When Leonard Wizenberg awoke from his dreamless slumber, 34 hours after the scopolamine cocktail he had unwittingly ingested first splashed through his bloodstream, he thought it was the morning after his ill-advised mercy fuck, and he immediately began concocting ways to get that ugly bitch (he couldn’t remember Patricia’s name) with her crooked wig out of his hotel room. He had an important meeting – that’s what he would tell her. And if she persisted he’d have to be harsh, tell her the truth.
When he rolled his head to his right, looking to see if she was there (perhaps gazing at him adoringly, eager to kiss and cuddle) the entire room crashed in that direction, as though it were on a precipitous slope. He clutched the sheets, fearful he would fall off the bed.
His mouth, Lenny realized, was encrusted with a cake of dried mucus, and his lips were badly chapped. His tongue felt as though mold spores had hatched on it overnight. And what was that smell?
He felt a wet squishiness in his pants, and he knew.
Now he hoped she wasn’t there, that she had slipped out at daybreak, slightly ashamed at her naughty behavior but slightly proud that she had bagged a man as handsome as Mr. W.
He was silent and still for a moment, like when he used to play hide-and-seek with his big sister, Emily. When she found him she always administered what she called a “scrubbing,” which amounted more or less to a vigorous twisting of the loose flesh across his boyhood tummy. Lenny Wizenberg hated scrubbings, and he learned quickly how to be the best hider in the neighborhood, even better than Chris “Chunky” Hodges, who had Cherokee Indian blood in him and was therefore naturally inclined toward wilderness survival, or so the theory went. (Lenny wasn’t nearly as accomplished a seeker, but since he was almost never found, he didn’t have to be the hunter much.) Contrary to popular misconception, the secret, Lenny learned, wasn’t to hold your breath, to eliminate all traces of being alive when a pursuer was near; what you needed to do was keep breathing, keep living, only slower and calmer, like you were in a bathtub filled with syrup. You blended better that way.
More than 30 years later, the memory of camouflaging himself inside the branches of an oak tree or behind a dented sliver garbage bin came rushing back to Lenny Wizenberg. He would have chuckled if his head weren’t throbbing like a bullfrog’s throat: Here he was in some raggedy-ass casino in Tunica, Mississippi, sleeping with an ugly girl and making in his pants – and even though he was hundreds of miles from Kentucky, hundreds more from New York City, and immeasurably far from his ambitious boyhood, here he was. Still hiding.
In the quiet Lenny could discern that he was the only one in the bed. And he was fairly certain he was the only one in the room. Maybe there was a God.
There seemed to be daylight seeping through cigarettes holes in the blackout blinds. What time was it?
He brought his left arm, heavy and prickly, as though it were still asleep, up toward his head. He squinted at his watch, which wasn’t on his wrist.
Maybe he had the wrong arm. No – no, he always wore his watch on the left. Same side as where he used to wear his wedding band. Definitely the left – but what the hell, check the right anyway, just in case everything had gotten turned inside out and backwards, like a hastily removed pair of pants.
Did he take it off? Did he put it on the table? Did he – what did he do? He could hardly remember anything from the previous night.
Lenny Wizenberg smelled rancid, and his eyeballs felt as though they might pop loose from their sockets, but all he could think was, “Where’s my fucking watch!?”
Did she take it? Did that twat, that ugly cunt – what was her name? – did she take the watch?
He opened his eyes fully and sat up in the bed with a jerk, causing a delayed stab of pain to shoot through his neck. His jacket, his leather jacket. Where was his fucking leather jacket? His hands went instinctively toward his throat. His necklace! His fucking gold necklace, the one he got in Alabama, when things were going better than seemed humanly possible. Gone.
“Fuck!” he shouted, nearly falling over from the effort.
He looked as hands, lined and scaly, badly dehydrated. He felt his face, whiskered and itchy. Then Lenny Wizenberg stumbled toward the bathroom to get himself cleaned.
* * *
“World class. Probably in my top-five all-time cocksuckers. I mean, this broad – now, mind you, she’s not the prettiest girl in the pageant. You know what I mean? Not fashion model material. Right? But she makes up for it with effort. What the good lord didn’t give her at birth she makes you forget with her talent. Enthusiasm. I’m telling you, Dougie – and I don’t say this boastfully – but it’s a rare lady who can, you know, go down all the way on me. Like, seriously, all the way to the balls. Being blessed that way, I haven’t had too many hundred percenters. You know: complete. All the way. But, god bless her, this girl – slurp! I mean the kind of talent that can’t be taught. Very impressive. I mean, I must say, honestly, I was completely impressed. And you know me – you know! I’m not impressed easily. This girl, Doug: She impressed me.”
Lenny Wizenberg nodded reverentially, awed by the memory.
“Wow. Nice,” Doug said, nodding in tandem.
Doug nodded some more and glanced at his charts.
“So you can understand,” Lenny said, taking a brief sip from his Diet Coke.
“Oh sure,” Doug said, shrugging.
“Why do you say it that way. ‘Oh sure.’ I mean, what am I supposed to think?” “No. I’m just saying.”
Lenny said, “What?”
“Nothing.” Doug shrugged again. He wondered what Amandalou Breaux was doing today. Making spells?
“No. Come on, Dougie. You’re mad. Are you mad?”
“No.” Lenny cocked his head at him. Doug repeated, “No! I’m not. I’m not mad.”
“You sure? You seem. I don’t know.” Lenny looked at his sports pages.
Without looking up, Doug said, “You know, you just, like disappear for a day and you don’t tell me. I’m just. . .”
“You’re mad! Fine, I’ve got no problem with that.”
“I’m not mad, Lenny,” Doug insisted, feeling anger starting to gnaw in his chest. Fucking Lenny. Getting his cock sucked by a world-class deep-throater while he, Doug Bishop, wandered around Tunica, Mississippi, looking in vain for a spiritually inclined bookstore. What a waste of time. He could have been in New Orleans by now. Visiting Madame Breaux. Or Ann Rice.
Lenny put his hand on Doug’s shoulder. “Hey, Dougie. I’m sorry. I probably should have called you. Not probably. I definitely should have. It was wrong. I was wrong.”
“No problem,” Doug said. Lenny always wanted him to get angry, as though Doug’s consternation was somehow amusing. “I understand.”
Doug always understood. Lenny found that reliable and comforting, like a goose-down sofa and a crackling fire. “You forgive me?”
“There’s nothing to forgive. You were busy getting your balls gargled, you were too distracted to call, to let me know that, you know, we were – what was going on.”
“Exactly,” Lenny said, nodding. “And that was a mistake, and, um, it won’t.”
“No. You’re right.” Lenny went back to his sports pages. Shaquille O’Neal was having problems with his big toe again. Seven feet tall, three hundred pounds of muscle, unstoppable except by his own big toe. There had to be a lesson in that somehow, but his head was still too cloudy from the near-lethal dose of motion sickness juice to work it out. The doctors at Queen of Angels Presbertyrian, which sat incongruously next door to Ernie’s Quick Cash, one of Tunica’s finest pawn shops, said that just a few more grams, or milliliters, or something, he would have had permanent brain damage, mostly in motor and speech skills. He was lucky, they said. Which was funny, Lenny thought, because after he dragged himself from the soiled bed and finally got himself cleaned and his breath working right again, he figured actually he had gotten pretty damn unlucky, if you thought about it. But he wasn’t going to argue.
Doug was relieved to have avoided a confrontation in the Isle of Malta’s coffee shop. Lenny liked shouting, liked hurling hash browns and toast to make a point. He thought that was “being real.” Doug knew that everything was illusory, and that the truly equanimous soul kept disagreements in perspective, realizing upon quiet contemplation that differing viewpoints meant nothing – well, nothing except that there were unresolved issues from past lives. Still –and, no, it wasn’t a major thing – still, being considerate of others, that was an attribute, was it not?
Doug ran his fingers through his brown hair, thinning near the temples and nearly gone on what Lenny called the “yarmulke spot.” He was 41, nearly 42. He wasn’t rich, which was OK. But – and maybe this was the part that wasn’t OK – he was always running from one concept to another, one dream followed by a new fantasy. He wanted desperately to have convictions, a set of principles upon which he could gauge the Rightness and Wrongness of his actions, an updated version’s of Jerry’s Code of Conduct that he could believe in unwaveringly.
The other diners in the coffee shop, sullen and swollen from too much bad luck and bad air, they wanted the same thing. Didn’t they? Didn’t everyone?
Well, maybe not Lenny. Leonard Wizenberg, pride of suburban St. Paul. Since Eddie Eglund died the previous year of lung cancer, Lenny was now officially Doug Bishop’s oldest friend. More than 20 years of memories and adventures and ideas. They knew each other better than anyone, and, it was true, Doug thought, Lenny was the one person he knew who didn’t really truly have a Code. Well, not unless you counted his determination to enjoy as much pussy as humanly possible.
Doug liked sex as much as the next guy, he guessed. But the quantity, the sheer volume of Lenny’s appetite, sometimes made Douglas Bishop wonder if his own libido was waning badly, abnormally so. Was it normal to want to fuck twice a day, like Lenny did? Or was it normal to be satisfied with, you know, maybe once or twice a week, as Doug was?
After reading about it for a few months in source books as diverse as “You and Your Body: A Guide for Young Christians” and supermarket pornography like Cosmopolitan, Doug was comfortable saying that there wasn’t one normal for everyone. But sometimes he still wondered.
He looked across his unfinished egg-white omelet and studied Leonard Wizenberg. Doug scanned his friend’s face, which was beginning to wrinkle around the eyes and forehead, and starting to droop under the chin, but still what you would call handsome in a Hebrew kind of way. Dark and moody. Coal eyes. Big nose. His hair, black with speckles of silver and white and gray around the temples, was too long, which called attention to its stringy quality. And the ponytail: horrible. Well, to Doug it was, anyway. Doug Bishop had grown up believing ponytails were for girls and rock and roll singers, not quasi-respectable businessmen. But, he had to admit, crazy at it seemed, a certain type of woman – the exact type he could not say; women of a certain age and intellect, maybe – found Lenny’s ponytail wildly attractive, as though the slightly greasy appendage were the embodiment of rebellion and danger. (Same thing with his leather jacket, which seemed to Doug ill-suited on a man of more than 30, let alone 40.) Lenny was, in Doug’s view, a decent-looking guy, neither attractive nor unattractive. But he conducted himself as though he were a taller version of Tom Cruise.
“Hey, Len,” Doug said, looking at his friend. “Where’s your jacket?”
Not looking up from the paper, Lenny reached beside him on the seat of the booth and said, “It’s. . .”
“You’re not wearing it today?” Doug said. This had to be some kind of record.
Lenny thought of saying he had left it somewhere, but he knew Doug would never believe that. People didn’t just misplace their children. He sighed, feigning embarrassment. “I gave it to her, Dougie. Job well done.”
“Get the fuck out of here!”
“Hey. Top five. I wasn’t kidding.”
“I mean, she wanted something. A keepsake. With, you know, my smell. Come on, man. Don’t make me talk about this!” Lenny grinned bashfully.
“That’s so romantic!” Doug bit his lower lip, holding back mock tears.
“All right. Fine.” Lenny went back to his paper.
Doug stared at the salt shaker. It had been – what? – six years since a woman other than his mother had said ‘I love you’ to him. Not that he minded terribly, love being an unnatural attachment, a perverse expression of possession, of ownership. Or maybe he was getting it mixed up with marriage. Love and marriage; they went together like a horse and carriage. Something like that. It was just, well. . .sometimes it was nice. It was nice to know you were wanted, really wanted, like plants really want a nourishing rain. The way dogs really want to be scratched behind the ear.
Doug Bishop looked around the Isle of Malta’s coffee shop. How many of its denizens, he mused, could say they were in love, or that they were loved? Not just the recipient of a curt, “love ya!” when they went off to work in the morning, but powerfully loved, the object of a desire that made someone else in the world ache and throb and beam with unexplainable joy.
Doug spotted a solitary diner. There in the corner, that guy, sitting alone reading a magazine. Call him, whatever…call him Mort. Short-sleeved dress shirt, neatly trimmed crescent of dark hair surrounding his bald pate, like a furry ring around Saturn. Laugh wrinkles around his eyes. Papers in his breast pocket. Skinny arms. Liver spots on the tops of his hands, gold ring on the usual finger. Probably late-Fifties, happily married. Manages a shoe store, maybe. In a mall. Now, who aches for Mort? Who awakes in the morning and counts her blessings that she can share another day in Mort’s magnificent company? Who climbs into bed at night thanking the divine spirits above that she can entwine herself in Mort’s angular limbs? Who pines for Mort’s voice? His smell? The way he smiles when he sees a kitty cat in a television commercial?
Maybe someone. But probably to be very frank and truthful about it no one. Oh, sure, Doug supposed Mort was almost certainly betrothed, and probably nicely so. He had probably spent many incident-free years with a delightfully uncontroversial lady who agreed for the most part with Mort’s views on politics and entertainment choices, and so forth.
But was Mort loved? With a passion?
Imagine Mort grinding away on top of you, shallow breaths escaping his thin lips as his face contorted into paroxysms of unexpected pleasure. Hard to picture.
Douglas Bishop stared at his Mort and thought that even though he, Doug, was younger and demonstrably better looking and very likely better acquainted with the published works of Richard Bach, the fact was that he could not honestly say he was more or better loved than Mr. Mort, sitting there in the corner with his magazine and plate of corned beef hash.
In fact, Doug realized he was probably more lonely, more desperate, and more hungry than Mort, having at one time in his life known what it felt like to be adored like a god, worshipped even, by a woman whose beauty and goodness elevated the quotidian rituals of being alive to a dance of the senses.
Doug knew, and Mort (probably) did not. But that was the only substantive difference. The knowing.
Otherwise, he and Mort were pretty much the same at the present. Both lacked adoration.
This realization depressed Douglas Bishop profoundly, deeply, so that the pang of sadness chewed at his throat and chest and bowels, and seeped through his pores. Or so he thought. Wasn’t it obvious, Doug wondered? Isn’t it so clear? No, he didn’t have a large ‘S’ tattooed on his forehead, announcing to the world that he was terribly, wickedly sad. But he might as well have.
Lenny. Fuckin’ Lenny Wizenberg. Here he was in god damned Mississippi, one state over from Louisiana, incidentally, staring at his friend Lenny. Mississippi, where black people understood themselves still to be niggers in the eyes of their white masters, who now owned Wendy’s and Popeye’s and Hardee’s instead of cotton plantations. Mississippi: Where you could never see an Eastern European film. Or find a book store that carried “The Tibetan Book of the Dead.” Where a surfeit of churches was supposed to make up for the poverty, the anachronistic squalor modern people thought was only contained in depression-era Walker Evans photographs.
And what was he doing here? Looking at fucking Lenny. Lenny Wizenberg. Reading about illiterate porch monkeys throwing balls through hoops. Coming up with schemes, only he didn’t call them schemes, he called them “operations,” as though they had something to do with overthrowing a despotic Central American dictator, or excising a troubling growth from a patient’s alimentary tract. Telling stories. Getting his Jew cock sucked dry by some Mississippi slut puppy.
Not that Doug blamed Lenny Wizenberg for anything.
But god damn! Lenny with his theories. Fucking Lenny. So blithely unconcerned about everything, as though he had no sense whatsoever of his impending mortality, of their impending mortality, all of them headed to the same nothing. Lenny, he was smart, so he couldn’t possibly be unaware of what the future held. (That would be decline, and decay, and ultimately death.) Yet, somehow – how? Really: How? – Lenny Wizenberg seemed to Douglas Bishop utterly oblivious to the fate that awaited them all.
It was quite a trick.
Doug observed his breath for a few cycles. “Get centered,” he told himself, unwittingly pushing his equanimity toward the edges. If only he could turn his brain off. Flip a switch.
Or the other method. If only he could be adored – loved, whatever you wanted to call it. If he could not be like Mort with his corned beef hash and his magazine, and his upcoming adventures with Isle of Malta gambling devices. If only.
“Hey. You thinking about Cherry?” Lenny said, looking up from his paper and seeing Doug’s brow furled in a scowl of reflection.
“No. And it’s Cherie, like I’ve told you about forty times.”
“Sorry. Shar-ee,” Lenny said, affecting what he thought was a French accent.
“Cherie. Like, ‘Sure, E’. Rhymes with, um. . .with slurry.”
“What’s a slurry?”
“Used in pottery,” Doug said, exasperated.
“Furry Shurry,” Lenny sang. “With a bushy tushy. I told you, man, you gottta teach them how to keep it trimmed down there.”
Cherie, in fact, was nicely coifed. But Doug refused to sink to infantilism. “Anyway. No. I wasn’t. But thanks for being so considerate, old buddy.” He forced a smile.
Lenny regarded Doug, studying his face as a sculptor assesses a raw stone. “Man, we gonna have to get you laid.”
“That’s – that’s not. Well, it wouldn’t hurt. But, no. Don’t worry.”
“It’s no problem,” Lenny said, far too confidently for Doug’s taste.
This had happened before, Lenny passing on some girl after he was done with her. And Doug didn’t want any more. It was creepy. Weird. There was something vaguely homo about it, like Lenny was trying to share his fluids, his aura, through a third vessel. Or something. Or maybe Doug was reading far to much into an act of collegial generosity. Maybe he was being stupid, too sensitive.
Doug felt as though he might cry. So he talked about money, instead.