Chapter Twenty-Five

When news of Marty Erndel’s debauched poker game leaked, initially on an Internet celebrity gossip site and subsequently, almost instantly, onto the Web feeds of “legitimate” news organizations, the gentlemen whose lives were about to be ruined dealt with the developing calamity in one of three ways.

Peterphile (and others) denied that beneath the Toy Store a den of depravity flourished. It wasn’t true. None of it. He didn’t even know how to play cards! This sounded plausible for a minute, until someone posted a photo snapped on a cellphone that showed the Senator in what appeared to be a Las Vegas casino grinning goofily from behind three towers of chips, his fingers pinching two red aces held beside his chin.

Still, he and some of the Toy Store players who seemed to have understood that this day would eventually come, who knew that they would be forced to walk a gauntlet of ugly media scrutiny, continued to deny. Deny vociferously. It wasn’t true. None of it. Never happened. Total concoction, and a reprehensible one.

The outrageous details, offered to the gossip site (in exchange for an undisclosed fee) by a Salvadoran girl who knew more English than she let on while being mounted by fat old white men, were, the accused said, nothing but “a smear campaign, a politically motivated hatchet job concocted by those with hearts full of hate.” It wasn’t true. It was not true.

It was true, his Holy Ass-Licker confessed. He knew all along that the truth would come to light, and now he was relieved that it had. Because, clearly, Satan had overwhelmed God’s army, and it was time to fight back.

Even he, one of God’s most trusted soldiers, had been infected by a most pernicious virus, a pestilential cocktail of deadly sins. He had been tested and had failed. And now he could only beg for forgiveness from those he had let down and those he may have unintentionally harmed.

But, however, nonetheless, here was the great part! Others could learn from his mistakes.

“I am nobody,” His Holiness reminded his interrogators, “just one very mortal man prone to mistakes and weakness. Yet there are so many other wayward souls who need God’s love and counsel, and they should not be discouraged by my example. They should be encouraged, because they know for certain that the Devil is among us. That he will strike at any time, without warning. He’s dangerous. No one is immune to him. Not even me. And now more than ever Catholics need to stand together and show the world that they believe in their savior, Lord Jesus Christ, and that they will fight for him.”

Yes, it was true. The whole situation, with the gambling and the sex and the vile nicknames. It was horrible and disgusting and profoundly disappointing, but it was true.

“Whether or not the widely reported stories involving me and several other well-known figures are fact, fiction, or a combination of the two is not important,” Leonard Wizenberg declared in an official statement released through his publicist at The Waytm. “What’s important is that these stories are tremendously entertaining. They help distract us all from our fruitless quest for certainty. Stories like the ones coming out of Beverly Hills recently are quite useful. They remind us that embracing uncertainty is The Waytm to happiness.”

The blogosphere parsed all three approaches and issued conclusive verdicts that succeeded in concluding nothing.

Former public relations executives who had refashioned themselves into Crisis Management Experts produced a bountiful crop of juicy quotes prefabricated to pass smoothly through electronic content mills.

Pastors gave sermons. Parents had talks.

Everyone had an opinion of The Toy Store scandal, which quickly earned full capitalization (The Toy Store Scandal) and a few days later an abbreviation, TTSS, which a certain segment of the public pronounced “Tee-Tee-Ess-Ess” and another segment pronounced “Tits.”

TTSS was a zero sum game. For there to be winners there had to be losers.

In the TTSS case, the pundits and the public decided that only Leonard “Teacher” Wizenberg won. The politicians, the prelates, the business lords, Marty Erndel – all the rest of them lost.

These formerly vital men were disgraced, disenfranchised, divorced (some of them) and collectively banished from cultural relevance, except as the butt of lascivious jokes. No one feared them anymore.

They had been caught. Their money and power couldn’t save them. They had been exposed as being just like everyone else, only with readier access to salacious pleasures.

The Lucky Seven, known now as “The Toy Store boys,” had become receptacles for malice, not deliverers of it. Therefore they had been rendered unimportant. They were clowns now. Folks sometimes threw things at them, unafraid of retribution.

After tendering his resignation, Billy Berlio, Lia Chang’s boss at Planetary, attempted suicide with pills and his S-Class running in the garage, but a gardener found him. A cryptic note found at the scene – it was signed and dated by Berlio below the word “whatever” – earned him a news cycle or two of sympathy. But eventually he was discarded by a public that no longer found him fascinating, fearsome, or worth emulating.

Lenny Wizenberg, conversely, became richer and more powerful, and therefore sexier and more attractive, which in turn made him slightly more rich and more powerful, which carried forward in a self-contained biosphere of personal affirmation.

All of it, the fame and women and money and power and nice things, made all the rest of it work. Lenny likened the phenomenon to a microbe that fed on its own waste.

“I’m not aware such a creature exists,” Doug said, dryly.  They were standing in the kitchen of their house in the hills. Lenny was poking around the Sub-Zero. “But I sort of like the metaphor. The alchemy. Turning shit into gold. Nice.”

“Hey, Dougie,” Lenny said, emerging with a bottle of Dom Perignon from an over-ample supply lined up inside the refrigerator like green bowling pins. “I guess I should mention that I’m moving out.”

Doug said nothing.

Lenny peeled off the foil top and fiddled with the wire shroud holding the cork in place. “Yeah. I bought a place. Not far away, actually. Down Mullholland a little. Near Jack’s place, actually. Couple of doors down. From him, I mean.”

“Nicholson?”

“I just figured.” Lenny made an exaggerated shrug.

Doug shrugged back. “What? That it’s not something worth discussing in advance? No. Sorry. You’re right. Actually. No, you’re right. You’re right. It’s not, it doesn’t – this doesn’t require, you know, permission or anything. You’re…”

“Man, are you upset?”

“No.”

“OK. Because, come on, Dougie. I love you more than anyone in the world. You’re my brother. You’re my best friend. You’ve been through everything with – we’ve been through…Man, a lot. Mississipi. Alabama.”

“Arizona?”

“Painted Caves of Slippery Rock, baby!” Lenny popped the cork.

“Yep. Yep. We’ve done a lot.” Doug thrust his hands in his pockets and stared at his stocking feet.

Lenny poured the wine into a pair of crystal flutes plucked from an overhead rack. “Here’s to us!”

“We’re celebrating?” Doug wiggled his toes, the ones he could control.  He couldn’t seem to isolate the fourth one on his left foot, the one near his pinkie toe. Was it a sign? It was a sign. Yes. A reminder from the universe. He could wield tremendous influence over some things, but others he couldn’t, such as the weather and his friend Leonard Wizenberg.

“OK. Sure. We’re celebrating,” Lenny said, offering Doug a hissing glass.

“All right, then,” Doug said phlegmatically.

“Man, seriously. What’s with you?”

“What?”

“Dougie. Are you…I sense maybe somehow you’re, I don’t know, are you somehow, like, slightly jealous?”

Doug Bishop extended his glass toward Lenny. “Cheers.” They clinked. “No. I’m not. I just wonder sometimes why you don’t, why you don’t – I don’t want to say ‘consult’ – why you don’t just, you know, discuss?”

“What are you jealous about, Doug?”

“I’m not.”

“You said you didn’t want attention. You said you wanted to remain in the background. Right? I mean, right?” Lenny chuckled.

“I’ve got no problem with you being famous.”

Lenny nodded. “Good. It’s pretty cool.” He drank his Champagne in a series of greedy gulps.

Doug put his glass down. “Just so there’s no misunderstanding, I’m glad that everyone is focused on you at this point. It allows me the space and time and the energy to, you know, go deeper into the things I’m exploring.”

“Like T-Baby? Sorry.”

“And although I’ve had some pretty serious doubts, you know, some differences in judgment in how I would personally handle certain matters …”

“The Cave?”

“Yes, and –”

“The Toy Store? The pervert club?”

“Definitely that,” Doug said.

“But you’ve got to admit –”

“Let me finish,” Doug interrupted. “I do, yes, I definitely admit that everything has more or less turned out the way you predicted it would, or could. You said it could very well go down like this, this, and this, and for the most part it has. So, congratulations. Bravo. And I mean that sincerely.”

Lenny poured another glass. “Yeah?”

“Yes. Truly. Right on. Way to go my friend. We’re rich. We made it. You did it. We did it. I did it. And that’s all terrific.”

Lenny’s mind wandered to a dinner date he had that evening with a guy from CBS, the President actually, whose wife was a devotee, and who wanted to discuss a reality program on the inner workings of The Waytm, a program that would stretch the boundaries of what was permissible on broadcast TV. “We can show people smoking pot if they’re Rastafarians,” the CBS man had explained.

“My only problem – and I know you’re going to laugh – is that…” Doug sighed heavily.

“What?”

Doug shook his head.

Lenny said, “You can tell me.”

“Fuck it. You can laugh if you want…Here’s the thing: Everything is great, and I’m very happy and satisfied with how everything has played out, and it’s beyond my wildest dreams, actually, and it’s amazing. Thank you for being part of this amazing journey. I’m eternally grateful that I’ve come to this point in my life, this place. It’s awesome. So…” Doug searched for his words.

“Not so awesome for Marty Erndel. But hey.”

Doug blurted, “Lenny, I’ve decided I want to help people.”

Lenny drank. “Dude, you already are helping people.”

“No. I mean really.”

Lenny said nothing. This would pass. It always did, always had.

Doug smiled. “Not just now, in the present, when I can take their money. I mean permanently. Forever. When I’m gone.”

This was not a discussion that interested Leonard Wizenberg. “That’s cool.”

Doug offered his untouched Champagne to Lenny, who demurred. “It’s very cool, Lenny. It’s going to be the coolest thing I’ve ever done, the coolest thing maybe anyone ever could do.” Doug declared, setting the glass on the black marble countertop. “You’ll see. They’ll be talking about this one for a long, long time. Longer than you or I can imagine, probably. It’s the ultimate coolness. You’ll see.”

Doug went away for a moment, disappearing into a private thought.

When he returned, his eyes were glistening. “It’s going to be great. And don’t worry,” Doug said, suddenly surer than he had ever been about anything, “when it’s all over you’ll be even richer.”

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