Wednesday, November 23, 2005
The Sidewalk Smokers Club - Chapters 54, 55, and 56
Jordan drove over to Randall’s part of town so that they might get together for a smoke. The latter answered the door looking a little worse for wear. “Jeezus,” Jordan exclaimed, “you look like hell.”
In fact, Randall had been holed up for long enough with his smoke so that he actually looked a bit gray. The plan was beginning to work. He had a wheeze to his breathing and a rasp to his voice, not to mention other symptoms of chronic tobacco addiction. “Do you know how bad your breath smells man?” Jordan asked him.
“Nah!” Randall said, mashing a butt into an ashtray that spewed its own special brand of gray confetti. He moved in gray, his actions and gestures fragile, less dynamic this day than they were during The Smokers’ last meeting.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said, “but when I’m on my own I feel the weight of this whole thing more. Who would think a few insolent people could end up in such a trial by fire?”
Jordan was bursting to tell Randall all about what real pressure was, about when the cops are following you around as a suspect for murder you were actually guilty of. “Got any pot?” he asked instead.
“Sure,” Randall said, pulling a preciously carved box out from a book slot in one of the many shelves that lined his otherwise featureless lodging. It was another gesture weighted with fatigue. Jordan noticed it.
“Hey Randall, listen, if this isn’t going to be irreverent fun why are you doing it?”
“There’s nothing fun about having the fate of people depending upon the correctness of your decisions,” he explained.
“Aw c’mon,” Jordan chortled, “who’s relying upon your wisdom for survival? Heck we’ll let your wisdom ruin us, but don’t blow yourself up. Whose life depends on you anyway?”
“Yvonne. She came to me for an idea and I got her into this lawsuit. Now her business is tanked and every day she’s subjected to some insult or other.”
Jordan pointed out that Yvonne had displayed the family jewels in a mass circulated publication and that her business and reputation were probably due for a thrashing, Randall’s “decisions” notwithstanding.
“Still, it sucks to watch her wearing down.”
Jordan was familiar with the impulse to encircle the woman in question around the shoulders, take her in, change her life, protect her.
“You gambled. You had to. You might even win the suit,” Jordan added a simple kernel to the philosophical archive. Randall shook his head ruefully.
“We were never going to win something like that,” he pointed out. “The enemy is too big.”
This came as something of a surprise to Jordan who thought the courts weighed issues on their merit, and saw no difference in the subjects who came before them for redress and adjustment.
“So why’d we get into it?”
“To make them sweat with a little bad publicity and get her a settlement. The woman wanted some satisfaction. She thought the pictures had faded into the past; even thought that she’d been lucky to get paid, but never published, as it were. And she sauntered in here with her famous ass and big Chiclets teeth and convinced me I was the one who could help her. Lemme tell you man, a woman like that comes into your lonely smelly place, reeking of lavenders and jasmines and scents you’ve only read about in old books and you’re going to believe just about anything she tells you about yourself.”
Of course, that is nothing at all like a correct account of the deal made between Randall and Yvonne, during which he was quite coy and cautious, mindful only of the tactical possibilities to pulling the thing off. But he needed this seduction in the difficult moment, and only he knows why.
“Sucker for a pretty face, huh?” said Jordan.
“Anybody ever mention how you have an uncanny knack for distilling things to light water?”
“Not exactly in those words.”
The two of them sat glumly for a few moments, the problems of one considerably more severe than those of the other.
“So,” Jordan broke the silence, “what you’re saying is that we’re not going to be able to get a settlement.”
“Well, I’m sure Yvonne will be alright. She’s hot and she’s hip and the desire of half the men in this city.”
“Maybe, maybe not. Then there’s Joya to worry about.” Randall explained Joya’s recent run-ins with the BID and the city’s prospective plan for outlawing sidewalk smoking altogether.
“Can they do that?”
“Sure, I guess.”
“I guess? I guess is a pretty chicken-shit answer.”
“Which am I, the chicken or the shit?”
“Take your pick. You need to suck it up and help these girls get through this
“Could you say just one original thing?” he broke into a rupturing cough (or it
broke into him) that startled J. “I’m beginning to feel sick.”
Jordan tried to hide his concern. “Corey said the doctor told you it would take years before this stuff caught up with you.”
“The doctor was wrong.”
“I guess that’s possible,” Jordan mentally backtracked through his own recent experiences with the medical profession.
Hoping to direct the conversation away from his frailties, Randall said that the lawyer he’d been flirting with – Geffner – wouldn’t budge off his asking price.
“Even with all the positive vibe and good press and hip activity around The Sidewalk Smokers Club?” asked J.
“Tried that on him. He said hip is its own death sentence. No sooner is it declared than it begins the downslide. That, he told me, is why he wears the suits he wears and these suits you would not believe,” said Randall, who was a natural dandy with little use for fashion and frivolities.
“What about another lawyer?” Jordan struggled to be the positive force. “One that’s a little cheaper and more idealistic?”
Randall explained how DeConcini hailed from that formula. “Their idealism aside, these people need to eat, too. Nope. Geffner’s price is the price you pay for guys who have lunch with judges at the Downtown Athletic Club and meet opposing attorneys on the golden links. Geffner’s the guy, but everyone except Clarisse is busted flat and we can’t afford him.”
“Clarisse won’t help with some of what Vindaloo Baxley’s been showering her with?”
When you make money, people know it and offer no shortage of good uses to which it might be put.
“Not yet,” Randall noted, “but I do have an option, it’s just not a very appealing one.”
“And?” Jordan pried.
“I’d rather not say,” Randall clammed up.
“Aren’t we doing things open and democratically?” J. insisted.
“Sometimes, but enough about this crap,” Randall said. “How are you doing?”
“Working on a new gal.”
Randall’s eyes lit up. Jordan figured him for a man who actually took joy at the good fortune of his friends, because it was his, too. He tied their disparate destinies together. “Really,” he said. “Tell me about her.”
Jordan did and for the remainder of this stay it seemed that Randall’s health improved a bit. Departing, he gave the guy a guy’s punch in the arm. “C’mon,” he prodded, “give me a little a that ol’ time bum philosophy for the road.”
Randall shrugged, “You know what you know, but you don’t know what you don’t know.”
“So lemme get dis right,” Clarisse stared at her husband in disbelief. “You want me to help pay for de case of de girl who maked you lose interest in me?”
Although Corey didn’t agree with every shading of Clarisse’s in that statement, he was forced to admit the larger point. “Yeah, that’s right.”
She wasn’t as angry as her interpretation of things made her sound. Clarisse was a good person and she had many conflicting feelings about the split. She wouldn’t have minded helping, but it wasn’t that simple with her. “Dat ees a lot of monee,” she stated the obvious.
Corey was a little desperate and so he said things that a more balanced and sensitive being might not have, such as: “C’mon! Vindaloo Baxley and that film crowd have been buffing you out for weeks now.”
“Well, dat ees why you are here, no?”
He nodded his sullen way right back to square one. She collected the victory without further plunder. There was a long pause for them to think. “Eet’s a lot. I am sure dis won’t go on forever. Maybe a year, two eef I get reelly lucky. So de monee I am getteeng I want to put away or buy a house; something for de footure.”
It was, he realized then, a future he no longer figured into, and that hurt. Worse, her reasoning mirrored his where the slim chances of a triumphant bum philosophy were concerned. Her plan was his plan: to get out of town with a stake at some point and never return save for dinner and basketball games. So there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot he could say. They still had much in common, or so it seemed.
“Look,” he lowered his voice in confidence. “We need the money and if you have to beg, a friend’s a good place to start.” (And he stopped a second to scribble this down.)
“So, maybe you sink,” Clarisse responded, awash in clashing hormonal responses, heart full of feeling for her ex.
“See that’s the thing. I haven’t known him too long, but a guy like Randall won’t sink. He smokes himself to death and he doesn’t even die. They make the bohemians that way for survival of the race. There’s less of them, but they’re like bad grass you can’t clear the yard of.”
Clarisse was not encouraged to invest by this characterization of the group’s de facto leader as a weed. She told Corey to get to the point.
“He’s been approached by a force more than willing to pay our bills…the tobacco lobby.”
Saying “tobacco lobby” was like saying cosa nostra; an influence to be vilified and resisted at every turn. Ad campaigns cooked up evil mascots to represent them and paid actors good at sinister sneer to portray their CEOs. Nobody liked the tobacco lobby. Not even smokers who sued to the tune of billions a year for selling them the things they liked to smoke. They had been tricked, they claimed.
The pair looked at each other, years of mutually held beliefs swirling around them. “Ees he going to take it?” she broke the silence.
“Like I said, this guy won’t sink.”
“But de tobacco lobby kills people,” she pointed out lest this had been overlooked.
“The dish soap people glued the top to their bottles so you can’t pour some water in and make a little more. We’re not crucifying them.”
“Dey cleans dishes, not kills peepul. What is da matter, boom philosophy dosen’t have a cute leetle saying for dis problem?”
“If you have to beg, a friend’s a good place to start.”
Corey then suggested how Clarisse might explain the situation to Vindaloo and some other luminaries she’d been permitted to party with of late. Clarisse explained that her success was based largely upon an association with The Sidewalk Smokers Club of multimedia fame. She felt that if The Smokers’ problems were laid bare for Baxley and Co., the whole game might be off, called on account of rain. Acid rain. “You mean they won’t think we’re worth it if they know we’re sinking and if they know we’re sinking they won’t be interested in your designs?”
“Das very good Corey. You know in this country dey only likes winners.”
She smiled and he returned it. This was the gift they had always longed to find in a mate and had discovered in one another. Once obtained, it had been a daily boon that lifted each’s spirit, but they had failed to nurture it and the same familiarity and connection almost imperceptibly became annoyance. Suddenly the smile was back and closer to what it was when they had first met and dreamed of playing with each other’s body parts in situations both private and semi-private.
“I understand,” he finally said. “Thanks for listening.”
Now that she had prevailed, Clarisse felt guilty. Things didn’t happen that way while they were married.
The conversation was unlike anything from their past. It was not a rewinding and unspooling of the baby dialectic that had nearly smothered their existence together.
It was about a tangible matter in the wider public sphere, for which each had an idea of what the solution might be. They were already successful in that they were known – a small world was watching – and there seemed something terribly large just within their grasp if they could only figure out what it was.
That she sensed the growth in Corey had nothing and everything to do with her suddenly missing him. When he smiled, the little boy all wives come to both cherish and despise came out. It was the little boy hurt by his father’s disapproval.
Clarisse was hurt that it was no longer her place to soothe him, because she was dying too, because doing things for him had, in the beginning anyway, been so satisfying.
On the table between them lay a magazine – a design digest, actually – with Vindaloo
Baxley’s “salon” on the cover, replete with many of Clarisse’s Pieces (she’d taken inspiration from Joya’s Joyas). Trixie Marie had never come so far, but of course, this did not make Clarisse at all happy. Now she missed the couples’ life, the confidence in social settings, the coordinated efforts – sometime unspoken and harmonic – the web of understandings that grows out of two people playing together against or along with everyone else. There was a variety in all that and now that she was beloved for her work, she had the time and luxury to look back and take measure of all they had possessed together, and how they had created it together. She began to realize that big things happen when you live small, while everything appears small when you live big.
Aside from Clarisse still being his legal wife, Corey now saw something he did not before. Yes, he was successful and she liked him for it, but she had liked him, with a few bumps in the road, when he wasn’t famous, too. This kept her affections authentic and pure in a milieu that was offering him love of a more counterfeit variety.
No two ways about it. Joya dropped by Yvonne’s for sex. She came announced, for it was a personal belief that emotional ambushes, seductions and such were nothing but rape in the end. Joya, like many girls, had been through enough of such things in her life. She felt that lovemaking which left one of the participants confused, hurt, confounded or remorseful was not worthy of the name.
Joya also felt lovemaking itself should not be defined by a specific act or threshold of sexual activity. She said that for lovemaking to work, “ya gotta have as much love as you do makin’.”
And that love might only be a parting smile, a teardrop, the brush of a hand upon the beloved’s cheek, but it would be love. Joya now believed there is time and there will be time if the love is real. She was learning to romance not voraciously or lasciviously, rather patiently and honestly. Damn her.
And so, she called first and expressed (some) of her intentions clearly to Yvonne.
They were, in short, to discuss affections and intimacies and “Hon, you don’t have to do anything. You don’t even have to say ‘no’. Ya just have to deal with what’s been in the air. Or more, of course, if ya like.”
It is natural when confronted with such novelty and command to feel the lesser of two dancers; easy to feel that one is being led, however gently and considerately.
But Yvonne was growing by leaps and bounds, too; bedding down nightly with large doses of fear and insecurity that, when engaged and withstood, became bracing and invigorating. Like all The Smokers she understood that the fear is where the action is. Behind the fear shimmered life’s treasures and she was getting very good at finding its scent and following where it may.
Joya knocked and Yvonne opened the door – buck-naked.
Composure is one thing. Being a cadaver is another and we all know by now that Joya was no cadaver. And so, as most would have, she gasped.
“Huuuuuuuun,” she said, slipping inside the door, her Bic instantly flicked. “What on earth is it you’re trying to say?” The question was telling because it meant Joya was not biting this body language at the surface. It did not mean sex, or seduction or willingness. It was Yvonne talk, a thrust inviting parry.
“You’ve seen it all,” the hostess pointed out, “in print anyway.”
“Yeah,” Joya responded as she entered the space, “but I haven’t smelled it.”
Yvonne blushed and Joya breathed more easily at this breach in the newly minted goddess’s bulwarks.
Yvonne saw it. “I guess I’m not quite as indomitable as all that.” Joya, who was given to cornpone and subtle lapses of simplification found her friend’s big word very exciting and credible.
Yvonne led her in. The house was long and wide and empty, its floor hard-wooded.
There were no sofas, easy chairs or coffee tables. Instead the place was sparingly ornamented with five sculptures of differing size and expression; each enigmatic and requiring a moment’s brooding before finding the simple universal form beneath the crafted trickery.
“Are these Clarisse’s Pieces?” Joya asked and Yvonne nodded in the affirmative.
“Now I’m in love with her, too,” said Joya.
“You’re in love with everybody,” she said in her low way.
Joya was embarrassed.
“You should never fall in love with an artist over their art,” Yvonne cautioned. “These pieces,” and then she leaned her nakedness upon one that matched her length, but contradicted her curves with indentations and exclamations of its own, “these pieces are not Clarisse, they are her black magic, which I know you know.”
In that moment Joya became conscious of the danger she herself might be in. Yvonne, her self-righteousness and vulnerability aside, had chosen to model naked for a photographer years ago and the act itself said more than her simple claim to innocence and poverty. Innocents and the poor collect aluminum cans or work in sweatshops to survive, but stripping down to stay alive was a kind of black magic, too.
It suddenly felt as if she were in a prison with bent and twisted bars that distorted perspective and dizzied her up. Each sculpture began working its power over her and because the forms were novel and unfamiliar, Joya was slowly overcome with a kind of vertigo.
The place was devoid of compartments. It was one big room save for the kitchen which was tucked off to the side of the entryway. Joya had an interest in architecture and saw that something in the distribution of space was not quite right. “There were rooms here once weren’t there?”
Yvonne nodded the confirmation. “I had all the walls knocked out.”
“Hmm. How come?”
“So that my house reflected how I feel inside of my body, too.”
“And how’s that?” Joya wanted to know.
“Naked and open,” said Yvonne.
“Naked and open,” Joya repeated more to herself than for the benefit of both parties.
Something was happening. The absence of clothing, the disappearance of boundaries, had altered the rules of the game, and very subtly at that. Yvonne had created a world of openness in which there was no place to hide. The sculptures, whatever their intended functions might be, indicated an unusual home where common behavior had no place.
Joya was in enemy territory, a stranger. The dizziness persisted. She turned to the naked woman, inside and out, for body balance.
On Yvonne’s thigh there was something like cellulite, a minor imperfection, a protruding vein perhaps – she could not tell – and it spoke to her. As Joya moved her finger towards it, Yvonne looked down and, surmising the object of her curiosity, turned it toward the inquiring appendage. “Ya can’t see that in the layout,” Joya revealed something of herself.
Yvonne smiled knowingly. Joya had looked hard at those pictures. She imagined the Coloradan playing with herself in bed and she trembled a little. “They put make-up on things like that for the magazines and they brush your pussy over and over and over again.”
There was a mark underneath Yvonne’s left breast, a scar. Joya pointed at it. “Did they brush that?”
Yvonne sighed. “My master gave that to me.”
“I’m a slave. A man in the hills calls me when he wants and orders me up there to service him.”
“Oh, hon! Lincoln freed the slaves.”
The response hit Yvonne like a thunderbolt. Lincoln had freed the slaves. Joya pressed her advantage. “So what gives with the babysuit?”
“Even walking around town in a full-length faux fur, this is how I have felt since the whole thing started.”
Joya needed no further explanation. She understood; once everybody has seen you naked, the purpose of your clothes is cut by half – relieved of the concealing function, and reduced to simple sartorial talk.
“How does it feel?” she asked Yvonne.
“Why don’t you try it?”
Yvonne nodded, Joya declined. “You seein’ me naked next to you is not the same as the whole world seeing me naked in a magazine.”
“How different is it?” Yvonne asked and, again, Joya began to feel dizzy, hunted.
She fought it. Successfully. She calmed down, breathed. They were making love in the way she liked it made. And it was what she had come for.
“It’s different in the way strangers feel for you and the way I do.”
Words are powerful tools and when armed with the essences of those who utter them, they can carry the caliber of cannon shot. Yvonne stepped back, but not consciously.
“Would you like some tea?” she asked.
Joya looked around. There was something impossible in the offer, incongruous and hard to imagine as relevant in any way. And so she accepted.
Yvonne walked over to one of Clarisse’s creations. It was long, head high, and triangular. It was a long triangle, really; the only geometric piece in the space, and for that, the least beguiling to both women. Yvonne reached around the back and the front popped open, and out, in two panels heretofore invisible: a silver teakettle of Arab insinuation surrounded by little glasses of opium-inspired filigree waiting expectantly beside it.
“Been steeping for a few minutes now,” she whispered. “It’s ready.” She began to pour as Joya looked around her and saw no better place to sit than at Yvonne’s feet.
So there she surrendered to the trembling between her thighs.
“How’d ya know I’d want tea?”
Yvonne tilted her head in the matter-of-factly way. “New maxim. Anything Randall doesn’t know, I do.”
“And that’s not bum philosophy?”
“No,” Yvonne said, “it isn’t.”
The glasses were filled and there was steam rising from them. It reminded each of the same thing. Joya reached into her bag and pulled out a pack of Virginia Slims. “Here’s a little gift,” and she tossed them to Yvonne who abandoned her calculated body appeal with a little squeal of delight; for that is the push and/or pull of vice. Yvonne sat down and crossed her legs and Joya agreed that, the demure posture aside, there was little left to hide.
“Did you,” Yvonne asked, “really mean what you said about wishing you hadn’t ever met us?” She sipped and a softness on her skin followed the liquid down her throat and into her midsection.
“I did hon. I really did. I jus’ feel like the whole thing wouldn’ta happened.”
“What whole thing?” Yvonne asked, knowing full well what her love maker meant, but desirous of a better definition than the one she was working with. Information and truth.
Joya sipped. “You know, the whole thing!” and she waved her hand carelessly in the air. Yvonne felt sorry for herself and for her friend because Joya did not possess the gift of insight. That was Randall’s blessing. And she could see that even in the working of so busy and well-exercised a mind as Joya’s, it took a lot of hours of cigarettes before such insight surfaced from the watery depths into which Randall dove and darted about almost naturally. “I just thought it was kinda fun, irreverent ya know? I played along. I lent my person to you guys, um to us, and I mean that, to us. But that helped make us the us and now they’re trying to make us illegal and your business is closed and Randall’s tryin’ ta kill himself with cigarettes and Jordan’s maybe goin’ ta jail –”
Yvonne coughed a little and some tea dripped out between her lips and onto one of her breasts. The girls both watched its stuttered descent, like good sport. “Why would Jordan be going to jail?”
That cat was out of the bag and there wasn’t a thing in the world Joya felt like keeping from Yvonne anyway. To belabor the point: this was their great lovemaking in surroundings markedly altered by new rules where the truth was both golden rule and golden ring. So she gave her whole story and followed up with the requisite necessity that it remain between them and only them.
“Wow, is that why he cut his hair and dyed it?” Yvonne said when she was done.
While more intuitive than insightful, Yvonne could finally see now that Joya’s having been the glue that had brought the group together left her feeling responsible for all their present woes.
She felt it was simply not so and spent a long time in failing to win Joya to a contrary position.