woman. Gari’s gray cells went delightfully to work on this scene. In his scenario, the women were friends, or at least acquaintances, and they were sharing the man. It was obvious to Gari that the fellow had already banged—precisely Gari’s sentiment about this brand of pure striped down sex—the nude woman. It was the dishabille’s turn. Art, he concluded, wasn’t such a bad thing, not at all mysterious. This fellow Gericault might have been the type for a beer and randy conversation.

“You men,” said Loretta.

“You men, what?” he said, pulling away from the picture.

“What? Do you really believe women like group sex?”

What was this? A rhetorical question? A trap? Really, he lamented, you just can’t freely express your opinions to a woman, not even muse candidly in their presence. If he admitted to the retouched “Three Lovers” floating in his mind, it would be the end with Loretta. Which had him curious as to why he was holding back. After all, wasn’t permanently severing contact with Loretta what he wanted?

His version of the painting substituted Loretta for the spent woman, who radiated satisfaction—serviced was the word Gari liked for it never failed to rouse his desire for action—and amusement at the forthcoming lovemaking. His other participant was Catherine. Conjuring remembrance of her was painfully stimulating, as he felt restraint in the presence of Loretta was necessary.

“You do, don’t you?”

It was time for vigorous retorting. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Please, Gari, don’t tell me you men don’t want this,” she said, waving disdainfully at the painting.

“I mean, Loretta, not me. I can’t speak for other men.” He commended himself on firing off a good answer with what he calculated contained just the right dash of indignation.

The rest of the tour was anticlimactic, at least for Gari. Loretta seemed absorbed in the art. He admitted to amazement that a girl from Danville, the daughter of a prison guard, the sister of a suicide, who he’d taken for a bubblehead and a prostitute, would be an admirer of fine art. He chalked it up to his sum total philosophy on the world and life in it, expressed in the short sentence:  Life was absurd. Clichéd perhaps, but in his humble advertising man’s opinion, ageless nonetheless.

As they peregrinated about the Getty, the picture of a van appeared before Gari like a mirage rising from the polished museum floor. This was the thing about Emily and him in California, Emily and him after he had become a man of great fortune, and after she’d responded by rebirthing the woman who had attracted him:  She was always on his mind. His interest was her welfare, her happiness, what she thought of him, that she loved him. So here he was with his former lover wondering why he was with his former lover who no longer was his lover and who could never again hold that rank with him. Why he was at the Getty, or anywhere with Loretta, puzzled him.

Emily was on the van alone. Or maybe not alone, if someone like himself, in town for a meeting, or perhaps another lucky fellow who’d been transformed from average slob to rich man, was on a jaunt in search of … a difference, a little variety. But Emily wasn’t susceptible to a man like that, since her ambition was her life:  a loving husband and mischievous but generally goodhearted children with potential. Regardless, the scene troubled him.

Where was the star-studded tour now? Breezing by Barbara Eden’s cottage, or Dean Martin’s Italiano fortress, or Robert Wagner’s block—an entire block bought up on television receipts, or maybe the Playboy Mansion? He despised the regret overwhelming him as he traveled in Loretta’s squiggly, fragranced wake, the knowledge gnawing him he’d seen everything Emily was seeing without her. Worse, with Loretta. And here he was, after his avowal of loyalty, consumed with his renewed passion for his wife, a man again happy in his home, who wished he could spend more time there instead of on the make for business—a man with all this feeling for his wife in the Getty seeing it for the first time with the same woman with whom he’d seen the stars’ homes for the first time, and this woman wasn’t the woman he loved, but just a woman, for his feelings for her hadn’t advanced a degree beyond what they been the first night in the Beverly Hilton Hotel.

In this tortured reverie he strolled right into the rear-end of Loretta, who was frisky and playful, probably the result of admiring vast quantities of fine art. She pushed back, waiting for his embrace, which didn’t come. “Not here, Gari. Control yourself.”

He stopped abruptly when he felt her soft ass against him. Her dress was thin and the softness and heat of her skin penetrated through to his pants and instantly he was growing.

“Gari,” she said, turning around to face him, her lips mere inches from his, “the Getty isn’t X-rated, you know.”

“Sorry. It was an accident.”

“No you’re not. You’re sweet.”

If the curator had tucked a bed in an alcove anywhere on the floor, doubtlessly she would have had them on it. Restraint was the order of the day and for the first time his commitment to meet Catherine at the Hollywood party seemed heaven sent. Loretta pouted that they had only a few hours to tour, but Gari was eternally grateful, full of praise for Catherine, who assumed the veil of divine mistress. To assuage Loretta, he suggested they grab a quick lunch, as he had a few minutes before he had to streak off to work.

He ushered her to the The Café, railing inward about the name. It raised his ire that it was at once banal and pretentious. To his mind, here was another example of the Gyls and Kennies hard at it corrupting language and thereby the world. The style of the place was minimalist in keeping with the sans serif type—clean in the vernacular of the art clan, for whom clean, slick, balanced, unified, equalized, and generally homogenized was their collective grail, their constant chant, their wall of mantra through which regular guys like Gari could not penetrate with sweet, pragmatic reasonableness; that, as instances, the chair had to be comfortable and type must be readable or their efforts were no more than useless self absorption.

They were seated on the patio, which was in shadow and pleasant. They selected light fare, fruit for her and a salad for him, hot tea for her and the iced variety for him, Equal in hers and sugar in his, a couple of shovelfuls with his avowal that once this day was over he would reform, Equal to be his choice every time he required sweet in his beverages and food. They admired the surroundings before starting in on their food and drink. Well, she admired and he consulted his watch to be certain he was on time. He might not have been adept at retort but he had become a great one for punctuality, sometimes ahead of time (to gain an advantage).

As they began eating, Loretta said, “Until I met you I didn’t know many people who worked on Sundays.”

“And now?”

“You’re still the only one I know who does it regularly.”

“They work on Sundays in the movies,” he said.

“That’s my problem, Gari. I don’t know anybody in the movies. I mean anybody who can do me any good. I wish I did.”

Gari considered himself cursed to live forever as the good guy. He listened; he sympathized; he was compelled to help. Was this a vestige of his life in the realm of the unfortunate? This compulsion, it must have been why he said, mindlessly, “I’m meeting some Hollywood types later.”

“Movie people.”

“Production company people. They’re producing a movie.”

“Really? A real movie? What’s the name?”

“I don’t know. I mean, I’m looking forward to helping them with the next one.”

“Ground floor?”

Gari heard a ton of hope in the question. “I’m going to see if I can snag the advertising.”

“Where’s the party?”

“The Beverly Hills Hotel.”

“Gari, I never asked much of you,” she said, and she was sincere about this, which surprised him, as he remembered her having asked for a great deal. She’d asked that he visit her at her apartment. She’d asked that he play house with her. She’d asked that he raise a child with her. Her definition of not much struck Gari as very liberal. “But now I am asking. Take me, Gari. I could get a break at the party.”

“I can’t, Loretta. It’s business.”

“Please, Gari. It would make up for things.”

He knew exactly the things to which she referred, and it felt like blackmail.

“I’m going with my boss, Loretta. I just can’t do it. I’m sorry. But, look, if anything comes of this, maybe there’ll be another time. Besides, then I’ll know what the movie is, know the people making it. I’ll be able to do something for you then.”

Did she believe him, the man who went for the anecdotal pack of cigarettes and never returned? It didn’t matter as she knew the location of the event and was a determined woman. She said softly, projecting sufficient melancholy to inform him he’d done her wrong again, “I understand.”

After this, they ate their meals and sipped their beverages and chatted pleasantly and he took her home and he declined to accompany her into her apartment when she asked and he drove to the Beverly Hills Hotel and took a regular room. He showered and napped until eight, whereupon he ordered a light dinner—a hamburger, fries, and a full-strength Coke, the diet variety would come tomorrow. After, he showered again and changed into the black suit, white shirt, orange foulard tie, and black mirror-finished Johnson and Murphy banker’s shoes he’d packed in a small suitcase surreptitiously secreted in the trunk of the Jag. By nine-thirty he was ready for the party.

About the time he’d been descending into a torpid rest in a regular Beverly Hills Hotel room, Emily’s star tour was ending, with apologies from the driver for giving them a full half-hour more, guiding them down streets no tour van had ventured before, obligating with charming patter every last member of the party to tip him an additional five for his extra-special effort.

CHAPTER 25:  TEMPLE OF CELEBRITY

Great plumes of blue smoke clouded the far corner of the Sunset Ballroom. California was the preeminent healthy living state in a union opposed to many evils:  fats, carbs, liquor, tobacco, and more. Yet, here all were in evidence, plus boo, coke, maybe some good and plenty as well. In this nirvana state of purity, even the governor couldn’t smoke in his office and had to erect a tent in the courtyard outside his state office building to indulge his habit of blowing expensive cigar fumes. Of course, the governor had to set a good example, but not so the state’s other icons.

So there it was to no one’s surprise, the unmistakable thunderhead of blue tobacco smoke in the corner. Circulating rumor had it—for even in Hollywood parties rumors abounded—that the notorious mocker of virtue Jack Nickelson was in attendance and was somehow involved in the production this party promoted.

Gari was plunging into the Sunset ahead of Larry Lefton and his wife Darlene, who he’d met in the lobby as arranged, not the least surprised, and now considerably relieved, that the president couldn’t say no to his missus. At that moment, Gari’s intent was distance and bodies between the Leftons and himself.

Larry had never been a sartorial maven—rumpled Brooks Brothers was his style—but he’d managed to arrive in particularly ridiculous attire for the event. The offending garb was a black tux, matching cummerbund, and patent leather shoes. Gari thought, upon first sighting, the man had confused movie party with high school prom.

Darlene was a horse of a woman:  tall, stout, thick in every limb. Her coif was a bouffant into which she’d jammed a few ersatz gems to seal the impression she knew less about taste than did her husband. Ah, but they were a couple.

Thus Gari sought preservation of whatever good name he might have been building in town by racing ahead of them into the ballroom, hoping he’d lose them before they realized he’d vanished, when Darlene’s soprano voice caught up with him and smashed this desire to forlorn bits.

“Some people in the lobby said they saw Jack Nickelson go in here. Do you think so, Gari?”

How could he be angry or short or in any way upset by her? The poor woman was simply star-struck. It would be like reprimanding a child for too much delight and gushiness on her first trip to Disneyland. It was during the course of this reflection that he saw the plume of smoke in the far corner.

“Well, Darlene, I think the man is sending up smoke signals,” he said.

“He smokes?” she said, saddened, as if the great star was at the moment committing a horrid, unforgivable sin; as if his capital had sunk to less than zero in her estimation. Here was a woman with a very California attitude.

“Like a fiend,” Gari goaded.

“And they allow it in a place like this?”

He noted her concern and mystification. He imagined she explored the world through the pages of the Star. “Are you kidding?” he answered in the spirit that enlightenment was often torment. “They encourage him. He’s a big draw.”

“It’s always about money,” she moaned.

Gari turned in time to see she was now directing her comments to her husband.

“Don’t blame me,” he said, raising a hand like a traffic cop to fend her off. “I told you you’d be happier at home.”

And so began Gari’s evening at the glamorous Hollywood movie party in the most fashionable several hundred square feet in the entire U.S. of A.

Fortunately for him, he separated from them after fewer than five minutes in the Sunset, shouting to Larry he’d catch him later.

In his steady dash from the boss and his wife, he moved heedlessly through the crowd until a gentle hand halted him.

“Looks like Jack Nickelson’s here. I hear he’s considering doing some post-post-production narration.” It was Catherine Lourdes. And from that moment on, without a “Hello, how have you been, glad we could rendezvous like this, welcome to the party,” she commenced spouting movie blather. She sounded authentic, as if she’d been reared on the back lots and nursed from teats bursting with Hollywood lore instead of the usual mother’s milk. But what did he know, being a mere sprout from the fields of Mundelein, and an advertising man who’d made his bones in shoes? Maybe there existed a dictionary of Hollywood lexicon and Catherine had memorized the damned thing on her way in. In other words, he should have done his Hollywood homework.

What he did know, however, was Catherine was absolutely stunning this evening, a star plucked from the firmament, sufficiently bright to overpower the aura of whatever film stars might be roaming the ballroom. She inspired like the first hints of a pristine sunrise in the palest pink gown, a fragile affair barely containing her breasts, enhancing cleavage that did very nicely on its own and spectacularly within the bounds of what she wore. The gown didn’t so much fit as it bathed her in rose. It was so much like he imagined her skin after a warm shower that he had difficultly determining where she left off and it began. This is to say, it covered her and revealed her and wrapped her in enticement; and, to put it bluntly, it was killing and torturous to mortal man, and it drove him absolutely shaky with eruptive desire, placing him in perilous contradiction of his spousal vow of renewed and undying fidelity.

His legs melted under the heat of her glow and he thought if he managed a few words, if he got back into the game, then maybe he’d regain control and suppress the urge to touch her. “Where are the hosts?”

“The who?” she asked, as if perhaps he was inquiring about something alien, like the who of his inquiry were vermin, or ringworms, or maggots.

“The production company people?”

“I don’t see them,” she answered, swiveling her head around on her exquisite neck. It was long, but not overly, and smooth, not corded with age, anxiety, or care of anything except serving her customers. He simply couldn’t believe he’d caressed that neck, kissed it, and on the Metra that night to Fox Lake with Jimmy of the Keys standing guard, licked it as if it were confection. And good God in heaven it had been, and it was, and it could be again if only he hadn’t made the vow.

“But you can’t miss them,” she added.

“Oh, why not?”

He hoped she would describe deformed people. Smart people, yes, engaging, and people who had overcome a horrible situation to achieve fame and fortune; but people who would be like ice water on his adoration and desire. He had nothing against the lame and infirmed of the world, though he preferred crossing over when they approached; but nothing against them, really, and especially when they served a useful purpose.

“She’ll be in pink, bright pink. The word is she convinced him to wear a pink suit too. And he’s white and British and from what I hear uptight, which is a good sign, because uptight men are good with money. Don’t you agree?”

Hmmm, he wondered if this was innuendo. Did she find him uptight? Was he a Conductor’s Club member who would never again orchestrate with her in the confines of a railway car, or any place for that matter? And pink, why did pink suddenly disturb him?

“Come on,” she urged, “let’s mingle. We’ll run into them eventually.”

The ballroom contained an odd sartorial assortment. It reminded him of a weirdly filled box of candy, a mismatched collection of fine chocolates, fake whites, jellies, turtles, an illogical jumble. At various stages of their migration through the mass he felt over- or underdressed. A fellow in bagged out blue jeans and sandals, a crisp pink dress shit and blue double-breasted blazer convinced Gari his suit was overdoing things. But then he bumped into a man in a white dinner jacket looking very much as if he’d stepped out of a 1950s Doris Day movie and Gari became concerned he hadn’t devoted sufficient attention to funking his attire. Then he ran into a man in a business suit, finely cut, modish, and he was relieved he was almost right for the party, although twenty percent short on style.

Catherine served as guide; she zigzagged a path through the clumps of people. It was a huge gathering as he supposed all movie parties were, for who wouldn’t want the chance to hobnob with the royalty of Los Angeles? Or maybe this was extraordinary and this movie was a big deal. Maybe he was onto something.

As if her dress was a marvelous magnet, Catherine attracted people. The two would pass a cluster and the little filings would disperse, with several of them attaching to the pair. They gushed of her familiarity and inquired as to the films in which she’d starred, rattling off titles vaguely familiar to Gari, but movies, given his intense attention to the agency and his family he’d not seen, not even on DVD, leaving him with a renewed sense of cultural deprivation. She begged off conversing with each, assuaging with small kindnesses, never verging from her mission of ferreting out the elusive pink couple. These bits of local iron claimed to be producers and directors and writers, the people whose names prefaced movies but who went forever faceless. Gari could understand why:  This was the ugliest menagerie of folks he’d seen in quite a long while. They were as unlike Angelinos as were Mundelein locals, who dwelled in gray most of the year. Their complexions were pasty, mottled, and pocked. Their shapes were round and soft. Their clothing, while of good quality, draped askew on their misshaped forms. From where did they come? Where did they hide? Was there a local ordinance prohibiting them from walking the streets in the light of day? He could easily believe this as they were far removed from the people who caught his attention around town. In the parlance of Hollywood, they were “Creatures from the Planet Weird.”

“You her agent?” asked one of the ghastly bunch. Rapidly, the interlocutor continued, “I don’t think I know you. I thought I knew all the agents in town. I mean I do know them all. But you, you I don’t recognize. You new here? Who is she, anyway? I know the body, if you know what I mean, but the face, I can’t place it. Oh, she’s famous. So, you know, it’s embarrassing not to know her right off. What’s her name?”

Gari sensed the white ball of a man might gallop on for the length of the party if he allowed it. Gari made his point as quickly, directly, and loudly as he could:  “I’m not her agent.”

“Christ-all-fuckin’-mighty, you should be. Who you represent anyway?”

“I represent Larry Lefton,” Gari said, maliciously.

If they still used Rolodexes here, surely the cards were flipping in the man’s head, fast, as communicated by the berserk twitching of his eminently plastic face. “Action? Romance? Horror? What’s his specialty? I know everybody. Everybody. But Lefton, Lefton is new? He’s new, right?”

“He’s older than fossilized shit,” Gari said.

“Listen kid, forget the old fucks. There’s no percentage in old fucks,” the man said, as he flapped his arms and bolted from Gari in disgust.

“What was that about?” asked Catherine, finally disengaging herself from her gaggle of iron monsters.

“The guy was looking for the La Brea Tar Pits and I was giving him directions.”

She regarded him askance. Then she shrugged and they forged deeper into the wilds of the party.

Catherine wasn’t interested in chatting up the guests, for which Gari was grateful. He wasn’t much on the rambling, pointless conversation that was the fare of the evening and the meat of the guests; they impressed him as absolutely ravenous for idle, meaningless dribble. Catherine’s objective was to find two people in pink. Gari’s objective was to bask in the glow of the beautiful Catherine, to maintain the sexual edge that in her presence teased him deliciously, and to avoid encountering Larry and Darlene until the night had turned to morning and it was time to leave.

Their odyssey was endless as the ballroom while not quite dimensions of a small island still was packed with steamy denizens who impeded travel. In a short while, the experience was stifling and had Gari wishing an exit would present itself. But their wending had purpose and he noted that erratically they moved closer to the great plume of smoke that had not diminished since he’d first spotted it. Catherine was operating on the time honored, intuitively proven, widely accepted, and generally true maxim:  Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Or in their case, plenty of garish pink clothing.

The objective glared not too distantly at them, its visual vibrations easily slicing through the outrageous blue haze. He spied two people, a man and a woman, both dressed in bright pink outfits of the sort he hadn’t seen since the family trip to Jamaica. Upon first sighting, he didn’t give a thought, not a shed of credence to the dread the female might be Patricia, his Jamaican revolutionary, reconstituted in the posh Beverly Hills Hotel in the eye of a swirling storm of the misnamed beautiful people. Pink, after all, wasn’t solely the province of Caribbean island anti-capitalists.

But then it struck him, as if the management had authorized the Hollywood maven of mayhem to set off an electrical storm in the ballroom, like the rattling issuing from a particularly powerful clap of thunder. It was a black woman in the pink garb. Again he insisted, controlling the panic flaring upward from his gonads, the world held more than one black woman. She could be one of the millions who roamed the world, one of the hundreds of thousands who called L.A. home. She did not have to be Patricia.

However, as Catherine guided him closer, he saw that the woman in pink was indeed Patty Pink. Instantly, thoughts sparked. He had to get away. Was she packing a knife or rusty scissors? Would she remember him? Had her revolutionary cohorts accompanied her to mix it up with American capitalists on the moneygrubbers’ home turf? If she recognized him and worse acknowledged him, how would he explain her to Catherine? How do I get away? Is that really Jack Nickelson with them?

As if in addition to a beauty in pale pink, Catherine also was clairvoyant. She said, “Damn, Jack Nickelson. Looks like the real deal for sure. Come on, Gari, let’s get closer and make ourselves known.”

CHAPTER 26:  A SMALL WORLD

Hubris ran amuck in him; self-importance was a plague to his sensibilities; but he was, in fact, perfectly objective and right to believe unwaveringly:  “She’ll remember me.” To Gari, it was inconceivable she would not remember, if only vaguely, a man whose balls she once wanted to snip and post on the doorknob of the American Embassy.

He reacted to the sighting by hesitating and then resisting Catherine’s urgings to move close and gain the attention of the pink pair.

“Let’s go,” she commanded, when she realized he was pulling in the opposite direction.

“You go. They’re too bizarre for the agency.”

Catherine stopped. “Gari, are you nuts? You know where you are, I assume. Hollywood. This is Hollywood business. We’re talking big money here. And as for bizarre, I’ve seen worse on Lower Wacker.”

She tugged at him and they turned in time to see Nickelson chugging away, trailing smoke like a Metra locomotive. “Thanks, Gari. My chance to meet a star and he’s gone. Let’s go.”

“Fine, fine, I’m behind you,” he bleated. She was simply too beautiful. He couldn’t resist her. While he wanted mightily to be true and loyal to Emily and keep his freely made vow, she was irresistible. If she beckoned him to her bed or even a table in the back of the Sunset, he might succumb. But whether he would or wouldn’t, he did not want to shutoff the choice. His feelings were a mixed up muddled mess, a goulash of nuttiness with plenty of potential for self-annihilation.

Damn they were a strange couple, Gari observed, once within their redolent aura. It was Patricia looking much as she had in Jamaica, though now she was more so. Her gown was a shimmering pink, cascading to the floor and gathering there like fine drapery. He wondered how she walked without tripping, then noticed a nearly invisible cord extended from the middle finger of her left hand to the hem. It was a Victorian artifact on a true product of the twenty-first century and he chuckled. Above her waist the dress faded to nearly nothing. In front, it covered the tips of her breasts and afforded all a lovely view of the valley between them, enhanced by a sheen and a smattering of pink glitter. As for the back, there was none until just before the beginning of her ass, enticingly bulbous, invitingly touch tempting to fingers, like Brancusi’s “Bird.” Where her skin was flecked with pink, its deep ebony was oiled and buffed to a gloss. Her generous lips were painted pink, as were her eyelids. And, most startling of all, her hair was vivid pink. Traveling his eyes downward again, he paused on her face and noted her eyebrows also were dyed pink. This set him to speculating about the color of her hirsute nether.

Surging through him, shoving aside the dread at what the woman had intended for him and the fear over the additional chaos she could now introduce into his life, was a powerful desire to possess her. This was Jamaica redux. What would it be like to be with her in a quiet room, perhaps softly lighted in a pink hue? Patricia owned the color, or it owned her, as it enriched the chocolate of her flesh, as tempting to him as the confection was to a sugar addict. Together they’d be redolent on the bed, the same yet tonally distinct, as if the color originated from two different prisms. Just envisioning this setting, entwined, soft against each other, slightly moist, on the verge of engaging each other, the excitement was almost too much for him and he had to suppress a groan that begged to issue from his agape mouth.

Catherine rescued him from his trance with a sharp jab of the finger in his ribs. “God, she’s stunning, isn’t she?”

Her word choice was, well, nothing less than perfect. Yes, Patricia was stunning, like a black widow to her mate. “I can’t argue with that,” he said, “and you may be understating it.”

No doubt, Patricia was the showpiece of the pair, the peacock since in fact she’d proven herself a woman who wasn’t adverse to hauling balls around in her bag and using them to further her wacky cause, which she now seemed to have tossed on a trash heap somewhere between Jamaica and Hollywood.

The man was in pink—pink tails to be precise, entirely pink from shoes to cravat, shirt included. However, the color didn’t show well against his starch-white skin. Certainly a tan would have helped matters, but he was like the other moles in the room, resistant to the roasting effect of the L.A. sun. Capping this, his hair was mousy brown and askew. Well, bad next to good always enhanced good by a magnitude.

Pausing on the man’s face a moment, Gari saw the fellow laugh at something. Who could hear with the noise in the place? The loudness assaulted his throat, and it ached. The noise wore him down to where he would have been quite content to curl in a corner and nod until dawn. In lieu of what he wanted to do, he studied the man and saw the fellow had astonishingly bad teeth. Brit jumped to mind.

Gari jogged back in time, back and back until the Daily Gleamer materialized before his eyes. And there on its otherwise smiley-face pages was the story he expected:  Brit Reportedly Captured. But he saw the headline and nothing more. What was the Brit’s name? Robert, Clive, Culbert, James—it could be an endless litany and require forever to recite, and what difference did a name make anyway? Then it snuck up on him from behind. Brian. It rattled around in his noggin for a few seconds until it joined with Newberry. Brian Newberry. Brian Newberry.

He repeated the name several times until the repetition could not be contained in his brain, within the bulwark of his skull, and like water yielding to gravity, overflowed through a sluice that allowed the name to exit his mouth. “Brain Newberry, Christ, you still got your balls!”  It boomed forth, a cannon shot that might have been mistaken for mockery, insult, familiarity, or plain lunacy.

Gari’s utterance riveted the attention of the pink pair, who swung to the sound, faces masked in shocked expressions. One person in the vicinity was impressed. He glanced Catherine’s way to see her darting him an admiring acknowledgement. He doubted she’d heard what he’d said; she was probably admiring his audacious display of buttonholing.

Before the pair could banish their shocked expressions, Catherine thrust forward and extended a hand at Patricia, shouting, “Catherine Lourdes, Mid-Continental Trust Company. Did anyone ever tell you you’re stunning? I hope you have, you lucky guy.” This she directed at Brian—it had to at him. How lucky could a gelding be? Now Gari’s testicles ached.

Patricia regained her composure first and Gari knew by the sparkle in her eye that Jamaican days were foremost in her vicious lobes. “The banker,” she said, stepping into Catherine’s handshake and embracing her. The two performed the air kissing ritual.

Gari immediately set to work painting a picture of the two women clutching each other. It replaced his dread and fear of the meeting with euphoria.

Catherine was blond and lightly tanned, and Patricia was burnished ebony, and in his rendering they entwined. Into this balance, which Gari first contemplated in its purity, he injected himself. The Getty surged forth, in particular the painting of the three lovers; and his creation struck him as the perfect manifestation of the art and if it could be imagined an even more the perfect expression of it:  Gari sandwiched between Catherine and Patricia. The vision nearly overwhelmed him. What was the word for a woman overwhelmed by romantic fantasy? Swoon was it. An old lacy and probably forgotten word, but he sensed he was about to demonstrate its meaning to the movie crowd.

And then, as if they were telling them he was verging on making a fool of himself, they broke their clench and Catherine launched into earnest financial bilge.

He would have slumped in a chair, except one wasn’t handy, and the pink companion choose to jab a finger at him in a most unfriendly and downright threatening manner. “How do you know my wife?”

It was a common question but delivered with a fierce edge of accusation, each word and each syllable of each word freighted with suspicion.

Well, Gari had news for the man in pink. He was having a bad day, and the party wasn’t what he expected; and besides he didn’t want to attend it anyway. True, he was there because of a woman, but not Patricia. He didn’t know she was in L.A.; he figured her as a resident of a Jamaican hellhole gaol, the kind of place where the guards raped women like Patty on a preset schedule.

This British bastard with bad teeth and a black attitude to rival begged for slapping down. While Gari wouldn’t win prizes as an oral duelist, he figured the Brit for a cinch. “The same way you know Patty.”

The Brit regarded him with quizzical animosity.

Gari decided to jar the Brit quickly into reality. “Exactly the same way I know you, Brian Newberry.”

“You know me? I’ve never laid eyes on you until tonight.”

Gari drew close. “And you owe me, too.”

“You’re absolutely bonkers. You must hear that fairly often.”

“Humph,” Gari fumed, “I’m the reason you still have your balls, my good man.”

Newberry, who was naturally pale though more pink-cast as a result of his costume, flushed cherry and drew closer. “What do you mean?”

Gari detected a timbre of fear amid Newberry’s attempt at bravado. The edge was off his attitude, replaced by fear, just a smidgen to be sure, but present nevertheless. So, he concluded nobody but Gari, and Patricia, knew. He chalked up Newberry’s attachment to a prolonged case of Stockholm syndrome.

Gari kept his volume as low as he could and still be heard. He glanced at Catherine and Patricia to assure himself they couldn’t hear. They seemed to have no interest other than themselves.

“How’d you meet her?” Gari asked.

“What’s it to you? And what about you and my —”

“Your balls? Miss Pink there and her friends—remember her friends, the little revolutionary bunch, the guys who mumbled loudly and the woman a dog might mistake for a fireplug and piss on?” Gari detected recognition in the way Newberry’s eyes grew larger. “She got me first, pal. They nearly got mine, but I got away. Right afterwards, I read a Brit had been kidnapped by the Jamaican Freedom Alliance. You’ve still got them because I bumped into Patricia later. I could have kept quiet, but … well, just call me a concerned citizen.”

“She’d never be party to such an abomination.”

Gari simulated cutting with his fingers. “Why don’t we ask her?”

“No, let’s not.”

“Are you a praying man, Mr. Newberry?” Gari emphasized Newberry as if it carried the same mystery as a secret oath.

“You know my name, so what? My wife and I are releasing a major motion picture here. I’d be surprised if you didn’t know my name. I mean, know our names. And by the way, you’ve implied much, but you haven’t identified yourself.”

“Gari Garibaldi. I’m president of Lefton & Associates West. We’re an ad agency.”

“Your manner of soliciting our business—I assume you’re at this party for business reasons—your manner is odd, to say the least.”

“The truth is, Mr. Newberry, I would like to promote this movie or your next one.”

“Banish it from your mind, Mr. Garibaldi. Banish it as you would your most unexpected hope.”

“Oh, I think I might have a good shot at it, Mr. Newberry. Look, I have just one hope, and it’s that you’re a praying man.”

“If you’ll excuse me, I have guests who demand my attention,” said Brian, twisting to turn away and nab any one of them.

Gari gently grasped his arm and tugged and nodded to the effect Newberry would be ill-advised turning away at the moment. “My meaning is you’d better be sure this movie is a success, or snip, snip. You don’t want to disappoint that woman.”

“Don’t trouble yourself with worry. It will be.”

“With the help of Lefton & Associates, I have no doubt.”

Newberry pulled his arm free and began separating in disgust. Before his eyes could unlock from Gari’s, Gari said, “I’m sure your investors wouldn’t appreciate giving their money to an avowed enemy of the American Capitalist System. In fact, I myself am leery of working with the two of you. Imagine my reputation if it got around I did ad work for the last of the world’s communists.”

Newberry’s countenance transformed from angry to concerned and deflated to defeat. “Wait a minute,” he said, turning to Patricia and whispering in her ear. She nodded and smiled, never missing a beat responding to Catherine.

“Let’s go over there,” Brian said, gesturing to the corner, “where we can talk in private.”

Private in this room meant screaming over the din and pausing every few seconds to wave off somebody who simply had to talk to the man in pink. “Okay,” Brian said, “what movies have you promoted?”

“None yet,” said Gari.

“What a bloody recommendation. Who are your clients?”

“Vanguard Shoes.”

“Shoes?” exclaimed Brian. “And damned rubbish shoes to boot.”

“Rubbish or not, their business is up twenty percent since we started promoting them.”

“Christ, the advertising’s crap.”

“You noticed.”

“Sure I’ve noticed. It’s such crap I can’t help it.”

“I guess crap sells. What’s this movie of yours about anyway?”

“It’s a children’s epic.”

“They’ve filmed ‘Lord of the Flies.'”

“Is this the brand of wit you’ll bring to promoting our movie?”

“I leave the wittiness to my dynamic duo creative team,” Gari said, doing his best to dam the derision seizing him. “Gyl and Kennie, the creative crackerjacks I like to call them.”

“You’re pulling my leg?”

“I’ve been known to pull her leg,” Gari said, flipping his head in Catherine’s direction, “but never a leg like yours, mate.”

“Gyl Grass and Kennie Cox?” Newberry said.

“Yes, they are the two. You know them?”

“I worked in advertising for a while. Sure I know them. They’re at your agency?”

Gari had a wealth of abusive remarks stored for such an occasion as this. However, he decided to proceed cautiously for a few reasons. Disparaging the duo would amount to diminishing his agency in front of a prospective client. He didn’t care much about Newberry. Well, perhaps a little. But securing a movie account would be a coup for an agency with only shoe experience. He could use the business. And strolling out of the party with a movie account would get Larry off his back. Too, word traveled fast, especially in L.A., which was the ultimate word-of-mouth town. Nobody would hire Lefton & Associates if they knew the president’s opinion of his creative team was that they were complete idiots.

His noncommittal response was, “Yes.”

A second passed between them, when the volume in the room seemed to ratchet down to zero and Gari swore he heard the rustle of clothing and the stretch in Catherine’s hose as she shifted from sandal foot to sandal foot in her gabfest with Patricia.

Finally, Brian said, “Perhaps I judged you too hastily. They are the best in your tawdry industry.”

Gari alternately suppressed a laugh, a scream, and a tear. The two Gari regarded as a step below numbskulls were held in esteem by this Brit. Gari had granted Newberry a thimble of respect owning to the man’s status as a survivor of Patty’s blade. Sure the man had teamed up with the black beauty; but Gari wrote that off to survival. To his thinking, Newberry’s action was akin to a trapped and desperate animal gnawing off its foot to hop, skip, and jump another day. Who wouldn’t act irrationally when his testicles were at stake? But this, praising the dimwits was too much. Newberry must be a crazy man. Certainly he was a man possessed of abominable judgment.

Once the emotion drained, Gari saw it didn’t matter. Winning the business was what counted. And if he could exploit the two who had tormented him from the day Larry had insisted he hire them, well, at least he’d get a little value from them. He noted, though, the thing he had to avoid was letting Larry know how well the duo were regarded; otherwise a barely bearable man would become unbearable.

“They’ll be on your account. You can count on it,” Gari said.

“Okay, look,” said Newberry, affably, “I’m merely the writer.” He nodded toward Patricia, who was still engaged in a head wagging badinage with Catherine. “She’s producing.”

“She’s cutthroat,” Gari said.

“If you thought you were going to lose your balls in Jamaica, then I suggest you grip and hold your jewels with both hands.” Newberry offered his advice with a smile closely resembling a grimace.

It was at the conclusion of this cautionary that Patricia and Catherine finished their exchange, and Patricia directed her attention at Gari and Newberry, but mostly at Gari. No doubt her bright white-toothed smile was for him alone.

CHAPTER 27:  AFTER THE STAR TOUR

Emily loved Teddy and Sammy, and Gari. She accepted Pasadena. She adored their house and it made California tolerable for her. She loved being in her house, in her yard, and in her neighborhood, and she’d not had much desire or reason to venture beyond these boundaries of comfort. She liked being with her family, even when the boys were rowdy, when Gari was slouching around and she was left to carry the weight. But, she admitted to herself, she enjoyed the stars tour. It wasn’t the tour itself. She didn’t derive tremendous pleasure gawking at driveways and gates and mailboxes, which summed up the sights of the tour. What she enjoyed was the quiet and solitude. She was in a van with twenty people who buzzed at each other and clicked pictures. The driver chatted endlessly trying to paint pictures of what lay at the tops of all those driveways. Yet, there were no children and husband to care for and nothing to tidy up. She didn’t have to haul out the paint and brush to refurbish yet another room yet another time. Sitting in a van quietly was a pleasure akin to soaking in a bath. So when the tour ended and she found herself standing once again in front of Grauman’s, she felt renewed, refreshed, and not at all eager to return to home and hearth. She decided to extend her vacation and loitered among the stars’ hand and foot prints considering what she might do.

She strolled in front of the Kodak Center and it registered with her as the site of the Academy Awards. The space appeared small to her. On television the area seemed to stretch for eternity. Limos disgorged the stars and they walked through a lengthy gauntlet of reporters and fans. Now the space didn’t impress her. Perhaps they enhanced it somehow for the awards. Maybe they pushed back the buildings across the street to make more room. But, of course, that was silly.

She lingered in front of the Kodak Center and before long she had visions of the events inside and the party atmosphere back stage after an actor swaggered in clutching an Oscar. She imagined the Oscar parties as glamorous dress up affairs. The homes of the stars hadn’t been much—a bust really if truth be told. But the parties of the stars, perhaps these were a different story.

Following on the tail of these party thoughts, she recalled Gari was attending a party that evening. It was a Hollywood shindig at the Beverly Hills Hotel, glamour central as far as she was concerned. Gari had played it down as just another dreary business meeting, all the worst because Larry Lefton would be in attendance and the subject was clearly securing new business. But couldn’t she help?

Instantly, she formulated a plan. She phoned home and spoke with Jenny, to assure herself that Jenny hadn’t bolted out the door shortly after Gari and she had departed, or that the boys had cowed her into allowing them to do as they pleased, or worse, that she had a boyfriend over and he and she were providing the boys with early childhood education about the rudiments of sex, or worse yet that she and her Neanderthal had locked the boys in the closet while they humped away the hours in the Garibaldi bed.

None of this proved true, even remotely, of course. And fortunately Jenny could put the boys to bed and stay, if Mrs. Garibaldi could inform her parents and Mr. and Mrs. Garibaldi could return by six a.m. Emily set aside her fears, for really there was nothing to fear, and promised they would be home by then or a bit earlier.

She was dressed for sightseeing and not for a party. Her remedy was to flag a cab and take it to the Century City Shopping Center. She purchased underwear, stockings, sandals, a cocktail dress, and makeup at Bloomingdale’s. It was a huge bill, more than she’d normally spend on herself in a year. But she was a woman in transformation; the bill hardly registered with her. Gari, she reasoned, would be proud she was breaking out of her Wal-Mart shell, as he’d been encouraging her to spend more on herself. She’d been warming up by spending freely on renovating their home. He’d been urging her to pay more attention to her own needs. She was exuberant as she hailed her second cab—what an extravagance!—and directed the driver to take her the Beverly Hills Hotel.

The front desk was quiet, but then it was a late Sunday afternoon and she wouldn’t have expected throngs of people. She was surprised to find the main hotel rooms booked. Blame the business trade who wanted to stay at the swank place. Since she was splurging anyway, she secured a bungalow room for Gari and herself. It was wildly expensive, nearly as much as she’d have spent in her Mundelein days on a vacation to Disney World with accommodations at the Howard Johnson’s or EconoLodge. Yet, as she was signing in she was recalling Gari’s encouragement to think of herself, be kind to herself, pamper herself. He insisted she deserved royal treatment, and he could now provide her with it. She couldn’t count the times he’d urged:  “Treat yourself, Emily. You deserve it. We can afford it now.” She shouldn’t allow guilt to ruin her evening and her surprise for her dear, considerate husband. She had nothing to be guilty about. Well, perhaps the boys at home with Jenny; but they’d be asleep in no time and when they awoke she’d be there. No, absolutely nothing to be guilty about.

The bungalow was like a small apartment, but superior in innumerable ways, not the least of which were the elegant furnishings. Standing in the suite filled her with grand ideas for her own renovation.

She’d never been in a suite like this, which accounted for her devoting her first half hour to testing the seating, the bed, the bathroom, and room service:  She ordered a split of California chardonnay. Her spirits were high and the wine would send them into the stratosphere.

She whiled away an hour sipping wine, lounging on the bed, and watching television, a habit she hadn’t allowed herself or the boys, though lately she’d been slipping, permitting more TV and discovering herself planted in front of the set more often than ever in her life. Deep in these thoughts, she drifted into sleep and woke in the dark with a start, believing she was at home, nearly tumbling from the bed as it was higher than theirs, finally slapping around the bed and night table until she found the lamp and threw light on the situation. One light led to another and before long she’d switched on every lamp throughout the suite.

It was almost nine when she searched out the clock. Nine was late for her, but not for Hollywood parties, according to Gari. He said they were just getting started at nine and not swinging until eleven. Operating on this logic, she had more than enough time to luxuriate in a bubble bath and leisurely apply her makeup and dress.

Emily was an organized person. She had to be with two boys like Teddy and Sammy. So, while she drew her bath, she laid out her evening attire. She wasn’t much for pastels but shopping she’d had the urge to dress as femininely as she could manage. Before her was the perfect expression of that desire: a cocktail dress, cut low and strapless, shaped as a tube, complementing her figure, over which she’d labored long and of which she was justly proud. The shade was a pink pale as the blush of baby cheeks.

Around ten she affixed a pair of zirconium studs in her ears, twirled in the full-length mirror in the dressing area of the bath, and then grabbed her purse and headed for the ballroom in the main building.

CHAPTER 28:  GLAMORIZING

After Gari had dropped her at her apartment and she’d watched his Jag disappear around the corner, Loretta found a cab and asked the driver to drop her on Rodeo. First stop was Chanel. She needed a new cocktail dress, for she’d decided to surprise Gari by appearing in glorious new form at his big Hollywood party. She hoped to rekindle his interest, which had seemed wandering and vague at the Getty. She also hoped to further her acting career. Admittedly, it wasn’t much of a career, not something she could really, honestly call a career; it was more a desire, a future in the making, though time certainly was running out, Hollywood being a place that cherished and required youth in woman; a new attitude about woman and a new attitude expressed by women might appear on the screen, but among those who made decisions about movies it was business as usual. She wasn’t getting younger and at this party she might just meet a mover, or someone who knew a mover.

She wasn’t alone with her thoughts for more than a minute when a saleswoman sidled next to her offering assistance. That was the thing about upscale salons like Chanel:  Salespeople who looked like anything but fawned over you. The woman at Loretta’s elbow appeared to be around forty, though she as easily could have been fifty or sixty. The woman was tall, slim, fit, with amazing snow-white hair—not natural but boldly dyed!—piled on her head. She wore a classic Chanel suit in red, Loretta’s color.

Loretta asked the woman to show her cocktail dresses. The woman whisked her to a small, tasteful sitting area, proffered a drink, and showed several dresses. As these dresses paraded by her in blues, greens, reds, purples, and black, she invariably stopped to examine the red. She tried on two red cocktail dresses and both were dynamite, so said the woman, who was simply stating the obvious. It was Loretta’s color.

This day, she wasn’t in the mood for business as usual, and neither was Gari, she reasoned. She needed to be different, to shake things up, to rivet his attention, and hold it, and hold it. He’d seen enough red, probably too much red.

And then it drifted by her, an earthquake of a dress. It was such a trembler because the color was so unlike her. When she wasn’t wearing red, she was wearing another strong color:  full strength blue, deep green, rich brown, black black. These worked for her and imparted her with the sense she could seduce any man who came her way, young or old, single or married. So it shocked her, nearly elicited a squeak of disbelieve from her, when she asked for the dress, and held it close to herself and observed herself in the mirror in a color she never imagined she’d wear—pink in a shade so pale it might be mistaken for white.

She stood before a mirror and turned right and left. The salesperson encouraged her, chiming that the subtle pink suited her, contrasted alluringly with her lightly tanned skin, while complementing her blond hair. The three bows down the front, embroidered with small flowers and vines, were darling, pronounced the woman, especially on Loretta. Loretta took the dress into a changing room and slipped into it. She returned to the mirror and studied herself. The salesperson fussed over her, the dress, and the bows, tugging here and there, and pulling up Loretta’s hair to demonstrate the elegance she could achieve.

All well and good, but the true test for Loretta was answering the question:  Did it supercharge her sexual appeal? Was she now like a tantalizingly wrapped sweet, the variety a man would obsess over tasting? With the right strap heels, pale pink or white she thought, bare legs, and beached hair—ratted and maybe tipped or stripped white (the sales woman had been inspiring)—because it would contrast against the elegance of the dress and boost her sexy quotient; yes, the dress would work beautifully.

She delighted the woman and elicited layers of compliments from her. For what she paid, Loretta was tempted to linger and wallow in the praise.

But she couldn’t wait. She had to stop at Ferragamo for the perfect strap shoes—cream with pink insoles, where it would show tantalizingly as she walked. They were perfection and cost nearly a week’s wages. Well, she couldn’t scrimp on shoes, as Gari was a shoe man, a shoe expert, someone who appreciated strap leather. Naturally, for the price, another upscale saleswoman, who may have been the sister of the lady—there was no other way to describe her but lady—who had sold her the dress so closely did they resemble each other, presented her with her cream dreamboats. Three-inch heels that raised and lengthened her legs, caused her rear to protrude in a deliciously suggestive manner, and prettied her feet.

Then she was off to her hairdresser, who she’d called ahead. The proprietor, who was straight, gushed it was never too late for Loretta. In this case, it was Sunday and she’d summoned him from his home, which was a nicely minimalist condo in West Hollywood. Sensual beauty paid dividends and Loretta tried to catch as many as she could. The expression glibly tossed around in offices and at parties was:  Leave no money on the table. She worked hard collecting everything, including the pennies. She kept the hairdresser attentive and pliable with flitting and hope and generous tips. He listened to her intention at the party and her idea for her hair and he raved over the white tips. It would be a simultaneously bold and subtle statement, a reminder to the man at which it was aimed that she was a woman of many facets, a lover who would be perpetually intriguing. No boring life with Loretta Heavencrest. She nodded and he got to work.

Back at her place, she hung her dress and stored her shoes. Loretta had discovered long ago underwear worn for sexual stimulation was glorious. But under sexy clothing, it was simply a nuisance. Naked was best, and, besides, she’d been naked under her clothing when she first met Gari.

She napped for an hour. She bathed and applied makeup for another hour, cleverly making it appear she was wearing no makeup. Naked skin, her favorite theme. She donned her dress and shoes in five minutes.

After a last check, she left her place, hailed a cab, and directed the driver to the Beverly Hills Hotel. The driver had a digital clock on his dash. It read 10:30. Right on time, she thought.

CHAPTER 29:  THE BIG DEAL

The flashy quartet was the object of stares and whispers. Everybody in the crowd knew the pair in pink; the buzz concerned the other two. Even in Hollywood people found spotting stars challenging. Not the big stars, the great bright blues at the height of their powers; their magnitude was as huge as their billing at the top of a movie. The little stars presented the problem. There were newbies who could have been anybody’s kid. And there were the red dwarfs well past their glory days; the types most in the crowd wouldn’t recognize, unless they caught a flick from past decades.

Buzz, buzz went the crowd’s mantra about two people who until they’d entered the orbit of the pink pair had nothing to do with the movies, other than laying out money for tickets.

A member of the quartet, Newberry, talked directly into Patricia’s ear. She nodded and nodded, and Gari observed them intently, curious whether Newberry was selling her on the agency idea, or exchanging Gari’s balls for the preservation of his own. He simply couldn’t dispel the image of Patty snipping away at him. He wanted the account, if only to shoo Larry back to Chicago quickly, though he also harbored the dream of fame beyond the kingdom of shoes. But he perplexed over working with somebody he feared carried scissors in her purse and would use them the moment he left a seat empty in a theater in Keokuk, Iowa. Well, why pass up a movie account for mere organic matter? After all, in Hollywood it could get worse, and did for some people.

Gari drew a narrow bead on Patricia, intending to discern through makeup, hair, skin, and bone whether she had reformed herself, or remained the revolutionary raptor he’d escaped in Jamaica. She’d been a young woman in Jamaica. Maybe it was her attire back there. It was bright and tropical and girlish. He tripped over the girlish memory; it was what got him into trouble. Not that he was a cradle robber by any means. But virginal youth, well, didn’t rich old bastards pay big bucks for a first crack? Hadn’t somebody made a movie about that very perversity; and hadn’t somebody famous been carried as a girl on a platter, like succulent meat, the main course of an elaborate banquet, enthroned amid garnish to appease the appetite of the pedophilic throng? The bidding, he remembered, had been hot and heavy.

But he was wandering. He returned to concentrating on Patricia, on her face, which at the moment was serene, innocent to strangers; she didn’t fool him. She appeared older to him. He detected lines marring an otherwise buffed complexion. Could be American capitalism was wearing her, eroding her youth and beauty along with her vicious idealism. Then again the light was dim and she was in makeup and with a man much older, which naturally reflected badly on her, like viewing her through crazed glass.

Newberry moved aside, not by much, but enough for Patricia to get into speaking range. Gari glimpsed him firing a cigarette and blasting plumes of smoke upward, as if Newberry was signaling the hero Jack Nickelson the coast was clear and he could come back, like, “Come back, Shane, come back.”

“The two of them, they loved each other.”

“Huh?” Gari stumbled.

Patricia said, “Jack and Brian, they loved that they smoke. The world, it is against them.”

The crowd seemed part of this love fest as the rumbling picked up and whiffs of “Nickelson’s here. He’s back” began permeating the room in pace with the drift of Newberry’s smoke.

“So, Mr. Garibaldi, you would like our business.”

“Sure, I think we can sell your movie. Besides …”

“You believe we—I owe you the business?”

“You don’t owe me a thing, Patricia.”

“You two sound like you know each other,” observed Catherine.

“We are old acquaintances, aren’t we Mr. Garibaldi?”

“I don’t know about old, but, yes, we’re acquainted.” He paused, considering how much truth to dispense. Not much, he decided, at least not now. He took the moment as an opportunity to demonstrate the level of discretion he could exercise. “We met in Jamaica last year when I was there scouting business for the agency.”

“Shoes, was it not?” Patricia said.

“Yes. Patricia was a—”

“I was a student at The University of the West Indies. I was studying business. I met Mr. Garibaldi in a shoe store, where he was conducting his research. Our meeting was quite fortunate for me, Ms. Lourdes.”

“How so?”

Gari also was keen to understand the nature of her good fortune, since his scared sacs as protest banners was all he could conjure, admitting to a limited imagination on this subject.

“Well, Ms. Lourdes, I was, and am, a great admirer of the American Capitalist System. Truly, it is a wonderment, this thing that can lift the poorest serfs from the muck of their existence to …” She paused and gathered the room in a wave. “… Well, this. Simply look at Brian and me. Now I put it to you:  Where else could we write and produce a film about a children’s revolution and have the rich and famous beating a path to our ballroom?”

Neither Catherine nor Gari could summon the vision of such a place. And Gari suffered from the further difficultly of suppressing a rip-roaring laugh that clamored to bust forth and fill the room.

“Gari,” said Catherine, touching his arm with genuine concern, “are you alright?”

Because speech was impossible without releasing the bitter chortle, he affirmed his robust health with a vigorous couple of nods. His effort had him reeling like an imbiber.

“It was quite embarrassing, really,” continued Patricia, after affording Gari ample opportunity to burst, “for I know I gushed over poor Mr. Garibaldi when he revealed who he was and why he was in a shoe store in Jamaica.”

Gari snuck a look at Catherine, not wishing to reveal his full face as he was certain he was purple, to see how much of Patty’s patter she was buying. By her benign smile, he figured none of it.

Catherine said, dividing her gaze between Patricia and Gari, “From the moment I met Mr. Garibaldi, he has—oh, what’s the best way to express this—he has, well, inculcated me with a new appreciation of the endowed and vigorous American businessman. Really, I feared the breed nearly extinct, until Mr. Garibaldi appeared in my office.”

These women understood each other. Gari found himself shriveling, every part of him receding to miniature, under the sarcasm. As if a word of what Catherine said was true. He was the innocent, a poor slob one minute, an Illinois Lottery millionaire the next, a fellow in a weakened state, susceptible. The next thing he knew he was bouncing about with her on an art restoration table. Now that wasn’t his idea. And damn it, he certainly was vigorous and fulfilling and as scorching with his tool as she was with her feminine wit; he’d satisfied her, perhaps even had taken her where she hadn’t been for a while, not since Jimmy the Conductor, keeper of Conductor’s Club vault.

“Well,” said Patricia, “I suppose the question is:  Should I hire Mr. Garibaldi to advertise my films?”

“He seems a good enough sort,” Brian said, somewhat plaintively, as if there was a chance Patricia would decide otherwise, and thereby sabotage their opportunity to make his movie, his movie, not hers, a success.

Patricia glanced Brian up and down, offended and disgusted as if he was a pesky insect annoying her with its relentless, stupid droning. She dismissed him as casually by slowly facing Catherine and bestowing upon her a warm smile. “Brian, I’m not speaking to you. If I required your opinion, I’d certainly have asked for it. You’re a backer, what do you say?”

What was it about women and their need to possess men? The gender had its own language and in this lexicon total possession of the man, and corollary, the woman as the sole object of the man’s thoughts, desires, and reasons for his every action, which they called commitment; a quantity that few men, in Gari’s experience, were able to give.

He knew, then, that in the natural order of things, Catherine was angry with him. They knew each other as banker and client. They spoke to each other infrequently. They saw each other rarely. They had sex twice. And each time she initiated it. But true to female form, she possessed him, or assumed he was her property, property that had gone bad, tainted by sex with another woman. She had no idea Patricia’s concept of contact with Gari’s genitals amounted to a desire to cut them off and display them in condemnation of the very system she now milked. She suspected something and that was sufficient.

“I’d ask him about loyalty. Will he be true to your films, Patricia, devoting his full attention to their success? Or will he simply use his association with you to chase more film work? Or worse another shoe account, which I’m afraid seems likely.”

“Hmmm,” mused Patricia.

“Okay, you two, how about this? I don’t want your movies, Patricia. And, Catherine, you can find your way home by your lonesome.”

Gari’s outburst had Newberry, who seemed the only one of the pink pair to understand what was at stake, what they might sacrifice because these three appeared to dislike each other, sucking furiously on his cigarette, launching great balls of blue smoke into the far reaches of the Sunset Ballroom, drawing so hard he disintegrated one cigarette and was halfway through another by the end of the three’s short exchange.

“For your information,” said Patricia, “the biggest names in movie promotion have already solicited my company.”

“And,” said Catherine, “I believe I can easily find Raffles without your masculine guidance.”

“I’m out of here,” said Gari, who stood anchored to his square foot of ballroom floor.

“Folks,” said Brian though the fog he was laboring hard to thicken, “can’t we be reasonable about this? Patricia, Mr. Garibaldi will do a fine job for us. Besides, the movie practically sells itself. And after the critics see it, well it will be a hit, perhaps a box office blockbuster.” He paused to light a fresh cigarette with the butt of the one presently scorching his fingers. “As for Ms. Lourdes, she’s offered us generous terms.”

Gari had to concede guts to Newberry; he bounced back from the previous public slap down. But, maybe his wasn’t a feat due respect, as it encapsulated a vast amount of self-preservation. While Patricia was blinded to it, Newberry knew leaking Patricia’s revolutionary past, complete with ball scalping, was far from the way to win the hearts and minds of their potential audience, not to mention their backers. Men were fondly attached to their reproductive sacs, as were their wives, and preferred to teach their children respect for others, not a lovely way to maim, cause or no, justified or not.

Patricia appeared to puff up and on the verge of exploding, when she instantly deflated, calmed, and said, “I believe Brian is right. We can do a deal.”

This would make it a wonderful evening, perfect really, if he could get Larry over and introduce their new client. He thought it was time to search for the mountain and bring this evening to a pleasant end.

CHAPTER 30:  FISSURES

When the fresh plume of blue smoke appeared, the crowd, operating at a low buzz like a giant machine on idle, shifted into the high gear of rampant speculation and excitement. Surging through it was the rumor that the great star had returned, the great Nickelson was back in the room and everybody again had a chance of meeting him, bathing in his aura, seizing the opportunity to solicit him for their special projects, and the huge body seemed to surge in the direction of the smoky corner.

Loretta entered the Sunset Ballroom at this precise moment and the rumor enveloped her instantly. Working her way through the room, she passed three groups of revelers and in each group the topic preoccupying them was the presence of Nickelson and how to get close to him and what they would do if they got into his presence.

Producers and directors were her usual targets. If only she could get close to one of either class, she might have a chance of obtaining a role. She’d settle for anything, even a small walk on with one line. The right walk on and the right line and next she’d win a bit part, and from there, who knew? She could be a star. She’d be happy as a little star.

But actors, the right actors, they could be as good as, perhaps better than, producers and directors. After all, they practiced the profession she aspired to and they would recognize her talent. And maybe she wouldn’t have to sleep with them, though she suffered no qualms about doing so. Gari could wait. Her objective became the smoky corner.

* * *

Emily smiled as she passed through the lobby of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Three middle-aged women, who by her estimation could easily have been from Mundelein, whispered about her as she sauntered past them, speculating that she was a star, each trying her best to recall her name or characters, in the process offering up names and roles, all of whom and which Emily found complimentary. The real stars seemed to hate recognition. They squawked continuously of respect for their privacy. Emily couldn’t image not enjoying the admiration of women like those she’d passed. The experience exhilarated her.

She found the Sunset Ballroom. Since her appearance marked her as an obvious guest—and if she wasn’t an invitee, then no doubt the party sponsors had made a grievous error—she entered with hardly the bat of an eyelash. And no sooner was she over the threshold than was she caught up in the fervor over the assumed presence of Jack Nickelson.

Emily adored Jack. She’d transformed into a daytime movie watcher, visiting the Pasadena Public Library frequently, where she checked out books and magazines and music and movies. She was far less frugal than she’d been when Gari had been a mere cog in the Lefton & Associates wheel; however, she couldn’t dismiss a lifetime of penny pinching in a couple of months, though she’d made an encouraging beginning. Why pay Blockbuster for something the library would give you for free as long as you had the good sense to return the materials by their due dates? By picking up movies weekly and watching them while the boys were in school or later as she waited for Gari to come home from his ever-lengthening days at the office, she’d managed to see scores of films, and all of Jack’s. She cried when he was bludgeoned to death in “Easy Rider.” She cheered him on when he ordered in “Five Easy Pieces.” He mesmerized her as the devil in “The Witches of Eastwich.” But her favorite was Jack as the Melvin the neurotic writer in “As Good As It Gets.” He was a lovable curmudgeon, and exactly as she imagined him—or hoped he was—in life.

This is why she decided on the spot that Gari could wait for a few moments, while she followed the smoke signals broadcasting the location of her favorite actor. She might not have another chance like this to meet him.

* * *

Larry and Darlene Lefton circumnavigated the room, skirting the edge of the crowd like old mariners, avoiding the crowd for fear of losing their way and ultimately being consumed in the utter bizarreness of Hollywood types. Larry wasn’t the problem, as he wanted nothing more than to plunge in and hook up with Gari, but Darlene was as good as an anchor. She’d clamored for the Hollywood experience. The reality of striking women, boisterous men, strange dress, and in some cases hardly any dress, frightened her. She expected glamour of the sort she saw in the Star and the Inquirer, stars she could recognize in wonderful gowns, who had manners, and who moved demurely and spoke quietly, who were polite to each other. In other words, she’d expected the opposite of this Hollywood party, which exhibited not a one of those qualities.

Several times Larry asked if she wanted to return to their outrageously priced room. At least he’d derive a bit of value from the expense; also, he could return to the party and kick up his heels. Clearly, Gari had been right giving into his wife and taking her with him had been a mistake.

When the second plume of smoke appeared and the rumor that Jack Nickelson was again in the ballroom began circulating, Darlene perked up. She hated smoking and forbade Larry from smoking his noxious cigars in their home. But she adored Jack Nickelson, who she considered a real star. She was in Hollywood, at a big Hollywood party, and her mission since setting foot in L.A. had been to see big stars. Here, at last, was her opportunity. She wasn’t about to miss it. She overcame her disgust and tugged Larry’s sleeve, pointed to the hazy corner, and launched him in front of her like her personal icebreaker, the mission to shake the great star’s hand and hear him speak in person.

* * *

Marvin T. Freeman stood six-foot two. He weighted two-hundred fifty-eight pounds. His complexion was a pleasing shade of milk chocolate. He wore a well-cut blue conservative suit and a red power tie over a crisp white shirt. He carried a two-way radio on his hip. He’d been the fellow who had escorted Jack Nickelson in and out of the ballroom. After that, he worked the room, scanning nervously for anything untoward. When he discovered it in the form of plumes of blue smoke, he charged the location in the far corner as quickly as he could manage.

This was simple:  Jack Nickelson was an exception. Wasn’t it the rule? The exception proved the rule. And the rule was:  No Smoking. No smoking in the Beverly Hills Hotel’s Sunset Ballroom, or lobby, or any other enclosed public area. And that meant everybody, except of course for those exceptions who made the rule good as gold in the mind of Marvin T. Freeman.

* * *

Newberry was mid-way through breathing a sigh of relief, exhaling a rather large cloud of smoke, when he sensed himself lifting off the ballroom floor, jetting ceiling-ward, until, still wondering what the hell was going on, he reached apogee and began his descent.

He could have landed badly and broken a part of his anatomy. Marvin T. Freeman, though, in addition to bulk and speed, had played semipro ball after college and was adept, when he wanted to be, at placing the quarterback’s ass gently on the turf. In Newberry’s case, the soft landing was on the hardwood floor of the ballroom, and it almost cracked his coccyx, and absolutely elicited a howl of shock and pain from him.

“You aboriginal fool. What do you think you’re doing?” His was scream was somewhat on the order of a war cry. He attempted two or three slashing blows to Marvin’s arm, which would have quite comfortably supported a goalpost.

Marvin grabbed the flailing arm after satisfying himself that the offender was quelled and safe. “Who’s the fool here anyway?” he growled. “The rule is no smoking.”

* * *

Darlene arrived as Marvin was in the process of tackling Newberry. From behind her, Larry observed, “Looks like he played pro ball.” Spotting Gari, he asked, “You know who he is?”

Darlene cried, “How can they allow somebody out of the blue to assault Jack Nickelson?” Of Gari she asked, “Why is Jack wearing a pink suit? Is it some bizarre Hollywood thing they don’t tell us about?”

“It’s not Jack Nickelson,” he informed. “That man is our new client. And this is his partner.”

Larry sidled next to Patricia. He extended his hand, which she accepted with uncertainty, taken aback either by the flattening of her husband or the thorough retro tackiness of the man wishing to clasp her hand. She gave Larry a limp hand, which he shook vigorously.

Pumping, as if well water was a good ten minutes away, he proclaimed, “We’re going to do a great job for you.”

“Gari, I’m so very happy for you,” said a voice from behind.

Gari swung around. “Loretta, what are you doing here?”

She closed the gap between them and pecked his cheek. “I wanted to surprise you. Are you surprised?”

“Shitless,” he blurted.

And now, like a team of the ridiculous, Patricia, Larry, Gari, and Loretta were in an obscene huddle.

Larry, with enlarging eyes, asked as subtly as possible in a room in which the buzz was grown to ear splitting volume, “Who’s your friend?”

“Yes, Gari, who is your friend?”

After cinching the deal, Gari had experienced elation. Not an inordinate amount; but a quantity appropriate to the win, which was okay in his book. Larry’s appearance was off-putting, for who with all his sensibilities intact would want to be around the president and his wife, no darling by any measure. But the man’s presence occurred at the right time and Gari regarded his comments approbation of his deed. Though this didn’t elevate him to a higher level of elation. Reality was he considered Larry an idiot when it came to advertising, and praise from a numbskull was no worthy commendation. Thus his elation level was status quo, though still quite pleasant, just not euphoric.

Consequently, his mood didn’t have far to fall to reach normal, to plunge to fright, and to collapse into utter terror, all of which if did the second those last words fluttered through his cochlea and banged into his brain.

“Why, Emily, what are you doing here?”

“The question, Gari, is what are you doing here, there, and everywhere?” she demanded.

Loretta twirled to confront the inquiring woman face to face, only to be left mouthing her question behind Gari’s quick response:  “Emily, dear wife, this is Loretta. She was my real estate agent.”

“Our real restate agent was mousy brown and on the dumpy side,” said Emily, scrutinizing Loretta head to toe, and not liking the least bit of what she was seeing.

Gari laughed heartily. “Sandra showed us our house, Emily. Loretta was my commercial agent.”

“Hmmm,” she muttered, a sound he knew to mean “I’ll just see about that.” Pointedly to Loretta, who’d released Gari, as if the question unfolded like a switchblade and cut him loose, “So where did you find my husband offices?”

Gari’s betrayal stunned Loretta into momentary dumbness. Her impulse to this revelation in the form of a very much alive wife was to blurt the truth that Gari had been blithely cheating and had come close to fathering a child. But her minute passed and she understood there was no advantage to her in revealing Gari’s knavery. She would have enjoyed his discomfort and perhaps the revenge of a possible divorce and all if would cost him. But the pleasure would have been short lived. No, there was no advantage for her. And the truth was though he was a scoundrel of the first order, she liked him. He’d treated her better than most. He seemed interested in renewing his relationship with her. She might gain something playing along.

Staring at Gari, she adopted a faint pomp she thought reflected the attitude of a Beverly Hills realtor. “My idea for Gari was in the heart of the action, an office on Sunset. But he’s a conservative type. Probably a result of his Midwestern upbringing.”

Larry Lefton, who in Gari’s opinion hardly ever did anything right, unknowingly galloped to his rescue. “Well, I’m grateful for his Midwestern sensibility. Century City is the perfect location for Lefton & Associates, West Coast Division. No disrespect intended, Ms. —”

“Heavencrest,” she replied. “None taken.”

“I’m Larry Lefton,” Larry said, dressing the introduction with real and practiced pomposity. “I’m chairman of Lefton & Associates.”

Gari smirked. Here was another example of Larry’s ridiculous compulsion for stating the obvious badly. Honestly, if this man hadn’t begun life with money, he’d be calling a GE refrigerator box under Wacker Drive home sweet home. Who believed things happened for a reason, that there was order in the universe, that the all-knowing eye in the sky had a plan for us, each and every one of us, and it was a good plan, too? This was bullshit to rival the crap churned out by Gyl and Kennie and every other so-called creative coast to shining coast. But Gari couldn’t afford bitterness or something worse would befall him while he luxuriated in recrimination. So he slid into a smile that implied admiration, praise, and other beatitudes toward el jeffe.

But then as far as Loretta and Larry were concerned, Gari had vanished. The entire ballroom might have for that matter. Gari saw the look on Larry’s face. He knew it. It was the look and feeling he’d experienced perhaps a bit too often the past several months.

“I don’t think I’ve ever met a chairman before,” she said.

Gari cranked an ear closer to be certain:  Loretta was cooing. And the idiot was melting. 

“And if I have, certainly not one as young as you, Mr. Lefton.”

She’d done that with him, called him Mr. Garibaldi. He had to lower himself to regular guy status by insisting she address him as plain old ah shucks Gari.

“No need for formality, Loretta. Larry, please.”

Gari glanced at Darlene to see how she was reacting. She wasn’t, at least not to Larry’s antics. She was occupied with orally assailing Marvin T. Freeman.

“Jack Nickelson is a superstar. He certainly can smoke wherever he likes.”

“Shit, lady, if this was Jack Nickelson, do you think I’d be wrestling him? Christ sakes, you think the Jackster would be caught dead in pink?” And to facilitate the correct answer, he hoisted Newberry by the collar by way of illustration and reinforcement.

“You’re not Jack,” she exclaimed.

“No shit,” mumbled Brian.

By this time, Larry Lefton was a lost cause and Gari could see his life in L.A. would no longer be sunny. Larry would be visiting frequently. This elicited a groan audible even in that sound chamber. And a glance in Emily’s direction confirmed he wouldn’t be seeing much California sunshine, unless it was from his backyard.

When Gari had landed again in reality, he learned the inevitable worst would be consuming him posthaste. With a big new account, Larry had decided the office would be growing, new staff and all that. The question was should they expand in the space, which was expensive, or grow in an emerging, trendy location, at less money too. This seemed to make perfect sense to Darlene who, while lamenting leaving Larry alone in L.A., expressed perfect understanding of the requirements of business. And Loretta acted as if she might know a thing or two about commercial real estate, though Gari suspected she was a better actress than he’d suspected.

It was when Marvin brought Newberry to an upright position and Newberry swore to refrain from fogging the ballroom and Darlene realized that she’d missed her opportunity to meet one of her favorites and Loretta had discovered a new career with Larry and also found herself knowing the score before the game ensued—it was then that Catherine, who during the melee had stepped outside the ring of turmoil, approached Emily, who in turn occupied herself by glaring at Gary and speculating how Teddy and Sammy might respond to her booting their father from the Pasadena house, perhaps even chucking the house and returning to safe and steady and perfectly predictable Mundelein.

“I’m pleased to meet you, Mrs. Garibaldi,” she said, thrusting a beautifully manicured hand toward Emily.

Hesitantly, Emily limply accepted Catherine’s hand. “Don’t tell me you’re another of Gary’s real estate friends.”

Catherine laughed. “I’m sure she is who she says she is. I’ve only been here a little while and found them all to be a little like her. No, I’m your husband’s banker, his business banker from Chicago. Catherine Lourdes.”

“I didn’t know Gari had a banker,” Emily said.

Confused? thought Catherine. Well, that’s perfect.

“Perhaps I wasn’t clear. I’m the banker for his business.”

“But this is California and you said you’re from Chicago.”

“Mrs. Garibaldi, these days banking knows no boundaries.”

Gari, partially recovered from the turmoil and already concocting a story for the benefit of Emily, then discovered his wife and Catherine going head to head. He felt for an instant that he might soon take the place Newberry had vacated on the floor.

“Gari,” said Catherine, entwining Gari’s arm. “I called him Mr. Garibaldi for the longest time,” patting his hand as if he was a recalcitrant child, as she held Emily’s gaze, establishing a connection that set off in him a mild, nervous syncopated motion. “Your husband is such a dear, really a regular guy. Don’t you think that’s a big part of his success? Just one of the boys, so clients can identify with him and like him, you know, person to person. He absolutely insisted I address him as Gari. ‘I’m plain old Gari,’ he said so many times, well I can’t count all of them. Dozens of times I’m sure.”

Gari swayed under this big wind of—what? He couldn’t figure:  praise, sarcasm, prelude to a gigantic hurt? And as bad, he was blushing until his face matched the predominate color of the evening.

“Gari’s a regular guy,” Emily sneered.

Gari caught himself moving and worked hard to stop and keep still. Excessive movement, he’d once read somewhere, the source was long lost to him, indicated the gyrator had something to hide or was untruthful or had committed an act otherwise nefarious. It was a tell for something bad. He knew he was on dangerous ground, like perching on a Pacific palisade before two women, either of whom could launch him into oblivion.

“Regular as rain,” Catherine amplified.

This worried Gari. Rain was anything but regular in L.A. It hardly ever rained there, and when it did it come in torrents that washed whole portions of the city away, causing huge consternation for the residents. Was she sending a signal to Emily, subtly hinting he was anything but regular, and if Emily had an ounce of wit about her she would realize it?

Emily shifted her gaze between Catherine and Gari. Gari couldn’t discern what might be running through her mind. Suspicion probably. He had to allay whatever evil was brewing behind those eyes.

“Catherine put me onto the movie deal,” he offered.

“Is that right?” Emily smirked.

“Yes,” chimed Catherine. “I knew Pink Productions—that’s the name of the outfit producing the movie. Odd, don’t you think. But then most things about the movie business are. Pink—that’s why Patricia and Brian are dressed in pink. Thematic, you know. It’s supposed to get everybody in the spirit of things. Anyway, I knew Patricia and Brian needed marketing help. And who better than your husband?”

“A shoe salesman,” said Emily, the sarcasm thicker, the blink intensifying on Gari’s scope, the klaxon ready to trip.

“Mrs. Garibaldi —”

“Emily.”

“See, there I go again. Emily, I think you’re selling your husband short. He’s an advertising man, a very good one. Look what he’s done here in L.A. Ask Larry.”

Emily might have, except Larry was preoccupied with the real estate agent, while Darlene was casting eyes about the room, no doubt searching for a star of some luster. “Gari,” she said, “I’m exhausted. I’d like to leave.”

“Sure,” he said, certain execution awaited him.

CHAPTER 31:  ROUNDTRIP

Gari could tolerate most everything, except the weather. Maybe his aversion to cold, ice, and snow had begun in Jamaica. It certainly had solidified in L.A. Waking to a warm, sunny day every morning was temporal paradise. Sure, he had to live elbow to elbow with an assortment of nuts. And perhaps he himself was fitting in too well and transfiguring into a lunatic himself.

* * *

Emily asserted as much after the party in their bedroom as she undressed—actually torn off her pink dress he later learned in sifting through the bills cost six hundred dollars, a sum he regarded for a long minute, in disbelief. It wasn’t the amount. It was that Emily, years the miser, would spend six hundred dollars on a dress she intended wearing once, just one night for … what purpose? To please him, she revealed in a continuous rant in the bedroom, as she tore the dress, the precious dress, into confetti.

“Gari Garibaldi,” she huffed. “‘Call me Gari, he insisted,'” she mimicked. “And a real estate agent my ass. I know more about selling a house.” He was tempted to point out Loretta claimed to be a commercial agent and she might concede they operated differently than the sort with whom she was familiar. But then he hoped to survive the night and smooth the situation over in the morning, so he kept the little bit of prevarication to himself, a little sweet to savor every time the going got really rough.

“Where you sleeping with her, Gari? Is that what you were doing all those nights you dragged in late, too tired for anything more than a peck on the little woman’s cheek?” She slapped him hard and his cheek reddened, a deep, rich shade. She herself was mottled pink, the patches reaching down her neck and running over her shoulders. “Is that why you rented the room? A love nest for you and your real estate agent?”

* * *

What a mistake. When she yanked him from the party, she stopped at the front desk to checkout. The mistake was standing next to her. The clerk recognized him and asked if there was anything he could send to Mr. Garibaldi’s room. Christ he wanted to reprimand the man. Whatever happened to discretion? Respect the privacy of the guest. Wasn’t that a bylaw of front desk clerks in ritzy hotels? He would have thought management tattooed such a rule on the palms of the staff:  If baffled or on the verge of committing a horrible indiscretion, check palm.

“How about a little dinner?” he asked her.

Then right there in the middle of the swank lobby teeming with the most beautiful people L.A. had to offer the world—even the staff was pretty damn good looking—she screamed, and this was shocking as it was completely out of character for her, she not being the type of person who exposed her emotions to the world, and especially not to those in the world who might turn around moments later and transform them into a blockbuster screen epic enabling a preening star to win an Oscar:  “You slimy fuck.”

“You know dear, I imagine his style of fucking would be quite slimy.” The voice was unmistakable and shrunk his already rapidly receding balls into tight peas, green, too, for all he knew, the effect of sexual strangulation. “He always impressed me as the sweaty type.” Facing him full on, Patricia asked, casually, “Are you, Mr. Garibaldi?”

And with Patricia’s question, the group, including those within the vicinity of the front dress, froze as if all were participants in a tableau, a reenactment of a classic scene, though in this case a staging destined to assume classic status in the annuals of the hotel, probably as soon as the players disbursed.

“We’ll meet tomorrow at our offices to hear your ideas. Brian, give Mr. Garibaldi the address.”

Gari took the card and watched the pink pair swish away. He fully expected her to toss back at him his bloody sacs so well she had gelded him.

In the wake of Patricia and Brian, in the heat of Emily’s glare, Gari concluded dinner was out, the room was out, and he was out of the house in Pasadena.

But he was wrong about the last.

“Let’s go home,” Emily ordered.

They wheeled in unison to leave for their eastern abode when a hand clamped onto Gari’s shoulder and a gush of words followed.

“Really splendid job, Gari. Absolutely terrific.”

Gari and Emily wheeled again into the face of Larry Lefton and his companion, known to Emily as the notorious real estate agent who wasn’t, and to Gari as Loretta, more tempting than ever in pale pink.

“Where’s Darlene?” Gari asked, curious and somewhat surprised to see Loretta entwined on Larry’s arm, like a vine that had been busy working its way up for years. He figured it would have taken her a while, at least a day or two, to entrench herself with Larry. It wasn’t he doubted her skillfulness. It was that he considered Larry as inflexible—and unaware—as the columns in the hotel lobby. He guessed he might have been wrong about the man.

Larry consulted his watch, no easy task as Loretta had coiled around his left arm, the all-important time-telling appendage. “It’s my sincere hope that soon she will alight from a cab at LAX,” he said, jolly, eliciting a faint giggle from Loretta. “We saw you chatting with the new clients. When are we meeting with them?”

Well, Gari understood the second we—Larry and he meeting with the new clients. It was the first use that resulted in a slight pause in his answering. Larry considered himself and Loretta a couple. He would have smiled had Emily not been tight by his side to see his smirking upper lip curling and surmising the meaning and concluding it was as absolutely randy and loutish, as it indeed was.

“Tomorrow,” Gari answered, immediately wincing as he felt his ankle jabbed.

From across the way, his ears tuned high probably as a result of the sharp pain, he raked in the sound of cooing. He’d been treated to that sound on several occasions and reacted to it as Larry did, turning and smiling, patting the well-manicured and tanned hand, assuring in glance and touch everything would be fine, just fine. What he made out from the round tones emitted by Loretta was:  “What about the Getty?”

“You know, Larry, I’m not feeling well. It’s rotten of me, this being the first meeting and all, but I don’t think I can make it.”

Gari relished the sad expression of disappointment flashed by—not Larry—but Loretta. Trap them while they’re hot and panting, Gari thought, that’s your motto. Snare and bind them with your sweet glue. But under no circumstances allow them time to themselves or they might escape; and if they return, they might not be as agreeable and pliable as when properly conditioned, as he had been.

“Didn’t you hear me, Gari?” yelled Emily. “We’re going home.”

* * *

He was in a small club chair he didn’t much like because he sat with his rear lower than his knees, uncomfortable for him and a position difficult from which to rise. Getting out of the chair made him feel clumsy and oafish. Though that night it wasn’t bad. He was curled, almost defensively fetal; a configuration perfect for fending the arrows Emily had been hurling his way the moment they had set foot in the house. His attitude had been doe-eyed, dewy with regret, silently imploring innocence, but inwardly hunkered to withstand the assault and allow it to spend itself to zero.

Thus between unpleasant reveries and self-imposed emotional isolation, the final rant had zoomed by him, registering but faintly. He required clarification.

“You mean a vacation? You want to go home for a vacation. Sure, sure,” he said in an agreeable tone he hoped didn’t sound too much like pandering.

She stalked over to him from across the room, where she’d occupied herself renting the dress, stomping it, kicking it, screaming at him, making him glad the boys were sound sleepers. Even the earthquake they’d experienced since moving to Pasadena hadn’t awakened the boys. He admired their youthful ability as he himself had turned into something of an insomniac since becoming a man of wealth and success.

Under her glare, he said, “Vacation? You don’t mean as in me taking the boys and leaving to —” 

She hovered red-faced, suffering, he feared, an attack of apoplexy. But she recovered without need of his intervention, to his relief. “Leaving you to do whatever you’ve been doing with your real estate agents and your bankers and who knows what else. No, Gari, we—all of us—we are going home. Not for a vacation, but for good. We’re selling this house and getting back to normal.”

It was time to push out of the chair and he struggled doing so, feeling like an idiot and losing whatever retorting fury he’d mustered upon her clarifying what she intended for them.

Up, steadied, and clear of her by several arm lengths, Gari said, “But what about the deal with Pink Productions? I’ve got to be here for that.” His words sounded to him like a long, pitiful bleat.

Ominously, Emily quieted. She stepped over to the tattered dress. She scooped it up and deposited in the bedroom wastebasket. She spent a minute gathering stray shards and shoved them in the basket. Finished, she returned to Gari, who hadn’t budged but fidgeted the entire time, and stopped within an inch of him, so close he could feel her hot breath on his chin and could not avoid her watered, magnified eyes, those that searched deep into souls.

“The choice,” she said, “is entirely yours. You can stay here, work for Larry, service this new account, become an even bigger businessman. Or you can come home with me and live like a decent man, Gari. The choice is yours, but you have to choose by tomorrow morning.”

Confronted with a stark decision, the implication and import of which wasn’t lost on him, Gari’s vow resurfaced and seized control of his brain, addled over the several days since encountering Loretta and Catherine and the temptations they offered. No, he hadn’t broken his vow to be true to Emily. He loved Emily, old and new version. If she was proposing the old version, he was okay with it. It wasn’t the happiest circumstance he could imagine, but it was superior to the life he’d been leading, dealing with indulgent clients and solipsistic creatives and an idiot-savant boss (in that he was expert at unwittingly making money off the labor of plain unadorned dopes of which he, Gari, numbered himself the prime example); getting fat and sloppy and exposed to nearly irresistible temptation; working day and night and missing his Emily and the boys; and gaining for it some extra money and plenty of additional weight and an overall unhealthy life. The fact was—the fact he nearly forgot in his quest to be a grand exalted business leader—he didn’t need the money. He was an Illinois Lottery winner, five million dollars, two hundred fifty thousand a year for twenty years, now down to nineteen. And really, when he could understand or at least convince himself it wasn’t simply rationalization, he’d proven himself. He’d gotten off his duff. He’d saved Lefton & Associates. He’d become an executive. He’d earned an executive salary. He’d started a L.A. division. He’d expanded the business by winning a movie client for the agency. He’d proven himself and agreed with Emily:  It was time to retire and go home and be normal again.

* * *

The weather forecast, which he hadn’t paid much attention in L.A., called for light snow accumulating to about two inches. Gazing out the window off into the woods behind his office, he watched the snowfall for a few minutes. Back in L.A. or down in the city when he’d proved himself to Larry and Victor Lubeck, he couldn’t afford a second to enjoy a snowfall. Here he was the boss and he could move at his own pace, which he had braked considerably. He’d been at it for a couple of months and already had won a handful of clients and hired a writer and art director—two people who could craft a decent ad without the creative angst of Gyl and Kennie or the crackpots at Lefton & Associates, Chicago.

His phone jangled, disturbing the peace of the moment. He picked it up. The receiver rumbled in his hand as the voice of Big Bill Carson rushed from it. Gari moved the receiver a half-foot from his ear. Big Bill spoke only in speakerphone mode at the highest volume.

“Those Thursday ads, Gari:  Gangbusters!  Set a new record. Let’s huddle tomorrow afternoon.”

They prattled for a few minutes, meaningless, meandering conversation being the glue applied liberally by agency account people, the hat he wore that moment with Big Bill.

Actually, Gari had grown to like Big Bill Carson, who insisted on the egalitarian moniker of just plain old Big Bill, just one of the people, though he was an extraordinary specimen. He’d started in the auto business as a mechanic. Working days, he’d attended community college evenings. When he felt he knew enough, he’d taken a sales job at a car dealership. Shortly, he emerged as the top salesperson. The grateful owner appointed him sales manager.

Doubtless, Big Bill was a brilliant businessman. Additionally, he possessed another skill and it proved even more crucial to his success. Big Bill understood what motivated people; and before he sallied forth on any business deal, he learned everything he could about the person he would confront. And what he’d learned about the owner of the car dealership that he had become sales manager launched his career as successful auto entrepreneur. It was very simple:  The man had no children to leave the business to. He tried hard at siring, but after two wives he’d resolved himself to selling off the business when he retired to whoever might be the highest bidder.

Big Bill, though he was in fact a huge man at six-six and three hundred pounds, possessed another important quality, one that had lured and won over Gari:  an engaging and endearing personality. He was the kind of man nobody could dislike.

With the meeting set for the next day, Big Bill rung off, and Gari returned to studying the landscape through his office window. He felt warm, comfortable, and secure, and his mind drifted to Emily and the family.

Once they were back in Mundelein and he was well out of reach of the temptations of L.A., things got as good as they had been when he’d first achieved his success with Lubeck’s Shoes. For her part, Emily retained much of what she’d gained in California and he found attractive. Yes, she was more assertive and controlling in Mundelein and she kept a close eye on his comings and goings. He didn’t much mind. He’d renewed his personal pledge of marital fidelity and she was simply helping him do what he in his heart had committed to do.

The phone rang a second time. He expected it was Emily checking in, as she did daily.

“Long time no see,” said Catherine. “You’ve been hiding out there in Mundelein.”

Not exactly hiding, as Catherine was still his banker for that part of his life still secret from Emily. He’d nearly revealed he was an Illinois Lottery winner in the hours following the fateful Hollywood party. But he’d clamped down on the urge to expiate his springboard into sin. It would be, he’d reasoned, akin to driving a tank truck filled to the brim with gasoline into Hell. Infidelity that he managed to sidestep was one thing. But admitting he was hiding a fortune from Emily—no, he’d given the impulse the boot. Rightly so, too, as he and Emily were never happier.

“I wanted to touch base with you on your account.”

“Anything wrong?” he asked, casually, not the least worried, as he was earning a good living servicing Big Bill and a handful of small accounts.

“Nada,” she said, “but I like to visit with my clients face to face occasionally. You know how it is.”

Yes he did. Relationships survived and thrived only with nurturing. If he’d learned anything, it was how to be a first-class nurturer. “I’d love to see you, Catherine, but I don’t expect to be in Chicago anytime soon.”

“I was thinking of picking you up in Mundelein,” she said.

He shrugged at his reflection in the window. “Sure, okay, when do you want to get together?”

“One-thirteen tomorrow night.”

She baffled him for a moment, the odd time and night no less, until the sound of dull chiming, metal on metal, a wad of keys as thick as his heart, welled up from his memory.

Behind Lori Baer: The Complete Novel

Behind Lori Baer

Behind Lori Baer is a psychological thriller. It tells the story of Lori Baer who brings death to whomever she forms a close relationship with. When her husband, a prominent Chicago businessman, turns up dead, his friend and business associate decides to play detective and find the killer. Gabe Angellini is a retired ad man in his fifties and his father-in-law a retired Chicago cop who runs his own security agency. Together, they set out to find an elusive killer, putting their own lives, and those of their family, in grave danger. They discover that Lori Baer is a woman with a complicated past and the killer almost a ghost. For the complete novel, click here.

Behind Lori Baer: The Complete Novel

Behind Lori Baer

Behind Lori Baer is a psychological thriller. It tells the story of Lori Baer who brings death to whomever she forms a close relationship with. When her husband, a prominent Chicago businessman, turns up dead, his friend and business associate decides to play detective and find the killer. Gabe Angellini is a retired ad man in his fifties and his father-in-law a retired Chicago cop who runs his own security agency. Together, they set out to find an elusive killer, putting their own lives, and those of their family, in grave danger. They discover that Lori Baer is a woman with a complicated past and the killer almost a ghost. For the complete novel, click here.

Behind Lori Baer: The Complete Novel

Behind Lori Baer

Behind Lori Baer is a psychological thriller. It tells the story of Lori Baer who brings death to whomever she forms a close relationship with. When her husband, a prominent Chicago businessman, turns up dead, his friend and business associate decides to play detective and find the killer. Gabe Angellini is a retired ad man in his fifties and his father-in-law a retired Chicago cop who runs his own security agency. Together, they set out to find an elusive killer, putting their own lives, and those of their family, in grave danger. They discover that Lori Baer is a woman with a complicated past and the killer almost a ghost. For the complete novel, click here.

Behind Lori Baer: The Complete Novel

Behind Lori Baer

Behind Lori Baer is a psychological thriller. It tells the story of Lori Baer who brings death to whomever she forms a close relationship with. When her husband, a prominent Chicago businessman, turns up dead, his friend and business associate decides to play detective and find the killer. Gabe Angellini is a retired ad man in his fifties and his father-in-law a retired Chicago cop who runs his own security agency. Together, they set out to find an elusive killer, putting their own lives, and those of their family, in grave danger. They discover that Lori Baer is a woman with a complicated past and the killer almost a ghost. For the complete novel, click here.

Behind Lori Baer: The Complete Novel

Behind Lori Baer

Behind Lori Baer is a psychological thriller. It tells the story of Lori Baer who brings death to whomever she forms a close relationship with. When her husband, a prominent Chicago businessman, turns up dead, his friend and business associate decides to play detective and find the killer. Gabe Angellini is a retired ad man in his fifties and his father-in-law a retired Chicago cop who runs his own security agency. Together, they set out to find an elusive killer, putting their own lives, and those of their family, in grave danger. They discover that Lori Baer is a woman with a complicated past and the killer almost a ghost. For the complete novel, click here.