“Possibly the worst poker players I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.” Between ravenous bites of a low-carb chicken wrap, Lenny Wizenberg repeated the sentence twice, putting emphasis on “the” the first time and “worst” the second time. Doug Bishop wasn’t really listening to his partner’s declamations, or watching him, either. Lenny’s hungry bites reminded Doug of a snapping turtle going after a duckling, and the visual reminder of mankind’s murderous connection with the things we eat unsettled him.
Undeterred by his friend’s lack of attention, Lenny said it again, this time emphasizing “ever,” like a certain animated character on a popular television show. Doug nodded.
“Seriously, Dougie. If they have a good hand they act weak. If they have a bad one they act strong. You know? Might as well play with their cards turned up, because they give it away every time.” Lenny shrugged. “I guess that’s what I’m there for. Right? Someone’s got to take their money, right?”
“You’re not concerned about this?” Doug replied, looking up from his desk and holding a letter composed on expensive cloth stationery, the watermark of which looked vaguely English and heraldic, although the paper was manufactured in central Wisconsin, where few would care to claim royal lineage, unless it was with someone who once played for the Green Bay Packers.
“What? The letter? No, I’m not concerned.”
Doug smiled ruefully. “They seem pretty, you know. Serious.”
Lenny bit and chewed, then swallowed. Then he took a quick gulp of Void soda, colored carbonated water without calories, carbohydrates, or measurable nutritional value. Then Lenny said, “Here’s what I think. I think, yes, people generally sound very serious when there’s money involved. There’s a correlation. I think you may have noticed this, right? The larger the amount of money involved, the more serious people get. It’s like, you know, they smell it. You know? Like a dog smells urine. It gets people all excited. And so when there’s an opportunity to make a claim –”
“Did I not tell you we should have had a legal defense fund?” Doug interjected, not yet angry, but percolating.
“You did mention this, yes.”
Doug nodded vigorously. “I did.”
“And you said?” Doug continued smiling.
Lenny didn’t reply immediately, preferring instead to finish what was left of his wrap. It was good, this snack, especially, he thought, because his personal trainer Jessica had introduced him to it conspiratorially, as though this healthy food were a sacred gift prescribed as a sacrament of The Waytm.
“I’ll tell you what you said,” Doug volunteered. “You said…” He couldn’t remember exactly what it was Lenny had said. But he knew it was something along the lines of “no big deal.” Something dismissive and, therefore, reassuring. He recalled feeling moderately satisfied at the time with Lenny’s explanation or argument or homily, the thrust of which was that whatever complications might arise from The Painted Cave of Slippery Rock the two of them would be fine, as they always were. It was like hearing mom repeat for the fourteenth time that she had personally inspected the basement, and it was unquestionably free of monsters.
Still, there was this letter, from a law firm, Hanson Deerfield & Seidel, a junior partner of which, Myles Poe, expressed “profound dismay” on behalf of what he said were several hundred aggrieved patrons, “a number which, I am certain, will continue to grow as the facts of this case become known to the genral [sic] public.”
There was no way that this could be considered “no big deal.” Doug held the letter aloft, shaking it lightly, like a ceremonial fan. “Lenny. Come on.”
Leonard Wizenberg looked around their home. It was a peculiar domicile — two master bedroom suites, two additional bathrooms, and one commodious 2,000-square-foot common area that served as living room, dining room, kitchen, office, and den. Visitors from the entertainment industry said that it felt like a soundstage, with several distinct sets in full dress. Readers of architectural fetish magazines said it was classic loft living, except instead of being situated in some blighted downtown urban area undergoing “revitalization” it was perched above Mulholland Drive in the Hollywood Hills.
Lenny had never lived in a New York City loft (he had seen them, of course), but Lenny imagined this is what a grand Manhattan loft must feel like — only with panoramic views of Los Angeles twinkling below, from the sea to downtown. The vista was like something he saw once in a pornographic movie featuring six blonde women on their collective knees in a space very much like his, facing outward toward the promise of Hollywood while a muscular Negro gentleman with a remarkably thick member consecutively sodomized them, working his way down the line of upraised asses, as though it were pleasant factory work. If there was some sort of metaphor in the image, he hadn’t gotten it at the time. But he did think the video-location house and its spectacular view were as arousing as the compliant women.
“Let me ask you something,” Lenny said to Doug. Gesturing non-specifically with a fluid whip of his low-carb wrap, he asked, “You like this place?”
“Yes, you do,” Lenny said.
“Yes.” Doug nodded slowly.
“And we’re agreed, aren’t we, that a place like this — and by place I don’t mean just this unfuckingbelievable house, which, you know, all by itself is worth struggling for — am I right?” Lenny paused.
“Sure,” Doug whispered.
“Sure it is. But!” Lenny flung open both his arms, as if preparing for crucifixion. “But there’s more. When I say ‘place,’ I mean this whole city, this state-of-mind. This is a place of beauty and ambition, and — I mean, unless you’re blind, Dougie, you notice, I’m sure. World-class pussy everywhere you look. The cutest retail clerks in the universe. Girls with big tits who appear in soft-core slasher flicks. Girls who want to get somewhere and are willing to do whatever it takes to get there. You know what I’m saying? And I’m not just talking about the women. What about the men? What about — see a place like Hollywood doesn’t work, it can’t work, without a giant pack of men willing to do whatever it takes to capture women as fine as these. You follow?”
Doug grunted his assent and said phlegmatically, “It’s a unique situation.”
“Yes it is.”
They stared at each other, saying nothing. Doug could hear the tinkling strains of “smooth jazz” — someone noodling on a soprano saxophone over the persistent beat of what sounded like a disco-era drum machine — coming from Lenny’s bedroom. This annoyed him. Primarily he hated wasting electricity, even if they now had enough money to buy their own power plant. Subordinately he disliked the saccharine music Lenny favored, and he made a mental note to explain at the appropriate time why “smooth jazz” was neither smooth nor jazz, and why, in general, the existence of such noise sucked the soul out of everyone it touched. This, however, was not the appropriate time.
Lenny raised his eyebrows. “You know, it occurs to me that something like The Waytm — all right, if it’s executed properly it probably works anywhere, granted – but it probably works best, it works better here, in this place, in Los Angeles, in Hollywood, than probably anywhere else you might go. This, my friend, this –” Lenny spun around clumsily, like a bad figure skater — “this is the place to make dreams come true. A cliché? No. It’s true. That’s what’s being sold here. Dreams. Mine. Yours. Ours. Theirs. This is the place. Right here.”
“This and Las Vegas,” Doug said.
“Fuck Vegas. You know what? Vegas doesn’t attend to matters of the soul. Vegas is full of greedy scroungers. Grubbers. Nits. Hollywood is filled with artists,” Lenny smirked. “Or people who see themselves as artists.”
He shrugged. “See? Artists! These are people who always have one eye on what’s next, on what awaits them, people who care about their place in the universe, not just how much cash they have banked. These are sensitive people here, brother. They’re hungry for soul nourishment. They’re — you could make the argument that they’re desperate for something bigger than them, bigger than the car and the hot piece of ass that goes with it.”
“I understand this, Lenny,” Doug said, vainly masking his growing exasperation. “We’re in a delightful situation here — meaning, yes, the loft and the town. Yes. I see that and, yes, I like it, and thank you for having a very good idea…finally.”
They both smiled.
“A great idea,” Lenny said.
“Right. A great one,” Doug agreed. “But the paradox remains: How does one enjoy the fruits of the present without tending to the damages of the past?”
“Is that, like, Buddhist?” Lenny asked.
“Meaning we can’t ignore this.” Doug held the lawyer’s letter aloft, like a soccer referee issuing a yellow card warning. “It’s not going to away just because you’re getting your dick sucked by a movie star.”
“And so are you!” Lenny reminded his friend.
Doug nodded, “And yet, surprisingly, that doesn’t seem to make a very strong impression on the good people threatening to bring a lawsuit against us.”
Lenny shrugged. “We could offer them a free one-year membership in The Waytm.” He was only half kidding, and Doug could sense this.
“You’re kidding, right?” Doug asked. “Are you?”
“Look, do you really think, I mean, honestly — you think the Scientologists are the only one’s clever enough to invent a religion, or life prescription, or whatever the hell they’re calling it now? You think the Catholics have the market cornered on lost souls? You think the Jews, the fucking Jews, are the only chosen ones? Says who? Seriously, Doug. Who says? I’ll tell you who: they do. They say, ‘Hi, we’re God’s chosen people and the rest of you late-comers can fuck off and admire us from a safe distance.’ I know you well enough, Dougie. You don’t fall for that horseshit.”
“Lenny. Lenny. Come on, man, I’m not talking about theology here, I’m talking about a civil lawsuit with lots of zeroes attached to it.” Doug walked to the refrigerator, the handles of which he always had difficulty locating. He couldn’t find the recessed light switches, either.
“I’m not talking theology, either, brother. I’m talking marketing. Grab me a Strawberry Splash, please.”
Lenny rolled his eyes. “Uh, yes.”
Doug rummaged through the drinks section, which Lenny had stocked with secondary soda flavors generally not found at fast-food fountains: Mr. Lubb, Cactus Colada, Splash. “Jennifer, she’s really got you watching that waistline,” he said from across the room.
“Now why would I want to watch that when I’ve got the most famous buns in the world staring me in the face?” Lenny replied, punctuating his rhetoric with an improvised dance move that looked vaguely hip-hop, vaguely Zorba the Greek.
“When are you going to share some of that with me?” Doug asked. Grinning warmly, he said, “After all, it’s The Waytm.” “Thank you, high priest of debauchery, for reminding me of essential doctrine.” In a pseudo-solemn tone, Lenny said, “I shall correct the errors of my conduct immediately, or whenever you agree to share some of Tara’s ball-licking action, which, should the reports be true, and I have no reason to believe otherwise, is one of the seven wonders of the modern world.”
Doug felt his face reddening. Tara Kira (formerly Tina Cohen) was, admittedly, little more than a very expensive plaything, an “actress” whose claims to fame were her much discussed (and downloaded) pictorials in FHM and cameo appearances in the “Boarding School” series of movies, where her shower scenes with her “little friend” the vibrator guaranteed a $30 million opening weekend. “Boarding School 3: Extra Credit,” had dominated the news cycle for three days a year previous, when a group of well-meaning parents had organized a giant boycott of video store chains that refused to stock the movie in the adult section and allowed the disc to infect wholesome comedies in the general audience aisles.
Tara Kira was premium jerk-off material, the source of countless rape and humiliation fantasies that inspired legions of fans, mostly male, to reach for their cock and a receptive tissue for clean-up duty. She was utterly accessible and inaccessible simultaneously, an object of desire that could be seen constantly but never touched.
Doug liked very much that Tara Kira, or T-Baby, as she liked him to call her, had decided to devote her much-photographed breasts and lips and buttocks to pleasuring him whenever he felt the slightest pang of desire. Two days after Tara converted to The Waytm, she announced solemnly that from that point forward her life’s purpose was to submit, completely and without question, to Doug Bishop’s command, no matter how sordid or depraved. She was his to enjoy, however he wished.
Doug thought this was quite nice.
In truth, T-Baby wasn’t particularly wonderful in bed. She wasn’t bad, either; but, for a woman who had earned hundreds of thousands of dollars on the alleged strength of her sexual appetite, which onscreen came across as ravenous to the point of insatiability, real-life Tara didn’t live up to her advance billing. She was O.K. in every way. But aside from her fantastic body, which benefited from both plastic surgery and a religious workout regimen, she wasn’t much more memorable than dozens of other less attractive, women Doug had conquered.
Knowing, however, that he was having his scrotum licked by a woman that thousands — millions? — of men masturbated to/about/for, gave Doug a profound thrill that he had never felt before. Whenever he was pumping away in her and caught himself thinking, “there’s really not much difference between one pussy and another,” he flashed on the image of a huge congregation of men, a stadium full of them, jacking themselves off to the sight of Tara Kira with her ankles pinned beside her ears, and then, suddenly, the act of fucking her became unspeakably exciting.
He was concerned about the threatening letter from the lawyer representing those who may or may not have been defrauded at the Painted Cave. He was annoyed at Lenny’s fulsome cheerfulness in the face of bad news. He was nervous about the future.
But Doug Bishop was also eager to instruct T-Baby in some of the sacred lessons of The Waytm.
So he left the letter on the kitchen counter and retreated to his room. “Don’t bother me for a couple of hours,” he announced, looking at his watch, hearing Lenny’s lascivious laughter growing fainter.