Doug Bishop loved to ride his bicycle around Hollywood, on Sunset Boulevard, and Melrose, and Thai Town and Little Armenia. He considered the activity a kind of window shopping, although he seldom had any inclination to buy the clothes and used tires and garden supplies he saw on his perambulations.
Doug was window shopping for people, the thousands of beautiful strange wonderful people occupying the neighborhood, the hordes of incomprehensibly evolved animals who had the leisure of caring about much more than food, shelter, and sex, but who cared most of all about food, shelter, and sex.
He liked to look at them all, tall and tiny, slim and stout, grim and giddy, and to know that he understood them. And to know that he could help them, if they were inclined to be helped, and if they could afford to be helped.
He would do a bike tour every day if he had the time, and if it weren’t such a hassle. Riding a bicycle around his steep estate in the Hills was physically impossible, unless you were training for the Tour de France, steroids and all. So when he wasn’t occupied with the business, and that was increasingly consuming more time than he or Lenny ever imagined, Doug had his assistant Mark drive him down the hill and pick him up when he was ready to return.
“I’ll call you,” Doug said, standing in the vacant lower parking lot of the Hollywood Bowl, fastening the chin strap on his safety helmet. “I’ll call you, like, fifteen minutes before I’m ready to be picked up.”
“Absolutely. The usual spot?” Mark was a retired LAPD officer, with a clipped, efficient, military mien. He had answered the ad, provided excellent references, and professed zero interest in The Waytm. He was there to do a job, and do it well, and whatever other activities swirled about him was, he said, none of his business. Mark was physically fit, terse, and discreet. He lived in El Monte. Doug trusted him.
“Yeah. The usual spot.” Doug nodded, Mark nodded, and Mark drove away in Doug’s black hybrid SUV, with the bike rack on top, leaving one of the two Leaders unescorted, unprotected, and largely unrecognized.
Doug liked it this way. Lenny enjoyed the attention, the media fascination; Doug did not. He was certainly grateful that an increasingly vast portion of the Southwestern U.S. population, particularly in Los Angeles (many of them attractive females) valued his work. He liked being taken seriously. But even though he and Lenny weren’t doing anything remotely illegal, or even improper (especially compared to their competitors, who had a couple-thousand-years head-start), Doug worried that increased scrutiny would bring increased complications.
Yes, he agreed with Lenny: Money could make a lot of problems go away, and it was true that, like an old fashioned Vegas casino, once you understood what your client really wanted, whether it was girls, boys, or obsequiousness, you could make him happy. Happy enough, at least, to forget about anything in the past that might be hard to explain to a reporter from the Times.
But wasn’t it better just to avoid the confrontations altogether? Wasn’t it better to go about their business without the Media vigilantly sniffing for a whiff of scandal, constantly examining their lives? “Lenny,” Doug had reminded him one Sunday afternoon in their glassy living room, as they were planning the coming week, “you’re not exactly a role model, no matter how much people kiss your ass these days.”
“Dougie, my friend, my dear friend, you’re forgetting something,” Lenny replied. “Every successful show needs a star.”
“Because without a fairy tale to believe in, what have you got? The same old whatever-whatever that nobody really enjoys. People need celebrities.”
“I understand. We’ve discussed this.”
Lenny continued, “The movies, they’ve got Brad Pitt and George Clooney. The Catholics, they’ve got the Pope, that Nazi fuck. The liberals, they’ve got their boy in the White House. The Coast-to-Coast weirdos have Art Bell.”
“My point is that our thing needs us. We’re the ones who came up with this shit, we’re the ones who organized it. We’re the Leaders, man.”
“The Leaders. And although you yourself might not take that responsibility very seriously — ”
Doug interjected, “That’s not true.”
“But I take it seriously, and not just because, yes, I admit the big dark secret that no one ever thought of: because it’s fun to have my ass kissed, literally in some cases, literally having my ass kissed by thousands of people who previously didn’t know or care if I existed. Yes, that’s very nice. I admit it. But I also recognize that our customers deserve to get their money’s worth, in the sense that they’re supposed to get what they pay for: someone who makes them feel good about their life, someone who gives them permission to be themselves. You know, all the stuff we talk about,” Lenny said, smirking.
“Yes. So. That’s where I’m at.”
“OK. But can you just cool it with the Media?”
Lenny shrugged. “I can’t help it if they want to take my picture.”
Doug pedaled south on Highland Avenue, toward Hollywood Boulevard. He saw a billboard on the side of a tall building, advertising Dianetics. Doug nodded approvingly and braked at the corner light, surrounded by commerce and fantasy and clever illusion. He didn’t know if this was the center of Hollywood, but it sure felt like some kind of nexus, and Doug enjoyed being in the middle of it.
The next block had another billboard, an all-black rectangle with a single word imprinted in 8-foot-tall white letters: Happy?
And in slightly smaller font, a Website address.
It was Doug’s billboard, Doug’s Website, Doug’s idea.
He felt satisfied.
No, he corrected himself. He felt proud, although pride, he realized, was often the cancer that infected the healthiest relationship, the smartest concept, everything. But really, modesty aside, hadn’t he accomplished more than anyone ever expected? Hadn’t he persevered?
As he rolled past the intersection, careful to avoid pedestrians and tour buses, Doug remembered how many City Council members had to be greased through intermediaries to get the sign. Thanks to some civic-minded gadflies who claimed Los Angeles was starting to look like the set of Blade Runner, there were all sorts of lawsuits and investigations and administrative rulings and annoying newspaper reports involving the unchecked proliferation of billboards in the city. Doug and Lenny had learned that procuring prime space to tout their system required a sophisticated choreography of bribery that adhered to just enough rules and regulations and protocol to avoid the legal definition of bribery. It was a kind of magic, and Doug was proud to have learned how to do the trick.
The billboards worked. So did the infomercials, featuring heartfelt testimonials from a compelling mélange of celebrities and regular people, on local cable TV.
Everything worked. Everything worked because, on some level, they were right. The ads were true – or, as Lenny liked to say, a version of the truth that seemed plausible enough. And when you had that going for you, well, Doug thought, there’s not much you can’t accomplish.
He didn’t quite understand what the phrase “jump the shark” meant, but he was aware that The Waytm had done just that, according to Lenny, and according to commentators on the Internet and in the magazines, and now nothing was small or modest. Now everything was a big deal, like Red Bull and Twitter.
Doug turned left on Sunset Boulevard, cruising past the jazz club on the north side of the street and the Scientologist’s Horrors of Psychiatry Museum on the south. He passed sandwich shops and brothels masquerading as acupuncture studios, pizza joints and churches. Everyone was selling something, and everyone was buying. America was grand, Doug thought, a grand bazaar of desire, real, imagined and manufactured, and he (and Lenny) were a part of it, and not a small part, either.
A homeless man, black as coal and reeking of shit and sweat, called out to him as he pedaled, “That’s what I told you, Roxanne! That’s what I told you!”
“Man, she didn’t listen,” he replied, continuing east on an increasingly vacant sidewalk.
He braked and stopped in front of the CNN building, where giant screens displayed a live network feed. President Obama was somewhere, giving a speech, making assurances, stopping just short of promising future happiness.
Doug’s phone buzzed in his pocket. It was T-Baby. “Hello,” she purred.
“Where are you?”
“Riding my bike. In Hollywood.”
She moaned lightly. “When are you coming back, daddy?”
“Are you going to let me serve you?”
“Good. Cuz that makes me happy, daddy.”
“And it makes me happy that it makes you happy.” Doug envisioned Tara crawling toward him, unclothed and hungry, and he smiled.
“Do you love me?” she asked, almost pleading.
“Yes,” he lied, “I do.”
“Yes. And I’ll look forward to seeing you later.”
“When I get back. OK? I’ll let you realize your higher purpose then, OK?”
“Just read your parables – you know, workout, whatever, and I’ll be back soon. OK?”
She sighed. “OK.”
“Do you need a spanking?”
“OK, bad girl. You’re getting a spanking, too.”
“See you then,” Doug said, looking at the pedestrians walking past, oblivious to who he was or who he had on the line. Sometimes he wanted to hand the phone to a stranger and say, “Here, talk to Tara Kira. She wants to say ‘hi’ to you.” How could a guy not feel just a wee bit smug knowing that Tara Kira ached for him?
“Be safe, daddy,” she said. “Come back to me soon.”
“I will,” Doug promised.
He would make her wait. He would make himself wait. It was always better that way.
Lenny never waited for anything. That was the difference, Doug thought. But somehow they balanced everything and made it work. They always had.
Avoiding a cluster of teenagers who seemed to be simultaneously talking to each other and sending text messages to unseen others, Doug rolled across the street to the big record store on Vine, the giant barn filled with thousands, millions, of CDs and records and tapes, a repository of countless musical ideas and impulses and ambitions. He parked and locked his bicycle near the front door, at the purpose-built rack, a series of cursive “M” shapes rendered in black metal. A scruffy white boy, sporting dreadlocks and a UB-40 t-shirt, smoked a joint and nominally stood guard, staring longingly at the fast-food restaurant across the street, beckoning him with deep-fried temptations. Doug nodded at him. The boy sort of nodded back, and Doug entered the record store feeling that his bicycle, constructed of lightweight carbon fiber and assembled by hand in Wisconsin, was eminently safe.
Doug was looking for a particular album, a live recording by Supertramp, a band whose music he appreciated less for its sonic excellence than their ability to immediately transport him backwards to his boyhood, when he had more questions than answers and more ambitions than money.
He felt likewise about Miller High Life, “Laverne & Shirley” reruns, and Smokey and the Bandit. These artifacts served as concrete reminders to Doug that the world, his world, was once a preposterously simple and comprehensible place, where red meat and V-8 engines and fluoridated tap water were acceptable and necessary elements in a boy’s life, not a scourge. Was he nostalgic? He supposed he was, and it didn’t really matter if the only compelling reason for his longing was potent familiarity. These things brought him comfort in a way that glamour and power and pleasure never could.
He wasn’t sure where they kept the 70s rock albums in the vast, disorienting rows of bins. He hesitated to ask one of the employees, all of whom uniformly projected profound ennui and superiority, their faces vacant and unexpressive. Most of them wore aggressively unfashionable eyewear and shirts with obscure (and militantly ironic) slogans. They had bad skin and unbleached teeth and unkempt hair, usually tucked into some sort of willfully ugly hat. And tattoos. Lots of them – and in places that seemed a bad idea, such as the neck.
Working in a record store, Doug thought, ought to be a kind of cool job, a decidedly un-corporate atmosphere in which something interesting was always blaring from the sound system and customers and colleagues alike connected through a shared passion for reggae, or Dixieland, or flamenco, or whatever. Instead, Doug sensed collective unhappiness. He wasn’t in selling mode – he was tired of that – but he caught himself thinking I could help these people.
He felt the same way about employees of his favorite video store, the one with all the Criterion Collection films.
But folks had to want to help themselves. That was the first rule. Without that impulse, no amount of marketing much mattered.
A young woman, twenties probably, overweight and pimply, with a laminated identification card on a lanyard around her neck, made eye contact with him as he meandered into the heart of the store, past the death-metal and neo-folk sections. She seemed to recognize him, yet she made no overtures, no attempt to speak with him. Or maybe she had mistaken him for someone else.
Doug was getting a lot of this kind of encounter, and he hadn’t yet determined how to handle it. He had an impulse to say “Hi” to anyone who glanced his way, but it seemed a little presumptuous. Better to keep to himself.
He found the section with the old LPs and felt an inexplicable calm envelop him, as though he were high on indica. Wading through the vinyl sea of albums, some of them more than thirty years old, Doug felt neither old nor out-of-touch, but he did think that the records served as a kind of totem pole in his life, a reminder of that singular time, approximately a five-year-period, when almost nothing mattered quite as much as the propulsive music that accompanied and complemented his private thoughts.
Tom Petty, Boston, Jethro Tull – there they were, looking just as they did when he first bought the albums in the neighborhood shopping mall, back when they used to still have record stores in shopping malls. The hair! So much hair.
Doug found himself fingering his own locks, searching for thinning, for age. He had a miniature afro in elementary school. He couldn’t have one now. But that was, OK, Doug thought, because, really, these albums proved it: there was just too much hair.
But the wrong one. He already had it.
Doug looked up, across the bin. A man of the same age as him was doing the same thing, rifling through the LPs, trying to fill some hole in his collection, or maybe his heart. Doug felt that the other shopper might be inclined to engage him, a fellow 70’s rock enthusiast, in some sort of conversation that would feel, on the surface, like a light-hearted chat about REO Speeedwagon or Cheap Trick, but, when you got to the bottom of it, was actually more like an impromptu therapy session for two middle aged men grappling with the nagging doubt that on some level they were kind of pathetic. You were supposed to outgrow this stuff, as you did fast food and comic books. You were supposed to graduate to jazz and orchestral music, or opera. You knew this, and yet the familiar melodies and attendant memories of a certain band, a certain song, went straighter to your soul than any impassioned Italian yelling ever could.
Doug didn’t want to explore this feeling with a stranger.
He wanted to ride, to feel the wind. And then maybe a cappuccino, or a smoothie. And then Mark could take him back up the hill, back home. And then a shower, and then, finally, some T-Baby action.
Doug quickened his stride and felt a smile pulling at the edges of his mouth. Life was good, just as he and Lenny had been saying. It really was.
Yes, granted he was sort of compelled to say so, since the goodness of Life, the life that people have here and now and not in the hereafter but in the present – this idea was a central tenet of what he and Lenny were selling. But, damn. Life really was good.
The sidewalk outside the store was teeming with fresh loiterers, many of whom appeared to be members of indie-rock bands, or at least aspiring to be. They projected detachment, of being removed (and probably above) the practical annoyances of everyday living, the unremarkable and un-exalted crap that regular folks constantly confront in their pursuit of the mortgage payment and the pension.
Doug stopped himself. He had to quit viewing every legal adult in Hollywood as a potential customer. Do the Lennon thing: let it be.
Still, he wondered: Did the hipsters on the sidewalk anoint him cool, just based on how he dressed, and because he rode a bicycle? Would they think he was super cool if they knew he was rich, and banging Tara Kira, and spending a Tuesday morning browsing the aisles for some vintage dinosaur rock on vinyl?
Doug decided that they would. Satisfied, he bent to turn the tumblers on his bike lock. As he dialed, clockwise and then counter-, he felt someone looming over him.
“I really shouldn’t do this. But what the hell.”
He looked up. It was – what was her name? An actress. A TV actress. On that Fox show…what was her name? She looked like she did on TV. She looked good. Smaller, perhaps, than he would have thought, but nice. In shape, obviously. Killer smile.
Doug smiled back. He said. “Shouldn’t do what?”
“You look a lot like Doug Bishop. The – he’s someone I admire. You’re not him, are you?”
Before he could answer, she said, “You are. Oh my god. How awkward is this?”
“No it’s fine.”
“Hi,” she said, extending her hand. “I’m –“
“I know,” Doug interrupted. “I recognize you, too.”
“Oh!” she exclaimed. “Wow. That’s – I don’t know. What an honor, in a way.”
“Well, I don’t know about that. But it is a pleasure.” Doug held her gaze. She was his, he knew. And so did she, it seemed.
“Can I just say – and by the way, no, I was not stalking you,” she said, assuredly. “I mean, except for the last five minutes. I saw you in the store, and I was just, you know, I was figuring out the best way to say hello to you, and, you know, how I was going to – I didn’t want to just come off like, you know, a fan, someone who thinks they know you because they see you on a screen all the time, or, you know, in your case…You know what I mean, right?”
Doug nodded. Yes.”
“Right. So, yes. I know what that’s like. I mean, I know literally.”
“So, I guess what I’m trying to say is I respect you for your work. I think it’s important. It’s, it’s – you know, it’s good to address things that need to be addressed that maybe haven’t been dealt with effectively by other institutions. The Catholic Church, in my case.”
The best, Doug thought. Nothing better. Nothing finer than a Catholic girl gone bad, especially one who had found her Way in life. “You’re Catholic?” he asked, involuntarily smirking.
She nodded affirmatively, then negatively. “I’m ex-Catholic. Let’s put it that way.”
She nodded repeatedly. “Yes. So, anyways, can I just say that you – you’re a powerful man, sir. And not just because, you know, the usual reasons. I mean: You’ve got some powerful ideas and they’re having a powerful effect.”
“Thank you,” Doug said, modestly. She was really cute. Springy blondish curls, blue eyes, tight little body. Maybe he should invite her back to meet T-Baby…Or, no, better: Maybe he should get to know her alone and then introduce her to T-Baby. Yes. That would be the plan. Nice!
“It’s weird,” she continued, “I almost talked to you inside, but I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to say. No, actually: I knew what I wanted to say, but I didn’t know how I wanted to say it. You know? So, it’s funny, because I saw you go outside, and I thought, I don’t know, he’s going to speed away in a limo, or something, or there’ll be some kind of vehicle waiting for him. But, whaddya know? You go over to the bike rack! And I saw you, um, you know, bent over. And it reminded me of something.” She smiled mischievously.
“Really?” Doug said, his eyes widening.
“Yes, of course.” She changed her voice slightly, formalizing it, as though she were a Roman orator, not a comely Hollywood actress. “I wanted to say hello to you, but I told myself I shouldn’t. I’m a woman, and I have manners, but despite all that I wanted to tell you that I think you’re hot. But I said to myself, no, you shouldn’t. In fact, there are a lot of moments in life when I have an impulse to do something, something creative, or fun, or new. And I don’t because I tell myself I shouldn’t.”
Switching to what Doug understood to be her version of a male voice, she continued, “But you should.” Then her female voice: “I should?” She paused, and spoke manly style. “Yes. You should. So long as you’re not hurting others, almost everything you think is a Shouldn’t is actually a big Should. That’s the secret.”
She stopped, looking at her feet, shy.
“That was…” Doug didn’t know what it was. But it was interesting. “That was interesting,” he said.
“Isn’t it so…? I just thought it was so ironic that our, our meeting, or however you want to describe it, our encounter was – you know, you’re bent over dealing with the bike; in the original she sees him bent forward to look through a storefront window.”
“In The Girl. The parable. One of the six parables?”
“Oh, right!” Doug said, realizing. “I didn’t – OK, now I see, I understand. You were doing – right. OK.” He giggled. “Very good. Very clever. Very good. Good dramatization, I guess you would say. Re-enactment.”
“Acting!” she declared, laughing. She had a dazzling smile, Doug thought.
He nodded. “Very good. Well done.”
“Thanks,” she said. “It’s what I do. Professionally.”
“Right.” He wondered privately how she had become a successful actress. She had terrible speech, he thought. Mealy-mouthed, as though she were chewing gum. But that’s how most girls talked these days, apparently. Perhaps audiences took it as a sign of realness, of unpretentiousness.
“And just for the record? That was not rehearsed. OK? Totally improvised. Please tell me you believe me!”
“No. I know. It just happened,” Doug said. “But, in a way, very impressive. To do the parable, from memory.”
She looked at him quizzically. “Like you don’t have the parables memorized?” She laughed, two sharp yelps. “Everyone does.”
“Well, it’s actually the idea behind them that matters, or matters more, I should say, than knowing the words. But, yes. I get your point. One would think so. Yes.” He cleared his throat.
“So, I’ll just follow my impulse then, OK?” She didn’t wait for his permission. “I know I shouldn’t say this, but you looked super hot unlocking your bike, and I was thinking I could use someone knowledgeable to talk with about a parable I’m learning – the last one on my list, actually. And I was thinking, wow, what better person to, um, counsel me than someone who’s an expert on the parables and who is hot, also?” She avoided his gaze. “So. OK, I said it.” She did a tiny curtsy and looked again at Doug, this time turning on her seductive charm, radiating femininity and hunger.
“And I’m glad you did,” Doug said. “And I was thinking: This beautiful young woman would make a perfect student.”
“Were you?” she said, dropping her voice to a lower key.
“I was. I am.” Doug noticed some of the slacker boys looking their way, and he thought he heard one of them murmur her name to his friends, who registered their apathy with a subtle shrug and a drag on a clove-scented cigarette.
She leaned in toward Doug, barely but perceptibly nearer to his face. “So, will you teach me?”
Doug leaned toward her, as if confiding a secret. “I will.”
She allowed herself a flicker of a grin to curl the left side of her mouth. Then, flatly, she said, “Good.”
“If you’d like, we can start now,” Doug said, careful to be friendly but not too familiar.
She thought for a second. “I would like that.”
“Me, too. I can have my driver fetch us. He can be here in ten minutes or so, usually.”
“Do you mean go to your place?”
Doug paused. “Well. Eventually. Yes.” After he got first dibs, he thought. Then back to the house and T-Baby.
“I have every intention of fucking you,” she announced. “But I really and truly want my lesson first. My tutorial.”
“Some place where we can, where I can concentrate on, you know, lessons. Where we can talk about stuff that matters. You know? Am I being too pushy? I’m so not intending to. I mean, I’m honored either way. Whatever you decide.”
Doug looked across the street, over her shoulder, at a café, with several tables on the sidewalk. “Let’s go there first,” he said. “Have a coffee. Or you want a sandwich or something? We’ll talk.”
“Really? OK. Perfect.” She seemed genuinely happy.
Calculating the time and effort it would take to unlock, move, and relock his bike across the street, Doug decided to leave it at the record store and stroll unencumbered with…was it Emily?…with…with the actress. He still didn’t know her name! “Let’s just grab a coffee. Right there,” he said, pointing to the café. “And you can tell me a little about yourself. By the way, do you use a stage name, or your real one?” “Oh, it’s real,” she said. “I’m one hundred percent natural,” she said, laughing, “which I know is a rarity in this town!”
They walked together. She told him biographical facts, including a little-known piece of trivia involving her father and the Detroit Tigers. She was from there. Michigan. Dearborn.
Doug noticed people looking at them. Not enough so that he was aware of being regarded and studied. The passersby noticed her first, and then they looked to see who she was walking with, and when they saw him they – some of them, at least – knew that they recognized him, but they (most of them) didn’t know from where. He was accustomed to this choreography of voyeurism. It happened all the time with T-Baby, although it was usually at night, and the sporadic flashing of camera bulbs commemorated the encounters. Doug thought of the onlookers as a kind of firefly, invisible until becoming aglow with excitement.
She didn’t notice the penumbra of curious strangers surrounding them; if she did, she hid her awareness expertly.
Instead, she talked incessantly, a grand, rambling monologue that kept returning to her central point: the parables were some kind of genius. “I want to stress, however, that I’m able to understand them – well, at least I think I do. And, I don’t know, maybe that’s also part of the genius. You know? That people feel like they can understand these profound ideas? That they’re accessible? Whether you went to college, or not.
“I did, incidentally. But even if I didn’t, I would get them, you know? They can be interpreted, I guess, but they’re not, like, fuzzy, or not…they don’t need to be decoded. You don’t need some priest or rabbi to explain it all for you. It’s all super clear.”
“So, wait,” Doug said. “Tell me again: Why are we stopping here first before going back to my place?” They had arrived, and Doug was surveying the outdoor tables, finding one that got some sun, but not too much.
“We’re talking because I totally understand five of the six. But one of the parables doesn’t make sense. To me, I mean. And, wow, what do you know, I happen to have at my fingertips the very best person in the world to set me straight.” She smiled beguilingly. “Let’s go inside instead,” she suggested, wrinkling her nose. “Less…less distractions.”
Doug held open the door, and she slipped inside and floated soundlessly to an empty table in the corner, beside a streetfront window. He thought to make a gentle joke about celebrities and glass houses, but stopped himself. She wanted what she wanted, and that was fine with him. Laissez faire. Doug believed (and so did Lenny), that everyone ought to get what he wanted, but most people, sadly, never identified what that thing was, let alone how to get it. Solving this problem: that was a central tenet of their thinking (and marketing).
“What would you like?” he asked her. She narrowed her eyes and subtly pursed her lips, pink and puffy, like teenaged labia. “To drink, I mean.”
She told him, and he went to the counter and ordered and paid. The counterman said he would bring the drinks to their table.
Doug sat across from her. With mock formality, he said, “How can I help you, miss?”
She matched his tone, as though she were applying for a bank loan. “Well, sir, I’m seeking some, I guess you would call it clarity. Some, uh, insight.”
“Perhaps you’re aware of the six parables that define the Way?”
He nodded. “I am. Yes.”
She held up her hand, with her fingers outstretched, like a starfish. “You’ve got the chameleon.” She touched each fingertip with her other index finger as she went through her list. “You’ve got the cookie. You’ve got the denier. And, let’s see…” She thought for a moment. “The dreamer, of course. Life is but a dream, etcetera, etcetera. And I’m sure you’re familiar with the girl.”
“Very familiar. In fact, a remarkably attractive young woman shared that one with me not long ago.”
She raised her eyebrows in mock surprise. “Really! Just recently?”
“Mm. This morning, actually.”
“Was she – was she, as you say, was she ‘remarkably attractive’ because of, you know, the way she looked? Or was it her knowledge of the texts? Or a combination, maybe?”
“A combination, I think,” Doug replied. “But much remains to be seen and discovered.”
“Interesting,” she said.
This girl, this actress, was sort of smart, Doug thought. Not Moira the Librarian smart. Not over-educated smart. But intelligent, and proud of it, perhaps as proud of her mind as of her lithe torso and slender thighs. He sensed that she wanted to be taken seriously, not used as a plaything and discarded, although she probably wasn’t altogether opposed to that, either.
He decided to take her seriously, to take her philosophical inquiry seriously. “Yes,” Doug said, “she’s quite interesting.”
A flicker of pleasure passed across her face, and Doug thought he detected widening pupils inside her cerulean irises. She looked at her hands. “So, you’ve got these stories…”
“That’s five of them.”
“Right. Yes. There’s one more: the new man.”
“OK. Now, this is fascinating to me, because it doesn’t really make sense, this one. At least not to me. All the other ones, they’re, you know, pretty straightforward. I get it. Not hard to grasp. But this one? This new man? It’s – I’m not sure what the lesson is, what the author, or authors, what they were trying to teach.” She looked concerned. Puzzled.
Doug mirrored her expression, conveying a concern commensurate with her confusion.
A waitress, her brown hair tied back in a bandanna and her shirt and jeans covered by a rustic apron bearing the name of the café, approached their small table. Probably also an actress, Doug thought. She said, “Two cappuccinos?” and set down the saucers. If she recognized either of her customers, she didn’t betray her delight. “Enjoy,” she said, and walked back to the counter to assist other guests.
Doug almost commented on the abundance of pulchritude in Hollywood’s dining establishments, how so many gorgeous cashiers and servers, hostesses and hosts, could be found doing jobs that in other precincts of our great nation were generally filled by less pretty people. But his student, or whatever it was she imagined herself to be, was on an inexorable roll. “OK,” she said, emptying the contents of a yellow sweetener packet into her foam. “I’m going to assume you know the story.”
God, she was cute. “Amazing coincidence. I do.”
She nodded. “So this guy knows he’s dying, as we all do on some level. But instead of just accepting the fact, the finality, he starts investigating ways to lengthen his life.”
“And he figures that most methods are only going to add, what? Five years? Maybe ten? Eating seaweed and walking up stairs. Whatever. It’s like a short-term solution. He’s looking for immortality, or at least another lifespan worth of time.”
“Uh-huh. New man.” Doug caught himself staring at her tongue as she spoke.
She stirred her coffee and continued. “So he does some research and he decides to try cryonics. Freezing. What can it hurt? He’s going to die anyway, and if it doesn’t work, well…” She shrugged. “He’ll never know the difference.”
Doug nodded. “Sort of how some people feel about faith. Can’t hurt.”
“Can’t hurt. Pascal. Right.” She sipped her warm drink. “Mm. So. Anyway, he signs up for cryonics. And the doctor, or the scientist –“
“It’s a scientist.”
“The scientist who runs the cryonics place explains that within a few minutes of his natural death, they’ll take – harvest is the term, like on a farm – they’ll harvest his head and put it in a vat of liquid nitrogen. Fluid. Throw away the old, tired body and keep the head. The brain. And then, when technology advances to the point where they know how to do the operation – and this could be a decade later, could be hundreds of years. It’s a, you know, that’s all a great mystery, and sort of fascinating to imagine and envision, like, what if it’s like two hundred years later and everyone is flying in personal spacecraft by then, or sprouting functional wings.”
She sipped again and swallowed. “That’s all conjecture.” She waved her free hand impatiently. “Anyway. So, according to the story, the parable: The man with his frozen head, he enjoys a deep sleep of some undetermined length of time. And when he awakes: yay! He’s got a new body and a new life. And since this new body is younger and healthier, he basically gets to have a whole, like, do-over. He gets to live again, with the same brain but with a fresh set of vital organs and limbs and all that. And if technology hasn’t figured out how to reverse aging by that point, when his second body wears out they just lop off the head again and plop it on another new body. Maybe immediately. Maybe they let another hundred years go by. But, basically, when the man experiences his first death, so long as he does the cryonic thing properly and the doctors and scientists invent the right surgery, he doesn’t really die. He begins a cycle of immortality that goes on forever, I guess. Or as long as he wants.”
She paused and drank. She looked at Doug, saying nothing for what felt like a long time. Then she said, “That’s The New Man.”
“Good story,” Doug said.
“Yes. Good story. Except – and here’s where I’ve got a problem. The lesson of this story, the moral of the story, as they say, it’s basically summed up in the title. The New Man. New. See? The parable seems to suggest that even though our body ages, deteriorates…”
She paused, as though the prospect of being less beautiful than she was now hadn’t previously occurred to her, and if it had it hadn’t seemed so frightening and sad. “Our body deteriorates,” she continued, “but it’s what’s in our minds that really defines us, and if we can just think of our body as a replaceable, um, I don’t know, some sort of chassis to house the engine, then dying as we know it might not be as bad as we think.” She shrugged.
Doug said the first thing that came to his mind: “You are so cute.”
“Thank you. I’m serious. I don’t get it.”
“What’s not to get?”
She said, “The lesson doesn’t seem to match up with the title.”
He replied, “Like in most religious texts?”
“I mean, if who we really are has nothing to do with our bodies but with our brain, our mind, then how is keeping the same old brain throughout two or three or however number of lives making someone a new man? I mean, you’re still going to be thinking the same thoughts, perceiving the same way. You know?”
“Your sense of touch will be different, probably.”
She snorted, “How different can that be? That’s not worth living all over again for. Now, if, you know, you could have a whole new biography, a whole new set of thoughts, different languages, cultural values, well, then you really would be a new man.” She stared at him, mouth agape and both palms turned upward. “Right?”
“OK. Yeah, I see what you’re saying.”
“So I’m not really clear on what this parable is trying to teach. That’s what I’m asking. What, what is it? What’s the point? Or is it supposed to be, like, one of those Zen riddles. Unsolvable, but, you know, open to discussion.”
Doug thought. “Probably that,” he said, realizing how much he enjoyed watching her talk. The listening was OK, too. But he really liked to gaze at her, with complete license to keep his eyes on her face. Sexy, for sure. A little edgy, her face; maybe a little angry. Interesting.
She grinned and said, “So: Take from it whatever you want? There’s no right answer? That kind of thing?”
“We’re not about dogma or doctrine. You know that. If one of the parables can be interpreted in several ways, there’s probably a reason for that.” Doug raised an eyebrow conspiratorially.
She bit her lower lip, stared at her cup, and considered this idea.
Doug caught her eye and said, “Tell me about you.”
“No. Wait…,” she said, staring again at her cup, computing the circumference of the mocha swirls in her steamed milk, it seemed. Then she looked up, locked eyes with Doug, and smiled broadly. “OK. I get it,” she announced. “Rules are meant to be broken, in other words.”
“That’s a way of putting it,” Doug answered. “We’re not real big on shouldn’ts.”
“Do you break a lot of rules?” he asked, flirtatiously.
“Sometimes I think that’s my greatest talent,” she said.
They sat silently for what seemed to her to be a long time, and what to him felt even longer. They drank. They looked. They sent a million unsaid messages across the tabletop.
Doug set down his mug and said, “Where do you draw the line with your performing, with your career? What’s the rule there?”
“I don’t think I have rules so much as goals.”
“I mean, will you do nudity? What are you willing to expose about yourself? What do you want to expose?”
“I’ve done nudity in the past,” she replied flatly. “And I would probably do it again if it was, you know, if it was right. For the script. And the character.”
Doug nodded solicitously. “Of course. But – OK, no crudeness intended. But let’s, for the sake of discussion. Would you, say, have sex on camera. I mean real. Not simulated.”
She frowned. “Yes. Why not? If it was organic.”
“Interesting,” he said.
“Would you?” she asked, laughing.
“Well, I’m not an actor,” he said, chortling. “Why, you got a job for me?”
“You got one for me?”
Doug read her face. Yes.
Yes. Yes, he could. It was going to work.
Doug smiled gently. “There’s probably nothing more powerful, more compelling, than a real woman finding her way in life,” he began, knowing he would be successful, as he had been many times before.