Times were tough. The thing with the watches, the “Rolex Tribute Series,” hadn’t gone as well as they had hoped. Good cash flow but far too many phone calls from lawyer types droning on about “intellectual property.” Because of the greyhound thing, Lenny wasn’t allowed in Alabama anymore. (How laxatives ended up in the puppy chow of Doug and Lenny’s racing competitors remained to this day a dark mystery understood by few.) And although the Quaker thing had potential, Doug was too guilt-ridden to return to Pennsylvania, where the librarian, the lovely and lovable one, probably still hated and adored him.
Doug had read somewhere that Phoenix and Las Vegas were the two fastest growing cities in America, with a dramatic influx of residents, construction, and “new investment,” whatever that meant. “Big potentiality,” he announced to Leonard.
Doug was always looking for opportunities, be they for personal betterment, as his Life Coach, Henry, called it, or “general goodness.” Doug, at Henry’s prodding, had come to see that there was a vast “potentiality” in Doing Well by Doing Good, and it assuaged his Buddhist-Baptist pangs of regret to know that his personal gains were also making the world an incrementally better place.
“Lot of money in the Southwest right now,” Lenny said, a hint of Kentucky drawl creeping into his speech. This happened when he got aroused. Although Lenny had toiled for years to flatten and camouflage any vestiges of his Hillbilly youth, whenever his heart started beating quickly and his mouth started watering and his loins began to tingle, Lenny Wizenberg couldn’t control the past. It announced itself in his vowels, round and silky, like the hind end of a fast dog.
“Seems that way,” Doug said. They were sitting in the coffee shop of the Isle of Malta casino, in Tunica, Mississippi. This was in 1999, before the hurricane of 2005, the storm that blew the slot machines into what was once the parking lot. Lenny was reading the sports pages of the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, culling the wire reports for crucial overnight injuries in college basketball, searching for a profitable piece of information that the line-makers in Vegas might have missed. (Leonard kept his bookie’s toll-free telephone number on his cell phone’s speed dial for when a “juicy opportunity” arose, which occurred approximately every day.) Douglas checked his chakra charts.
The lads had planned on making a tasty score on “Piggy Bank” slot machines – gambling devices with plump little cartoon pigs dancing on the screen, animatronically extolling players to “get fat” on porcine jackpots. Lenny had read in one of the nearly dozens newsletters to which he subscribed that this brand of slot machine could be defeated if you played them only when the piggy bank (a mini-jackpot feature) had more than 30 coins in it. Fewer than 30 and you were wasting your time. More than 30 and you could show a small but steady profit. Plus, the casino gave you free meals while you stuffed the machine with quarters, leading the hogs to slaughter. It was more or less foolproof.
The only problem was dedicated slot players throughout the Delta had gotten wind that the Piggy Banks were breakable, and few people would play machines with thinly stocked banks. Even fewer would depart a machine bulging with banked loot.
Doug and Lenny discovered this the first night they rolled into town, having spent the previous day at Graceland, where Lenny had made his annual pilgrimage – 12 years straight – and had forced Doug to sing the harmony background to “Teddy Bear” while Lenny serenaded a group of remarkably immense Virginians enjoying their annual church outing. There they were at the Isle of Malta casino at One in the morning on a Thursday, and nearly every Piggy Bank machine was occupied by a catatonic, stone-faced Bank robber feeding coins into the machine, like silent priests doling out Communion. Four seats were open, but each of them had almost nothing banked.
“Damn,” Lenny said flatly.
“Wow. Interesting,” Doug said.
Lenny sighed and checked his watch (from the Rolex Tribute Series). He bit his lower lip.
Douglas said, “Well, we’re here. We might as well play anyway. We could get lucky. Win that Ford Mustang, there.” He pointed at the car, perched above a bank of slot machines. “It’s yellow.”
Lenny turned toward his friend of 17 years and shot him a look that said, “I heard that but I’m going to pretend I didn’t.” Then he harrumphed away toward the blackjack tables, muttering dark imprecations.
Douglas was a proud graduate of the “soft-sell” school of hustling. He liked to make people feel comfortable and happy while they were getting skinned. Lenny, Doug always thought, took far too much pleasure in misery, in the misfortunes his chicanery might create. Doug wanted to be friends with everyone.
* * *
“First rule of hustling,” Lenny had intoned many years ago, sprawled across his bed in their college dormitory room, on 126th and Amsterdam, in upper Manhattan. “Don’t fall in love with your trick. Every whore in the world can tell you that one,” Lenny assured him.
“Don’t fall in love. Business is business,” Doug said dutifully. “Death of a Salesman, I believe. The boss’s son telling Willy Loman he’s fired. Used to love that scene: ‘A man is not an orange,’ Or something”
“Why are you smiling,” Lenny asked.
“I’m not,” Doug said, smiling.
“Yeah, you are.”
“No, I’m not,” Doug replied, his grin growing wider with each shake of his head.
Lenny frowned. “Go ahead. Think it’s funny if you want. But it’s true.”
“No, I know it is,” Doug said, composing himself. “It’s just – I like how you have all these, like, street-wise sayings even though you grew up in – where was it? Whispering Hills? In fucking suburban Minneapolis? In, like, the most sterile suburb in America? Yeah, I’m sure there were lots of crack whores running around the soccer fields and shopping malls, shaking their money-maker and spouting little nuggets of street wisdom.”
Then Lenny was grinning too. “Shut up, bitch!” he said, throwing an empty can of Pringles at his dorm-mate.
Doug laughed. “No, I mean. Come on.”
“Fine,” Lenny said. “Since I grew up around a bunch of wealthy white people, I don’t know anything about how the world works. You’re such a fucking racist!” Lenny hated to admit that his dad, Herbie, was a small-time bookie back in Kentucky, a man who thought an educational outing with the children was a visit to the Keeneland racetrack, where Wizenberg the Elder knew some of the more corruptible jockeys. So Leonard told everyone at college he was from suburban St. Paul, Minnesota, a place he imagined was free of sordid social embarrassments like Herbie Wizenberg, a place where affluent corporate types played golf and didn’t hang around professional debt collectors or carry loaded pistols in the glove box of their Buick.
“Whatever, Mr. Gangsta,” Doug retorted to his Caucasian friend. “You know what I mean.”
“No. It’s like, just because I didn’t come from an urban home filled with drug use and dysfunctional parents collecting welfare, I don’t have any street credibility. Just because I’m here at Columbia University and I didn’t get some big ass financial aid package, like some lucky pricks I know. . .”
“It’s a merit scholarship,” Doug Bishop reminded him. “People get those when they’re really smart and have parents who only make, like, thirty-grand a year.”
“Yeah, you’re really smart,” Lenny said sarcastically. “You’re a real angle-shooter, that’s what you are. But I respect that.”
Doug, it was true, had done passably well in his high school classes in upstate New York, where his family ran a “Fun Center,” with go-karts and mini-golf and batting cages. But he certainly wasn’t full-scholarship-to-Columbia material. Not until he figured out how to beat the S.A.T.
His scheme, he would admit years later, wasn’t particularly elegant, and it left far too many things to chance. For instance, what if the test proctor hadn’t been appropriately impressed with Alexandra (Doug’s girlfriend at the time) and her highly cultivated talent for fellatio? What then? But he was proud to have crashed through the fortress walls of American academia, albeit with the lubricious ministrations of a compatriot’s tongue instead of the blunt cudgel of intensive studying. How the hell was he supposed to have time for reading books by dead Russians? He was too busy repairing two-stroke engine carburetors and sweeping candy wrappers off astro-turf recreations of Amen Corner. Privileged kids like his dorm-mate Mr. Wizenberg had the luxury of filling their heads with Theories and Ideas and Poetry. They could go to gyms and expend energy jumping up and down, toiling mightily to shed evidence of their excesses. They could pay people to clean up their messes.
Working-class people like Doug Bishop didn’t have the time for all that. So if they were ambitious and clever and not particularly concerned with concepts like morals and ethics, they found an alternative way to the promised land.
Before he met Lenny, Doug had never told anyone he had cheated on the SAT. Before Lenny, Doug had never known anyone who would understand not only that cheating the SAT wasn’t wrong, it was in many ways that Doug comprehended but couldn’t quite articulate, very right. Doug knew — perhaps instinctively, perhaps because Lenny could charm the most misanthropic bastard into dropping his drawers with a smile – that it would be somehow perfectly all right to tell Lenny about his caper.
And it was. Lenny laughed when Doug told him, less than a week into their first semester together. Lenny said he knew there was some reason he really liked Doug Bishop, and now he knew why. “Very cool,” Lenny said. “Not elegant, or anything. But absolutely very cool. I applaud you.” Then he clapped portentously.
“Thanks,” Doug said. Not sure if he was being put on, and not caring if indeed he was.
Two years later, lolling on their respective dorm beds, Doug still didn’t care. Lenny amused him. He made authoritative comments that sounded more or less plausible. They made each other laugh.
* * *
Looking at the rows of Mississippi slot machines occupied by pensioners, chain-smokers, and the morbidly obese, Douglas Bishop tried diligently to not fall in love with the tricks, just as Mr. Street Smart had instructed him – what was it, 17 years already? – so long ago, back when they were both unaware of how much larceny coursed through America’s veins.
Doug approached one elderly lady, a squat cube of a woman, whose big breasts and bigger belly extended like a small table from her spine. Her glasses, he could see, were smudged, and flakes of ash stuck in her dyed brown hair. Her eyes, dead as a fish’s, never left the whirring, spinning symbols dancing on her Piggy Bank machine. Her plastic slot club card, a frequent flyer sort of thing that helped the casino keep track of how much their nice customers were losing, was inserted in an ATM-like receptacle and clipped to a black elastic string, curly like a telephone cord, which led to the woman’s waist and connected her to the machine, as though it were a crucial intravenous drip. Indeed, every push of the buttons – almost nobody bothered with pulling handles; the push buttons were so much faster, and far less taxing on the easily fatigued upper-arm muscles – seemed to inject a pleasurable, pain-killing Morphine dose that lasted only until the symbols stopped their manic dance.
“Howdy, ma’am,” Doug said, approaching her slowly, from her left side. He found that his naturally flat speech got charmingly Southern and drawling whenever he talked to Dixie ladies.
The slot player turned momentarily to look at the interloper, peeking long enough to determine that he wasn’t an Isle of Malta casino employee fetching her some minor goodie to which she was entitled. Staring at her Piggy Bank, she said, “Yes?” But after years of running with Lenny Wizenberg, Doug was a keen enough interpreter to understand she was really saying “no.”
Now, when you know in advance that the inevitable answer to your question will be, “No, I’m not going to get up and let you play my Piggy Bank Machine, especially when its has 44 coins in the bank!” — well, it takes an awful lot of gumption, or chutzpah, as Lenny liked to say, to go ahead and ask your question anyway.
But Doug knew this: If you didn’t ask, you’d never know. The principle was true when applied to girls and jobs and every other arena where nice people like Douglas Bishop could reasonably expect to be rejected. But it was true, like Lenny always claimed: If you do anything long enough, it doesn’t bother you anymore. First day on the job at a rendering plant, most guys think they’re going to hurl; there’s no frickin’ way they’re going to be able to make it through the first hour, let alone the first day. But if they don’t quit right then and there, if they keep coming back every morning at 8 AM, the aroma of decaying animal parts no longer offends their nostrils, and before anyone realizes what’s happened, 20 years of supposed unbearableness have passed and the stench becomes a tolerable and somehow comforting part of being alive.
Doug scanned the row of gamblers and smiled as warmly as he could. He saw now that the stout slot lady’s blouse had stitched upon the front a grinning cat, with the feline eyes represented by green sparkly bits.
“I’m a cat lover, too,” Doug told the woman, who had turned back to her interminable quest for jackpots.
Barely moving her head, she said, “My grand-daughter made it for me. I’m actually allergic, but she doesn’t know that.” The lady pressed a button and laughed dryly, punctuating her suppressed gaiety with a hacking cough. Doug could picture swarms of invisible streptococci invading his lungs, and his throat tightened involuntarily.
“Imagine that,” he said.
“Yeah. Funny.” The symbols – bars and 7s and pigs – stopped spinning. The lady won four coins. She had 139 credits on the machine. Doug quickly calculated: At three credits per game, assuming she bet the maximum, the cat lady could sit at this Piggy Bank machine for more than three dozens plays without registering a single win. That would put her here for at least 15 minutes, and Doug didn’t think he had 15 minutes worth of material for this project.
“Ma’am, I’m going to be blunt with you,” he said calmly, despite being utterly unsure of what he was going to be blunt about.
“Pigs, pigs,” the lady murmured, her matronly bust pressing against the machine.
“This machine has been set so that you can’t win,” Doug announced.
She looked at him for a second and turned back to the entrancing screen.
“I’m serious. You seem like a really nice person, and I hate seeing you put all this money into this machine, and, it’s sad, because the casino isn’t going to let you win so long as you continue playing this Piggy Bank.” Doug leaned his hand against the console. It was warm.
“What? I don’t understand. This is – I’m winning.” She stopped pushing buttons.
“But you won’t win anymore. They’ve set it so you won’t. I have a friend who works in slot maintenance, and he tells me which machines have been ‘fixed.’ That’s the term they use. This one’s been fixed. So has the one next to you. In fact, all the machines on this row, this bank of machines, they’re all bad. They’ve all been fixed. It’s – I’m thinking of going to the authorities, but I don’t want my friend to lose his job. Two kids, one semi-disabled. Needs the benefits.”
Doug studied her face, round and strangely unlined, as though the excess weight she carried had stretched her skin from the inside, like a balloon being filled with air. She was listening now. Not sold, but listening.
Lenny believed that if you got people to listen, to merely listen, they were yours. They wanted to hear.
Doug thought you had to make sense, you had to be convincing. Lenny said, no, that was irrelevant. Most people just want to hear a good story.
Doug tried to think of a good story. Something with illness. Or children.
But whenever the words started to come, he felt too sad to let them escape his lips. This Piggy Bank machine, anyone could see, wasn’t just the cat lady’s gambling device. It was somehow her friend. And how could you come between two friends?
“Well, ma’am” Doug said, resignation creeping into his voice, gradually filling the reservoir of sincerity left behind from his rapidly disappearing drawl, “I just hope you have a real nice evening and that you win lots of money. It was nice talking to you. About cats and such.”
“Oh. Thank you,” she said, confused at this stranger’s overt niceness. “You have a nice night, too.” And then, as an afterthought, surprising herself, the cat lady said, “I’m probably going to call it a night pretty soon myself. One more cigarette!” She cackled hoarsely. “Maybe I’ll get a fresh drink somewhere.”
It took Doug a few seconds before he understood that he had been propositioned. But when he did, he smiled self-consciously and did what he always did on the rare occasions when a woman – any woman, no matter how old, stout, or ash-stained – made an overture toward him: He took a mental snapshot. In this way he could memorize everything about himself, the way his hair was combed, the shirt he wore, things he did with his eyebrows that might possibly somehow explain why a female had found him attractive. If he could remember everything and access the image for future study, maybe one day he could figure out the secret and apply it when it really mattered, on a girl he truly liked.
“Oh, that’s – that’s a nice idea,” he stammered. Now Douglas Bishop was looking at the cat lady in an entirely different way, as an implausible but possible object of desire. He searched for something he could call an attribute, some quality that wasn’t hideous. Well, she did have enormous breasts. That was true. Two watermelons resting on a ledge. They might bounce in an intriguing way, he supposed, if she ever moved. “You remind me of my grandmother,” he blurted, the filter between his thoughts and his tongue momentarily disconnected.
The cat lady stared sullenly at the dancing Pigs.
“I mean, she had a figure like yours. Womanly.” Doug twirled his hand, trying to mill a phrase out of the air. “Reuben-esque. Very, you know.” Involuntarily, his hands cupped a pair of giant breasts. “Or is it Reubens-esque, with an S? I always get confused on that.”
“I’m sure I wouldn’t know,” she said. The cat lady couldn’t even look at him now. Her hand trembled as she took a long, angry pull on her cigarette. And her head started to shake from side to side – no! – in a gradual crescendo of motion. What had possessed her? Who did she think she was?
Doug felt sorry. Genuinely, he did, and he wanted to somehow repair whatever it was he had broken. Her trust in strangers, maybe.
He looked down at the lurid purple and pink carpet – was this way things were decorated in Malta? – and said, “I’d like – I’d love to have a drink. If you . . .You know, just a – I mean. A drink!”
The cat lady pushed a button on her machine. Three pigs, jolly and curvaceous, dancing a jig, froze on the display screen. “YOU BROKE THE BANK!” an electronic voice announced, and porky theme music, heavy on the banjo and mandolin, blared from hidden speakers. Animatronic coins, delightfully out of perspective, about the size of a human head, cascaded from a splintered jar into a prancing hog’s belly pocket, a sporran kind of receptacle, as though the pig were Scottish, and kept raining into the purse until the bank was emptied.
“Hah,” the lady said quietly but triumphantly.
“Hah,” Doug said quietly and stunned.
The lady pressed a button marked “Cash Out.” A noisy shower of coins – real coins this time – clanked into a tin tray. The cat lady scooped them up hungrily, letting them bang against her knuckles and wrist as they fell into her grasp. She filled a plastic Isle of Malta bucket, emblazoned with a pattern of crossed broadswords, and removed her plastic slot club card from the reader. A message appeared in turquoise letters on a black background. “Congratulations, Maggie,” it said, “you earned 512 points this session.”
Maggie slithered out of her chair, rather gracefully, Doug thought, for a woman of her girth. And without looking at him she said, “Good night.”
“Good night, Maggie,” Doug said. He watched her waddle away, and he nodded.
Then he looked at the dancing pigs on the machine, so happy to be bathed in coins, and Douglas Bishop thought somehow all was right with the world.
* * *
Not far from the Piggy Bank machines, Lenny Wizenberg seemed to be playing blackjack. What he was really doing was seeing how badly the girl to his right (the sort of plain and dumpy one with a smile that said she liked male attention) wanted to fuck him. He was hitting and standing and splitting, doing all the things you’re supposed to do, but every move he made, every quip he uttered, was solely for the benefit of his female audience. He made sure she knew it, too. “I don’t usually play at a five-dollar table,” he announced to no one, “but this here game just felt like it was calling my name tonight.” Then he smiled at the girl to his right, and by the way her mouth opened ever so slightly, he knew she was charmed.
“I’m Leonard,” he said, nodding, reserving his hand for shaking until she demonstrated a palpable need, an ache, for his strong fingers in her palm.
“Hi, Leonard. I’m Patricia.” She said the middle syllable long and slow, like she was hushing a naughty boy. She flashed a crooked smile toward Leonard, noting his expensive leather jacket and the Rolex watch around his left wrist. She was careful not to expose her right incisor, stained yellow from childhood antibiotic overuse. The arrangement of her upper lip suggested something between a laugh and a sneer. Most men, she had discovered, liked it. The strong ones, anyway. The babies who never grew up found her intimidating. Leonard and his leather jacket, Patricia could tell, wasn’t intimidated.
They talked about nothing for ten minutes. Weather and travel and the casinos of Tunica. Patricia, she was a saleslady. Pharmaceuticals, she said.
“Interesting,” said Lenny, trying to extrapolate her entire figure based on a glimpse of her neck, her forearms, the width of her shoulders. Very average, he thought. Unremarkable. Like her face. Not pretty, not repugnant. Nothing you’d remember. Her hair, though – now that was a different story. Silky and thick, almost unnaturally black, like a Japanese girl’s. Maybe Patricia was Irish, the black-haired kind, with milky skin and a temper. “Are you Irish?” Lenny blurted.
“Hundred percent American,” Patricia replied, clearly enjoying his inquiry. As soon as they start asking questions, she knew she had them.
“You look Irish,” Lenny said, making sure she knew he had been evaluating her visage.
Patricia said, “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“You should. Beautiful people, the Irish,” Lenny said. And they both laughed nervously.
The cards came and went, an endless stream of dots and shapes, colors and numbers. The dealer, an elderly balding man with jowls like a bloodhound, collected their chips and paid out their winnings and tried his best to pretend he wasn’t there.
A cocktail waitress, clad in the Isle of Malta’s version of a mini-skirt, a frilly swatch of fake silk, with gold brocaded hems and silver quilted patches meant to look like armor, stopped at the blackjack table. “Cocktails,” she said, her Mississippi drawl thick as the sludge at the bottom of Mark Twain’s river.
“I’d like a cocktail,” Lenny said, emphasizing the first part of the word perhaps a little too obviously. “You want a drink, Patricia?”
“Sure. Love one,” she said, flashing her crooked grin.
“Jack and Coke for me. And for the lady?”
“I’ll have a White Russian.”
“And a White Russian for the lady,” Lenny ordered. “Thank you,” he said, smiling like a cultivated gentleman.
The cocktail waitress, beaten down by men and children and life in general, felt a brief moment of uplift, the kind of refreshment that comes with a cool breeze on a warm day, or a gesture of kindness from a well-groomed stranger. “You got it,” she said, and wiggled away on her precipitously spiky heels, the flesh-colored tights she was compelled to wear bunching awkwardly in the thong portion of her uniform.
“Hard workers, those girls,” Patricia commented. “Eight hours on your feet, slingin’ drinks to angry gamblers. Tough way to make a living.”
“True,” Lenny agreed, imagining his fingers running through Patricia’s hair as her head bobbed up and down upon his hardness.
“But we’ve all got to make money somehow, right?” She shrugged.
“A sad fact of life,” Lenny said, pushing a green $25 chip into his betting box. “Otherwise we could all be doing what we want to do, instead of, you know, what we don’t want to do.”
“What is it you would do, you know, if you didn’t have to work? What do you do by the way?” She giggled.
“Well, to answer your first question, I’d paint. I’d paint big, life-size portraits. Female nudes mostly,” Lenny said. “I’m a big admirer of the female form.”
Patricia smiled crookedly.
“No, I don’t mean – I know that sounds, you know.” Lenny screwed up his nose and waved his hand to wipe away the thought. “Seriously, there’s a real beauty there, I mean, beyond sexual. And I like to explore that in paint.” Women liked when men talked this way, Lenny knew. Didn’t matter that the last time he had painted was with his fingers, in Mrs. Gerfunkton’s 3rd Grade art class. It sounded good and elementally expressive, like a plaintive saxophone humming over the empty spaces in an old torch song.
“So you’re an artist,” Patricia said, trying to picture Lenny in a beret, with smears of cadmium red and burnt sienna on a denim smock. “I like art!”
“Hey, who doesn’t?” Lenny said, pushing another green chip beside his first one, doubling down on the 11 the dealer had given him.
Patricia laughed. “Hah! Try, like, most of the men in this casino! They’re all concerned with football and cars. My ex: All he could talk about was Corvettes. That was, like, his big passion in life. Great guy, but we never had anything to talk about.” She shook her head disconsolately at the memory. She seemed genuinely troubled, which was interesting, since Patricia was a lesbian and hadn’t had a penis inside her since she was 16 and Todd McFarlane, the neighbor boy with the long hair and a fondness for the band Supertramp, semi-raped her in his basement.
“Oh, that’s a shame,” Lenny said sensitively. “I mean, there’s so much beauty in the world. Particularly – and I don’t mean this in a crude way – but just look around you, and you see so much beauty, so much feminine beauty. It’s hard to imagine how someone could be so wrapped up in cars and, and, and sports. But, I don’t know. I guess some guys just don’t see the world the way I do. The way we do.”
Patricia stared at her cards. She had 19. The dealer had an eight showing. She motioned to stand. “No, I guess they don’t,” she said. Usually she felt guilty. But tonight she didn’t. Tonight she was going to enjoy it.
The waitresses returned with their drinks. “Jack and Coke,” she said, placing a short glass before Lenny. “And a White Russian for you, darlin’,” she said, smiling at Patricia. Lenny handed the waitress two white $1 chips and said, “Here you are, Madame. Thank you very much.”
“Oh, thank you, sir,” she said, as though she were surprised to have been tipped. And then she left, though Lenny felt she really didn’t want to.
“Here’s to art!” Lenny said, raising his glass to clink.
Patricia met him in the air. “And to feminine beauty and the men who appreciate it!”
“Yes!” Lenny agreed. He drank deeply, feeling the pleasant sting of Tennessee whiskey in his throat. Patricia sipped demurely, careful to keep her yellowed tooth from showing.
They played blackjack silently.
Patricia stole a glance at Leonard. He was handsome. Masculine, though if she were his girlfriend she would definitely advise him to lose the ponytail, which she thought was unbecoming of a man nearing 40. That’s what she would guess he was, just about 40. Still attractive to a certain type of woman, still well formed, but no longer irresistible, like a guy in his 20s, full of testosterone and boyish rapaciousness. Plus, the hair on his chest crept above his neckline, like unstoppable ivy. That was the thing about men: They were so damn hairy. Like, everywhere.
She looked at his drink. It was half-full, dangerously close to his elbow, parked between him and her.
“What did you say you did?” she wondered aloud.
“Oh, I’m in marketing,” Lenny said, nodding.
“Here in Tunica?”
“No, no. Based in Dallas. Just passing through on my way to Memphis.” Lenny actually wasn’t based anywhere, but Dallas sounded better.
“What do you – marketing what? If you don’t mind me asking,” she said sweetly. It was more polite than coming right out and asking him if he was “successful,” if he earned more money than the pensioners and plumbing contractors who populated the Isle of Malta casino.
Lenny thought for a second. Different products meant different things to different people. Jewelry impressed a certain kind of woman; computers another. Patricia, he guessed, was more a computers kind of gal.
“Microchips, actually,” he said. “Used in parallel processors.”
“Sounds more impressive than it is, really,” he said, nodding. “Just another form of technology. But I’m no different than the guy peddling vacuums or car stereos, or dog food, or whatever. It’s all just sales.” He nodded some more. “So that’s why I like to concentrate on my art. Beauty, feminine beauty. It’s just so much more interesting than commerce, you know?”
Patricia nodded and smiled shyly. This guy was a classic.
“So. . .” Lenny said, looking her squarely in the eyes. It was utterly obvious to him that she wanted his body near hers, his lips upon her, his fingers in her hair. And maybe he would give her all that. Maybe. He hadn’t yet decided.
“So,” she repeated. She chugged the last of the creamy whiteness in her glass. “Drink up,” she ordered him. “Let’s go to my room and have a nightcap.”
“Oh. All right,” Lenny said, smiling, struggling mightily to conceal his surprise and glee at her frank pronouncement of submission. She was saying in so many words, Have me, if you wish. Nice.
He thought about it for a millisecond. He had decided.
Leonard chugged down the remainder of his drink, blocking the ice cubes with his clenched teeth. Then he “colored up” his chips with the dealer into larger denominations, put them in his jacket pocket, and turned to face Patricia. “Too bad I don’t have my paints.”
“We can pretend,” she said, no longer shy at all.
The couple struggled for conversation as they traversed the short expanse of lurid carpeting between the blackjack tables and the elevators. What could be said? “Do you prefer it hard and fast?” “I like when a man takes control.” “How do you feel about anal penetration?” All these phrases raced through Leonard Wizenberg’s mind, but none of them escaped his lips. Instead, he made gently sarcastic comments about the Isle of Malta’s decorating scheme.
He also stole greedy glances at Patricia as she walked beside him, looking for something to inflame him. He pictured her naked beneath her loose-fitting clothing, and he had to admit she really was unremarkable in every way. Forgettable. She was the kind of woman he wouldn’t feel at all bad about humiliating. He looked forward to using her in the vilest ways. He’d call her dirty names and make her lick his ass and blow his load all over her face, and she’d be grateful for the debasement. Plain and dumpy girls, like Patricia, they knew they were lucky to get a man like him, so they had best be prepared to accommodate whatever perverse desires were thrust upon them.
He’d fuck her, sure. But it would be sympathy sex. A mercy fuck.
Lenny caught himself sighing.
When they got to Patricia’s room, she invited him to make himself comfortable. There were clothes strewn on the chair at the desk and on the small corner table. So Patricia boldly said, “What the hell, why don’t you lie on the bed? That’s probably where we’re going to end up anyway!”
From a more attractive woman Leonard would have found the comment mesmerizing, insanely arousing. From Patricia he found it mildly repulsive. She seemed far too confident that he wanted her. Which was strange, because he wasn’t entirely sure if he really did.
“If you insist,” Leonard said flatly, peeling off his jacket and rolling onto the king size mattress.
“I insist,” she said, rising from the mini-bar and darting into the bathroom. Lenny could hear running water and tinkling glasses. “Let me just freshen up for a minute,” she called from the din.
“Sure. No problem,” He surveyed the room. It looked like Patricia hadn’t completely unpacked yet. Her suitcase was cracked open, and clothes had been extracted, but nothing was hung. Nothing was lived in. Probably only staying one night, he thought. A one night stand. Love ‘em and leave ‘em. Wham-bam. And every other cliche he could recall from a lifetime spent listening to pop music on a car radio.
She emerged from the bathroom with a glass in each hand. She sat on the edge of the bed and offered Lenny one of the tumblers. “Jack and Coke for you, monsieur.”
“Very kind. Very kind,” he murmured, studying her crooked smile, the small scar he hadn’t previously noticed on her forehead, the gentle curve where her breast protruded beneath her silk blouse. He drank deeply, letting the whiskey linger on the back of his tongue, letting her see how sensually he moved his lips when he tasted something he liked.
Patricia placed her glass on the bedside table, between the lamp and the telephone, and then she began to unbutton her blouse. “If you could pose me, Mr. Painter, how would you have me?”
Lenny thought, On your hands and knees, with your ass up in the air and your ugly face buried in the pillows. But instead he said, “Ah. I see you reclined like one of those goddesses in a Raphael, with your arms stretched above your head and your hair – have I told you what beautiful hair you have? – cascading down your shoulders, leading toward your womanly breasts.” Where it all came from he didn’t know. But it sure sounded good.
Everything sounded good. The hum of neon outside the hotel room’s window; Patricia’s shallow breathing; his own breath, getting heavier. It all sounded so fine and mellow, like an old Coleman Hawkins tune dancing in his ears. The comforter on the bed seemed to be swallowing him, swaddling him, returning Lenny Wizenberg to the womb.
She was smiling at him funny now, he could see that. The posture of her mouth had changed. It was real now, unforced.
“What?” Lenny asked, feeling like he wanted to laugh and like he wanted to sleep.
“Aren’t you going to try to take me? To spread me open? Expose me? Bang me, as you pricks like to say?”
“I was going to paint,” Lenny mumbled.
“A big strong man like you, with a plain little girl like me? Aren’t you going to show me what a real man does to a cunt like me?” Patricia straddled Lenny, pinning his arms down at the wrists. She pressed her face in close to his, close enough to see his dilated pupils, big as dimes. Patricia didn’t try to hide her stained teeth. She knew it didn’t matter anymore. “I’m just a cunt. Aren’t you going to give me what I deserve?”
Lenny tried to laugh, but his stomach muscles wouldn’t let him. All he could do was stick his tongue out toward her mouth, vainly attempting to probe her secrets.
Patricia jerked backwards, avoiding the pink serpent slithering toward her nose. The violence of her motion caused the lovely black tresses upon her head to shift altogether three inches to the right, exposing a patch of close-cropped red hair.
“Hey,” Lenny heard himself saying. “That’s a wig.”
Patricia reached behind her and squeezed his balls far more roughly than he would have preferred. “Well, now you’ve discovered one thing about me.” Then, before blackness descended, Lenny would have sworn she kissed him, wet and long.