“So you’ll think about?” Marty Erndel pleaded.
Lenny Wizenberg grinned, delighted less at the terms of the deal than with the abstract idea that a man as putatively important as the Kike would want to do a deal with someone like him. “I said I would, Marty.”
“It’s good for all of us.”
Lenny inhaled through his nose and exhaled slowly. “I understand that.”
“Thank you, Teacher.”
“You’re already thanking me? I haven’t said for sure that we’re in. I said –“
Erndel interrupted. “No, no. I realize – “
“Because I reserve the right to change my mind. Change isn’t something to be feared,” Lenny reminded his poker buddy. “Once we start accepting the chaos around us…” Lenny shrugged.
“Of course.” Erndel sipped the last of his coffee, caught the server’s eye, and sighed. “Nice place, huh? Healthy. Fresh.”
Lenny nodded. “Convenient, too.” The café at Barney’s, on the top floor of an emporium containing clothing and accessories priced safely beyond a working person’s reach, was a short walk from the Toy Store. Also, Lenny suspected the Kike enjoyed the scenery: actors, models, ladies of a certain age with money and time and not much else pushing salad around their plate as they assessed the competition and slandered their former friends.
Denny Rusk, one of the judges from a televised talent show, “America Sings,” a bastardization of an older, more popular program, was seated across the aisle from them. Lenny had noticed Erndel looking at this tanned fellow, a former game show host, throughout lunch, as though Erndel were weighing the pros and cons of asking for an autograph – for his daughter, of course – and slipping a Toy Store business card into the celebrity’s hand with a conspiratorial “Call me. We’ll take good care of you.”
Lenny made no such calculations. Denny Rusk was already signed up for his Revitalization Now! system, a member in good standing, paid up through the end of the year. He was getting all the pussy he could handle, he had money, and he was happy. Another satisfied customer.
Lenny put his napkin on the table, and rose from his woven wicker chair. “Thank you, sir, for lunch. Most enjoyable.”
“That what I like about you, Mr. Kike. You’re always looking out for your pleasure.”
Erndel forced a weak laugh, although he wasn’t sure exactly what Teacher was getting at. “That’s right.”
Erndel assumed that everybody he dealt with, even his friends – people that he considered “friends,” with conditional quotes – even his “friends” were secretly jealous of him, Erndel thought. He suspected they were covetous of what he had, for he assumed it was everyone wanted. Erndel thought most people, even his “friends,” privately disliked him, maybe loathed him. But he had too much money and too many connections for anyone to let his personal feelings get in the way of a Marty Erndel deal.
This Teacher prick, now here was another example. He made Erndel feel liked. Respected. Admired. And yet Erndel could discern an unspoken subtext of scorn from the guy. For no apparent reason.
Erndel had a habit of reviewing any possible grievance someone might have with him. He couldn’t think of anything with this guy. They had never fought. Never argued. All was good, it seemed. Teacher’s only conceivable beef, the only thing that Erndel could imagine might still irk his “friend,” was that the Website idea someone had proposed at the Thursday Night Poker Game, the one they had all invested in – not much; $10,000 or so a man – hadn’t worked out as well as they all imagined it would.
Was it Teacher’s idea? Erndel couldn’t remember. It had sounded good at the time: ThinkingMan’sPorn.com. Very high end shit. A market alternative. Aimed at the New Yorker crowd. They had gone ahead with it, full launch and everything, even after it was explained to them by Peterphile’s assistant, the computer genius, that you couldn’t put an apostrophe in a Web address, so the site’s name would read: ThinkingMansPorn, which was misleading and grammatically inaccurate.
Was Teacher still pissed about that one? Erndel excused himself if that was the case: he hadn’t done anything except agree that it sounded like a good idea and write a check, like everyone else.
So, yes, everything was cool between them, probably. And if it wasn’t – well, Erndel had already been exonerated, as far as he could tell.
“So I’ll talk with my partner,” Lenny said.
“Yes. Right. Just let me know…”
“You got it. I’ll see you Thursday at the game.”
“Oh, yes. I’ll see you. Peterphile isn’t coming. Sacramento. Business.” Erndel frowned and tilted his head. “What are you gonna do?”
Lenny frowned. “We’ll still have fun.”
“We always do, you pervert.”
“I resemble that remark!” Lenny said. He winked at Erndel. “Be good.”
“Now you’re learning,” Lenny said. “Here you go.” He placed a fortune cookie in the Kike’s hand, nodded at Denny Rusk, who smiled broadly, and left Marty Erndel at the table, with a pile of picked-through watercress-and-chervil beside his iced tea.
When Lenny exited the elevator on the ground floor, he marveled at how few people shopped at Barney’s. That you could make money in a place this size while doing so little volume – he was impressed. He and Doug agreed: These people understood marketing. They gave customers what they wanted, and the lofty price was a key part of what they wanted. Selling $15 tee-shirts for $195. Belts for $380. Expensive perfume. Whale vomit in a pretty bottle. Amazing, Lenny thought, and somehow admirable.
Curious at how brazenly outrageous the fragrance folks could be, he wandered to a nearby counter, where a pretty, smartly dressed, over-groomed blond woman in her twenties stood with a bottle in the shape of an eight. She held it in both hands, as though she were holding a glass of wine at a wedding reception. “Good afternoon, sir. This is Black Magic, by Kobe.”
“Yes. Would you like to try? It’s unisex.”
“The basketball player? Wow.”
“Like Kobe, it’s a fragrance that captures grace and power, creativity and discipline, all in one aroma.” She smiled, masking whatever shame she might feel.
Lenny bit his lower lip. “That’s one clever perfume. How much?”
“Black Magic is our special fragrance today. The one-ounce vaporizer is on sale.” She handed Lenny a yellow-and-purple box.
He looked at the sticker on the bottom and chuckled. “For that much, this better have some of Kobe’s sweat in it.”
“Ah, yes. Right?” The salesgirl tried to giggle.
Lenny returned the bottle to her, along with a fortune cookie. “It’s part of a parable. Enjoy.” He smiled enigmatically and walked away, toward the neckties, not looking back to watch her unwrap his gift.
Watches. Earrings. Necklaces. Lenny Wizenberg had no love for dear baubles (he preferred cheap knock-offs that looked identical) but he respected them for their talismanic power, for the effect they had on those whose life felt incomplete without them. The elaborate machines in Erndel the Kike’s car boutique; the food at Bastide; the incomprehensible art at Bergamot Station; all the stuff at Barney’s – it was all the same, wasn’t it? Someone had convinced someone else that their life would be better if they owned this object, this thing, Lenny thought. And you had to respect that. The hurrying and worrying, the lost sleep, the tears of frustration: what was the point of all the heartache if you couldn’t make someone else want what you were selling?
Doug wouldn’t put it that way, Lenny knew, but he would essentially agree. That’s why he loved the guy. Doug understood.
Their relationship, Lenny felt, had been increasingly strained and distant since they had become wildly successful in Los Angeles. It wasn’t just differences of opinion on strategy and crisis-management and all the other niggling details business owners constantly confront. It was as though Doug had grown accustomed and maybe even fond of failure.
Or maybe that wasn’t it. Maybe he had become addicted to the challenge, the fight, and when he and Lenny finally cashed their lottery ticket in Hollywood (and beyond) Doug felt an inexplicable unease, as though there were an invisible pebble in the shoe of his accomplishment, a persistent irritant that reminded him he was happiest being a cross-roader and a striver, not a charismatic role model.
Lenny liked winning. And had no intention of allowing philosophical concerns to dilute the pleasures of finally arriving, finally making it.
But Doug’s dissatisfactions saddened Lenny. He wanted his best friend to be as giddy as he. So Lenny resolved to depart Barney’s with a bauble, something. A keepsake that would cheer and encourage one half of the greatest tag-team in the history of the sport.
Perhaps a bottle of Black Magic, by Kobe? Eh. It didn’t really smell that great.
Besides, he could tell conclusively that the salesgirl wasn’t going to fuck him, that he held no sway over her, no aura of importance. And that was a bummer. Forget that.
A necktie? Only if it was ironic. Doug didn’t hardly ever wear a tie, and when he did you didn’t even notice.
What about a ring? A friendship ring. Lenny found himself walking toward the jewelry cases, though he hadn’t yet made up his mind. It could be more than just decoration on Doug’s finger, Lenny thought, more than a subtle yet insistent reminder to the world of their wealth and triumph. It would be sort of like – whoa, this is weird – like a wedding band. He would get one, too. They would both wear the ring – ah, yes, and their followers would view their rings as a symbol of power and enlightenment, like the Pope’s silly hat. And on a personal, private level the rings would consecrate all they had done together – the toil, the laughs, the adventures – and all they would do in the future, till death do us part.
Was this just way too faggy? Lenny felt himself shrugging involuntarily. He loved Doug, Doug loved him, and that was it.
They had shared innumerable motel rooms, they had – you know, Lenny thought, this needs no explaining. But, anyway. He couldn’t think of any woman on the planet less sexually appealing than Doug, yet he also couldn’t think of any woman he would want to marry more than Doug.
Lenny could see the marketing possibilities in the two of them getting married. Of actually going through with it. Especially in California. Sure, the Episcopalians might endorse a queer as a minister, but never would they allow their two top people to get married. Neither would the Jews. And did he even have to mention the Catholics? Talk about a Point of Difference! Their holy books railed against this kind of depravity. His celebrated it! The media coverage would be delirious.
Leaning against a clear glass display case filled with sparkling gems sitting on plush thrones befitting the accoutrements of Hollywood royalty, Lenny tried to imagine what might happen if he and Doug consecrated their partnership with nuptials. They’d have to do another few days of the crushingly boring and obvious “media training” their PR guy, Bobby Ruvin, made them suffer through just before the Los Angeles Magazine cover story came out, the one with the now-famous photo of all the actors enjoying a group hug under the headline “The Way to Happiness – According to Brad and Angie and Julia and Will and Everyone Who Wants to Be Them.”
He and Doug would have to explain again, for the millionth time, how, unlike Kabbalah and other justifiably popular newish ways of nourishing the soul – or, no, it was nourishing the spirit, that was what he was supposed to say – the tenets and beliefs of The Waytm weren’t based on ancient scriptures or incredibly weird fairy tales, like the Mormons. Not that he would say it that way, but everyone would get his meaning.
Their “religion,” if you wanted to call it that, and they didn’t, because that inevitably brought up distracting discussions that usually contained the words “cult” and “manufactured faith,” which instantly put their thing in the same company as L. Ron and his thing – their “religion” was totally modern. It was now. It was based on observation, on honesty, on stripping away all the moral pretensions and just acknowledging the stark, inarguable truth: human beings liked to fuck, and they liked to fuck lots of different people, and there was absolutely nothing wrong with that, despite what his competitors would have you believe. Being filled with lust was actually a state of grace, a connection to our ancestors and our descendents, everyone who had ever been here and everyone who ever would – and it was an uplifting and comforting reminder that we are all part of a gigantic community that’s larger and more profound than our petty individual concerns.
Lenny felt himself grinning. Doug was right. Doug said that there was genius beyond music and science and inventions, in grimy places no one ever looked. Doug liked to post inspiring quotes on the refrigerator, and now Lenny recalled one he hadn’t paid much attention to until this moment. I’m paraphrasing, but this what this Schopenhauer dude once said. Pretty cool, I think. DB. “Talent is like the marksman who hits a target that others can’t reach; genius is like the marksman who hits a target that nobody else can see.” Nice!!!
Lenny didn’t think he was a genius of any sort. Not even close. Not in a jillion years. Geniuses didn’t hang around with the Marty Erndels of the world. But, still, yeah, he had to admit, OK, yes, even if he was no genius, and he could give you plenty of evidence he was not, he could still be pretty frickin’ ingenious. That was definitely true, and he didn’t think it was conceited to admit this to himself. Or Doug.
Lenny tried to focus on a confusing array of ring choices. Gold, silver, stones. He needed to concentrate. This was important.
“Aren’t you…you’re one of the leaders, aren’t you?”
He looked up, startled, and then self-chastened that he had let her seen him startled. This kind of recognition – a “sighting” as certain Websites called it – was happening more and more, and Lenny was going to have to get used to it and stop being taken aback.
Especially when it was a pretty girl, and this one was definitely a pretty girl. Lenny didn’t generally prefer Asian chicks (he found them oily and redolent of garlic) but something about the way she arched her eyebrows when she spoke to him. He found himself instantly liking her, in spite of his prejudices and fondness for large breasts.
“Guilty!” he exclaimed. “Here, have a fortune cookie.”
“Oh. Wow. Thanks. I’m a fan.” She cracked the cookie like a raw egg, tapping it with gradually increasing intensity against the perfume case. When it broke into two neat pieces, one in her hand, one on the glass countertop, she could see the fortune, a bent rectangle of white paper, poking from the cookie bit on the glass, like a larva emerging from a cocoon. She briefly considered eating the half in her hand, if only to get rid of it, but dismissed the impulse on excess carbohydrate grounds. Placing it her purse, she realized would just be too weird, especially considering who had given her the cookie! So she kept it in the palm of her hand, shielded from view, as a magician might handle a secret coin. With her other hand, she extracted the fortune from the brittle shell.
“I’m sure it’s a good one,” Lenny said, allowing the slightest hint of a smile to curl up the corners of his mouth.
“Oh, indeed,” she said, instantly regretful that she couldn’t think of anything more compelling to share with someone so important. So vital.
Lenny watched her read. He liked her eyeglasses, overtly nerdy and thick, probably purchased on Montana Avenue for $300 or more, lenses not included. Her nails looked expensive, too. She pinched the fortune between her thumb and two fingers for what seemed like an inordinately long time. “What does it say?” Lenny asked, staring importunely into her almond eyes, so dark he couldn’t distinguish pupil from iris.
She offered him the paper. He thought he detected an inaudible gasp as their tips touched. This was happening more often since the Times feature came out in the Sunday paper, and Lenny was learning to enjoy the phenomenon more and question it less.
Always accept yourself the way you are, but don’t fear change. Lenny nodded. “Ah, yes. One of my favorites. That and ‘Keep true to the dreams of your youth.’ That’s one I’ve always tried to follow.”
“Oh my god, that’s so amazing. Me, too.”
She shrieked. “Yes! I mean, I always wanted to work in the movies. Always. And even when I discovered I didn’t really have any acting talent, or any talent, really – hah! I didn’t, you know, say, ‘Oh, well. I guess I’ll have to go into real estate, or something.’ I was, like, ‘No, you can do this. You can have your childhood dream but just in a different form.’”
“Keep true to the dreams of your youth,” Lenny said.
“Yes. And, you know, just like the fortune: Always accept yourself…What is it?” she looked again at the fortune. “…yourself the way you are, but don’t fear change. Hello!”
They both laughed.
She plucked a business card from her purse. “I’m, by the way, I’m Lia. And, wow, very pleased to meet you, sir. If I could be of any service to you.” She nodded.
Lenny looked at her card, embossed with the logo of a major studio. “Excuse my ignorance, Ms. Chang. What exactly does a vice-president of international licensing do? Are you a seller or a buyer?”
“Both! Sort of. It’s, um…”
Neither spoke for a second, holding the other’s gaze. Lia Chang swallowed, and Lenny said, “I’d like to hear more about you and what you do. Why don’t we have lunch? Shall I call you to set something up?”
“Yes! Yes. Absolutely. That would be…” she nodded dumbly.
Lenny felt a flutter in his bowels. Three years ago, he thought, this woman wouldn’t look at him, let alone talk with him, let alone meet him, let alone suck his dick, let alone spread her asshole open for him, let alone willingly accept his spew all over her designer glasses. And now she had one of his fortune cookies. “Nice!” indeed. “OK, Ms. Chang. I’ll call you.”
“That would be great,” she said, studying his face for a sign, a quirk, something she could tell her friends about when she called to say “Guess who I met at Barneys?!”
He was, she thought, not beautiful or even handsome. But, no question, he was attractive. Super attractive. Quite masculine. He radiated sexuality – which, according to everything she had read about his religion (or “system,” or whatever) was the essence of every soul’s Life Force, and practitioners were supposed to celebrate it without shame or inhibition, just as he and all the other Happy People did.
The negative part of her (the scarred and damaged part) wanted to dismiss the notion of consequence-free hedonism as a bunch of Hollywood bullshit. But so many people had changed their lives. Ryan Seacrest. Drew Barrymore. Regular people, too. Half the people in her company, it seemed.
They said all you had to do was make a conscious decision to switch your outlook, just say, you know what?, the old way isn’t working for me — and, obviously, if you looked at history, the usual doctrines and dogmas caused a lot of problems around the world. Wars, violence, all that. And just, you know, so much unhappiness. What could it hurt to try a new way of enjoying your one and only life?
All you had to do was try! What was so bad about that? You just made yourself memorize and understand the parables – you really had to understand them to make genuine progress. And like everyone said: watch what happens!
Lia decided there was something ineffably sexy about that, and she found herself helplessly drawn to a Leader who conceived and lived such compelling thoughts. And suddenly she was inordinately glad that she had decided to freshen her makeup before leaving the office.