Authors: Woody Allen
SAM, YOUMADE THEPANTSTOOFRAGRANT
ABOVE THELAW, BELOW THEBOXSPRINGS
ABOUT THE BOOK
‘I am greatly relieved that the universe is finally explainable. I was beginning to think it was me.’ Thus begins ‘Strung Out’, Woody Allen’s hilarious application of the laws of the universe to daily life.Mere Anarchy, Woody Allen’s first collection in over 25 years, features eighteen witty, wild and intelligent comic pieces – eight of which have never been in print before.
Surreal, absurd, rich in verbal play, bitingly satirical and just plain daft in the mode we have grown to love from his finest films, this flight-of-fancy collection includes tales of a body double who, mistaken for the film’s star, is kidnapped by outlaws; a pretentious novelist forced to work on the novelisation of a Three Stooges film; a nanny secretly writing an expose of her Manhattan employers; crooks selling bespoke prayers on eBay; and how to react when you’re asked to finance a Broadway play about the invention and manufacture of the adjustable showerhead.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
WOODYALLEN’Sprolific career as a comedian, writer, and filmmaker has now spanned more than five decades. He writes frequently forThe New Yorkerand is the author ofWithout Feathers, Getting Even, andSide Effects, among other books.
Also by Woody Allen
The Insanity Defense
Three One-Act Plays
Complete Prose of Woody Allen
Three Films of Woody Allen
Hannah and Her Sisters
Four Films of Woody Allen
Floating Light Bulb
Play It Again, Sam
Don’t Drink the Water
GASPING FOR AIR,my life passing before my eyes in a series of wistful vignettes, I found myself suffocating some months ago under the tsunami of junk mail that cascades through the slot in my door each morning after kippers. It was only our Wagnerian cleaning woman, Grendel, hearing a muffled falsetto from beneath myriad art-show invitations, charity squeezes, and pyrite contest jackpots I’d hit that extricated me with the help of our Bugsucker. As I was carefully filing the new postal arrivals alphabetically in the paper shredder, I noticed, amongst the profusion of catalogues that hawked everything from bird feeders to monthly deliveries of sundry drupe and hesperidium, there was an unsolicited little journal, banner-linedMagical Blend. Clearly aimed at the New Age market, its articles ranged in topic from crystal power to holistic healing and psychic vibrations, with tips on achieving spiritual energy, love versus stress, and exactly where to go and what forms to fill out to be reincarnated. The ads, which seemed scrupulously articulated to insulate againsttheunreasonableness of Bunco Squad malcontents, presented Therapeutic Ironisers, Vortex Water Energizers, and a product called Herbal Grobust designed to implement volumewise madam’s Cavaillons. There was no shortage of psychic advice either, from sources such as the “spiritual intuitive” who double-checks her insights with “a consortium of angels named Consortium Seven,” or a babe ecdysiastically christened Saleena, who offers to “balance your energy, awaken your DNA and attract abundance.” Naturally, at the end of all these field trips to the center of the soul, a small emolument to cover stamps and any other expenses the guru may have incurred in another life is in order. The most startling persona of all, however, has to be the “founder and divine leader of the Hathor Ascension Movement on Planet Earth.” Known to her followers as Gabrielle Hathor, a self-proclaimed goddess who is, according to her copywriter, “the fullness of source manifested in human form,” this West Coast icon tells us, “There is a quickening of Karmic feedback. … Earth has entered a spiritual winter which will last 426,000 Earth years.” Mindful of how rough a long winter can be, Ms. Hathor has started a movement to teach beings to ascend to “higher frequency dimensions,” presumably where they can get out more and play a little golf.
“Levitation, instantaneous translocation, omniscience, ability to materialize and dematerialize and so on become part of one’s normal abilities,” the come-hither spiel lays on the unwary with a trowel, proclaiming that “from these higher frequency dimensions, the ascended being can perceive the lowerfrequencieswhile those on the lower frequencies cannot perceive the higher dimensions.”
There is a fervid endorsement by someone named Pleiades MoonStar—a name that would cause no end of consternation for me if I were told at the last minute it belonged to my brain surgeon or pilot. Acolytes in Ms. Hathor’s movement must submit to “a humiliating procedure” as part of a routine to dissolve their egos and get their frequencies jacked up. Actual cash payments are frowned upon, but for a little abject fealty and productive labor one can score a bed and a dish of organic mung beans while either gaining or losing consciousness.
I bring all this up because coincidentally, later that same day I was emerging from Hammacher Schlemmer, laid waste by obsessive indecision over whether to buy a computerized duck press or the world’s finest portable guillotine, when I bumped like theTitanicinto an old iceberg I had known in college, Max Endorphine. Plump in midlife, with the eyes of a cod and sporting a toupee upholstered with sufficient pile to create a trompe l’oeil pompadour, he pumped my hand and launched into tales of his recent good fortune.
“What can I tell you, boychick, I hit it big. Got in touch with my inner spiritual self, and from there on it was Fat City.”
“Can you elaborate?” I queried, registering for the first time his natty bespoke ensemble and advanced-tumor-sized pinkie ring.
“I guess I shouldn’t really be jawing with someone on a lower frequency, but since we go way back—”
“I’m talking dimensions. Those of us in the upper octaves are taught not to squander healthy ions on mortal troglodytes of which you qualify—no offense. Not that we don’t study and appreciate the lower forms—thanks to Leeuwenhoek, if you get my meaning.” Suddenly, with a falcon’s instinct for prey, Endorphine turned his head toward a long-legged blonde in a micro-miniskirt straining to locate a taxi.
“Clock the apparition with the state-of-the-art pout,” he said, his salivary glands shifting into third.
“Must be a centerfold,” I piped, feeling the sudden onset of heatstroke, “judging from her see-through blouse.”
“Watch this,” Endorphine said, whereupon he took a deep breath and began rising off the ground. To the amazement of both myself and Miss July, he was levitating a foot above Fifty-seventh Street in front of Hammacher Schlemmer. Searching for wires, the sweet young thing brought her show closer.
“Hey, how do you do that?” she purred.
“Here. Here’s my address,” Endorphine said. “I’ll be home tonight after eight. Drop by. I’ll have you off your feet in no time.”
“I’ll bring the Petrus,” she cooed, stuffing the logistics of their rendezvous into the abyss of her cleavage, and wiggled off as Endorphine slowly descended to ground level.
“What gives?” I said. “Are you Houdini?”
“Oh, well,” he sighed benevolently, “since I’m deigning to converse with practically a paramecium, I may as well giveyouthe whole schmear. Let’s repair to the Stage Deli and decimate some schnecken while I hold court.” With that there was an audible pop and Endorphine vanished. I sucked in my breath and clasped my hand to my open mouth like a startled Gish sister. Seconds later he reappeared, contrite.
“Sorry. I forgot you bottom-feeders can’t dematerialize and translocate. My error. Let’s just hoof it.” I was still pinching myself when Endorphine began his tale.
“OK,” he said. “Flashback six months prior, when Mrs. Endorphine’s little boy Max was at emotional ducks and drakes over a series of tribulations, which, if you count my misplaced beret, topped Job’s. First, this fortune cookie from Taiwan I was tutoring in anatomical hydraulics eighty-sixes me for an apprentice pie maker, then I get sued to the tune of many dead presidents for backing my Jaguar through a Christian Science Reading Room. Add to that my one son from a previous connubial holocaust gives up his lucrative law practice to become a ventriloquist. So here I am, blue and funky, scouring the town for a raison d’être, a spiritual center as it were, when suddenly, out of the ether, I come across this ad in the latest issue ofVibes Illustrated. A spa type of joint that liposuctions off your bad karma, raising you to a higher frequency wherein you can at last hold sway over nature à la Faust. As a rule I’m too savvy to bite on a scam like that, but when I dig the CEO is an actual goddess in human form, I figure what could be bad? And there’s no charge. They don’t take dough. The system’s based on some variation of slavery, but in return you get these crystals, which empower you, andallthe Saint-John’s-wort you can scarf up. Oh, I’m leaving out she humiliates you. But it’s part of the therapy. So her minions frenched my bed and affixed an ass’s tail to the back of my trousers unbeknownst to me. Sure I was a laughingstock for a while, but let me tell you, it dissolved my ego. Suddenly I realized I had lived in previous lives—first as a simple burgomaster and then as Lucas Cranach the Elder … or no, I forget, maybe it was the kid. Anyhow, the next thing I know, I wake up on my crude pallet and my frequency is in the stratosphere. I got like this nimbus around my occiput and I’m omniscient. I mean right off I hit the double at Belmont and within a week I draw crowds every time I show up at the Bellagio in Vegas. If I’m ever unsure about a nag or whether to hit or stick at blackjack, there’s this consortium of angels I tap into. I mean, just ’cause someone’s got wings and is made of ectoplasm don’t mean they can’t handicap. Clock this wad.”
Endorphine extracted several bale-sized bundles of thousand-dollar bills from each pocket.
“Oops, excuse me,” he said, fumbling to retrieve some rubies that had fallen out of his jacket when he produced the cornucopia of greenbacks.
“And she doesn’t take any remuneration for this service?” I inquired, my heart taking wing like a peregrine falcon.
“Well, you know, that’s how it is with avatars. They’re all big sports.”
That night, despite a welter of imprecations from the distaff side plus a quick call by her to the firm of Shmeikel and Sons to check if our pre-nup covered the sudden onset of dementiapraecox,I found myself skying west to the Sublime Ascension Center with its divinity in residence, a vision in Frederick’s of Hollywood named Galaxie Sunstroke. Bidding me enter the shrine that dominated her compound, an abandoned farm curiously resembling the Spahn ranch of Manson lore, she put down her emery board and got comfortable on a divan.
“Take a load off your feet, honey,” she said to me in tones less Martha Graham than Iris Adrian. “So, you want to get in touch with your spiritual center.”
“Yes. I’d like my frequency turned up, the ability to levitate, translocate, dematerialize, and sufficient omniscience to divine in advance the randomly selected numerals that comprise the New York State Lottery.”
“What do you do for a living?” she inquired, oddly un-omniscient for a creature of her reputed majesty.
“Night watchman at a wax museum,” I replied, “but it’s not as fulfilling as it sounds.”
Turning to one of the Nubians who fanned her with palm fronds, she said, “What do you think, boys? He looks like he’d make a good groundskeeper. Maybe take care of the septic tank.”
“Thank you,” I said as I knelt, pressing my face to the ground in abasement.
“OK,” she said, clapping her hands as a quincunx of loyal minions scurried forward from behind beaded curtains. “Give him a rice bowl and shave his head. Till a bed opens up he can sleep with the chickens.”
“I hear and obey,” I murmured, averting my eyes lest adirectlook at Ms. Sunstroke could distract her from the crossword puzzle she had begun. With that I was hurried away, slightly apprehensive with the thought that I might be branded.
As far as I could discern in the days following, the compound was awash with losers of every description: poltroons and nudniks, actresses who guided their each move by the planets, the overweight, a man who had been involved in some kind of taxidermy scandal, a midget in denial. All sought to ascend to a higher plane while they labored around the clock in lobotomized submission to the supreme goddess, who occasionally was seen on the grounds dancing like Isadora Duncan or inhaling from a long pipe and then laughing like Seabiscuit. In return for a few spells and passes now and then from the compound’s chief shaman, an ex-bouncer I thought I recognized from a documentary on Megan’s Law, the faithful were expected to toil twelve to sixteen hours a day harvesting fruits and vegetables for the staff to consume and to manufacture assorted salable commodities such as nude playing cards, foam-rubber dashboard dice, and restaurant crumbers. In addition to my responsibilities maintaining the drainage system, as groundskeeper I was expected to spear and bag the discarded carob-bar wrappers and cigarette papers that dotted the landscape. The daily fare, which leaned heavily on alfalfa seeds, miso, and ionized water, was a little difficult to get used to, but a sawbuck laid on one of the less committed lamas whose brother ran a nearby diner secured an intermittent tuna melt. Discipline was lax and one wasexpectedto act responsibly, although breaking the dietary rules or shirking on the job could lead to a flogging or being hooked up to a field telephone. Humiliation followed humiliation as part of an ego-cleansing ritual, and finally when it was decreed that I was to make love to a karmic priestess who was a dead ringer for Bill Parcells, I decided it was time to pack it in. Inching on my back underneath the barbed-wire fence, I lit out in the dead of night and flagged down the last 747 to the Upper West Side.
“So,” my wife said, with the benign tolerance of one addressing the prematurely senile, “did you dematerialize and translocate here, or is that a Continental Airlines cocktail napkin I see dangling from your collar?”
“I didn’t stay long enough for that,” I parried, fuming at her subtle contumely, “but I sweated enough to pick upthislittle tour de force.” And with that I levitated six inches off the floor and hovered while her mouth spread like the shark’s inJaws.
“You lower-frequency know-it-alls just don’t get it,” I said, rubbing it in to her with unrestrained glee yet forgivingly. The woman let out a piercing shriek of the type that alerts to enemy bombardment and bid our children run and take refuge from this nightmarish voodoo. It was at this moment I began to realize I couldn’t get down, and try as I might to deelevate, I found the maneuver impossible. Pandemonium akin to the stateroom scene inA Night at the Operaensued, the children shaking and bellowing hysterically as neighbors ran in to save us from what must have sounded like a bloodbath.Allthe while I strained mightily to lower myself, grimacing and twisting like a mime. Finally, leaping into action, the better half took it upon herself to master this warp in conventional physics by procuring a neighbor’s ski, which she brought down hard on the top of my head, sending me earthbound in a thrice.
The last I heard, Max Endorphine had dematerialized never to rematerialize again. As far as Galaxie Sunstroke and her Sublime Ascension Center, rumor has it they were dismantled by Treasury agents and reincarnated, or was it reincarcerated? As for me, I never was able to gain loft again or guess in advance the name of a single horse at Aqueduct that would run better than sixth.
The legendary outlaw Veerappan, a lean man with a twirling, jet black mustache, has ranged through the jungles of South India for a generation. … Mr. Veerappan stands accused of 141 murders. … On Sunday he put into action what the police are calling his boldest, most diabolical plan. … He abducted Rajkumar, 72, a beloved movie star whose half-century-long career portraying Hindu gods, kings of yore and heroes of every kind has endowed him with a mystical stature of his own.
—The New York Times, August 3, 2000
OTHESPIS, MY MUSE,my blessing, my curse! Like you I have been graced by the gods with a vivid and abundant gift for the performing arts. A born talent with heroic lineaments, the aquiline profile of a Barrymore, and the corybantic suppleness of a strutter and fretter in the Kabuki, I was not content to settle merely for the bounteous hand dealt me by providence but immersed myself assiduously in the dramatic arts of classical theater, of dance and mime. It has been said that I can do more with the raising of an eyebrow than most actors can do with their entire bodies. To this day,denizensof the Neighborhood Playhouse recount in hushed tones the psychological detail with which I imbued Parson Manders during a summer workshop. The downside of a histrionic life is that beneath a certain minimum figure, the number of calories required each day to postpone starvation demands that I bus the tables at Taco-Pox, a burrito palace that languishes before the unsuspecting on La Cienega Boulevard like a Venus flytrap. That’s why when I received a message on my PhoneMate from Pontius Perry, the high-powered agent at Career Busters, Hollywood’s hottest talent emporium, I sensed that maybe it was finally my time to taste a little back end. This notion was reinforced when Perry told me I could use the private elevator reserved for top box-office draws and wouldn’t have to put my lungs at risk inhaling next to a supporting player. I divined that the business at hand just might revolve around the bestselling novelRow Mutant, Row, in which the role of Josh Airhead was coveted by every male star in SAG. I was perfect for the tragic intellectual, possessing just the right admixture of nobility and sangfroid.
“I think I got something for you, kid,” Pontius Perry told me as I faced him in his office, which had been decorated by twotrès chicnew Hollywood designers in a combination of postmodern and Visigoth.
“If it’s the part of Josh Airhead, I want the director to know I’ll be using a prosthesis. I see him with a miser’s hump, embittered from years of rejection and perhaps even with some layered wattles.”
“Actually, they’re talking to Dustin about Airhead. No, this is a whole nother project. It’s a thriller about some wino who looks to boost a moonstone-type rock from betwixt the eyes of a Buddha or some such idol of that nature. I only gave the script a perfunctory read, but I managed to glom sufficient gist before merciful Morpheus did a number on me.”
“I see, so I play a soldier of fortune. A role that gives me a chance to utilize some of my old gymnastic training. All those classes in theatrical swordplay stand poised to bear fruit.”
“Let me level with you, boychick,” Perry said, peering out the six-foot picture window at the molasses-colored smog that the citizens of Los Angeles favor over actual air. “Harvey Afflatus is playing the lead.”
“Oh, then they see me in a character role—the hero’s best friend, a trusted confidant who propels the plot from within.”
“Er, not exactly. See, Afflatus needs a lighting double.”
“Someone to stand on a mark for the tedious hours it takes the cameraman to light the scene, someone who vaguely resembles the star so the lamps and shadows won’t be too far out of whack. Then, at the last second, when they’re ready to call action and make the shot, the zombie—er, the double—takes a hike and the money comes on and plays the part.”
“But why me?” I asked. “Do they really need an actor of genius for that?”
“ ’Cause you vaguely resemble Afflatus—oh, you’ll never be in his class lookswise, but the morphology meshes.”
“I’d have to think about it,” I said. “I am up for the voice of Waffles in a puppet rendition ofUncle Vanya.”
“Think quick,” Perry said. “The plane leaves for Thiruvananthapuram in two hours. It’s better than minesweeping the used enchiladas off the tabletops in some Tex-Mex tamale factory. Who knows, you could get discovered.”
• • •
TEN HOURS LATER,after a delay on the runway while the flight crew turned the aircraft upside down to retrieve an escaped cobra, I found myself skying toward India. The producer of the film, Hal Roachpaste, had explained to me that due to the last-minute decision of the leading lady to bring her rottweiler along there would not be room for me on the charter flight, and so they had booked me passage as an untouchable with Bandhani Air, India’s equivalent of Crazy Eddie. Fortunately there was room for me aboard a return flight carrying a convention of beggars, and though I couldn’t parse a word of Urdu I was fascinated as they compared afflictions and examined one another’s bowls.
The trip was uneventful save for some “light chop,” which caused the passengers to ricochet off the cabin wall like boiled atoms. By dawn’s early light we deplaned at a makeshift airstrip in Bhubaneshwar. From there it was a bit of a jaunt by steam train to Ichalkaranji, on to Omkareshwar by tongas, and we finally arrived at the location in Jhalawar viadhooli. I was given a hearty welcome by the crew and told not to unpack but to go stand directly on my mark so lighting couldbeginlest we fall behind our schedule. A consummate professional, I assumed my place on a hill in the noonday heat and did yeoman’s work, buckling only with the onset of sunstroke at teatime.
The first week of filming passed with predictable mood swings. The director, it turned out, was a spineless yes-man who repeated every utterance Afflatus made, deeming each worthy of inclusion in the works of Aristotle. In my opinion Afflatus had missed the central core of the lead character and rather than risk audience displeasure by giving Colonel Butterfat the dimension of self-doubt, he changed his profession from colonel in the military to Kentucky colonel, owner and breeder of Thoroughbreds. How he won the Preakness in the Vale of Kashmir puzzled me and apparently disconcerted the writer too, whose belt and necktie had to be taken from him. As acting is 90 percent voice, I must add here that Afflatus is cursed with an adenoidal whine that hatches in the throat and reverberates off his septum like a kazoo. I tried speaking to him during a break about some ways I thought he could flesh out his character, but it was too radical a shift in concentration from the book that he had vowed would teach him all about Smurfs before the end of shooting. In the evenings it was my habit to keep to myself, dining at a café on murg and chai, though in my third week I miscalculated the sincerity of one of the comely locals who answered to Shakira and in true Indian fashion embraced me with her two arms while the other four rifled through my pants.
Midway through the filming is when everything hit the fan.Wehad finally gotten over the internecine clashes of temperament, including the hiding of Hal Roachpaste’s blood thinner by the author, and the project had begun to sprout wings. A rumor came back that the dailies were good, and Babe Roachpaste, the producer’s wife, claimed the footage she had seen rivaledCitizen Kane. Seized by manic euphoria, Afflatus suggested it might be time to begin planning an Oscar campaign and lobbied for a flack to ghostwrite his acceptance speech.
I remember standing on my mark as usual, trying to give the cameraman a target to line up on, my face held high, jaw jutting out at much the same angle Afflatus’s does, when from out of left field emerges an exultation of rag-heads who charge the set screaming like Apaches. They coldcock the director with an ashtray lifted from the Bombay Hilton and scatter the panic-stricken crew. Next thing I know, there’s a bag over my head, which is then adroitly knotted, and I’m being carted off in a fireman’s carry. As the martial arts were part of my acting background, I suddenly snapped to the ground and uncoiled, sending forth a lightning-power kick, which fortunately for my abductors hit air and caused me to fall directly into the open trunk of a waiting Plymouth, where the door was promptly locked. The combination of the fierce Indian heat and the force with which I hit my head on a purloined elephant’s tusk in the boot of the van knocked me senseless. I came to sometime later in an inky black void as the vehicle bumped and rumbled over the jagged terrain of what must have been a mountain road. Using deep-breathing exercises that I had mastered in acting class, I managed toretainmy composure for at least eight seconds before emitting a medley of bloodcurdling bleats and hyperventilated into oblivion. I dimly recall the bag being removed from my head in the mountaintop cave of a wild-eyed bandit chieftain with a twirling jet-black mustache and the psychotic intensity of Eduardo Ciannelli inGunga Din. Brandishing a scimitar, he had apparently gone ballistic over some shoddy abduction work by his trio of simpering myrmidons.
“Worms, vermin, beetles! I send you out to snatch a cinema luminary, and this is what you bring me?” the hash-high CEO ranted, nostrils flaring like sails that had caught the wind.
“Master, I beg you,” groveled the Dalit hailed as Abu.
“A stand-in, a supernumerary not even—a lighting double,” thegrand fromagebellowed.
“But you will agree there’s a resemblance, master?” squeaked one trembling plaintiff.
“Crab! Lizard! You’re telling me this midden of offal could be mistaken for Harvey Afflatus? It’s like comparing gold and mud.”
“But exalted one, they hired him exactly because—”
“Silence, or I’ll cut your tongue out. I’m looking here to score for maybe fifty or a hundred large, and you deliver up this zero-talent potzer whom I guarantee, or my name’s not Veerappan, will not fetch a lead rupee.”
So this was he, the legendary brigand I had read about. A master at cruelty perhaps, and quick to slaughter, but clearly a philistine when it came to evaluating talent.
“I’m sure, sire, we can getsomethingfor him. Theproductionwon’t just walk if we threaten to dismember one of their own. True, we’ve all heard tales of the major studios not returning phone calls, but if we send back an organ at a time—”
“Enough, you slimy jellyfish,” the evil dacoit leader hissed. “Afflatus is currently running very hot. He’s coming off two features that did solid business even in the smaller markets. For the rodent we’ve got stashed we’d be lucky to make back our chickpea nut.”
“I’m sorry, magnificent one,” wept Veerappan’s errant minion. “It’s just that when the light hits him a certain way, his face exhibits the basic contours of said movie idol.”
“Can’t you see he lacks all charisma? There’s a reason that Afflatus sets marks in places like Boise and Yuma. It’s called star stature. This trombenik is the type that drives a cab or works at an answering service waiting for that one big break that never comes.”
“Now, just a minute,” I yelled, despite eight inches of black masking tape across my mouth, but before I could really warm to my theme I received a wallop in the sconce with ahuqqa. I held my tongue as Veerappan segued into his peroration. All the crass bunglers were to be decapitated, he decreed benevolently. As for me, the group treasurer suggested they lower the ransom demand, give it a few days, and see if the production ponied up. If not, their plan was to purée me. Knowing what I did of Hal Roachpaste, I had complete confidence that the company had already contacted the U.S. embassy and would of course accede to the bandit’s mostextravagantdemands rather than see a colleague mistreated in any way. After five days of no response, however, in which Veerappan’s spies told him the writer had reworked the script and the film had pulled up stakes and relocated in Auckland, I began to feel uneasy. Word was that Roachpaste had not wanted to bother the Indian government with a complaint but had vowed as he blew town to do all in his power to free me short of paying a cent in ransom, which he felt could set an awkward precedent. When news of my plight appeared as a filler in the rear pages ofBackstage, a group of politically active extras deemed it an outrage and swore to hold a midnight vigil but could not jimmy loose sufficient capital to purchase the required candles.
So, how is it that I’m here to tell the story given Veerappan’s deadline and lust for my carcass? Because with three hours left to go and a roomful of frenzied fanatics honing their krises and diagramming my body on a chart, I was suddenly awakened in my ropes by a pair of swarthy eyes peering out from between a turban and a burnoose.
“Quick, kid, don’t scream,” the intruder whispered in tones more consistent with Greenpoint than Bhopal.
“Who’s that?” I said, my senses numbed from a scant diet ofalooandtarka dal.
“Quick, doff these togs and walk with me. And keep calm—the place is awash with humanity’s dregs.”
“Absolutely,” I yelped, recognizing the voice of my agent, Pontius Perry.
“Let’s shake it. We got time for amenities at Nate’n Al’s tomorrow.”
And so, under the crafty guidance of my professional representative, I was sprung from inevitable dissection by Veerappan, titan of rogues.
At Nate’n Al’s the next day Perry explained over a panoply of derma that he had heard about my straits at a seder at Mr. Chow’s.
“The whole thing really stuck in my craw, and then I remembered when I was younger and used to put on one of those penny cardboard mustaches, all the kids in school would rib me over my uncanny resemblance to His Exalted Highness the Nizam of Hyderabad. Once that lightbulb went off, the rest was a piece of chocolate layer. I mean, sure, I had to do some fast talking because the nizam’s been extinct for lo these many years, but I’m an agent and fast talking’s how I set my table.”
“But why would you risk your life for me?” I queried, detecting the faint aroma of fish five days old in his spiel.
“Only ’cause in your absence I got you the lead in a feature. Heavy scratch. It’s a drug-war flick. All to be shot in the jungles of Colombia. Anti-Medellín. I guess that’s why some of the death squads took a blood oath to waste a few cast members if a film does come down there, but the director waves it off as saber rattling. I can’t believe how many actors passed, but that only helped me jack up the lolly for you. Hey, where you going?”
Outside in the smog where I had vanished like a cat, I rantobuy a newspaper and check the want ads. Maybe there was an opening for a cabdriver or answering-service operator like Veerappan had suggested. Of course Pontius Perry’s 10 percent would be a lot less, but at least he wouldn’t have to ever wake up and find my ear in his FedEx.
SAM, YOUMADE THEPANTSTOOFRAGRANT
A company named Foster-Miller, for instance, recently designed a textile with conductive properties: each thread can transmit electrical currents … so that Americans will one day … be able to recharge their cellphones with their polo shirts. … Technologically Enabled Clothing … has developed [a vest that conceals] … a “hydration system,” a back pocket for a water bottle with a straw running through the vest’s collar to the wearer’s mouth. …
Next year DuPont will introduce a fabric that can temporarily imprison offensive scents—so that, say, a shirt that spent the night in a smoke-filled bar will arrive home at 5 a.m. smelling as if it passed the hours in a spring meadow. DuPont’s scientists have also developed Teflon-treated fabric; spills bounce right off.
The South Korean company Kolon, in turn, has developed the “fragrant suit,” treated with anxiety-soothing herbs.
—The New York Times Magazine, December 15, 2002
RAN INTO REGMillipede sometime back. Reg’s a gaming crony from those piping times in Jolly Old when I stood as poetry editor ofDry Heaves: A Journal ofOpinion.If the truth be known, the two of us gave as good as we got over whist and rummy at the Pair of Shoes or Lord Curzon’s Club on the street that bears his name.
“I get to your city now and again,” Milliepede acknowledged as we stood on the corner of Park and Seventy-fourth. “Mostly on business. I’m vice president in charge of customer relations for one of the biggest charnel houses on the Isle of Wight.”
I’d venture we swapped mellow souvenirs for the better part of an hour, during which time I couldn’t help noticing that my companion would sporadically tilt his face down and left, seemingly to siphon some beverage from what appeared to be a spigot discreetly camouflaged beneath the underside of his lapel.
“Are you all right?” I finally asked, half expecting the details of some unspeakable accident that culminated in a newfangled ambulatory IV. “Are you on some kind of drip?”
“You mean this?” Millipede said, pointing toward his breast pocket. “Aha—you observant rascal. No, this is merely a masterpiece of engineering slash tailoring. You’re undoubtedly up on how the entire medical profession is suddenly bonkers about drinking lots of water. Seems it flushes out the kidneys, along with myriad ancillary benefits. Well, this tropical worsted has its own built-in hydration system. There’s a storage tank in the left trouser leg with a series of pipes that run around the waist and up to a faucet tactfully hemmed into the shoulder pad. I have a digital computerstitchedagainst my inseam that enables me to activate a pump just behind some pleats that forces Evian through this fiber-optic straw. Because of its ingenious cut I still manage to maintain a dapper line. I’m sure you’ll agree the garment speaks for breeding.”
Examining Millipede’s suit with an incredulity usually reserved for UFO sightings, I had to admit it smacked of the miraculous.
“There’s this perfectly marvelous tailoring establishment on Savile Row,” he said, pressing its address into my palm. “Bandersnatch and Bushelman. Postmodern fabrics. I guarantee you’ll want to revamp your entire wardrobe—which mightn’t be a bad idea judging from that threadbare tribute to Emmett Kelly you’re currently sporting. Be sure and tell them I sent you round, and ask for Binky Peplum. He’ll do right by your pocketbook. Ta.”
While I pretended, for old times’ sake, to double up at Millipede’s Emmett Kelly slander, I wanted to impale him on a pike. His invidious comparison with the clown’s attire lodged in my bosom like a scorpion’s tail, and I resolved to invest in a bespoke ensemble the moment my frequent-flier miles swelled to underwrite a trip abroad. The dream became a reality at summer’s end when I at last entered the high-tech portals of Bandersnatch and Bushelman on Savile Row, where either the salesman or a praying mantis in gabardine eyeballed me like I was being cultured in a petri dish.
“One of them’s wandered in again,” he yelled to acolleague.“If I stand you to half a guinea,” he said to me in a voice reeking of the judicial bench, “how can I be sure you’ll buy a bowl of soup and not squander it on lager?”
“I’m a customer,” I squealed, reddening. “I’ve traveled from America to refresh my wardrobe. Reg Millipede’s chum. He said to keep a keen eye out for Mr. Binky Peplum.”
“Aha,” replied the seller, checking for the precise location of my jugular. “Look no further. Now that you mention it, I do recall Millipede warning us someone of your stripe might be stopping by. Yes, he spoke of you—total absence of any flair … child of a lesser god … it’s all coming back to me.”
“Certainly my goal has never been to play the fop,” I explained. “I’m here simply to be measured for a sensible outfit.”
“Are you interested in any special aromas?” Peplum asked, pulling out his order pad and winking at an associate.
“Aromas? No, just a classic blue three-button, conservatively cut. Perhaps even a few shirts. I had envisioned Sea Island cotton if it’s not too dear. Although now that you bring it up, I do detect the faint scent of frankincense and myrrh.”
“That’s my suit,” Peplum confessed. “Our new line offers a wide variety of odors. Night-blooming jasmine, attar of roses, balsam of Mecca. Come here, Ramsbottom.” Another salesman darted over as if waiting to be cued. “Ramsbottom is wearing freshly baked rolls—the aroma, that is.”
I leaned in to sample the delicious smell of oven-baked bread. “Very tasty suit. I mean it’s a lovely mohair,” I said.
“We can imbue your raiments with any fragrance frompatchoulito twice-cooked pork. That will be all, Ramsbottom.”
“I just want a simple blue suit. Although I’ve toyed with gray flannel,” I chuckled with an impish grin.
“Here at Bandersnatch and Bushelman we’re not about simple fabrics,” Peplum said, leaning in to me conspiratorially. “I beg you, don’t hang back with the brutes.” Taking down a natty pin-striped jacket from the store dummy, Peplum offered it up to me.
“Look here, try and stain it,” he said.
“Stain the jacket?” I asked.
“Yes. I’m sure, even knowing you so little as I do, you’re a man who deposits a vast amount of ichor on your clothing. You know, butterfat, Elmer’s glue, chocolate creams, cheap red wine, ketchup. Have I captured you accurately?”
“I guess I’m as prone to soiling a garment as the next man,” I stammered.
“Depends how slovenly the next man is,” chirped Peplum. “Let me provide some samples for you to try.” He handed me a combination plate with assorted sauces and ointments, each life-threatening to fabric.
“You really want me to?”
“Yes, yes—spread some blackberry currant on the jacket, or the Fox’s U-Bet syrup.” Summoning the courage to defy years of social conditioning, I ladled on a dollop of axle grease only to find that it could not be made to stick or leave its trace. This held true for soot and tomato juice, toothpaste and India ink.
“See the difference when I apply these same substances to your clothing,” Peplum said, shaking a generous portion of A.1. sauce on my trousers. “Note how it actually discolors the material permanently.”
“I see, I see, yes, it’s horrendous,” I said, stricken.
“Good choice of words,” Peplum chortled. “Ruined forever, and yet for a few hundred quid extra, you’ll never have to think bib or consort with common dry cleaners again. Or let’s say the wee ones finger paint on your vicuña sports coat.”
“I don’t want a vicuña sports coat,” I explained, “and rather than get too pricey, I prefer to take my chances with a little naphtha.”
“By the way,” Peplum noted, “we also have a fabric that will reject any odor. I mean, I don’t know what your wife’s like, but I can just imagine.”
“She’s a very handsome woman,” I quickly said.
“Well, you know, it’s all relative. I might look at the same face and see something you’d find for sale in a live-bait store.”
“Now, just a minute,” I protested.
“I’m just theorizing. I mean, let’s say you have a receptionist with a rear end you can’t keep your eyes off, long, tan legs, ample cleavage, and a pout—plus she’s always running her tongue over her lips. Get the picture, friend?”
“Perhaps I’m obtuse,” I said weakly.
“Perhaps? Let me limn it more graphically, pilgrim. Let’s just say you’re bouncing this little slab of cheesecake at every motel in the tristate area.”
“Please. Your secret’s safe with me. Now, you come home and the ball and chain perceives the subtlest trace of Quelques Fleurs on your tattersall vest. Starting to have the epiphany? Next thing you know, either you’re sweating to keep out of alimony jail or the immortal beloved goes ballistic and you wind up like one of those old Weegee photos with a suppurating excavation between the orbs.”
“This is not a real problem for me,” I said. “I just want something relaxed but elegant to wear on special occasions.”
“Sure you do—but with an eye to the future. We don’t just make suits, we clothe our customers in a postmodern environment. What do you do, Mr.—?”
“Duckworth, Benno Duckworth. Perhaps you’ve read my volume on anapestic dimeter.”
“Can’t say I have,” Peplum said. “But you impress me as the mercurial type. Moody. I’d venture even bipolar. Silly to deny it. I can see even in the brief time we’ve spent together how your psyche oscillates from benign and avuncular to frazzled or, if the right buttons were pushed, homicidal.”
“I assure you, Mr. Peplum, I’m stable. My hands may be shaking now, but it’s because all I want is a blue suit—not an environment. Just something that suggests accomplishment yet is understated.”
“And here I have exactly the item. A fine Scotch wool. But loomed with our own secret cocktail of mood elevators to provide you with a constant sense of well-being.”
“Unmotivated well-being,” I snapped with emerging sarcasm in my voice.
“Well, it’s motivated by the suit. Let’s say you lost your wallet with all your credit cards and you get home and the little kumquat’s totaled the Lamborghini plus you find a ransom note demanding eight times your net worth if you ever want to lay eyes on your kids again. With this garment on your back you never lose your good humor or affable manner. The truth is, you actually enjoy your plight.”
“And the children?” I asked, terrified. “Where are they? Bound and gagged in some basement?”
“It won’t be as it appears now—not while you’re caressed by one of our antidepressant textiles.”
“Right,” I parried, “but when I take off the suit, won’t I experience withdrawal symptoms?”
“Er, well, there are some weak sisters who tend to become more introverted once the jacket’s been removed. Why? Would you ever contemplate ending it all?”
“Yes, well,” I said, backing toward the fire exit, “speaking of ending it all, I must go. I have a pet raccoon home that needs milking.” As the fingers in my pocket closed around my pepper spray should any attempt to hamper egress be made, my attention was caught by a stunning navy swatch that Peplum had not yet presented.
“Oh, this,” Peplum described when I queried him on it. “The threads are interwoven with thousands of conductive wires. The garment not only drapes beautifully but will recharge your cellular phone when you rub the instrument on your sleeve before placing a call.”
“Now, that’s more like it,” I said, envisioning the finishedproductto be at once stylish yet practical while announcing indirectly to my peers that I was indeed a member of the avant-garde. Peplum, seeing that he had hit pay dirt, pulled out a purchase order and moved in on me to close the deal with the lethal economy of Philidor’s mate. As I pulled out a check and accepted his Mont Blanc, my heart racing with the promise of this sartorial coup, it was none other than Ramsbottom, his face drained of all color, who came bolting in from the other room.
“Problems, Binky,” he whispered.
“You’re ashen,” Peplum said.
“Our cellular recharging suit,” Ramsbottom bleated, “the one we sold yesterday—remember?—cashmere with microscopic conductive wires. You know, the kind you can just rub your cell phone on to get it juiced.”
“Not now,” Peplum said, coughing. “I’ve a, you know,” he said, rolling his eyes toward me.
“Huh?” Ramsbottom murmured.
“You know, there’s one born every minute,” Peplum shot back.
“Oh, yes, sure,” the nervous cohort chattered. “It’s just that the bloke who put on the cell-phone-charging suit stepped out of our showroom, touched the handle of his car, and ricocheted off Buckingham Palace. He’s in intensive care.”
“Hmm,” Peplum mused, rapidly computing every possible liability. “Probably didn’t realize it’s fatal to make contact with metal while you’re thusly clad. Oh, well, you notify hisfamily,I’ll give a heads-up to legal. That’s the fourth time this month a conductive-suit customer has had to go on life support. Now, where was I? Oh yes, Ducksauce? Duckbill? Where’d he go?”
Let him try and find me. High voltage in a pair of pants is exactly the kind of thing that sends me ricocheting directly to Barneys, where I bought a marked-down three-button job off the peg, and it doesn’t do anything postmodern unless you count picking up lint.
IT IS SAIDDostoyevsky wrote for money to sponsor his lust for the roulette tables of St. Petersburg. Faulkner and Fitzgerald too leased their gifts to ex-schmatte moguls who stacked the Garden of Allah with scriveners brought west to spitball box-office reveries. Apocryphal or not, the mollifying lore of geniuses who temporarily mortgaged their integrity gamboled around my cortex some months ago when the phone rang as I was adrift in my apartment trying to tickle from my muse a worthy theme for that big book I must one day write.
“Mealworm?” the voice on the other end barked through lips clearly enveloping a panatela.
“Yes, this is Flanders Mealworm. Who’s calling?”
“E. Coli Biggs. Name mean anything to you?”
“Er, can’t say it actually—”
“No matter. I’m a film producer—and a big one. Christ, don’t you readVariety?I got the number one grosser in Guinea-Bissau.”
“The truth is I’m more conversant with the literary landscape,” I confessed.
“Yeah, I know. I readThe Hockfleisch Chronicles. That’s on account of why I want we have a sit-down. Be at the Carlyle Hotel three-thirty today. Royal Suite. I’m staying under the name of Ozymandias Hoon to stave off the local wannabes from inundating me with scripts.”
“How did you get my number?” I inquired. “It’s unlisted.”
“From the Internet. It’s there alongside the X-rays of your colonoscopy. Just materialize on cue, skeezix, and pretty soon we’ll both be able to ladle beaucoup skins into our respective Marmites.” With that he slammed the receiver into its cradle with sufficient velocity to buckle my eustachian tube.
It was not unthinkable that the name E. Coli Biggs would mean zilch to me. As I had made clear, my existence was not the glitzy whirlwind of film festivals and starlets but the Spartan regimen of the dedicated bard. Over the years I had churned out several unpublished novels on lofty philosophical themes before finally being given a first printing by Shlock House. My book, in which a man travels back in time and hides King George’s wig, thus hastening the Stamp Act, obviously ruffled establishment feathers with its bite. Still, I regarded myself as an emerging and uncompromising talent, and mulling over Biggs’s command to heel at the Carlyle made me chary of selling out to some philistine Hollywood platypus. The idea that he might fantasize renting my inspiration to pen a screenplay at once disgusted me and piqued my ego. After all, if the progenitors ofThe Great GatsbyandTheSoundand the Furycould warm their stoves courtesy of some prestige-hungry West Coast suits, why not Mrs. Mealworm’s little bunting? I was supremely confident my flair for atmosphere and characterization would sparkle alongside the numbing mulch ground out by studio hacks. Certainly the space atop my mantel might be better festooned by a gold statuette than by the plastic dipping bird that now bobbed there ad infinitum. The notion of taking a brief hiatus from my serious writing to amass a nest egg that could subsidize myWar and PeaceorMadame Bovarywas not an unreasonable one to contend with.
And so, clad in author’s tweeds with elbow patches and Connemara cap, I ascended to the Royal Suite of the Carlyle Hotel to rendezvous with the self-proclaimed titan E. Coli Biggs.
Biggs was a fubsy pudding of a character with a hairpiece that could only have been ordered by dialing 1-800-Toupees. A farrago of tics animated his face in unpredictable dots and dashes like Morse code. Clad in pajamas and the Carlyle’s terrycloth robe, he was accompanied by a miraculously fabricated blonde who doubled as secretary and masseuse, having apparently perfected some foolproof procedure to clear his chronically stuffed sinuses.
“I’ll come right to the point, Mealworm,” he said nodding toward the bedroom, where his zaftig protégée rose and weaved off to, pausing a mere two minutes to align the meridians of her garter belt.
“I know,” I said, descending from Venusburg. “You readmybook, you’re taken with how visual my prose is, and you’d like me to create a scenario. Of course you realize even if we got copacetic on the math, I would have to insist on total artistic control.”
“Sure, sure,” Biggs mumbled, waving aside my ultimatum. “You know what a novelization is?” he asked, popping a Tums.
“Not really,” I replied.
“It’s when a movie does good numbers. The producer hires some zombie to make a book out of it. Y’know, an exploitation paperback—strictly for lowbrows. You’ve seen the chozzerai you find in the racks at airports or shopping malls.”
“Uh-huh,” I said, beginning to sense a lethal tightness making its deceptively benign introduction into my lumbar region.
“But me, I’m to the manor born. I don’t hondle with mere craftsmen. I meld exclusively with bona fides. Hence I’m here to report your latest tome caught my baby blues last week at a little country store. Actually I’d never seen a book remaindered in the kindling section before. Not that I got through it, but the three pages I managed before narcolepsy set in told me I was in the presence of one of the most egregious wordsmiths since Papa Hemingway.”
“To tell you the truth,” I said, “I’ve never heard of novelizations. My métier is serious literature. Joyce, Kafka, Proust. As for my first book, I’ll have you know the cultural editor ofThe Barber’s Journal—”
“Sure, sure, meanwhile every Shakespeare’s gotta eat lest he croak ere he mints his magnum opus.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. “I wonder if I might have just a little water. I’ve become rather dependent on these Xanax.”
“Believe me, kid,” Biggs said, raising his voice and intoning slowly. “All the Nobel laureates work for me. It’s how they set their table.” Poised in the wings, his stacked amanuensis pushed her head in and trilled, “E. Coli, García Márquez is on the phone. Claims his larder is bereft of all provender. Wants to know if you can possibly throw any more novelizations his way.”
“Tell Gabo I’ll get back to him, cupcake,” snapped the producer.
“And just what movie are you asking me to novelize?” I piped, gagging on the word. “Are we talking about a love story? Gangsters? Or is it action-adventure? I’m known as a facile man with description, particularly bucolic material à la Turgenev.”
“Tell me about the Russkies,” Biggs yelped. “I tried to make Stavrogin’s confession into a musical for Broadway last year, but all the backers suddenly got swine flu. Here’s the scam, tatellah. I happen to own the rights to a cinema classic starring the Three Stooges. Won it years ago playing tonk with Ray Stark at Cannes. It’s a real zany vehicle for our three most irrepressible meshoogs. I’ve fressed all the protein I can out of the print—movie houses, foreign and domestic TV—but I suspicion there’s still a little lagniappe to be bled from a novel.”
“Of the Three Stooges?” I asked, incredulous, my voice glissandoing directly into a fife’s octave.
“I don’t have to ask if you love ’em. They’re only an institution,” Biggs pitched.
“When I was eight,” I said, rising from my chair and slapping at my pockets to locate my emergency Fiorinal.
“Hold it, hold it. You didn’t hear the plot yet. It’s all about spending the night in a haunted house.”
“It’s OK,” I said, dollying toward the door. “I’m a little late—some friends are raising a barn—”
“I booked a projection room so I could screen it for you,” Biggs said, ignoring my resistance, which by now had morphed into sheer panic.
“No thanks. I may be down to my last can of StarKist,” I sputtered as the great man cut me off.
“Emmes, kid. If this is as lucrative as my proboscis signals, there’s copious zuzim to be stockpiled. Those three ditsy vilda chayas cut a million shorts. One e-mail could secure the novelization rights to the whole shooting match. And you’d be my main scribe. You could salt away enough mad money in six months to spend the rest of your days sausaging out art. Just give me a few sample pages to confirm my faith in your brilliance. Who knows, maybe in your hands novelization will finally come of age as an art form.”
That night I clashed fiercely with my self-image and required the emollient waters of the Cutty Sark distillery to beat back a waxing depression. Still, I would be disingenuous if I did not admit that I was palpated by the notion of vacuuming up enough scratch to allow the writing of another masterpiece without the onset of malnutrition. But it was not justMammoncrooning in my cochlea. There was also the chance Biggs’s nasal compass had located true north. Perhaps I was the Mahdi chosen to legitimize with depth and dignity this runt of the literary litter, the novelization.
In a frenzy of sudden euphoria I bolted to my processor, and irrigated with gallons of black coffee, I had by dawn broken the back of the challenging assignment and was champing at the bit to show it to my new benefactor.
Irritatingly, his Do Not Disturb did not come unglued till noon, when I finally rang through as he was masticating his morning fiber.
“Be here at three,” he bade. “And ask for Murray Zangwill. Word leaked of my quondam alias, and the joint’s awash with frenzied centerfolds panting for screen tests.” Pitying the man’s beleaguered existence, I spent the next hours honing several sentences to diamond perfection and at three entered his posh digs with my work retyped on a stylish vellum.
“Read it to me,” he commanded, biting off the tip of a contraband Cuban cigar and spitting it in the direction of the fake Utrillo.
“Read it to you?” I asked, taken aback over the prospect of presenting my writing orally. “Wouldn’t you rather read it yourself? That way the subtle verbal rhythms can resonate in your mind’s ear.”
“Naw, I’ll get a better feel this way. Plus I lost my reading glasses last night at Hooters. Commence,” ordered Biggs, putting his feet up on the coffee table.
“Oakvill, Kansas, lies on a particularly desolate stretchacrossthe vast central plains,” I began. “What’s left of the area where farms once dotted the landscape is arid space now. At one time corn and wheat provided thriving livelihoods before agricultural subsidies had the opposite effect of enhancing prosperity.”
Biggs’s eyes began to glaze over. His head was wreathed in a thick nimbus of smoke from the vile cheroot.
“The dilapidated Ford pulled up before a deserted farmhouse,” I went on, “and three men emerged. Calmly and for no apparent reason the dark-haired man took the nose of the bald man in his right hand and slowly twisted it in a long, counterclockwise circle. A horrible grinding sound broke the silence of the Great Plains. ‘We suffer,’ the dark-haired man said. ‘O woe to the random violence of human existence.’
“Meanwhile Larry, the third man, had wandered into the house and had somehow managed to get his head caught inside an earthenware jar. Everything was suddenly terrifying and black as Larry groped blindly around the room. He wondered if there was a god or any purpose at all to life or any design behind the universe when suddenly the dark-haired man entered and, finding a large polo mallet, began to break the jar off his companion’s head. With pent-up fury that masked years of angst over the empty absurdity of man’s fate, the one named Moe smashed the crockery. ‘We are at least free to choose,’ wept Curly, the bald one. ‘Condemned to death but free to choose.’ And with that Moe poked his two fingers into Curly’s eyes. ‘Oooh, oooh, oooh,’ Curly wailed, ‘the cosmosisso devoid of any justice.’ He stuck an unpeeled banana in Moe’s mouth and shoved it all the way in.”
At this point Biggs abruptly emerged from his stupor. “Stop, go no further,” he said, standing at attention. “This is only magnificent. It’s Johnny Steinbeck, it’s Capote, it’s Sartre. I smell money, I see honors. It’s the kind of quality product yours truly made his rep on. Go home and pack. You’ll stay with me in Bel Air till more suitable quarters open up—something with a pool and perhaps a three-hole golf course. Or maybe Hef can put you up at the mansion for a while if you’d prefer. Meantime I’ll call my lawyer and lock up rights to the entire Stooge oeuvre. This is a memorable day in the annals of Gutenbergsville.”
Needless to say, that was the last I saw of E. Coli Biggs under that or any other alias. When I returned to the Carlyle, valise in hand, he had long left town for either the Italian Riviera or the Turkmenistan Film Festival or possibly to check out the bottom line in Guinea-Bissau—the desk clerk wasn’t sure. The point is, tracking down a mover and shaker who never uses his real name proved a far too daunting job for an ink-stained wretch named Mealworm, and I’m dead certain it would have been for Faulkner or Fitzgerald too.
AS A HATCHLINGchloroformed and shanghaied each summer to various lakeside facilities bearing Indian names where I struggled to master the dog paddle under the baleful eyes of capos otherwise known as counselors, my attention was pinioned recently by something in the back pages ofThe New York Times Magazine. Amongst the usual dumping grounds where well-heeled parents might stash their sniveling issue and savor a comatose July and August were ads for such trendy modern specialties as basketball camp, magic camp, computer camp, jazz camp, and, perhaps the most glamorous of all, film camp.
Apparently somewhere amidst the crickets and ragweed a teenager with a yen for montage can idle away his sunny vacation learning to churn out Oscar-winning dialogue, proper camera angles, acting, editing, sound mixing, and, for all I know, the correct way to buy a home in Bel Air complete with valet parking. While less dream-weaving adolescents are busy foraging for arrowheads, a number of budding Von Stroheims actually get to make their own original movies, a far hippersummerproject than, say, braiding a lanyard to dangle one’s skate key from.
This pricey inspiration seems a long way from Camp Melanoma, run by Moe and Elsie Varnishke in Loch Sheldrake, where I suffered the dog days of my fourteenth year playing dodgeball and keeping the calamine-lotion industry solvent. It was not easy to picture a mom-and-pop couple like the Varnishkes running anything resembling so chic a venue as film camp, and only the fumes of a smoked whitefish I was deconstructing at the Carnegie Deli induced sufficient hallucinatory molecules to conjure the following correspondence.
Dear Mr. Varnishke:
Now that fall has descended, gifting the foliage with her sublime palette of rust and amber, I must pause in the day’s occupation here on Wall and William to thank you for providing my cherished offspring Algae with a rich and productive summer at your traditional yet innovative rustic paradise. His tales of hiking and canoeing startle in their similarity to passages by Sir Edmund Hillary and Thor Heyerdahl. They add just the proper curry to the diligent and intense hours he spent with you acquiring the various techniques of filmmaking. That his eight-week movie turned out so accomplished and exciting that Miramax is offering us sixteen million dollars for the domestic rights is more than any parent could have dreamed of, although it was always clear to his mother and I that Algae was anointed by the muses.
What did surprise me for just a nanosecond, however, was the letter you wrote suggesting that 50 percent of the aforementioned distribution fee should somehow find its way into your pocket. How a sweet couple like you and Mrs. Varnishke could cobble together the psychotic mirage that you are somehow entitled to the faintest taste of my son’s creative fruits beggars all rationality. In short, let me assure you that despite the fact that his cinematic masterpiece took wing at the ramshackle little Hooverville represented in your brochure as Hollywood in the Catskills, you have absolutely zero tithe to any portion of my flesh and blood’s windfall. I guess what I am trying to find a nice way of saying is, you and that avaricious salamander that shares your bed whom I happen to know put you up to this mail-fisted shakedown should take a flying hike.
Mine Dear Mr. Snell:
Thanking you so much for the prompt reply to mine note and the beautiful admission that your son’s motion picture owes its whole everything to our charming country resort described in what I guarantee will soon become Exhibit A as a Hooverville. Speaking, by the way, of Elsie, there never was a finer woman despite some smoker-car witticisms you passed when you came to visit, highlighting her varicose veins, which drew no laughs even from the busboys, who hate her like ratpoison.You should know before you open up a mouth with the salamander jokes that my wife is a dedicated woman who suffers from a curse called Ménières, and believe me when I tell you she can’t get out of bed in the morning without she ricochets off the chifforobe. You should have such a malady—I’m sure you wouldn’t play tennis so fast every week at the Athletic Club with your cronies with the plaid pants, all waiting to be indicted. I personally don’t make six figures speculating with other people’s pensions. I run a nice honest film camp, which my wife and I started from pennies we saved from the candy-store days when maybe if we sold a few extra pairs of wax lips we could afford carp once a week.
Meanwhile your son’s film was made under the supervision or, better I should say, collaboration of our crackerjack staff, which, take it from Varnishke, any of the big studios should only have, they wouldn’t grind out such chozzerai always for ten-year-old submentals. A man like Sy Popkin who personally spitballed concepts with the little nudnik happens to be one of Hollywood’s great unrecognized talents. The man could have won fifty Academy Awards if he hadn’t one lousy time been spotted in Mexico double-dating with Trotsky, a coincidence that forever marked him unhirable with those schmendriks who right away run scared. Also our dramatics counselor, Hydra Waxman, who gave up a promising screen career to donate, gratis yet, her time to teaching teenage golems. The woman—may she rest in peace but later, after shedies—personallydirected the amateur cast in your son’s movie, coaxing from a tsimmes of talentless trombeniks every tiny morsel of histrionic ability while meanwhile your little momser sat on the sidelines watching her work and breathing from his adenoids.
Finally, Mr. Wall Street macher, there’s our own Abe Silverfish, a man who has editing awards from prestige film festivals in Tanganyika and Bali. The man stood—and if I’m lying my wife should perish in an acid bath—stood over and badgered your schlimazel Algae, who if you take my advice you’d toss the kid a little Ritalin once in a while maybe he would now and then stop with the fidgeting. Silverfish personally stood over the Avid and showed him where he should make every splice. Incidentally, the kid used all our equipment, fiddling like the klutz he is with a brand-new Panavision camera, which now when I press the button makes a sound like when you turn slowly the wood handle on those tin party noisemakers Elsie calls groggers. Meanwhile for this I wouldn’t bill you since we’re about to be partners in a new venture.
Monroe B. Varnishke
Dear Mr. Varnishke:
To suggest in any way that the staff you have assembled is anything higher on the evolutionary scale than a band ofdingoesis hyperbole of the wildest sort. Partners in a new venture?! Have you suffered a silent stroke? First let me be clear that the idea for Algae’s screenplay was conceived by my son alone and based on true life experience that the family lived through when our local mortician mistakenly thought he’d won the Nobel Prize. That a traitor like Popkin who probably passed atomic secrets to Trotsky over tacos might have in any way contributed as much as a comma to my wunderkind’s scenario ranks in credibility alongside accounts of the Loch Ness monster. As for that dipso Miss Hydra Waxman, the Internet tells me that she has never appeared in any film of a millimeter above eight, and then under the name of Candy Barr. Incidentally, are you aware your instructor Silverfish was fired from editing a Hollywood movie because Henry Fonda was repeatedly cut in upside down? Algae also said the camera you provided him with, far from being new, ran in fits and starts as a result of being heaved at a nineteen-year-old lifeguard when she refused your advances. Is Mrs. Varnishke OK with you hitting on the female help? By the way, I apologize for disparaging your wife’s circulatory system with my sometimes too accurate wit. Given the myriad blue tributaries that mark her topography, I couldn’t keep myself from commenting on her similarity to a road map.
Finally, let this be the termination of any contact between us. All further correspondence should be mailed directly to the firm of Upchuck and Upchuck, Attorneys-at-Law.
Au revoir, meatball.
Mine Dear Mr. Snell:
I only thank God He gave me a sense of humor so I can take a little joshing without immediately running right away to one of those gun magazines where hit men are so easy to hire. Let me do you a favor and clear up for you some facts. I never once in forty years looked at another woman except for Elsie, which candidly was not so easy as I’m the first to admit she’s not a dish like those zaftig courvers who pose in God knows what positions for magazines you probably wait drooling on the docks for as the boats arrive from Copenhagen.
Secondly, I’m just curious—where did you get the idea that that little vontz your son was a wunderkind? It could only be that you’re a typical cigar-sucking money maven who surrounds himself with namby-pambies who yes you and fill you full of bubbe meisehs you like to hear and the minute you leave the room, believe me, they roll their eyes. When Elsie and I had the candy store and I had a cretin who jerked my sodas who I kept on out of the goodness of my heart for his mother, she had a hip replacement, the doctors made a mistake, she wound up with a Chinaman’s liver—anyhow, this poor troll, the soda maker, with his double-digit IQ, towered like Isaac Newton over your Algae mentally.
That, by the way, was the summer Elsie’s nephew Benno won the spelling bee. “Mnemonic” the kid spelled, he’s all of eight. This is what I call bright, not your blond Midwich cuckoo who’s had every advantage in every private school with the expensive tutors and still he can’t remember who he is without checking the name tape in his T-shirt.
Meanwhile, instead of threatening with the lawsuits, tell instead your shysters if they check carefully, they’ll see that while you have a single print of the film that made both Weinstein brothers run like a couple of land speculators to throw sixteen million rugs your way, we have the only existing original negative up here in a bungalow. I just pray nothing happens to it, not that Mrs. Varnishke hasn’t already gotten a chicken-fat stain on the opening shot.
I read your last letter with a mixture of pity and fear, the Aristotelian recipe for tragedy. Pity because you obviously are unaware that by holding the negative to my son’s film you are guilty of a little social lapse called grand larceny, and fear because I had a prophetic dream last night wherein, after your prison sentence, you vividly caught a screwdriver in the tripes from a burly fellow inmate at Angola.
Although a fresh negative can be minted, albeit one of inferior quality, from the print I have, I would strongly suggest you instantly ship the original to yours truly before further defiling of its delicate coating occurs from either chicken fat or any other of the assorted noisome condiments you and that gargoyle that stares back at you over the breakfast table uses to render edible her cuisine. My patience is rapidly expiring.
It’s you not me that’s heading to the slammer and if not for trying to sell a movie you don’t own by yourself then for at least kiting checks because your genius son talks in his sleep and Elsie’s hobby is taping. Meanwhile I try to protect the negative but believe me it’s not easy. First my nephew Shlomo, he’s six next week, such a lovely kid, can sing all the words to “Ragmop” in either Yiddish or English. But let’s face it, it’s a wild age and he took a sharp rock and put a long scratch right in the middle of reel two. He loves to take the negative out of the can and scrape the emulsion off with a penknife. Why? Do I know? I just know he scrapes and he kvells. Not to mention my sister Rose got Lubriderm on reel seven. The poor woman. Her husband died recently, a massive heart attack, but I warned him—don’t look directly at her when she steps out of the shower. Anyhow, it’s a shame you’re so stubborn because by now we both could be realizing a nice piece of change from this flick, but listen, you’re a man with principles. By the way, exactly what is kiting checks, and why is it a felony? Gotta go, the dog has the negative.
You vile little paramecium. I offer you a 10 percent participation in the distribution rights to Algae’s film. What you really deserve, in your own vernacular, is not one red cent but a good spritz from a can of Raid.
I suggest you grab this deal before I regain my balance and take it off the table as it could be your passport from the grubby summer world of pubescent auteurs to the delights of Miami or Bermuda. Perhaps if some portion of your profits goes to a good plastic surgeon for a complete physical makeover, Mrs. Varnishke might even be allowed on a public beach.
Mine dear boy:
Elsie regained consciousness from a coma she was in, the result of an accident she had setting some mousetraps, she leaned in too far to smell the cheese to make sure it was fresh. Bingo! Anyhow, she woke up just long enough to whisper into my ear the words “Make it twenty percent.” Then, out again like one of those dolls when you tilt it back the eyes close. Meanwhile, the minute you put on the dotted line your Sam Hancock—and before a notary she also mentioned—you’ll not only get the negative but Elsie makes a wonderful stuffed cabbage which we’ll include gratis a few portions but return the jars please. You should live and be well.
Your new partner,
“WHAT EVIL LURKSin the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.” And with that came a fiendish cackle projecting shivers up my spine every Sunday when as a mesmerized youth I sat curled around our Stromberg Carlsen in the crepuscular winter light of my progenitors’ gloomy digs. The truth is, I never had the slightest idea what dark mischief gadded about even in my own pair of ventricles, until weeks back when I received a phone call from the better half at my office at Burke and Hare on Wall Street. The woman’s usual steady timbre jiggled like quantum particles, and I could tell she had gone back on smokes.
“Harvey, we must talk,” she announced, her words fairly drenched in portent.
“Are the children all right?” I snapped, expecting at any moment to be read the text of a ransom note.
“Yes, yes, but our nanny—our nanny—that smiling and unfailingly polite Judas, Miss Velveeta Belknap.”
“What about her? Don’t tell me the twit’s gone and broken another Toby mug.”
“She’s writing a book about us,” the voice on the other end intoned as though emanating from a catacomb.
“About her experiences being our Park Avenue nanny for the past year.”
“How do you know?” I rasped, suddenly crippled by remorse that I had pooh-poohed legal counsel advising a confidentiality agreement.
“I went to her room while she was out to return two Tic Tacs I had borrowed before the holidays, when I inadvertently came across a manuscript. Naturally I couldn’t resist a peek. Darling, it’s vicious and embarrassing beyond anything you can imagine. Especially the parts about you.”
A twitching in my cheek began its arrhythmic calisthenics, and drops of perspiration began emerging on my brow with audible snaps.
“As soon as she gets home I’m going to fire her,” the Immortal Beloved said. “The snake refers to me as porcine.”
“No! Don’t fire her. That won’t stop the book and will only cause her to dip her quill in more astringent vitriol.”
“What then, lover boy? You know how these revelations will play amongst our tony chums? We won’t be able to set foot at any of the posh watering holes we habituate without we’re snickered at and lampooned by wit’s cruel rapier. Velveeta refers to you as ‘that gnarled little pipsqueak who buys his hapless offspring into top preschools while failing to do yeoman service in the boudoir.’”
“Don’t do anything till I get home,” I pleaded. “This requires a little skull session.”
“You better ratiocinate on the double, sugar. She’s up to page three hundred.” With that, the light of my life smashed the phone down into its cradle with photon velocity, causing my ears to ring with the ominous tolling of that damn bell in Donne’s poem. Feigning Whipple’s disease, I bailed out of my work early, pausing at the corner hops emporium to placate my jangled ganglia and review the crisis.
Our history with nannies had been a roller-coaster ride at best. The first one was a Swedish woman who resembled Stanley Ketchel. Her demeanor was succinct, and she achieved discipline amongst the brood, who began showing up for meals well mannered but with inexplicable contusions. When our hidden TV camera caught her in the act of bouncing my son horizontally across her shoulders in what wrestlers call the Argentine backbreaker, I queried the woman on her methods.
Obviously unused to interference, she lifted me out of my loafers and pinioned me to the wallpaper a good three feet off the floor. “Keep your schnozz out of my rice bowl,” she advised, “unless you’re happy to wind up in a reef knot.”
Outraged, I sent her packing that night, requiring the assistance of only a single SWAT team.
Her successor, a nineteen-year-old French au pair named Veronique, who was all wiggles and cooing, with blond hair, the pout of a porn star, long tapered legs, and a rack that almost required scaffolding, was a far less truculent type.
Her commitment to our issue, unfortunately, lacked a certain depth, preferring as she did to loll about on the chaise in a slip and vaporize chocolate truffles while thumbing the pages ofW. I adjusted to the creature’s personal style more flexibly than my wife did and even attempted to help her relax with an occasional back rub, but when the ball and chain noticed I had taken to wearing Max Factor and bringing the little frog breakfast in bed she tucked a pink slip into the folds of Veronique’spoitrineand deposited her Louis Vuitton on the curb.
And then came Velveeta, a pleasant drone pushing thirty who ministered to the children and knew her place at table. Moved by her strabismus, I had treated Velveeta more like a family member than a servant, yet all the while as she accepted second helpings of trifle and access on her off-hours to the comfy chair, she was secretly amassing an unflattering portrait of her benefactors.
Upon arriving home and perusing in secret her libelous narrative, I was rendered dumb.
“A bitter cipher who takes credit for his colleagues’ work at the firm,” the succubus had written. “A raving bipolar who at once spoils his children and then beats them with a razor strop for the slightest infractions.” I leafed through the vile compilation and was mortified by the smorgasbord of blasphemies.
Harvey Bidnick is a witless boor, a motormouthed little proton who fancies himself amusing but numbs his guestswithrelentless one-liners unfunny even on the borscht circuit fifty years ago. His imitation of Satchmo causes the bravest souls to flee screaming from the room. Bidnick’s wife is no bargain either. A portly ice queen with tapioca thighs, she is unable to process any references intellectually more complex than Manolo Blahnik and Prada. The couple fight incessantly, and on one occasion when she had run up a bill of six figures for a specially constructed Wonder Bra, Bidnick refused to pay it. Enraged, she snatched the toupee from his head, threw it to the floor, and fired several shots at it with a revolver they keep in case of burglars. Bidnick gorges himself on Viagra, but the dosage makes him hallucinate and causes him to imagine he is Pliny the Elder. His wife, aging like Maria plucked from Shangri-La, has had every inch of her body tweaked with either Botox or a scalpel. Their favorite topic of conversation is the denigration of friends. The Birdwings are “corpulent penny-pinchers who serve small portions with the mutton inevitably underdone.” Dr. Diverticulinsky and his wife are a “team of incompetent veterinarians who have been responsible for the death of more than one goldfish.” And the Offals are “that French couple whose depravities include sexual intimacies with the figures at Madame Tussaud’s.”
I put down the pages of Velveeta’s tell-all screed, went to our bar, knocked back a series of potently configured highballs, and resolved then and there to kill her.
“If we burn her pages, she’ll just run off a duplicate,” I prattled to my wife in speech starting to loosen like a vaudeville drunk’s. “If we offer her hush money, she’ll include the bribe in her memoir or pocket the jack and publish anyway. No, no,” I said, morphing into all the blackguards that populated the noir celluloid I grew up on. “She must be made to disappear. Naturally it should look like an accident. Perhaps a hit-and-run.”
“You don’t drive, blue eyes,” the steely minx opposite me clarified, draining her own personal beaker of gin and vermouth. “And our chauffeur, Measly, couldn’t hit the side of a barn with that triple-length white stretch Lincoln you make him tool around in.”
“Well, what about a bomb?” I fonfered. “A precision device carefully timed to go off just as she boards her StairMaster.”
“Are you kidding?” the light of my life croaked, succumbing a bit more to her grain concoction. “You couldn’t make a bomb if they handed you the plutonium. Remember Chinese New Year’s when you dropped that lit Roman candle down your trousers?” The little woman started laughing hoarsely. “Christ, the way you suddenly rose off the ground and passed over the garage roof in Quogue. What a trajectory!” she howled.
“Then I’ll push her out the window. We’ll forge a note or, better yet, dupe her into writing one herself under some clever pretext utilizing carbon paper.”
“You’re going to hoist a hundred-fifty-pound nanny up to the windowsill and force her out while she struggles? With your biceps? You’ll wind up in Lenox Hill Emergency with a myocardial infarction that’ll make Krakatoa seem like a hiccup.”
“You don’t think I can dispose of her?” I said, marinating rapidly from my fifth grasshopper and dissolving into an Alfred Hitchcock character. “She will be free to move about, but she will be on a chain. She will gradually grow more and more ill.” I visualized the out-of-focus camera that made the audience atNotoriousfeel Ingrid Bergman’s weakening point of view as Claude Rains’s poison took its toll. My own focus had gone a little soft too as I rose and teetered to the medicine cabinet, my fingers closing around the bottle of iodine. As if on cue, the door burst open and Velveeta entered.
“Hey, Mr. B, you’re home. Get fired? Ha ha.” The rodent smiled at her own insolent sally.
“Come in,” I said. “Just in time for coffee.”
“You know I don’t drink coffee,” she demurred.
“I meant tea,” I corrected, staggering to the kitchen to put on the kettle.
“Are you plastered again, Mr. B?” the judgmental wretch inquired.
“Sit here,” I directed, ignoring her churlish familiarity. By now my wife had collapsed and was snoring on the floor.
“Mrs. B’s got to get more sleep,” the smug babysitter chided as she winked. “What do you jaded plutocrats do allnight?”With a mastermind’s cunning I glanced over my shoulder to see that she was not looking and emptied the remains of the iodine bottle into Velveeta’s cup. Then, festooning a plate with succulent petit fours, I presented the arrangement to her.
“Gee,” she piped, “this is something new. We never tore a herring at eleven-thirty in theA.M.”
“Hurry,” I said, “let’s drink up before it gets cold.”
“Isn’t this a little dark for chamomile?” the perfidious fink whined.
“Nonsense,” I explained. “It’s a rare blend, just in from Lashkar Gāh. Come, drink up. Umm, how smoky and piquant.”
Perhaps it was the stress of the morning, perhaps it was the concatenation of confidence builders I downed before noon; all I know is somehow I managed to siphon the mickeyed teacup by mistake. Instantly I jackknifed and began to flap around on the floor like a snagged trout. I lay on the carpet clutching my stomach and moaning like Ethel Waters singing “Stormy Weather” while our alarmed nanny commandeered an ambulance.
I remember the faces of the paramedics, and the stomach pump, and I remember most clearly, when I came to fully, the notice Velveeta handed in. She said in her letter of resignation that she had become bored being a nanny, and had toyed with writing a book but chucked the idea because the lead characters were too creepy to hold the interest of any reader with anIQin the normal range. She was leaving to marry a millionaire who picked her up one day at the Alice statue where she often took our kids. As for the Bidnicks? We don’t plan to hire another nanny until there’s a huge technological breakthrough in robotics.
The snob value of the rare white truffle hit new heights in London on Sunday with a 2.6-pound specimen selling at auction for $110,000. It went to an unidentified buyer in Hong Kong.
—The New York Times, November 15, 2005
AS A PRIVATEeye I’m willing to take a bullet for my clients, but it’ll cost you five hundred Benjamins per hour plus expenses, which usually means all the Johnnie Walker I can knock back. Still, when a cupcake like April Fleshpot totes her pheromones into my office and requests servicing, the work can magically become pro bono.
“I need your help,” she purred, crossing her legs on the sofa while her black silk hose took no prisoners.
“I’m all ears,” I said, confident that the sexual irony in my inflection wasn’t wasted.
“I need you to go to Sotheby’s and bid on something for me. Naturally I’ll foot the bill. But it’s important I remain anonymous.” For the first time I was able to see beyond herblondhair, pillow lips, and the twin dirigibles that stretched her silk blouse to the breaking point. The kid was scared.
“What do I bid on?” I asked her, “and why can’t you do it?”
“A truffle,” she said, lighting a cigarette. “You can go as high as ten million dollars. Well, maybe twelve if the competition is keen.”
“Uh-huh,” I said, throwing her the glance I usually flash before dialing Bellevue. “You must have a real craving.”
“Oh, don’t be crass,” she snapped back, clearly miffed. “You’ll get double your usual fee. Just don’t leave Sotheby’s without it.”
“Suppose I said anything over five million dollars seems a little suspicious for a mushroom,” I needled her.
“Maybe—although the Bundini truffle went for twenty million, the highest price on record for a tuber at auction. Of course it had been owned by the Aga Khan and was flawless white. And don’t fail me, because I was outbid recently on some foie gras by a Texas oilman who topped my seven million with eight. This was after I had sold two Chagalls to raise the cash.”
“I remember seeing that foie gras in the Christie’s catalogue. Seemed like big bucks for an appetizer-sized portion. But, if it made the oilman happy.”
“He was murdered for it,” she said.
“Yes. A count from Romania, for whom nothing but the taste of sublime goose liver would suffice, slipped a dirkbetweenhis shoulder blades and pirated the moist patty,” she said, lighting another cigarette from her first.
“Hard luck,” I said, staring at her.
“The joke was on him, though,” she laughed. “The high-cholesterol treat he had killed for turned out to be a fake. You see, the count, in a gesture of love, laid the foie gras at the feet of the grand duchess of Estonia, and when she unmasked it as liverwurst, he took his own life.”
“And the real foie gras?” I inquired.
“It was never recovered. Some say it had been noshed by a Hollywood producer at Cannes. Others said an Egyptian named Abu Hamid was so taken with it he packed it in a syringe and tried shooting it directly into his veins. Still others said it had fallen into the hands of a housewife from Flatbush who thought it was cat food and fed it to her tabby.”
April opened her pocketbook, pulled out a check, and wrote my retainer.
“Just one thing,” I said. “Why can’t anyone know you want the truffle?”
“A network of gourmands originating in Istanbul and frantic to shave it over their fettucini has infiltrated our borders. They will stop at nothing to obtain the truffle. Any single woman possessing such a taste treat puts her life in grave jeopardy.”
Suddenly I got a cold chill. The only prior case I’d ever had involving a pricey edible was a relatively simple business concerning a portobello mushroom. There had been charges of inappropriate behavior toward it by a political aspirant, buttheallegations proved baseless. The deal was, I bring the truffle to Suite 1600 of the Waldorf, where, April said flirtatiously, she’d await me in something skin-colored that God had designed for her. Once she wiggled her award-winning posterior into the lift, I made a few transatlantic phone calls to Fortnum & Mason’s and Fauchon. Their managers owed me for a little favor I did them once, by recovering six priceless anchovies purloined by a dacoit. When I got the skinny on April Fleshpot, I cabbed over to York Avenue.
The bidding at Sotheby’s was spirited. A quiche went for three million, a matched pair of hard-boiled eggs fetched four, and a shepherd’s pie once belonging to the Duke of Windsor sold for six million. When the truffle came on the block, a buzz shot through the room. Bidding started at five million dollars, and once the weak sisters faded I found myself in a tennis match with a fat man who wore a fez. At twelve million smackers the porky plutocrat had enough and dropped out, visibly distraught. I claimed the 2.6-pound dingus, stashed it in a locker at Grand Central, and made a beeline for April’s suite.
“Did you bring the truffle?” she asked, opening the door in a satin robe with nothing but well-dispersed protoplasm under it.
“Don’t worry,” I said, flashing a tough smile. “But first, shouldn’t we talk numbers?” The last thing I remember before the lights went out was a collision between the top of my head and what felt like a shipment of bricks. I awoke to the glint of a Saturday night special aimed directly at that littlevalentine-shapedpump I use to facilitate my blood flow. The fat man in the fez from Sotheby’s was tickling the safety catch for my amusement. April sat on the sofa, her pretty cheekbones buried in a Cuba Libre.
“Well, sir, let’s get down to business,” the fat man said, laying a baked potato on the table.
“What business?” I smirked.
“Come now, sir,” he wheezed. “Surely you understand we’re not discussing an ordinary ascomycetous mass. You have the Mandalay truffle. I want it.”
“Never heard of the thing,” I said. “Oh, wait—wasn’t that playboy Harold Vanescu beaten to death with it in his Park Avenue apartment last year?”
“Ha ha, you amuse me, sir. Let me tell you the history of the Mandalay truffle. The emperor of Mandalay was married to one of the fattest, homeliest women in the land. When swine flu claimed all the pigs in Mandalay, he asked his wife if she would be willing to root out the truffles. The moment she sniffed it, its value was instantly clear to all and it was sold to the French government and put on exhibition at the Louvre. It remained there and was looted by German soldiers during World War II. It’s said Göring was seconds away from eating it when news of Hitler’s suicide put a damper on the meal. After the war the truffle vanished and turned up on the international black market, where a consortium of businessmen purchased it and brought it to DeBeers in Amsterdam in an attempt to have it cut and then sell the pieces individually.”
“It’s in a locker at Grand Central,” I said. “Kill me and thebestyou’ll ever decorate that spud with will be sour cream and chives.”
“Name your price,” he said. April had gone into the other room and I heard her place a call to Tangiers. I thought I heard the word “crêpes”—apparently she had raised the money for the first payment on a major crêpe but en route to Lisbon the filling had been switched.
Fifteen minutes after I named my price, my secretary brought over a package weighing 2.6 pounds and placed it on the table. The fat man unwrapped it with trembling hands and, with his penknife, sliced off a slim piece to sample. Suddenly he began hacking at the truffle in a wild rage and sobbing.
“My God, sir!” he screamed. “It’s a fake! And while it’s a brilliant fake, counterfeited to simulate some of the truffle’s nutlike flavor, I’m afraid what we have here is a large matzo ball.” In an instant he was out the door, leaving me alone with a stunned goddess. Shaking off her dismay, April lasered her aqua orbs into mine.
“I’m glad he’s gone,” she said. “Now it’s just you and I. We’ll track down the truffle and split it. I wouldn’t be surprised if it held aphrodisiac powers.” She let her robe slip open just enough. I came very close to surrendering to all the absurd gymnastics nature programs the blood for, but my survival instinct kicked in.
“Sorry, sweetheart,” I said, backing off. “I don’t intend to wind up like your last husband, at the city fridge with a tag on my toe.”
“What?” Her face went ashen.
“That’s right, toots. It was you who killed Harold Vanescu, the international gourmet. It didn’t take a quiz kid to dope it out.” She tried to bolt. I blocked the door.
“OK,” she said resignedly. “I guess my number’s up. Yes, I killed Vanescu. We met in Paris. I had ordered caviar at a restaurant and had cut myself on one of the toast points. He came to my aid. I was impressed with his haughty disdain for red eggs. At first things were wonderful. He showered me with gifts: white asparagus from Cartier’s, a bottle of expensive balsamic he knew I loved to dab behind my ears when we went out. It was Vanescu and I who stole the Mandalay truffle from the British Museum by hanging upside down from ropes and cutting through the glass case with a diamond. I wanted to make a truffle omelet, but Vanescu had other ideas. He wanted to fence it and use the money to buy a villa in Capri. At first nothing had been too good for me; then I noticed the portions of beluga on our crackers were getting smaller and smaller. I asked him if he was having trouble in the stock market, but he pooh-poohed the idea. Soon I realized he had secretly switched from beluga to sevruga, and when I accused him of using osetra in a blini, he became irritable and noncommunicative. Somewhere along the line he had turned budget-conscious and frugal. One night I came home unexpectedly and caught him preparing hors d’oeuvres with lungfish caviar. It led to a violent quarrel. I said I wanted a divorce, and we argued over custody of the truffle. In a moment of rage I picked it up from the mantel and struck himwithit. When he fell, he hit his head on an after-dinner mint. To hide the murder weapon I opened the window and threw it onto the back of a passing truck. I’ve been searching for it ever since. With Vanescu out of the way, I truly believed I could finally scarf it up. Now we can find it and share it—you and I.”
I remember her body against mine and a kiss that caused steam to jet out of both my ears. I also remember the look on her face when I turned her in to the NYPD. I sighed over her state-of-the-art equipment as she was cuffed and led away by the fuzz. Then I beat it over to the Carnegie Deli for a pastrami on rye with pickles and mustard—the stuff that dreams are made of.
The Internet auction site eBay has gained a new spiritual dimension, with a seller offering prayers for cash. The self-styled Prayer Guy, based in Co. Kildare, Ireland, is selling five prayers, with bidding for each of them starting at £1. Buyers with pressing spiritual needs can buy immediately for £5.
—Item in church newsletter, August 2005
HEN THE RATINGScame out andThe Dancing Ombudsmangot a minus thirty-four, there was some talk at Nielsen that people who accidentally tuned in the show then put their eyes out like Oedipus. In the end the bottom line prevailed and our staff was assembled in the office of the producer, Harvey Nectar, and each writer was offered a choice between resignation or going into a closed room with a revolver. I won’t downplay my responsibility as a participant in whatVarietycalled “a fiasco comparable to the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs,” but I will say in my defense that I was basically a punch-up specialist put in at the last minute to leaven the burn-unit scenes with sight gags.
The last few seasons working on the tube have been a little rough on me, and it seems the many flop series my name has appeared on proceeded one after the other with the relentless consistency of carpet bombing. My agent, Gnat Louis, was taking longer and longer to return my phone calls, and finally, when I collared him over salmon cheeks at Nobu, he leveled with me and pointed out that to the industry the credit Hamish Specter on an end crawl was a synonym for potassium cyanide.
Unbent by the turn of events yet requiring a minimal ration of caloric material in order to remain amongst the living, I scoured the want ads and happened to come across a curious one inThe Village Voice. The proposition read: “Bard wanted to write special material—good pay—no atheists please.”
Skeptic that I was as an adolescent, I had recently come to believe in a Supreme Being after thumbing through a Victoria’s Secret catalogue. Figuring this might be the yellow-brick to a little fresh scratch, I shaved and donned my most solemn attire, a black three-button number that would have been the envy of any pallbearer. Computing the tariff for private transportation versus the subway, I made a beeline for the IRT and jiggled to Brooklyn, where, above Rocky Fox’s Stick Academy, a green felt parlor with the usual cast of unsavories nursing their cue balls, existed the national headquarters of Moe, the Prayer Jockey.
Far from ecclesiastical in feel, the offices I entered bustled with the whirligig energy ofThe Washington Post. There werecubbiesall over where harried scribes were banging out prayers to meet what was obviously an enormous demand.
“Come in,” a corpulent presence beckoned as he laid waste a covey of rugelach. “Moe Bottomfeeder, the Prayer Jockey. What can I do you for?”
“I saw your ad,” I wheezed. “In theVoice. Right under the Vassar coeds who specialize in body rubs.”
“Right, right,” Bottomfeeder said, licking his fingers. “So, you want to be a psalm scrivener.”
“Psalms?” I queried. “Like ‘The Lord is my shepherd’?”
“Don’t knock it,” Bottomfeeder said, “it’s a big seller. You should be so lucky. Any experience?”
“I did do a TV pilot calledNun for Me, Thanks, about some very devout sisters in a convent who build a neutron bomb.”
“Prayers are different,” Bottomfeeder said, waving me off. “They gotta be reverent, plus they gotta give hope, but—and here’s what separates the truly gifted minter of supplications from your Hallmark hacks—the prayers have gotta be worded in suchwise that when they don’t come true, the mark—er, that is, the faithful—can’t sue. You follow me?”
“I think I do. You’d prefer to avoid costly litigation,” I bantered.
Bottomfeeder winked. His bespoke threads and Rolex suggested a crackerjack business mind not unlike Samuel Insull or the late Willie Sutton.
“Believe it or not, I began as a lower-class drone like yourself,”he said, launching unasked into his formative years. “Starting out selling neckties from an open valise à la Ralph Lauren. Both of us hit it big. Him in fashion, me by skinning the flock. Let’s face it, most people have pressing spiritual needs. I mean, every cretin prays. Using the old dreidel, I knocked out a couple of plaintive invocations on my laptop and the ginch I was bouncing at the time got the lightbulb to auction them off on eBay. Pretty soon the demand got so great I had to put on a staff. We got prayers for health, for love problems, for that raise you want, the new Maserati, maybe a little rain if you’re a rube—and of course the ponies, the point spread, and our hottest item: ‘O Heavenly Father, Lord God of hosts, let me abide in the kingdom of glory forever and, just once, hit the lottery—oh, and Lord, the Megaball.’ Like I say, the wording’s gotta be such that should the heavenly request tank, we don’t wind up getting served.”
At this point the door clicked open and a troubled head popped in. “Hey, boss,” the confounded author yelped, “a guy in Akron wants a prayer so his wife should bear him a son. I’m stymied for a fresh approach.”
“Oh, I forgot to tell you,” Bottomfeeder said to me, “I recently added a service where we customize prayers. We fashion the text to the unworthy’s individual needs and mail him some personally tailored begging.” Then, turning to his minion, he barked, “Try ‘May the broad lie down in green pastures and drop foals abundantly.’”
“Brilliant, M.B.,” the writer said. “I knew if I was stuck for a sacred phrase—”
“No, wait,” I interjected suddenly. “Make that ‘May she multiply fruitfully.’”
“Hey,” Bottomfeeder said, “you’re cooking with gas. This kid’s a pheen.” I was basking in my compliment when the phone rang. Bottomfeeder pounced on it.
“Holy Moe Bottomfeeder, the Prayer Jockey, speaking. What? I’m sorry, lady. You have to talk to our complaint department. We do not guarantee the Lord will grant whatever it is you’re on about. He can only give it His best shot. But don’t get discouraged, sweetheart. You still may find your cat. No, we don’t give refunds. Read the tiny letters on your prayer-confirmation contract. Spells out our liability and His. What we will do, though, is send you one of our complimentary blessings, and if you go over to the Lobster Grotto on Queens Boulevard and tell ’em the Lord sent you, you’ll get a gratis cocktail.” Bottomfeeder hung up. “Everybody’s on my case. Last week I got sued because we mailed the wrong envelope to a woman. She wanted a little divine assistance to make her face work turn out swell, and I accidentally sent her a prayer for peace in the Middle East. Meanwhile Sharon pulls out of Gaza and she gets off the operating table looking like Jake LaMotta. So what do you say, chuckles, in or out?”
Integrity is a relative concept, best left to the penetrating minds of Jean-Paul Sartre or Hannah Arendt. The reality is, when winter winds howl and the only affordable dwelling shapes up as a cardboard carton on Second Avenue, principles and lofty ideals have a tendency to vanish in a whirlpool down the bathroom plumbing, and so, postponing plans for aNobel,I gritted my teeth and leased my muse to Moe Bottomfeeder. For the following six months, I must confess, a myriad of those pleas for divine intervention you or yours may have requested or bid for on eBay were knocked out by Mrs. Specter’s onetime prodigy, Hamish. Among my gold-leaf texts were “Dearest Lord—I am only thirty and already balding. Restoreth mine hair and anoint my sparse areas with frankincense and myrrh.” Another Specter classic: “Lord God, King of Israel—I have tried but in vain to shed twenty pounds. Smite my excess avoirdupois and protect me from starches and carbs. Yea, as I walk through the valley, deliver me from cellulite and harmful trans fats.”
Perhaps the top price ever paid at a prayer auction was for my moving plea: “Rejoice, O Israel, for the stock market hath arisen. O Lord, can You do it now for the Nasdaq?”
Yes, the Benjamin Franklins were falling into my account like manna from heaven until one day two swarthy gentlemen, heavily invested in Sicilian cement, dropped up to the office while Bottomfeeder was out. I was at my desk, debating the ethics of a prayer for some new home owners pleading for the castration of their contractor. Before I could ask the visitors how I could help them, I found myself making the same sound a fife makes as the one named Cheech lifted me by the scruff of my neck and dangled me out the window, high above Atlantic Avenue.
“There must be some mistake,” I squealed, scrutinizing the pavement below with more than a vested interest.
“Our sister won a prayer here last week,” he said. “She bid high on eBay for it.”
“Yes—yes,” I gagged. “Mr. Bottomfeeder will be back at six. He handles—”
“Well, we’re here to give you a message. That co-op board better accept her,” Cheech explained.
“We hear you wrote that prayer,” the brother with the ice pick added. “Let’s hear it—and loud.”
Not wanting to deny their request and seem a spoilsport, I trilled the material in question in the manner of Joan Sutherland.
“Blessed art Thou, oh Lord. Grant me in thine infinite wisdom the two-bedroom with the eat-in kitchen on Park and Seventy-second.”
“She paid twelve hundred bucks for that prayer. It better come true,” Cheech said, snapping me back inside and hanging me on the coatrack like a duck in a Chinatown window.