Kamping on Asphalt: Too Many Pets

Well, this is it. Now I’m going to have to get back to work. This is a good place to end, because it really does end the first act. The stuff about the answering machine establishes that something bad has happened. As I recall, chapter 10 ended similarly with a cryptic note that leads to the denouement. If anyone is interested, I’ll tell you “what happened.” But it doesn’t much matter. What most comes across in my fiction is the fact that I really do find women deeply mysterious. The central plot element of both my first and second novels are abortions. That wasn’t intentional. I only realized it later.

Chapter 5: Too Many Pets

Lenny had cultivated, over years of what he considered abuse at the hands of the loves of his life, an outward emotional detachment that had worked well for him recently. Indeed, as fond as he was of Andrea, he felt he had maintained a proper aloofness to keep her always hungry for his presence. But that appeared not to be the case or perhaps it was imply too much to ask of an abandoned wife to forget her husband.

His life had changed so radically almost in an instant. He was living alone, then living with Andrea, and then alone again–in a day. Actually, he was more pissed off than hurt. How dare she? Bill was such a twit. Lenny had know him since they were kids in Junior High. They were already close when they played opposite each other in The Zoo Story. Lenny played Peter–the respectable middle class family man. Bill was Jerry–the alienated person desperate for any kind of human contact. Lenny was perhaps a better choice in terms of alienation, but Bill was bigger and looked the part. Junior high school casting.

Bill came from a good family–at least it was a lot more sedate than the explosions of rage that typified Lenny’s childhood home. Not that Lenny didn’t feel loved, and there was an austere aspect to Bill’s parents, like if he died it would have been a minor blip in their lives. But the trappings were all there–nice house, pleasant parties, concern for the children’s education. At Lenny’s trailer, parties often ended in drunken brawls, and at school–well, the police never showed up at the trailer.

In high school, Bill because an Intellectual. He started reading books he disliked and keeping notes: number of pages, how long it took him to read it, and anything noteworthy about the book. He read a lot of good books this way but it was hard to escape thinking that he was going through the motions. It looked like he shared in the plight of the family in “The Grapes of Wrath.” But he was aloof to real suffering around him as long as his father let him borrow the car and his mother had dinner prepared at six each night.

Their friendship had always been strained, the way boy’s relationships usually are. They had met halfway through the 7th grade when Lenny’s parents had moved to Greenboro. Bill was the nerdy tall kid with the wild strawberry blond hair. He was hard to miss, even without his blue Start Trek shirt–the one Spock wore. But what was most notable was his continual critique of all thoughts within earshot. Whales were not fish–they were mammals–warm-blooded. Electricity only moves at about two-thirds the speed of light inside copper wire–of course, it doesn’t move inside the write at all but on the surface and this is why wire need to be insulated. Monkeys with steel mothers grow up less well adjusted than those with terry-cloth mothers. He was the breathing version of Discover Magazine. You had to love him, Lenny thought, but you could help hating him too.

When they first met, Bill was using the library typewriter to type a script to A Charlie Brown Christmas which he had transcribed from a cassette recording he had made when it played on TV over the Christmas break. It was his plan to put on a play version of this masterpiece with funds to benefit blind people or something. Mostly though, it seemed like a way for him to get to perform Linus’ eloquent second act speech in front of a bunch of people. Lenny, easily excited about such projects, became intimately involved. He couldn’t be Charlie Brown–too scrawny. Snoopy, it was decided. This was not much of a part–but given Lenny would be responsible for almost every aspect of the play, it didn’t really matter.

Recruiting actors? Bill was collecting cardboard for set manufacture. Reserving theater space? Bill was collecting more cardboard. Rehearsing the half of the cast that managed to show up for rehearsal? More cardboard! The performance was six days away and they still had no sets. They were over-flowing in cardboard. Bill’s father had begun to complain. But today, Bill had accomplished something else: an interview with the Press Herald–publicity for the play. That was something, Lenny thought. But he was unprepared for Monday’s paper. It was not the smiling picture of Bill or even the incendiary caption: “Junior high producer, director, and actor Bill Edwards.” That bothered him, but who could control captions. The text, however, indicated a kind of hoax or “bait and switch” had been perpetrated on Lenny:

Greenboro Junior High Student Bill Edwards does it all! He has adapted, produced, directed, and starred in a theatrical version of A Charlie Brown Christmas, showing this Friday and Saturday at the junior high auditorium at 7:00 p.m. Also in the play are Dean Whitmore as Charlie Brown and Dennis Morris as Snoopy.

Lenny Morris as Snoop! Lenny was outraged, despite Bill’s assurance that he had told the reporter they were co-directing it. Co-directing! “Let’s see, I’m responsible for staging the play and you are responsible for cardboard,” was Lenny’s response though he never had the courage to say so to Bill. Dean pointed out that Lenny would be glad to be forgotten if the play was a flop. But one brief mention of the play in the Herald, Lenny knew, would not attract a single person–especially since it was just an ad for Bill. Publicity was Bill’s job and he hadn’t even managed fliers at school. The only people attending this opus would be parents of the cast members. So stardom was the newspaper article. This fact pissed off Lenny and it made him feel bad that he cared.

After the $12.50 proceeds from the two performances of the play had been properly donated to the Optimist Club (followed by another news ad for Bill: “Junior high super-kid makes $12.50 for local charity”), Bill and Lenny avoided one another until they were both thrown together for the official junior high play. With just the acting to deal with–and set parts–they got on well and remembered why they had liked each other in the first place. As the “star” of the play, with another long speech, Bill was inclined to be amiable. Even when the school newspaper called Lenny’s performance “subtle, complex” and Bill’s “over-blown, arrogant” it only served to sooth the wounds of the Christmas play.

When he thought about it, Lenny was glad that he had managed to bag Bill’s wife. He loved Andrea, but that was another issue. He liked being able to stick it to Bill. Of course, now that they were back together, she would tell Bill (would she tell Bill?) that he was a better lover than Lenny. Just what she had told Lenny about Bill. Women were so duplicitous when it came to sex. Lenny had never asked but every woman he’d slept with had told him he was the best and the biggest. He wondered if it was meant as encouragement–like he was inferior and inadequate. He couldn’t say about the quality issue, but he checked Masters and Johnson on the quantity issue: he was average–painfully average. That meant Bill was below average. Lenny smiled at that thought–hating the fact that it delighted him so.

He was dreading speaking to Andrea, but it was driving him crazy not doing so. This was not from lack of trying. He had called at many different times over the past two days but he hadn’t managed to hook up with her. Maybe she was screening her calls. Normally, if she wasn’t at home she was at work. He never did figure out exactly what her work schedule was. If she was avoid (ah, the guilt served her right!) he didn’t want to just show up and cause a scene. Nor did he want to drive to her apartment and find Bill’s truck.

Even if she didn’t want to speak to him, Andrea had a bunch of his stuff. In particular, she had his 27-inch Quasar Stereo TV–made by Panasonic for half the price–and his Sony Stereo VCR. Plus there was his collection of letterboxed videos: To Kill a Mockingbird, Chinatown, even Jaws. Lenny had engaged in bitter arguments with Bill over the issues of letterboxing and dubbing–Bill would not watch a dubbed film.

“And yet you will watch a non-letterboxed video which destroys the visual integrity of the film?”

“I’m not saying I like it–I would prefer letterboxed. But I can’t take their lips not sinking up to the words. And the actors always sound so stupid.”

“What about Italian films?” Lenny asked as Bill stared blankly. “Those are almost all dubbed.”

“They are not! I just watched Amacord and it had subtitles.”

“Felini! It’s all dubbed. All his films are shot silent and then they go back and dub in the Italian afterwards. And when they dub it into English, Felini uses the original actors.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Fine, but any film you watch is going to be at least 10% dubbed because they can’t control the sound that well on location.”

“It’s different when they dub in the same language. Anyway, I like hearing the other languages.”

“Then buy a language cassette. Film is a visual art form. I want to watch it, not read it.”

“I can’t believe an intellectual like you would make such a low-brow argument.”

“I’m not an intellectual. You’re the intellectual. I’m just smarter than you.”

“Dork.”

“Pud.”

Lenny decided to stop by Sabrina’s and ask a few questions. The tavern was on the first floor of a three story apartment building–the upper stories jutting out ten feet toward the street from Sabrina’s front door, acting as a canopy covering the sidewalk below. It would not be open for a half-hour when he drove by the front that was decorated with black outlines of large-breasted women on a red background. There wasn’t a car on the street. He pulled his Opel around the corner of the building and into the gravel parking lot in back. There were two cars in back, neither of which was Andrea’s: a Subaru Outback which he thought belonged to Mikhail–the new owner of Sabrian’s–and a late model burgundy Escort. He parked across from the two cars.

If you lived inside Sabrina’s, you would not know the time of day without a clock. Like most strip clubs, it hadn’t a single window. Lenny walked through the front door. When the tavern was open, most of the illumination came from the black-lights that colored the strippers smooth and tan and removed any hint of cellulite or stretch marks. But off-hours saw the house lights up so the bartender could stock the reefer and count the register. When he came around the corner into the bar area, Lenny saw a woman he didn’t recognize adjusting one of the beer keg taps. When she looked up, he saw she was in her mid-forties with long early gray hair.

“We’re not open yet. Another half-hour,” she said.

“I’m not a customer,” Lenny said a little defensively. “Have you seen Andrea?”

“Andrea?” She looked puzzled for a second. “I’m new here. I don’t know any of the dancers.”

“No. She’s a bartender.”

“Oh! That girl. I guess she’s sick or quit or something. That’s why Mikhail hired me. I’m Dana.”

Lenny hardly had time to consider this thought when the reefer door swung open and Mikhail backed out yelling syllable by syllable: “Mother fucker!” He slammed the door and began ranting. “That cock sucker Bud driver! We have one case of Bud! I kill that knobby-kneed son-of-a-bitch. I rip off his testicles and shove them up his nose. Mother fucker!” He stopped abruptly when he saw Lenny, and scowled.

“Where the fuck is Andrea?” he yelled.

“You haven’t seen her?”

“Sure I have! She’s in back! That’s why I ask where she is. She don’t come in Thursday night. I call. Nothing. Friday afternoon. She’s nowhere.”

“Her husband came back. Maybe she’s with him.”

“Husband? I thought you was her husband. How many husband she have?”

“I’m not her husband.” Lenny said sternly. “Look. Her husband…” He trailed off. He was not going to give Mikhail Andrea’s life story if she hadn’t given it to him already.

“Did she tell you anything?” Mikhail demanded.

The new bartender was slowly wiping down the bar several feet away. She was intent on her task but quiet so as not to miss a word Lenny said–Mikhail’s words were hard to miss. This was definitely the most interesting start to a job she’d ever had.

“I took her home Wednesday night,” Lenny answered.

“To her husband?” Mikhail smiled arrogantly at this jab.

“Her husband’s been gone. I mean. He left her. He just showed up Thursday morning. I know they met at least.”

“What did he say?”

“Nothing. To me. I haven’t talked to her since he got here.”

“What about him? Or you too guilty?”

“Hey, I’m worried. Why are you flicking all this shit at me?”

“I got one case of Bud. One! She always keeps that Bud guy–piece of shit–in line. I got one case. And I’m here all day Thursday, all day Friday. She’s never missed a day or even been late. Now she just disappears. Mother fucker!”

Dana smiled as Mikhail went ballistic again and kicked a barstool–sending it flying. “Easy there, big boy,” she said.

“I’ll let you know if I find her,” Lenny added hoping to calm the situation.

“It’s too late now. I hired another girl,” he said pointing down the bar. “I have no beer to sell!”

“I’ll let you know if I find her,” he repeated thinking there was real concern beneath his rage. As he walked out of the bar, he heard Mikhail yell, “Push the Pabst!”

Lenny decided to drive the several blocks to Andrea’s apartment. Her car wasn’t there, nor was Bills’ truck. He parked and walked up the front steps. Andrea lived in a converted Victorian. The downstairs was rented by Juanito, a gay man whose compulsive nature produced a gorgeous backyard garden but also much aggravation to Andrea. Lenny unlocked Andrea’s front door with his key. As soon as the door was cracked open, Psycho–Andrea’s orange tabby burst out onto the landing and around the side of the house.

Psycho was the best cat Lenny had ever known. A co-worker had brought him into her work at the State Building. Someone had thrown him into a dumpster and he was almost dead from any number of things when he was found. She brought him home even though she knew Bill would complain–he hated cats. It cost her $300 to get Psycho back to good health. After that, they made an agreement: she would have no little box and the cat would be free to come and go as he pleased. This had worked well in the suburbs but her new landlord had vetoed her cat door idea so she had to let Psycho in and out as necessary.

Andrea’s front door opened onto two staircases: one heading up to her apartment and one heading down into the shared basement. Lenny shut the door behind him and climbed up to the apartment. The place had not been kept up and there was a lot of dry rot. In the winter, it was incredibly drafty so Andrea had installed thick velvet curtains at almost every entry to cut down on the heating bill which could be sizable. He passed through her living room–past her Victorian sofa and his TV and into the dining room, which Andrea used primarily as a workroom. Everything looked fine–there was no disturbance. He walked into the bathroom. It looked fine except Psycho had apparently defecated a few times in the bathtub drain. This disturbed Lenny. He could imagine Andrea forgetting him–but Psycho? She was fanatical about that cat.

The answering machine was blinking. Even under the circumstances, he felt very strange as he pushed the play button. There were three messages.

“Andrea. Mikhail. I have you scheduled tonight. You forget? Call right away.”

“Mikhail. Where are you? I got no one to work. You get home come right over!”

“Where the fuck are you? You work this afternoon. You have to deal with this cocksucker Bud man! Get here!”

The machine beeped and stopped. Lenny took the cassette out of it and put it in Andrea’s boom box beside her bed. He pressed play and sat on the edge of the bed. No sound came from the player even though he could see the wheels of the cassette spinning. He turned the volume up to half maximum. Still nothing, or at least nothing discernible–just hiss and an occasional pop like someone had erased it and that wouldn’t be Andrea.

About a month earlier, they had spent the weekend in Oceanside. When they got back, there had been a power outage and her answering machine was all screwed up. They couldn’t find the messages they had played them on the boom box. It was like archaeology. There were messages from a year earlier–some quite amusing that Andrea had tried to save–others that just never got recorded over.

Lenny fast-forwarded a ways through the tape. Still silence. Forward some more. Silence. He checked the flip side with the same results. He rewound the tape and put it back into the answering machine. After looking around for a note, he headed downstairs and locked the front door behind him.

He walked down the front steps just as Psycho was trotting up. They stopped midway and Psycho rubbed against Lenny’s leg. He picked the cat up and held him as he purred.

“I’m getting too many pets,” he thought.

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