He looks good. I’ll give them that. I lean against the coffin and study the face. You can barely see the small cuts. If you didn’t know they were there, you’d never know. I know. My eyes trace the line of his face. The nose. The lips. It’s a clinical assessment. That’s the only way I can do it. I’ll stand here long enough that everyone in the room will know that I’ve shown my respects. But I can’t … feel anything. Just remorse. I’m more upset that I provided the sword that killed him than I am that he’s dead. What would they think of me if they knew that?
“They did a good job,” someone says beside me.
I glance over. A pretty, thirty-ish woman smiles at me. “Yes,” I say quickly, surprised. Everyone else has kept a respectful distance. “He looks … good.”
“Please forgive me,” she says, laying a hand on my arm and glancing around the room. “I sympathize with what you must be feeling. I lost a dear friend just a few weeks ago.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I say automatically.
“If I may,” she continues, searching into her purse and removing a small piece of paper. A business card. “I represent Newman and Jones, a talent agency, out of Jacksonville. I understand that you’re without representation at the moment. We would be honored to represent an artist of your caliber.”
I … stammer, taken aback. Am I hearing this right? I’m not angry, exactly. Just surprised. Of all the words I expected to hear, what came out of her mouth was unexpected.
“I … um … Miss …”
“Nebraska. Sidney Nebraska,” she says quickly, capturing my hand and shaking it. “I know. I’m kidded about my name all the time. But it’s my real name.” She glances at the coffin, and suddenly seems to recall where she is. “Oh, I’m so sorry. This is so crass of me. I was leaving and didn’t want to miss the chance to speak with you.” She shrinks in on herself and steps back, then, hesitantly, murmurs, “I’m so sorry.”
She looks away and moves to leave, but I catch her arm. She looks back at me, startled, and flinches as if expecting a blow. Verbal or otherwise.
“Miss Nebraska,” I say softly, “it’s quite alright. I was just surprised.” She warms a bit and regains a bit of her composure. “I’ll keep your card and consider your agency when the time is right to choose new representation. I’ll be in touch.”
She beams at the unexpected reception. “Thank you, Mister … um … Reuben …”
“Reuben,” she agrees. She glances nervously at the coffin. “Again … my apologies.”
She smiles and slips away from me.
I can’t resist stopping her. “Miss Nebraska?” She turns expectantly. “You said you were just leaving. Were you a friend of Chester’s?”
“Um,” she stammers. “No. Not exactly.”
“Oh. A lover?”
“No!” she flushes. “I just … I dropped by.”
I nod. “Oh. I see.” I smile warmly. “Business, then?” She blushes even deeper and nods. I chuckle. “Thank you for coming by, Miss Nebraska. Have a good day.”
She nods and quickly vacates. I watch her ass, moving dangerously beneath her skirt, as she walks away. Firm and young. She has to work out. I force certain images from my head. I sigh and look down at her business card. I start to toss it, but put in the inside pocket of my coat instead. Business is business. Who knows? I need an agent. Miss Nebraska’s agency might do. Besides, her mortification might be good for dinner. Or more.
The crowd murmurs a bit among themselves. About Sidney Nebraska, no doubt. I smile and return a few sympathetic glances. Then I turn back to my old friend, Chester. He’d he proud of me. Standing beside his coffin at his viewing, and thinking about Sidney Nebraska’s lacy panties. He’d be doing the same thing. Feeling the loss, but acknowledging opportunities. But where I might think such things and never follow through with it, old Chester would have already arranged a dinner date. His marriage be damned. Maybe that’s why I’m still standing here and he’s lying cold in a coffin.
I stare at the face for a long time, trying to stir up some hidden wellspring of emotion. A few years, or even a breakdown, would be perfect right now. Everyone’s watching. They would love some melodrama. The bereaved friend breaking down beside the coffin and all. But all I can do is look at his face and think ‘you stupid fuck.’ You gave up everything. For what? Pussy? There’s no delicate way of putting it. They were all just pussy to him. Not a human being among them. They were all just life support systems keeping the pussy alive, warm and moist. Even his wife, Penelope.
A heavy hand falls upon my shoulder. A large weight. I smile, but don’t look up. I don’t have to.
“You okay, boss?” my bodyguard asks me.
I nod. “Sure, William. I’m fine,” I reply. “Just thinking. What a waste, you know?”
“Yeah, I know,” William says with about as much sympathy as he can muster. He waits respectful moment and says, “Listen, boss. The natives are getting restless. Maybe you should mingle and let some other folks come up here.”
I chuckle. William. Ever tactful. I glance around the room. Not one of the people here could give a fuck about Chester. They’re here because I’m here. Because I want them to be. Not one of Chester’s drinking buddies shower up. He’s no use to them dead. None of his recent conquests came by, either. Why would they? He seduced them and used them. Fucked ‘em and forgot ‘em. None of them will miss him. And family? That’s a joke unto itself. The only family he had disowned him years ago. His wife’s family couldn’t give a fuck about him. Not after the way he treated Penelope, methodically destroying her self-esteem. Shit. I don’t even give a fuck. I’m just here because I was once his friend. Because there was no one else. Someone had to see him buried and make note of where he got planted.
But I nod to William. “You’re right.”
I let him lead me away, and escort me to the various cliques around the room. They’ll all pay their respects, and I’ll thank them for coming, and they can be on their way. I’ll have to make sure to keep the guest-book and note the names. There’ll be a note beside each one in the general tally that I keep in my head. Favors granted. Respects paid. Thanks owed. Points earned.
“He was so young,” Mary Mulligan, my ex-publicist tells me. I agree and don’t mention that he was my age. Just another old fart chasing fresh, young goodies.
“They say he died instantly,” Billy Corbet, a gossip columnist from Denver, tells me. I agree, and don’t mention that I was there, and that he’s wrong. I stop myself from saying “twelve inches of steel blade through the heart has that effect, I’m told.”
“We sympathize with your loss,” says Morgan Jameson, director of my last film, speaking for his wife, himself and, as Morgan is wont to do, the industry as a whole. I thank him, but privately doubt he’ll ever remember Chester’s name. Much less his face. No doubt, however, he’ll make note that he was here for me. As will I.
One after another after another, I make the rounds one last time. No one really knows what to say. So we exchange cliches and catch phrases. Each of the well-meaning souls expresses their condolences in some fashion, and I thank them in ever more creative ways. One person blends into the next. Words are spoken and forgotten. Eventually just through the process of elimination, I wind up standing before Emily Robertson, just recently voted the sexiest woman on Earth.
“How are you holding up?” she asks me with genuine concern.
I shrug. “Pretty good,”I tell her. Then I drop my guard. It’s Emily. I’ve held her naked hips against my own. Hardly a relationship, but deserving of a confidantes respect, at least. “I thought I would hurt more,” I admit. I shrug again. “I don’t know, Emily. Maybe I’m in shock. It just seems to me that this is the only way it could have ended.” I glance at the coffin and then look deep into her emerald eyes (an easy thing to do). “I suppose you reap what you sow. This is just the logical conclusion.”
She steps close to me and caresses my cheek, staring thoughtfully into my eyes. “Life rarely has a logical conclusion, Reuben. This is not a scripted scene. There are no cameras,” she says in typical Emily gooble-de-gook. “Actors often cannot make the distinction, and feel lost and without direction. We spend our lives pretending, and are so unprepared when the real world makes demands upon us.”
I almost giggle. This is the woman who psycho-analyzed anal sex. But I nod. “You’re probably right,” I say. That’s what I’m supposed to say.
Emily smiles. The scene has gone well. “It will hit you,” she says. “Don’t worry that you are not giving due respect. You’ve been very busy and have been burdened by many responsibilities in laying your friend to rest. It is when you are alone that you will grieve for your friend.”
I nod again. “You’re right. Thank you, Emily.”
She steps in very close to me so that I feel her body heat. Her firm breasts brush against my chest. “If you need anything,” she says softly, searching my eyes and repeating, for effect, “anything,” then squeezes my arm, “just call me. I’ve missed you, Reuben.”
I smile and touch her cheek. I lean forward and kiss her softly on the lips, lingering for a moment, before pulling away.
“I will call you,” I tell her.
She smiles and steps back, releasing the moment. She looks quickly around her, as if expecting applause, then turns and leaves without looking back. William and I watch her famous rear end swivel and ambulate toward the exit, where the funeral home director is waiting impatiently for the last of this celebrity-filled crowd to return control of his facilities.
“What a flake,” William says flatly. “Nice ass, though. Seemed … friendly.” Then William has a thought. “Hey, boss,” he says, nodding in the direction of the closing door, “you ever?”
I nod, drifting on nice memories. “Yes, William. I have.”
William smiles approvingly. He nods back toward the coffin. “So. You wanna say goodbye, or should we just go?”
I glance back at Chester. There doesn’t seem to be much of a point. “Let’s just go.”
We walk together to the waiting doors and the static funeral director. As we approach he come to life somewhat, providing me with that extra professional courtesy that is reserved for the person who pays the tab.
“We have made detailed notes of all of your preferences,” he says with professional solemnity, “in regard to the flowers and funeral arrangements … um … such as they are.”
“Thank you,” I tell him.
“Are you sure,” he stammers, “that there is to be no ceremony? It is most irregular.”
“I’m sure,” but feel like I should explain. “He had no room in his life for gods of any sort. I won’t dishonor him by offering him up to any deity now.”
The funeral director nods crisply, disapproving but generally unconcerned. “Very well. We will meet here tomorrow to gather the procession to the gravesite.”
“I imagine I’ll be the procession,” I tell him. “Well. Maybe me and William here.”
“And the girls,” William interjects.
“Very well,” the director says, and then goes inert. His communication skills have been depleted. But he stirs one with an afterthought. “Oh. Sir, I should warn you. The … media … is waiting outside.”
I smile. “I was rather expecting that,” I tell him.
I glance at William and take a deep breath. He opens the door and we step through it together. We’re immediately assaulted by a flurry of activity. Flash bulbs snap. Bodies surge forward. Microphones are thrust into my face. A dozen different voices try to speak to me at the same time. I close my eyes and wish them away, but they remain.
“Reuben! Reuben!” a voice rises above the crowd. A shrill voice belonging to a shapely young woman wearing a too-tight skirt and bearing impressive cleavage.
I point to her. “First question, please.”
She smiles and stares down the others around her. When they settle down, she asks, “Penelope Edwards is being held as the sole suspect in the murder of her husband, Chester. Do you think she murdered your friend?”
The crowd erupts in a flurry of discussion and recrimination. Penelope is innocent until proven guilty. She shouldn’t ask me to comment. Etcetera. But they’re all just annoyed she got first question. Any one of them would have asked the same question.
“I don’t believe Penelope’s guilt or innocence is that issue here,” I state, shouting over the den. “She has confessed to the … act, and was arrested at the scene of the crime while still holding the murder weapon.”
“Do you think she committed the murder?” another asks.
I pause for a moment and go over what I just said. “She has told me that she did.”
“You were at the scene. Did you witness the attack?”
“I arrived just after the attack. I didn’t witness it.”
“Was Chester Edwards alive when you arrived?”
“He was alive. Yes.”
“Were there any last words?”
“No. He was unconscious.”
“Where was Mrs. Edwards when her husband died?”
“Sitting at the kitchen table, where she was sitting when she was arrested.”
“Did she have the sword then?”
“Did you try to take it from her?”
“Did you fear for her safety?”
“No. I feared for mine.”
I try to keep up with the flurry of questions, but they get more and more bizarre. How do you feel about your friend’s murder? Do you think he felt any pain? Do you want revenge? Will you write a book about your experiences? And then one question stops them dead in their tracks. The one question I’m sure they all wanted to ask.
“Is it true that you gave the Edwards the murder weapon?”
I look out over the small crowd of reporters. They are all watching me expectantly. This question is a clincher for all of them.
“Yes,” I say. “I bought Chester Edwards the sword which his wife, Penelope, used to kill him.” Then I add, just in the interest of ass-covering, “That is something that will haunt me to my dying day.”
There’s another flurry of activity, followed by;
“Do you hate Penelope Edwards for what she did?”
I glance at William. I’m getting tired. I don’t want this. I just want to leave. How many more variations of the same questions can I answer?
“I don’t hate Penelope,” I tell them truthfully. “I hate that it came to this. But I can honestly say that my biggest surprise is that it took this long for something to happen.”
“Did you know that this would happen?”
I almost snap. But I hold my tongue. Anger and sarcasm would not play well on television. I give the reporter who asked the question an appropriate look, and start forcing my way through the crowd. I’ve had enough. William assists by displacing people who are in my way. The questions continue, but I ignore them. After some effort, William and I finally make it to the policemen who have been assembled for security. At their line, the reporters and ‘journalists’ are stopped. A couple of them try to follow me, but are discouraged.
William briskly escorts me to the waiting limousine. He reaches for the door, but I stop his hand. I look at the limo, and just … can’t. The long, black limousine suddenly looks all too much like a hearse to me. Or a coffin. I’m just … I can’t … I’m not ready.
“I need to take a walk,” I tell William.
He nods. “Okay. Let’s go.”
I shake my head. “By myself, William.”
He shakes his head. “Are you crazy, boss? With that mob around?”
“Yes,” I tell him. “The cops will keep them in check for a few minutes. That’s all I need.”
William looks at me for a long time, but offers up the only comprimise he can. “Okay, look. You walk. We’ll follow in the limo. Okay?”
“No ‘William’ this time. It’s the only way I’ll let you.” He rests his heavy hand on my shoulder. “You haven’t written me into your will just yet. I have to keep you healthy for a while longer.”
I laugh. “Okay, okay.” I smile. I needed that. “Look, I just want to see the place through my own eyes before we go. And think a bit. I won’t go far.”
“We’ll stay out of your way.”
I nod. “Thanks.”
I walk away from him and down the sidewalk. It’s a warm spring day. A soft breeze drifts through the trees and makes them sigh. It only takes a few steps before I’m a kid again, and this is home. My hometown. But it doesn’t last. I’m not a kid. I’m wearing a $5,000 Armani suit and shoes that were tailor made for my feet. And while the sigh of the wind helps twenty years fall away, I can’t escape today. The drone of the limo behind me won’t let me escape the present.
But I look around me at downtown, such as it is. Some things never change. I take comfort in that. Sure, there are new businesses. Fast food franchises. New churches. Beer joints! Christ. Just then years ago ths place was dry. Now are honest to God bars, right in the middle of town. But even with the changes, the place is still the same. There’s a comfort in that. The town is growing and changing. But at nowhere near the break-neck pace of the rest of the world.
I stop. I don’t know why. I look at the building in front of me. Igor’s Grill & Bar. It was something else once upon a time. A pool hall. A coffee shop. A church. Well, there’s always a church. I used to think that in this town it was a local ordinance that when a business closed, the building had to serve as a church for some arbitrary period of time before another business could take it’s place. This one had been all of the above. But mostly I remember it as the pool hall. We used to hang out here.
Whatever it is now, I have to go inside. I could use a drink, besides. I glance back at the limo, which has stopped a respectful distance down the street. I step inside Igor’s Grill & Bar, not knowing whether I’m visiting the grill or the bar. All activity stops inside. But just for a moment. I nod and smile at various patrons who stare at me, and they look away. Me and my Armani suit aren’t the usual clientele, but I’ve challenged the stares, so I’m given a pass.
“Afternoon,” someone says to me. I look toward the voice. It belongs to a pretty waitress, who smiles at me while she wipes the counter. “Can I get you a drink? Something to eat?”
My stomach twists. I realize I’m famished. So I take a seat at the bar, which seems to please the waitress.
“You hungry?” she asks me.
“As a matter of fact,” I say, “I am.”
“Special is cubed steak with gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans and cornbread,” she quips reflexively. “Can make about any sandwich you want, too.”
I smile. “That’s some special for a bar,” I tell her.
She shrugs. “We’re mostly a restaurant,” she says conversationally. Then, loud enough so that certain patrons can hear, “But there’re just too many drunks in this town to pass up the easy money.”
“Here, here,” someone says.
“The special sounds good,” I tell her.
“Coming right up,” she says, and writes up a ticket. Then she looks at me for a moment. “Say … aren’t you that actor fella? Reuben … um … Sinclair, is it?”
“Reuben,” I tell her. “Just Reuben. And yes, that’s me.”
She throws her hand across the counter. “Pleasure to meet you, kind sir,” she bubbles. “Don’t get too many bonafide somebodies in here.” Then she blanches. “Oh, wait. You’re in town to bury that fella, ain’t ya?”
“Yes, ma’am. I am”
“Oh. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean …”
I smile. I give her the money smile. The one my career is based upon. “It’s okay. Really.”
“Well,” she says quickly, “all the same I’ll take my foot out of my mouth and get your food. Don’t go away.”
“I’ll be right here.”
I’m still smiling. I watch her turn and amble off. Despite myself, I watch her rear. Whether she intends to or not, she gives it plenty of motion. I start to relax. Okay. This is probably a mistake. But the cubed steak sounds good. Couldn’t find that in L.A. Not that I ever looked. Might be funny to see if there was a chef in Los Angeles County that would know what to do with cubed steak. They’d serve it up with a light hollandaise sauce and sprig of parsley. The health gurus would have heart attacks if someone tried to drown it in a nice, thick gravy. I’m sure I’m in a good place to have cubed steak served right.
“I can’t believe,” a voice says from behind me, “that you still eat that shit.”
I turn around. From one of the booths, a slight, frail man with piercing eyes is watching me. I smile and turn on the Hollywood smile.
“Excuse me?” I say to him, warmly and with humor.
“You always did like that artery-clogging crap,” he says flatly, and takes a sip of what looks like tea.
“Do I know you?” I ask him, beginning to take affront.
“You used to. ‘Once upon a time,’ as you used to say. Way back before you started wearing those suits.”
I slip from the barstool and approach the table. As I near, the face seems no more familiar. Eyes sunk deep in their sockets. An emaciated man. Sharp cheek bones. Skeletal teeth. Frail hands that look like thin gauze has been stretched over bone. I have no idea who this person might be. Then he smiles.
“Oh, my God,” I hear myself say. “Brian?”
He nods and chuckles. “Man, you’re getting slow. Hollywood’s rotted your brain.”
I slip into the seat across from him and stare at him from across the table. He shifts uncomfortable under my gaze.
“Sorry, man. I didn’t recognize you,” I tell him. “You look …”
“Like shit. I know.”
“No. No. I was going to say you look different. That’s all.”
He laughs. It’s a weak, sickly sound. Like laughter filtered through broken bellows.
“Rented one of your movies the other night,” he says. “The one with Emily Whatsername, where you’re the secret agent. Good death scene.” He laughs again. “Reminded me of the time you were drunk and fell down those steps. We all thought you were dead. You remember that?”
I smile. “I was hiding bruises from Mama for weeks.”
“Chester got into trouble for pretending to be someone else, calling your house to check on his friend. And your mom knew who he was the entire time?”
“You got your acting ability from lying to your mom, you know.”
“You’re probably right,” I admit. “You been thinking on this?”
“A bit,” he says. “Now look at you. All respectable and shit. Everybody thinks you’re the last great American. That you really go out and hunt down terrorists and shit.” He laughs hard, then is overtaken by a bout of coughing.
“Well,” I respond, smiling, “you know how it is. The cameras don’t lie.”
“I wonder,” he continues, “if they’d feel the same way if the knew you once fucked sisters, and they left you tied to the bed in that hotel room, with that raging Viagra erection.”
“Oh shit,” I almost spit. I’d forgotten about that. Or tried to. “You don’t have the pictures …”
“I most certainly do,” he laughs. “But don’t worry. They’re safe with me. I just think it’s funny, what with you being Mister All-American do-gooder and all that now.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“Yes, it was. And now you’re trying to save the whales. Or is it dolphins?”
“And that neuter or spay your pet campaign with the puppies and kittens. The chicks eat that shit up, man. I’m telling you.”
I nod and shift uncomfortably. I look at Brian, and he looks at me. I have no idea what to say to him. We were friends once. Close friends. Me and him and Chester. We were like the Three Musketeers. Hell, I made a career out of being a Musketeer. Or pretending to be. I used to boast that if I ever made it that we’d all have it made. I left promising to come back and get everybody. And then I made it. God, did I ever.
But I never came back. I was too busy playing movie star and getting awards, riding around in limousines and trying to change the world by admonishing senators and presidents, pushing to ban fur, and save dolphins, and clean air, and stop pollution. Somehow I never made it back. I never called for the other two Musketeers. Somehow they became ill-bred, and reminded me of a past and a country upbringing that didn’t mesh very well with my new life and plumping the depths of starlets’ underwear and bring the man of the hour at various nightclubs in L.A. Country boys didn’t get invited to The White House. Movie stars did. Especially those who were willing to drape themselves in the American flag and fight Uncle Sam’s battles onscreen. I became beloved and respectable, and I never wanted to go back to being a country boy with a twang. Somewhere along the lines I became someone else, and I didn’t need my old friends anymore. I was ashamed of them.
Something in Brian’s face tells me he knows all of this.
“Excuse me,” says the waitress, clearing her throat and sitting a place of food on the table in front of me. There’s enough food for several people. “Hope that’s enough,” she says with a wry smile. “We figured you might not have had a good country meal in a while.”
“Wow,” I say at the amount of food. I smile warmly at her. “Well, you’re certainly right, ma’am. I was just thinking that I’d never been in a restaurant in Los Angeles that smelled as heavenly as this one. Thank you …”
“Sharon. Call me Sharon.”
“How come,” Brian asks, “you never bring me plates like that?”
“Because,” Sharon says, cocking her hip and resting her hand upon it, “you ain’t no movie star. Besides, you don’t eat real food anyway. If you did you might not be in such bad health.”
Brian grins and explains to me, “Sharon is of the opinion that being a vegetarian is a good way to kill yourself.”
“And so it is,” she says. “It ain’t natural to live off of sprigs and bean sprouts.” She grins, winking at me. “Right, Mister … Reuben.”
“You’re absolutely right,” I tell her. It goes over well.
She squeezes my arm. “Well, I’ll leave you to your meal and your company. Enjoy.”
“I’m certain I will. Thank you.”
As she walks away, Brian chuckles. “Still have that touch,” he says.
“Oh? What do you mean?”
“Shit. Look at her working that ass. She doesn’t work it for anyone else like that.”
I chuckle. “That’s for the movie star, man. Not for me.”
I notice Sharon keeping an eye on me. So I take a bite of the cube steak. I nod my approval. It’s not much of an act. Very good. I look up at Brian, who’s watching me eat with a bemused expression on his face. “You want some?” I ask. “There’s sure plenty.”
“Nah, he replies, sitting back and relaxing. “My stomach can’t handle that shit. Mostly vegetables for me. All I can keep down.”
I nod. I’m itching to ask. But I don’t. I don’t have to.
“AIDS,” Brian tells me.
I look up. “Pardon?”
“I have AIDS,” he says. “You had to be wondering.”
I nod again. “Yeah. Well … yeah.” I continue eating, but watch him. The next move seems to be mine. So I say, “Any idea? How you got it, I mean? Or, I mean, from who?”
He laughs. “Jesus, Rube. You name it. Needles. Strippers. Male prostitution.” He shrugs. “I had a grand old time there for a while. Vices, man. Just vices. Could have gotten it from any one of them.” He laughs again, but is brought up short with another bought of coughing. “Shit,” he says when he recovers, “our friend Chester had nothing on me.”
“So,” I try to make conversation, “ya’ll stayed friends?” and I wince. I haven’t used the word “ya’ll” in ten years.
“Shit. Are you kidding me? We hate each other. He fucked my girlfriend. I retaliated by fucking his. All downhill from there. And when I got AIDS I was just another faggot to Chester.” He stops and looks sharply at me. “I was never a faggot. I was strung on every drug there was. Some guy offers you a hundred dollars to take it up the ass, if you’re high enough it sounds like a good deal. Besides, it’s only kinky the first time, right? Even feels good after you get used to it. Who gives a fuck, you know?” He shrugs and takes a deep breath, releases it in a long sigh. “Chester and me were both self-indulgent assholes. We both hurt a lot of people. Earned out fates.” Then he smiles. “I’ve always been proud of you, Rube. You pulled yourself up by your bootstraps and left all this shit behind. You never let yourself sink as low as we did.”
“Yeah. Well …”
“Really. Oh, hell. I’m sure you fucked the odd actress here and there, but you kept your nose clean and your personal shit private. You stayed focused. I admire that.”
I shift uncomfortably and stab at my food. It’s really very good, but I just don’t want it anymore. Every time my thoughts settle down and I relax, Brian stirs things up again. It’s one thing to have praise heaped upon you by strangers. That’s just good public relations. That’s business. But if anyone has a right to tell it like it is, it’s Brian. But even he seems to think I walk on the water. I don’t know why it upsets me. But it does.
I look up at Brian. I shrug, and struggle for something to say. A shadow crosses his face.
“Oh,” he says. “Hey. Listen. I don’t want anything from you. If you think I’m just buttering you up …” He reaches across the table and rests his hand on my arm. “I came in here hoping you might drop in. For old time’s sake. Didn’t really expect you to. But I thought maybe … well, I didn’t figure I’d get to see you any other way.”
“I don’t know where you live …”
“That’s what I mean. Hey. I don’t want anything from you, man.”
“That didn’t cross my mind,” I say quickly, and it hasn’t. “I’m just all in a jumble right now. Everywhere I got there’s a camera in my face, or someone wanting to shake my hand. Sometimes I don’t know where the movie set ends and the real world begins. L.A. doesn’t help. The entire city seems like a movie set sometimes.” I eat a little more. Sharon is watching me. Wouldn’t want to offend. “I’m always on camera, you know? I mean, it’s all a part of the job, but I … don’t know, man. Chester is lying up there in that coffin and no one cares. Not even me, really. I forced a lot of people to come out and pay their respects. But they didn’t give a shit about Chester. They paid their respects to me. And I liked it. I got plenty of mileage out of it.” I stop eating and look at him for a long moment. “I just … I don’t know what I’m supposed to make of all this. What I’m supposed to be here.” I drop my fork and sit back.
“It’s a good thing you did,” Brian tells me earnestly. “No one would have thought less of you if you hadn’t come back. He fucked your fiancée, for God’s sake. And you came back and buried the bastard.”
An uneasy silence falls between us. Lost thoughts was over both of us. He’s right. I did come back. What a noble guy I am. What an upright individual. I came not to praise Ceasar, but to bury him. My greatest enemy. The man who took away the only thing that ever really mattered to me. The one guy who gave me a reason to leave this little shithouse of a town, because I had nothing left here. Because I couldn’t stand walking down the streets, with knowing eyes following me, and busybody housewives gossiping about that poor man. His fiancée ran off with his best man on the night of their wedding shower. Isn’t that just tragic?
Shit. I didn’t come back to pay my respects because we were once friends. I came back to show everyone that I was the better man. Everyone expected me to be. I did not disappoint my audience. If anything, I enhanced my sterling reputation as one of the last true gentlemen in Hollywood. I did so by standing beside a coffin and feeling nothing. I did it by shaking a few well-chosen hands. Tomorrow and the next and the next I will refuse to make a statement. I’ll never tell the public what a use my friend Chester became. I won’t have to. Plenty of other people will be itching to step in front of the camera and tell all about Chester’s sordid past, and how he didn’t deserve the respect I had shown him. They’ll tell all about his five children with five different mothers. His arrests for having sex with fourteen and fifteen year old girls. The long line of prostitutes and strippers who would tell increasingly bizarre stories about his sexual appetites.
And all along old Reuben would remain silent. He’d have nothing to say about his old friend, faithful even after death, in spite of the betrayals. Shit. That’s the only reason I’m here. I’m supposed to be. It’s my job. My role.
“Listen,” Brian says. “I do have one favor to ask.” I nod. There’s always a favor. “I know we haven’t been friendly in a long time. But I still think of you as my friend. And look, I’ve been waiting a long time to apologize for that money. I was there, and I was strung out, and I just … well …”
“That was a long time ago, Brian.”
“I know. But still. I’m sorry.” He sighs. “I know you’ve forgiven me. That’s the way you are. But you’ll never forget it. Right?”
I nod again. No. I never forgot. It was just another in a long line of betrayals.
“What’s your favor?” I ask him.
He stammers. Taken aback, I guess. I didn’t used to be so blunt.
“Look,” he says hesitantly, “it’s obvious I’m not going to beat this. The AIDS.” He lays his hands on the table and stares at his skeletal fingers. “When I’m gone … dead, I mean,” he looks up and locks eyes with me, will you do for me what you’re doing for Chester?”
I not immediately, and automatically say, “Yes. I will.”
“I mean … Ma is gone. There’s just nobody …”
“You don’t have to qualify it,” I tell him. “We may not be on the best of terms these days, but we were friends once. I haven’t forgotten that.”
He smiles and visibly relaxes. He seems to cave in upon himself, as if he might disintegrate at any moment.
“Are you alright?” I ask him.
“Yeah,” he replies. “Just tired. That’s a big weight off of my shoulders.” Then he smiles. “Believe it or not, I don’t get out much.”
I imagine. I look at his sunken cheeks and bone-thin arms. Somehow I had managed to superimpose the old Brian on top of this one. I hadn’t seen him as he truly is. But now, with his energy slipping away from him …
“How long do you have, Brian?”
He shrugs. “A few weeks. A few months. Who knows?”
I nod. We stare at one another.
“Don’t worry about a thing,” I tell him. “I’ll take care of it.”
Yeah. I’ll be here. Me and the cameras. And the journalists. I’ll put on a good show for you. Everyone will think it’s great.
He smiles. The skeleton smiles. “Thanks,” he says.
And then we stare at one another.
Thankfully, the front door opens. It’s a much needed, and much appreciated, distraction. I turn to look. Everyone in the place turns to look. It’s William, blocking out much of the sunlight that tries to squeeze by him into the room. He spots me at the table and comes over.
“Excuse me for interrupting, boss,” he says, “but the cops are thinning out. There’s just one patrol car sitting up the street now. When he’s gone …”
I nod. I know. I say to Brian, “Paparazzi.” No, thanks. I’ve paid my dues for today. “I have to go,” I tell Brian.”
“I know,” he says, and smiles. “Take care of yourself. It was good to see you.”
“It was good to see you, too,” I say automatically. I slip from the booth and stand up beside William. “This is my old friend, Brian,” I tell William, and then tell Brian, “this is my bodyguard, William. He’s a good old fella.”
William acknowledges Brian. “Pleased,” he says, and extends his hand, but thinks better of it when Brian’s bony fingers snake toward him. He drops his hand beside him.
Brian smiles serenely, apparently accustomed to it. I pat William on the shoulder. He’s not afraid of the AIDS, I don’t think. He’s probably afraid he’ll catch the gay virus and develop a taste for sausages. I reach into my jacket pocket and fish around for the right business card. I find one of my own and hand it to Brian.
“Here,” I say. “Stay in touch, huh?”
Brian nods gratefully. “I will.”
We start to leave, but I divert to the counter where Sharon is standing with a big smile upon her face. She shifts from one foot to the other as I approach.
“Ma’am,” I address her, “the food was wonderful. I’m just not that hungry. It’s been a stressful day.”
She beams. “Well, thank you so much.”
I reach into my jacket for my wallet. “How much do I owe you?”
“Oh,” she says quickly. “No charge. It’s on the house.”
“That’s quite alright,” I tell her, “I’m more than happy …”
“I wouldn’t hear of it,” she says flatly. She gives me a mock glare to get across her resolve.
“Okay,” I say, smiling. “Thank you. You have a good day now.” I turn and let William lead me toward the door.
“Mister … Reuben,” she calls from behind me.
I turn and smile. “Just Reuben.”
“Yes. Reuben,” she says, slipping from behind the counter. “Could I … I mean. Would you … I mean, God. This is so embarassing.”
“Anything,” I tell her.
She grins. “Could I kiss you?” At that some of the clientele laugh and a few comments are made. Sharon stares them all down. “Shut up. I’ve never kissed a movie star before.”
I smile warmly and put on my best PR face. “Of course, darlin’,” I tell her. “Far be it from me to turn down a kiss from a pretty lady.”
She blushes, but wastes no time. She steps up close to me, rest her hand on my arm, and presses her lips stiffly against mine. It’s a stiff, awkward kiss. All that she’ll dare. But she lingers. So I touch caress her cheek and kiss her lips softly. She melts. She returns the soft, warm moment, and the awkwardness falls away. We kiss for a long moment, and it’s genuine. She’s a very good kisser. She finishes by running the tip of her tongue across my lips, just enough to make them part. I respond by softly squeezing her bottom lip between mine.
She sighs and opens her eyes. She fixes me with a stare and look deep into my eyes. The meaning is clear. If I wanted her right there on a table, she would be mine.
“You take care of yourself,” I tell her.
“I will,” she says softly, and reluctantly releases me.
I glance at Brian, smile and nod. Then William takes me by the arm and leads me out. Behind me there is much laughter, and clientele asking to be next in line. As the door closes behind me, I hear Sharon say something. Brian is laughing.
“He’s something, all right,” Brian says.
I blink in the bright sunlight. I look up and down the street. There are gawkers. Of course. People know I’m here. The limo parked on the side of the street hardly helps the low profile bit. Much less the police cruiser sitting farther up the street. The cruiser keeps everyone at a respectful distance. I smile and wave at some of them. But my heart’s not in it. I’ve waved at too many people today. Shook too many hands. Exchanged too many pointless pleasantries.
“We don’t belong here,” I tell William.
“Speak for yourself,” he says with a smile, missing my meaning. “Looks like a good place to retire to me.”
I return his smile. He opens the limo door. Before I get in I take one last, long look around. At the old buildings along Main Street. The shops. The trees swaying in the strong breezes that always zip around this time of year. Sometimes I wish I could come back. But this is not for me. Somehow betrayal changes everything. As I look up and down the street at the watching people, it’s clear how far from them I’ve come. I left a broken, bitter man, and I returned a respected, award-winning actor in a big, black limousine. I came back as somebody else.
“Hey. Go away,” William tells someone.
I look around, and then follow his gaze down to the sidewalk. A small dog is standing there, regarding us with no particular interest, but wagging its tail just in case. I squat beside it and let it smell my hand, then scratch it gently behind the ears. We’re instant friends.
“Boss,” says William. “We need to go.”
I nod, and smile at the dog, who is staring lovingly into my eyes. “You take care, little brother,” I tell it, and stand up. I look around another last time. Some of the onlookers are smiling. Of course, they would be. I’m the animal lover. Champion of the downtrodden. Defender of the weak or meek. Hunter of terrorists, and all around swell guy. I bury the dead.
I’m done here. Full effect has been achieved. And as effortlessly as ever. Tomorrow I’ll bury Chester, but I won’t be downtown again. In Los Angeles the admiring throngs are like my subjects and friends. But here their gaze makes me feel dirty. Fake. Here I’m not the Adonis prophet. Here I’m just a local boy who made good. A man with great aches and regrets. Their admiration makes me feel even more fake and empty, because here I can’t fool myself. I can’t forget who and what I once was. I can’t pretend.
I nod, and step into the limousine. William shuts the door behind me. It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust. And then I smile. The girls are arranged on the far bench seat, having long since been left to stew in their boredom. The high slits on their identical dresses leave most of their legs bare. Their augmented cleavage glows somewhat in the soft lighting, as if God is saying “Look what I have made.” Only God didn’t make those. Together the girls lie there like an inviting buffet, having long since mastered the art of being desirable.
They watch me with amused irritation.
“We were beginning to think you’d forgotten us,” Bambi says softly, with a hint of a pout.
“I’m sorry,” I say honestly. “It’s been a rough day.”
Contessa sits up and leans forward. Her cleavage becomes even more pronounced, and I can see just a hint of her panties. Contessa is better at tease than Bambi. “We know you’ve been down,” she says, watching me. “We’ve decided that we’re going to make you feel better.”
“Oh?” I say. “How are you going to do that?”
Bambi chuckles mischievously. We all do. It’s our game. I always play innocent small town boy, and they always play seductresses. It’s what they’re good at. It’s what they’re paid for.
“We’ve decided,” Contessa continues, “that tonight is yours. We’ll do anything you want us to do.”
I nod. “Anything?”
“Anything,” they say together.
I smile. That’s quite an offer. A challenge, really. Considering what we’ve done in the past, we’ve already done most everything. This means that they’re expecting more of me. Newer, more creative ways of redefining sexuality and perversion.
The limo pulls away from the curb. Through the tinted windows I watch the townsfolk who are staring at their departing hero’s limo. Some wave at the car. I instinctively start to wave back. But they can’t see me. Probably a good thing, too. Contessa slips onto her knees and makes her way over to me.
A kid on the sidewalk waves frantically at us. He’s wearing a miniature version of the bomber jacket I wore in my last movie, where I recovered the stolen U.S. Submarine and thwarted the terrorist plans to destroy Los Angeles.
“Toot the horn, William,” I say. He does so, and the kid jumps up and down, excited to be acknowledged. Contessa rests her hands on either side of my hips. Her breasts brush against my crotch.
An old lady watches from the awning of a store. She doesn’t wave, but smiles approvingly. She wears a large American flag pin on her blouse. I wonder if it’s for the occasion.
“You know,” says Contessa, “we could invite over some friends. Spice it up …”
“… if the two of us aren’t enough,” finishes Bambi, “or if you just want to watch.”
“Put on a nice show for you.”
“You could just relax.”
Contessa smiles and brushes her finger across my crotch. “I’m sure we can make you forget. For a while.”
I grin. “I’m sure you can, too.”
Outside a young woman watches impassively. She’s not overly impressed by the limo. Or by the promise of celebrity inside. We’re just a notable exception in an otherwise ordinary day. She wears light makeup. Pretty, but not beautiful. Shapely, but a bit chubby by L.A. standards. Just a normal, attractive girl, who will probably marry and have kids. She’ll work the same job for decades, and she and her husband will build a life together, day by day, and brick by brick. She watches knowing that black limousines will never figure prominently into her life.
She reminds me of Penelope. Penelope as she was when I met her. Young and warm and soft. A real, natural woman. Not at all like the young lionesses at my feet.
God, Penelope. What have we become?
Contessa begins loosening my zipper with her teeth. Bambi giggles and reaches beneath Contessa’s dress, pulling on her panties.
Ah, Penelope. Why did you do it? Why did you leave me? Why on the night of our wedding shower, of all nights? And with Chester, of all people?
I turn and watch the young woman through the back window. Contessa adjusts and climbs up onto the seat beside me. The woman has already forgotten about the limo and the star inside. She has a nice figure. A big ass by L.A. standards. Not lean and muscled and toned by years of exercise. Natural. Soft. Warm. I can almost feel what it would be like to snuggle up against her on a cold night and slip my arm around her waist. I swell in my pants, to Contessa’s delight.
But the woman is not Penelope. And I’m not who I once was. As Contessa frees me and takes me into her mouth, I know that things would go differently now. Snuggling up against that young woman would just mean that my penis would be swelling between her butt cheeks. Now it would only mean that I wanted to be inside her ass. Probably an alien concept to her.
Penelope would never do for me what my young lionesses have done, and will do. And though she served Chester’s every fantasy, I’m sure, she was a different girl with him than when she was with me. She never lost part of that. Couldn’t have, or she wouldn’t have run him through with the sword that I gave him once upon a time.
The limo breaks clear of the downtown area and is immediately heading onto rural backroads. The police cruiser follows us to the city limits, where they turn on their rollers, bump their siren, and break away. The limo driver blows the horn in thanks. The cops linger for a moment, watching us pull away from them. No doubt they’re proud, having escorted the American Hero on his way out of town. And they turn back.
Contessa groans. Bambi has found something underneath her dress and is working on it. My thoughts turn away from the cops and town. I get even harder in Contessa’s mouth.
Oh, Penelope. How times have changed. How would you feel about me if you knew who I am now? I was never the white knight who rode in and set everything aright. I was a fixer, sure, and was there for you when you needed me. In spite of what you did to me. In spite of shattered heart. In spite of the fact that you became my best friend’s whore. I was there.
I watch Contessa. Bambi watches me. From the divider and the front seat, William watches Bambi working over Contessa. He’s smiling. He likes to watch.
For a moment I think of Chester, lying cold in his coffin. I’ll come back tomorrow and put him in the ground. But tonight does not belong to him. Although, I’m sure, he would be proud of me. Who knows? We might call in the extra help, after all. In honor of Chester the Molester. Spend the night in a sweaty, sticky tangle of bodies. Chester would have loved that.
Brian would be proud, too. Everybody gets paid. It’s all business. Nothing personal. Just a way to pass the days, looking for an ever greater way to reach that shuddering, breathless climax.
I smile to myself. In the end, I’ve kept my secrets. No one suspects. One is down. Another is faltering. But on of the Three Musketeers still rides. And I can’t help but laugh. America loves me. I’m their pin-up boy. Their hero. The squeeky-clean saint who saves kittens and puppies, who funds childrens’ research hospitals and dines with presidents. They’ll be shocked when word of Chester’s transgressions become public. And they’ll be shocked when Brian dies of AIDS. And their ever-suffering hero will stand tall and bear the weight of their burdens, suffering in silence and never faltering.
And they’ll never know.
We were nearly the same. The Three Musketeers. I was just better at hiding it.
I look at William. He laughs. I tangle my fingers in Contessa’s hair. I hold the back of her head. I close my eyes and climb that ladder toward release.
Somehow I know that Chester is watching.