Lenny Wizenberg liked employees like Jefferson Jiminez, strivers who derived a disproportionate amount of their self-esteem from a job whose crushing blandness was apparent to everyone but the guy doing the work. People with too much ambition, dangerous dreamers who wanted to leave their mark on the world, were prone to cause trouble. When it became clear to him that the Painted Cave thing could work (and that he’d need real employees, not just professionally produced brochures), Lenny explained to his partner, Doug, how spotting warning signs in the job interview could prevent later misery.
Mention of “work ethic,” “responsibility,” “devotion,” “loyalty,” and “Christian” = Good.
Mention of “creativity,” “inspiration,” “artistic,” “iconoclastic,” and “Agnostic” = Bad.
You didn’t want workers who brooded on the relentless irrelevance of their job. You didn’t want people who worshipped Gandhi and Beethoven and Leonardo da Vinci. You didn’t want anyone who still held onto hope that what they did with their life might make some sort of lasting difference.
What you wanted was a stable of workers who saw their job as an ends to purchasing stuff they needed, or thought they needed. You wanted people who worshipped Jennifer Lopez and Jay-Z and LeBron James. You wanted people who had abandoned all hope of doing anything but make money and get things.
“Which kind of person are you, Lenny?” Doug asked, teasingly.
“Neither,” Lenny snapped. “Cuz I could never work for anyone.”
“Me neither,” said Doug.
“Wow,” Lenny declared mockingly, “I guess that makes us soulmates!”
Doug smiled and nodded. Lenny liked to tease about things he didn’t understand, like Reiki, but it was only because Lenny was scared to look too deeply. Someday, Doug knew, Lenny would be able to confront the unknown, to embrace it as he had, many years ago, when Doug first came to understand that there were things in this world that could not be seen and others that could not be explained, and that faith, real faith, was the ability to believe in that which could not be seen.
Douglas Bishop had faith. Lenny Wizenberg, it seemed to Doug, did not.
Except in his ability to construct artful illusions. In that Lenny had faith; indeed, the utmost confidence and serenity. Faced with an opportunity to separate suckers from their bankrolls, Lenny Wizenberg was like Tiger Woods staring down a three-foot par putt. He knew he was going to succeed, to do what he had set out to do. He knew he was going to make it. Couldn’t be more certain. It was that kind of confidence.
Morality did not concern Lenny. It didn’t trouble him as it sometimes did Doug. Although Mr. Bishop agreed with his friend that morals were fake rules written by one group of people to control another, he still harbored a niggling discomfort, a guilty conscience, which, Mr. Wizenberg explained, was exactly what the moralists hoped. The more they could get people to regret pleasure and liberty and self-determination, the more effective their grip on the conduct of those they would enslave. So, no, Lenny Wizenberg wouldn’t have any of it. No morals, no rules, no guilt.
In this regard he was an absolutist – or so he said. Doug, in fact, had seen numerous instances in the 20+ years he had known him, when Lenny managed his usual rapaciousness while still behaving kindly and compassionately. That’s why Doug liked the man: He was a self-centered hedonist with the heart of an international relief worker. Besides, Doug didn’t think Lenny truly believed all the cynical hoo-hah he was fond of spouting, especially when mildly inebriated or in the wake of an unpleasant brush with bureaucracy.
One afternoon after work, they drove from Slippery Rock to north Scottsdale, to a joint Lenny liked called the Purple Onion, a semi-authentic Mexican place that served veggie fajitas and had an extensive karaoke menu. (Doug wouldn’t go to Hermosa Mia, Lenny’s other favorite rice and beans hangout, because everything they served contained animal products, including the corn chips.) After two giant coconut margaritas, and the unsettling appearance onstage (a corner of the restaurant illuminated with a dim spotlight) of a man in a blue suit singing “Copacabana,” Lenny began to rant.
“See that guy?” he said, indicating the Barry Manilow lover who was returning to his booth accompanied by warm applause from the Happy Hour audience. “Smug motherfucker. He’s got his blonde with the fake tits and the bleached smile. His BMW. The weekend place in Sedona.”
“You know that guy?” Doug asked, incredulous.
“I’m just saying. He’s, like, that’s the prototype. Real admirable, right? Am I right?”
“In some people’s eyes, I guess.”
Lenny scoffed. “In some – no, like, how about in most? Most people, that guy’s what you aspire to. The American ideal.”
“Everyone has their own life path,” Doug suggested helpfully.
“Yeah, and when you take a turn, a little detour. What does that make you? See, Dougie, my point – and I’m not sure there is even one, except it just irks me. I mean, this is admirable? This?”
“Don’t point, man. Very uncool.”
“This?” Lenny repeated, redirecting his gesticulating hand toward the Purple Onion’s ceiling. A Latino fellow wearing janitor greens was onstage singing “Mack the Knife.” It looked to Doug as though Lenny were punctuating Kurt Weill’s lyrics, or rooting on an imaginary horse race charging through the Onion’s kitchen. “This is what were supposed to bow down to? I’m sorry, Dougie. Bankers, lawyers, Hollywood people – shit! You don’t think they’re corrupt? The average multi-millionaire – you think he got that way playing nice? These aren’t heroes, my friend. These are people who learn the rules and then figure out clever ways to pervert them, or avoid them altogether. And we – I’m talking most people, our society – we fucking celebrate these people and their supposed achievements. See, in America, my friend, as long as you can get your name stenciled on the door, it doesn’t matter what you did to pay for the gold leaf. You understand what I’m saying here?”
“Yup,” Doug said, wondering what song he would sing if someone forced him to do karaoke. Maybe a rap song, where you just had to talk.
“Yeah, I do.”
“So.” Lenny glared at the Copacabana guy over the rim of his margarita glass. “Congratulations,” he said to no one, though Doug supposed Lenny could have been cheering the successful fellow with the suit and the blonde.
“Don’t be bitter,” Doug suggested.
“Why do you presume – what makes you think I’m, like, in any way?”
“Everyone chooses different paths.”
“Which is what I’m saying, Doug. That’s my point exactly.” Lenny leaned forward across the table, nearly upsetting a plastic bowl filled with “Three-Alarm Salsa,” which the Purple Onion management recommended only to “highly adventurous” diners. “That’s what I’m saying.”
“And yet,” Doug replied ruefully, “no matter what path we choose – you know, traditional, alternative, whatever – we all end up at the same destination.”
“Oh, here we go.”
“Well, it’s true.”
“Fine.” Lenny reached for the karaoke book. Maybe they had some Springsteen.
“So, when you think about–”
“I don’t think about it!”
Doug smiled. “No. What I mean is, when you consider the reality – you know, that, in the end, it really doesn’t matter if you’re a, you know, a lawyer or a plumber or a con artist or a recording artist. Because – well it all amounts to the same difference. Which is no difference. Right?”
“You’re a depressing motherfucker,” Lenny said, flicking a broken corn chip at Doug, who brushed the detritus away with an Aikido master’s economy of motion.
A rotund fellow in a Boulders golf shirt and khaki golf pants mounted the Onion’s small stage. A shiny film of perspiration gleamed on his forehead, above his bushy eyebrows and below his thinning brown curls. The opening strains of The Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” blared out of the overhead speakers. The big golfer closed his eyes, concentrating deeply on the meaning of the lyrics he was about to utter.
“I’m just realistic,” Doug declared. “That,” he said, nodding toward the stage, “that is depressing.”
Lenny listened for a moment to the big fella’s impassioned warblings. He could picture the guy hitting a bunker shot or selling $22-a-sleeve golf balls to Japanese tourists. But he couldn’t envision him as either a space cowboy or a gangster of love. “Now, see, that’s adventuresome. That right there is a three-alarm salsa man!”
Doug said, “Different paths. Same destination.”
“Do you realize if the cave does the current level for six months, we’re going to clear like four hundred large?”
“No. But if we bring in just sixty-five more visitors per day – and that’s not really out of the question, especially once the billboards go up – we’re going to be close to that number.” Lenny nodded enthusiastically. “Who’s the man? I’m sorry, I’m not clear on this. Who is the motherfucking man?”
“Are you figuring the amount were supposed to be setting aside?” Doug asked.
“For the? For? What? Retirement plans?”
“We were supposed to be setting aside – what was it? – like, ten percent of the net for the legal defense fund. I mean, that was part of the plan.” Doug arched his eyebrows at Lenny.
“You haven’t? I mean, come on, Len, that’s not very, you know, responsible.”
Lenny nodded, mollifying Doug with assent. “You’re right. You’re right. What can I say? You’re right.”
“But. . .well, we got a saying back in Minnesota.” Lenny snatched a few corn chips from the bowl and chewed them hungrily.
Doug stared at him. “Lenny. The defense fund. The legal thing. We agreed.”
“’Don’t tempt the rain.’ People in Minnesota say, ‘Don’t tempt the rain.’ Meaning, if you’re going out to play golf, or for a bike ride, or you just painted your house a nice shade of blue, you don’t walk around with an umbrella and galoshes. See? You don’t say, ‘Bring it on, I’m ready!’ even if you are, you know, totally ready. Even though you’re prepared for whatever eventuality, you’d just as well not have to fight it. See?” Lenny scooped up some salsa.
“That’s stupid,” Doug said.
“No it’s not.”
“Yeah it is. You’re saying don’t take precautions because taking precautions brings about the fate you’re precautioning against. That’s retarded. Damn, Lenny. Don’t you know anything? Karma works in the exact opposite way. Everyone knows that.”
“Not people from Minnesota, we don’t.”
“Fucking ice-fisherman, eating lutefisk and Spam.” Doug shook his head disconsolately. “Your theory could leave us totally exposed.”
“We’re doing great, Dougie. Really. We are. Awesome. I mean, even if we did get shut down tomorrow, and that’s not going to happen, we’re still gonna walk with a pile of ching-ching-a-linga. No?”
“You ever hear that other saying? The one about not counting your little chickies until they come out of the egg? Maybe I need to walk you around a hen-house one time, teach you some sense.” Doug threw a chip at Lenny. “Asshole.”
Lenny picked the chip up off his side of the booth and ate it. “Fine. You want to tempt the rain, be my guest. You can take out your half tomorrow and save up for all the lawyers in the phone book. Put one on retainer. Go ahead. I don’t care. I just think you’re trying to fix something that is extremely un-broke.”
Doug watched as the portly golf dude declared his devotion to an unseen paramour’s peaches and a sincere desire to shake her trees. Then the man did a dance, a little jig that reminded Doug of a hippopotamus on ice skates. Doug said to Lenny, “Prudence, my friend.”
“Yeah, I understand,” Lenny said, no longer paying attention. The Painted Cave at Slippery Rock was throwing off money like a newly divorced society wench unleashed on Rodeo Drive. And while he knew it was true that all good things must come to an end, he wanted to believe that great things, truly extraordinary and remarkable things, could go on forever. Or at least until he was too old to enjoy the fruits of success.
The truth was, he didn’t believe in the whole tempting the rain ideology. He just preferred to spend his gains on fun things like wine, women, and song instead of less fun things, like lawyers and insurance.
Would the Painted Cave at Slippery Rock eventually unravel? Absolutely. Would there be complications, particularly of the legal variety? Probably. But would the specter of future troubles cloud his present enjoyment, his daily glee at having conceived, executed and gotten away with an elaborate theatrical spectacle? No, it would not.
Just as some of the Purple Onion’s patrons might wake up the next morning and rue their decision to have publicly performed “Love on the Rocks” or “Sweet Child of Mine,” the thrill, the immediate and present glory of having transferred their Neil Diamond or Axl Rose impression from the shower to the karaoke stage obviated any impulse at self-censorship. Unless they intend their performance of “Baby Got Back” to be some sort of Barthesian deconstructionist critique of Ironic Modeling, middle-aged white folks with comb-overs really ought not declaim Sir Mix-a-Lot’s paean to oversized derrieres before an audience of hooting, smirking, cajoling drunkards.
Yet, reliably as the Scottsdale sunrise, some milquetoasty real estate guy would fill the Purple Onion with shouts of devotion to bubble booty. And there would be much merriment, and the Czars of Good Taste would not kick down the door and relocate the offenders to Etiquette Camps, where uneducated heathens might learn their proper repertoire.
Fun would be had, and no one would care much about the consequences.
Lenny leafed through the karaoke book. It was encyclopedic, a vast and depressing record of the decline of Western Civilization: ABBA; Bon Jovi; the Cars. They even had two numbers from the C-Boys, the seminal Midwestern garage band that enjoyed a brief vogue with New York hipsters, thanks mostly to their radical blending of traditional Polish polka tunes with the rhythms of South African n’glela chants (performed on highly amplified electric guitars.) Lenny considered briefly doing the C-Boys’s “Happiness: Elegy for Bix and Billie, Gone Too Soon” which most people referred to as, “Moan Back, Come on Back,” from the chorus refrain. But after looking around the restaurant, he determined that exactly one listener, Doug, might appreciate such an edgy choice.
He’d do what he always did: “Unchained Melody.” People knew it as The Song from the Movie “Ghost.” Some inebriated listeners even cried.
“You’re going to sing?” Doug asked, already knowing the answer.
“Thinking about it,” Lenny said, leafing but no longer looking.
“Just like that? With no regard to the well-being and safety of others?”
Lenny scowled. “I don’t sing that bad.”
“The cave, brother! The cave! It’s not going to go on forever. And then what? I mean, we talked – you don’t even – with you’re carpe diem bullshit, which is all well and good. But it doesn’t stand up in a court of law.” Doug was getting red.
“I’m not saying – the cave may not last forever. Maybe not. But – and this you’ve got to acknowledge: Some things do last forever. Or, you know, as long as human beings exist.”
Doug screwed up his face. “What? Poetry? Radioactive waste?”
Lenny was silent for a moment, letting his epiphany soak into his pores, to gestate and bloom. He leaned forward, resting his arms upon the table, looking Doug in his blue eyes. “Sex and religion.”
“They last forever? What, like tantra?”
“As long as there are human beings walking this planet – and I don’t guarantee there will be forever – but as long they’re here, they’ll need religion and they’ll need sex. Actually, they’ll need sex and then they’ll need religion. But sex, yeah. Always. And also religion.”
Doug shrugged. “And, right, they’ll need food and water. What’s your point?”
Lenny smirked. “Food and water aren’t elaborate con games.”
Doug rested his chin on his fist. Lenny clasped his fingers, as in prayer. They stared at each other as one of the Purple Onion’s regular superstars belted out “Friends in Low Places.”
Doug thought and Lenny thought. Lenny nodded and Doug nodded.
“You may be right,” Doug said.
Lenny smiled. “Why do painted caves when you can just start a religion or open a whorehouse?”
Doug grinned. “Or both.”
“Or both.” Lenny held up his margarita. They clinked glasses and grinned. “Here’s to sex and religion. And sex. Long may they prosper!”