They say there are no coincidences, that nothing in this world truly happens by accident. So perhaps, deep down, I really meant to show my penis to my entire class. After all, that one seeming mistake began the adventure that changed my life.
Or maybe I just suck at computers. I only intended to expose myself to one particular student, Song Moon, a twentysomething Korean girl in the English Conversation class I taught at a community college in Queens. It’s the same old story: a plaid skirt and white knee socks, a few giggles followed by a heated discussion of dangling modifiers and some cutely dropped articles, (like “the” and “an,” not, alas, the aforementioned knee socks or skirt), leading to an increasingly wild, if idiomatically incorrect, iChat affair, (“I wants you into me!”), then to a picture of a slender, rosy, headless body blooming in my inbox one morn, and finally, my own doomed response: the fatal crotch shot I snapped and, unwittingly, sent to my whole class email list.
Imagine my surprise the next evening, when I showed up to teach and found security waiting. They seized my faculty ID and, fearing lawsuits, dispatched a grief counselor to my class. I signed a paper agreeing to never again set foot on campus and wandered, stunned, into a winter landscape that had switched from day to night behind my back. O moon, I cried silently, hear my song! The wind howled back and shook the stop signs. The stars, rarely seen, gleamed suddenly like the points of falling knives. I rode back to the city and an AA meeting, where I raised my hand to grand applause. It was the anniversary of my twentieth year clean and sober.
* * *
One of the best things about being a sober alcoholic is that, no matter how low you sink, your experience can still help others by letting them forget their own problems and laugh at yours. So my woesome tale that night –freshly fired, nearing eviction, an old single with crumbling molars – won their hearts and hugs, but I prefer to be loved from a distance, anonymously, and after sucking up a little warmth, I left the church basement alone. I was shuffling down the powdered street when a voice stopped me.
“Hey! Wait up!” My interlocutor was a vigorous sixty, pink with specs and a tidy white goatee. Snow melted on his warm, smooth skull. No doubt some sad slob like me, wanting to make friends. I thought of running, but I’d probably slip and bust a hip, so I set my teeth in a smile.
“I like what you shared,” he said. “I like your realness.”
“Thanks,” I said, meanwhile thinking, “Fuck off.”
“But it sounds like you need a job. My name is Doctor Tony.”
Doctor Tony, or Dr. T, as he claimed to be widely known, was an ex-drug addict and ex-convict turned counselor to the stars, out in L.A., of course, where he sold the weak and wealthy something called Sober Companions –– basically a paid buddy who hung around and kept you from getting drunk. This was a controversial idea in AA and NA, which frowns on profit motives. And we help only those who seek our help. In Dr. T’s business, often it was a family or board of directors that demanded its wayward son or CEO be monitored. In effect, the sober companion was a babysitter, trading his dignity and values for three hundred dollars a day, plus expenses.
“Sounds great,” I said. “How do I begin?”
“I actually have a client in mind,” Dr. T said, “someone I think you’ll really connect with. Derek Furber. A terrific young writer.”
“Fantastic,” I managed to hiss through my frozen grin.
* * *
Back in the ancient ’80s, when I was just beginning to degenerate, I too had been a terrific young writer. My book of short stories, “Shoot to Kill,” detailing the life of a young art-damaged junkie in the East Village, sold surprisingly well, and for a short time I became a literary celebrity, which basically meant free drinks in a few clubs and free passes at a few girls, all of which I took. Over the next few years, I shouted on a record with a punk band (Here Comes The Scum, first single “Shooting to Kill”), wrote a screenplay, (“Shoot to Kill,” sold but ultimately unproduced) and tried to write a play, (unfinished, working title, “Shoot to Kill”). I want to emphasize that I did each of these things exactly once. Then, for a long time, I did nothing. In fact, when I was forced, later, by rehabs and shrinks and the IRS, to reconstruct my past, there were whole years I couldn’t account for: I nodded on the couch, in the sunny spot by the window, and pet my girlfriend’s cat. I went to the corner bodega for a Snickers. You think being a punk-rock writer/junkie was thrilling? It was, briefly. But in the end it was like being a mailman, making my daily rounds, snow or rain, in my torn sneakers and moth-eaten coat, stomach twisting, guzzling Pepto from a bag. In abandoned buildings where the homeless shat. In alleys where kids picked their pimples and fingered their guns. In shooting galleries where, if you died, you got thrown out with the trash.
That was another lifetime. Today I am remarkably healthy, considering. I do yoga (stiffly), and run, (slowly). I eat vegetables and fold the laundry. I water my neighbor’s plants. I even quit smoking. But I haven’t written a word. I tried at first, but I couldn’t get started. Then I took a break. Then I decided it didn’t matter anyway. The world wasn’t weeping for my unwritten books. Now when people ask what I do, I say: I’m a teacher. Or I proofread legal documents. Or I hand out jalapeño hummus dip at Trader Joe’s. I say, to myself, mostly: I’m alive, motherfucker. What else do you want?
* * *
Two days later, I was on a plane to L.A. After checking whether I had a driver’s license, a Social Security card or a criminal record, (yes, yes and yes), Dr. T briefed me on my mission. Derek Furber was the 25-year-old author of “Down Time,” a fictionalized memoir or memorialized fiction about his life in Beverly Hills, where he sold drugs to his high school friends and their famous parents. He was busted, sentenced to community service, and ended up coaching some team (Debating? Polo?) of inner-city youth, which rapidly lead to his own redemption, a plug from Oprah, and the bestseller’s list. Now young movie stars were competing to play him in the film, models were competing to play his girlfriend in Vanity Fair, and he himself was due, in a week, to accept the Lionheart Award, presented biannually for a work of literature that Exemplified the Human Spirit and the Power of the Word to Change Lives. The only problem was, he couldn’t stop getting high.
According to Dr. T, Furber was bound for disaster. You simply do not go on Oprah with your face numb and call her Opera. He’d become so risky that he’d had to sign a contract promising to sober up and prove it on demand by pissing in a cup. If he failed, he’d forfeit his movie deal, the Lionheart and everything that went with it. He was getting out of Dr. T’s fancy Malibu rehab on Monday. My job was to escort him home, through a series of hurdles, and finally to the Lionheart, back in New York. Dr. T gave me his book to read on the plane. I fell asleep on page six, during his parents’ divorce, somewhere over Pennsylvania.
* * *
The exact address of Freedom Ranch, which I am legally obliged to withhold, is known only to a select handful of wealthy screw-ups and a few million Internet viewers, but you take Sunset to the Pacific Ocean and make a right. I recommend a bright winter day. The fresh hills glittered with dew all about me, and the eucalyptus trees, shedding long peels of droopy bark to show the whiter meat beneath, soothed the worn linings of my New York nose and throat. As the mist burned off, a clear blue heaven expanded above the ocean, which struck me blind for a scary second as I hit the Coast Highway: countless, tiny beads of diamond light jumping across the waves.
I turned up a dusky road and was met by two goons in a golf cart, who told me that I’d be joining “a group encounter already in progress.” I could only pray that I didn’t have to remove my clothes.
The encounter was held under a thatched roof, open to the salt breeze and commanding a five-star view. The group? Well, their haircuts and tans were better than usual, but however impressive the names on the wristbands, it was still a rehab crowd: itchy, scratchy, nervous, patchy, smoking too much and laughing too loud, endlessly rearranging their lighters or cell phones or limbs with the compulsive restlessness of the profoundly uncomfortable. And there, in the lead, was Dr. T himself, the elf who’d appeared in my whirlwind. With his shining dome and the modest muffin overhanging his belt, the man glowed like a burnished good luck charm. No wonder people paid so much to rub against him.
He put his hands together, shanti style, and declaimed “I want now to invite my higher power, the universe, and all of our higher powers, to enter my spirit here today and speak through my heart instead of my mouth.”
Or other orifice, I thought, while the rest shut their eyes. It is a strange feeling, when everyone around you has closed like sleeping flowers, and you are the one soul on guard. But I was not alone. As I scanned the faces –– even the hardest looked vulnerable without their watchtowers –– I spotted a wooly head above the flock. Two dark eyes darted between a mop of dark hair and a fashionably fuzzy beard. An ironic charmer’s grin found me, as if to say, “Just look at these suckers.” Instantly, I knew, this was Derek F., my new best pal.
* * *
My first date with Derek was awkward. I drove back down the coast while he sat silently behind dark sunglasses and filled the car with smoke. Wasn’t that considered rude nowadays? I’d become strongly anti-smoking since I quit.
“Sorry, but do you mind putting that out? It’s bugging my eyes. Probably dry from the plane or something.”
“What? Oh, sorry.” He flipped it out the window, a billion dollar fine in these parts. I cringed, imagining the forest fire raging on the news, but held my tongue. Two reprimands in the first five minutes was not the way to warm a new employer. Which raised the larger issue: Who’s the boss?
“First stop is my agent,” he said, settling that question. “CAA. Know where that is?”
“I’m not even sure what it stands for.”
“It stands for truth, justice and the American way,” he said, smiling. The glare from behind us lit his hair and the circle of his watch with white fire. I looked back at the darkening road.
“CAA,” I repeated. “I thought it was Calling All Assholes.”
* * *
CAA was quartered in a glass fortress with a hole cut in the center, presumably for Will Smith to chopper in, but we left the car with valet parking, still pretty impressive to me. An elevator whispered us up to a vast waiting room that held a few million in art –– day-glo graffiti splotches, a conceptual hat sculpture that was also a real hat –– and an Amazon in a black mini-suit clicked over. Her heels, headset and tight bun made her seem like an angry android, but she smiled at Derek.
“So good to see you. I’ll tell Yoel you’re here. ”
She pressed something and a small, shiny, round man in a black suit popped out of a great big door.
“Hey bro,” he bellowed, hugging Derek, who introduced me, vaguely.
“This is my um…. companion.”
“Hi,” I said. “We can’t legally marry yet.”
“Ha.” Yoel said. “Good one.”
“He’s a writer, too,” Derek offered by way of explanation.
“Awesome,” Yoel exclaimed, “I’d love to see your stuff,” and led Derek back to his vault. Katie turned to me.
“Would you like coffee? Water?”
“Sure,” I said. “Thanks, Katie.”
“Coffee. No, water. Well, both actually.” I laughed. “I got very dry on the plane.”
“I understand.” A light on her headset glowed bluely, as if ordering her to vaporize me. “Sparkling or flat?”
“Ever notice,” I rattled on, unable to stop, “how euphemistic English is? In French or Spanish, for water with bubbles, they say, ‘with gas.’ Con gaseoso. Americans would rather die than say gas.”
“So you want gas or not?” she asked me, smile deflated, as if she had suddenly realized how much she hated her job. I have that effect on people.
“Yes. Thanks,” I said. “Please give me gas.”
* * *
I sipped espresso. The sun bled out. Katie worked the phone. Derek and Yoel emerged, laughing, and I sprang up, reflexively chuckling too.
“Thanks for waiting,” Derek said. “Let’s roll.”
Yoel waved. “Great meeting you. Don’t forget to send me your stuff.”
“Right. Thanks. I will.”
Katie validated my parking ticket and we rolled, down the elevator and over to Hollywood, where Derek had an apartment in a building full of transients on their way up or down. His place was nice but unloved. The shelves held only a few self-help books. The never-lit candles on the mantle still had their price tags still affixed. The one odd note was that the couch cushions were on the floor, propped against the couch and chairs. Throw pillows leaned against the coffee table and there was even a towel spread over the corner of the desk.
“Do you have a dog?” I asked.
“No, why? Should I?” He yelled from the bedroom. “Do you recommend it?”
“That’s not what I meant.” I opened the empty fridge. A cleaning crew had scoured the place for drugs and booze as well as mildew.
“I hope you don’t think this is stupid,” Derek said, returning. “But do you think you could sign this?” He held out a copy of my book.
“Wow,” I said, in a whisper.
“I found it in a used bookstore. It’s worth a lot on the Internet now. Like fifty bucks or more, with your signature.” He blushed, or seemed to, under the beard. “Not that I’d ever sell it. I read it when I was fifteen and suicidal. It made me want to be a writer.”
I took the small volume in my hand. I hadn’t even seen a copy in forever. I turned it around like an artifact, afraid to even look at the author’s photo.
“I’ll be right back,” Derek said. “I’ve got to hit the can.”
I sat on a stool at the kitchen counter. What could I write to this smart-ass no-talent upstart who, it turned out, was the only fan I had left? Dear Derek, Avenge Me! Or, Save Yourself, Get Out Now. Or, Bring Me With You, Please. Or just: Take the Money And Run.
A few minutes later, Derek came out of the bathroom and I looked up shyly from the book. I’d written “Keep Up the Good Fight,” forgetting that I hadn’t found his work good particularly. But I was re-assessing his writing skills as well as his personality: As a general policy, if you like me, I like you too.
“Here you go.” I sauntered over, having decided to play the moment casually cool. “I didn’t know what to write.” I handed him the book and waited for — who knows? A hug, maybe. Instead, he accepted it indifferently, like a ticket stub, and gave me a quizzical look, as though trying to place my face. Then, as if seized by a fury, he lurched backward, twisting the cheap paperback in both hands. His eyes rolled up, white, like a slot machine. Jackpot.
“Hey, are you OK?”
“Yes,” he said, then went rigid and fell like a tree, banging his forehead on the padded coffee table. He bounced once and landed on the floor, knocking his skull on the cushions there, then commenced shaking and flopping while foam bubbled from his lips.
“You bastard!” I yelled. My first day on the job and the client was throwing a seizure. I’d been around enough to know what this was, but not enough to remember if it was fatal. His arms and legs shot out like a puppet’s and his head rattled, tongue wriggling like a fish trying to escape the net. I knew he could choke if he swallowed it, so I wrenched my book from his fist and jammed it between his jaws. He bit down hard, chewing the cover while his eyeballs strained their veins.
Ambulance. I ran to the phone. It was dead. No doubt the bill had gone unpaid while he’d been in rehab. I pulled out my cell. No signal in these hills. I ran back to the body and began searching for his phone. I tore through the pockets and found it: a Ziploc bag of white powder. I fell to my knees, eyes shut.
“Oh God,” I prayed, “save this fucking moron.”
Then, miraculously, the storm cleared. He was no longer shaking, in fact he was breathing nicely, bubbling snot through his mustache. I felt his pulse. I didn’t know what normal was, or how to take a pulse really, but I was fairly sure he had one. Now there was nothing to do but wait and see what kind of brain damage he’d suffered. With a little luck, no one would even notice.
I dropped into the couch, banging my assbone on the cushionless frame, and caught my breath. Slick with sweat, I realized how scared I’d been, and immediately, as if some wire in my brain had jiggled loose, I wondered where Derek’s cigarettes were. Then I noticed the plastic baggie in my hand. What was in there anyway? Speed, coke, dope? Some new drug that only rich and famous people knew about? Whatever it was, it had to be good. The proof lay right at my feet, snoring peacefully. I gazed at the pretty powder sparkling in my palm once more. Then I hauled myself up and I flushed it.
Back in the living room, Derek was groaning. He rolled over, spit out the rare, half-eaten copy of my book and abruptly puked all over it.
“What happened?” he moaned.
“You had a seizure. I’m guessing it’s not the first?”
He nodded, eyes closed. “It’s a medical condition.” He coughed up a bit more of my writing. “Get me a glass of water.”
“Get it yourself.” This time I put a cushion on the couch before I sat back down. He stood carefully, as though we were in a rowboat, and felt his pockets.
“What are you looking for?” I asked.
“Cause if you’re looking for that baggie, I flushed it.”
“What?” He instantly recovered. “Holy shit, why? That was…” He paused.
“What? Splenda for your tea? Baby powder for your chapped ass?”
He slumped in a chair. “It was a thousand bucks, for one thing.”
“Who gave it to you, your agent?”
“No. It wasn’t Yoel.”
“No wonder you were both so excited to see my work. You were wasted.”
“That was for real. He totally respects you even when he’s not wasted.”
“Whatever. You know they’re going to urine test you at the studio tomorrow.”
“Is that what you’re worried about?” He laughed. “I got it covered.” He strode into the kitchen and opened the freezer. “What the…” Murmuring, he stuck his head in the icy hole, as if there were more room back there. When he pulled it out, he looked scared.
“The bastards stole my urine. I had six bags of clean piss in there.”
“Fucking Dr T. They said they’d search for drugs and alcohol OK, fair enough. But why take piss?” He stared at me, hands clutched together, outraged at the injustice. “It’s just harmless piss.”
“Of course they took it. Why would any normal person be hoarding urine?”
“Oh God I’m fucked. Oh God I’m fucked.” He kept mumbling this as he ran his hands over his face and through his hair, as if he could erase what he’d done. “I’m so fucking stupid,” he said, switching themes. “Why am I so fucking stupid?” He gonged his temple with a closed fist. “Why? Why?”
“Hey that’s enough,” I said from the couch. “It’s not the end of the world.”
“You’re alive. You could have OD’d just now.”
“That’s true.” He sat down again.
“Everything will work out.”
“How?” he asked, face splotchy, hair sticking out.
“Maybe it’s for the best. You’ll get honest, get humble…”
“No, that won’t work.” He snapped his fingers. “I know. You can do it.”
“Piss. You can give me yours. You’ve been clean a million years. You must piss Evian by now.”
“No way,” I said. “Forget it.”
“It’s illegal. It’s immoral. And it’s not my problem.”
“But it is. You need money right? You’re poor or why would you be here? If I test dirty tomorrow, you’re fired. I’ll talk to Yoel. I bet he can get your book reprinted…”
Anyhow, he went on like that, and eventually I relented. What did I care? It was just a job. But I did have one condition: “You have to stay clean. Totally clean. I won’t lie about that to anyone.”
Derek raised his hand, as if pledging to the flag. “I promise.”
I laughed. “Your promises aren’t worth shit.”
“True,” he allowed. “So what do we do?”
“Take me to your nearest sex shop.”
“You know, a store that sells sex toys. Hollywood is full of them.”
He frowned. “Like gay or straight? Because I’m straight.”
“Fine. Take me to a straight one.”
“Listen, when I said I’d do anything I meant almost anything.”
“Hey, Lionheart,” I said, starting to enjoy this new career. “Just between us straight dudes, do you want my piss or not?”
* * *
And so, we paid a visit to Kinky Planet, where I selected a pair of handcuffs, some leg restraints and, just because I was having fun and Derek was paying, one of those ball gags with the dildo attached to the front. It was pink and wobbly and looked like something you’d wear to a Halloween party at Caligula’s. It made Derek’s eyes go wide and I figured it was wise to keep him guessing. I let him change into sweats before cuffing him, ankle and wrist, to his bed.
“Ow, that’s tight.”
“Quit whining. I got the fur-lined ones, you baby.”
“What if there’s a fire?”
“Hey!” I shook the dildo-gag in his face and the pink tuber bounced off his nose. “Another peep out of you and you get it.”
He quieted down after that. I turned out his light and went to the couch, where I spent the next two hours on Derek’s laptop, fighting the urge to write Song Moon. I sent two lines: I’m in L.A. working. I miss you. Too bad I didn’t have another set of cuffs for myself. Then I curled up with Derek’s memoir. I was out by page thirteen.
* * *
The next morning, before Derek’s meeting at Warner Brothers, I filled a jelly jar with fresh, pure urine and held it between my legs to keep it body temperature on the ride over. We were met by another black-clad assistant and a nurse, who sent Derek to the restroom with a specimen bottle while we waited expectantly like relatives at a difficult delivery. He emerged victorious. Then I consumed more free coffee and water while the young author decided which world famous actor reminded him most of himself.
Next I watched him get a haircut. Then we met his trainer and I read the paper while they squatted and thrust. It was a pleasant enough way to earn three hundred bucks and, feeling magnanimous, I agreed to hit the 101 Coffeeshop for fried chicken and black-and-white milkshakes before strapping him in for the night. As soon as our food arrived he started to rebutter me.
“I know this sounds like a bunch of crap now, but your book really did change my life.”
I stuffed my mouth with fries and gravy. “You’re right, it does sound like crap.”
“Anyway, I fully intend to buy another copy, no matter how hard it is to find. I still remember that story where you shoplifted Burroughs and Ginsberg and everyone. It was like a reading list to me. I got every book. Except I paid.”
So had I. The story was based on an incident I had witnessed, when a clerk at St. Mark’s Books caught a punk-kid stealing but let him go because his taste was so good. In my story the clerk, an old time Beatnik, befriends the kid and turns him on to dope.
“I actually read Kerouac first,” I said. “And immediately ran away to hop a freight train, but the cops brought me home. Then I started on Burroughs. I read “Junky” and ran right out to cop dope.”
“Me too,” Derek laughed. “I couldn’t wait to try heroin.”
“I took the bus to Avenue B and got ripped off.”
“I got ripped off in Hollywood, trying to buy acid after I read ‘The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test.’”
“Me too. In Washington Square.” I hadn’t thought of it in ages. “I bought a Disney sticker and licked it.”
“I paid twenty bucks for a piece of gum.”
“What about ‘Cain’s Book’?” I asked him.
“Great. Though being a junkie on a tugboat sounds nauseating. What about ‘Basketball Diaries’?”
“I loved it. Though I didn’t love his poems.”
We went on to discuss “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “Jesus’ Son” and “Confessions of an English Opium Eater,” dipping too into the whiskey-logged volumes of that fine old American firm, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Wolfe.
“Right, the Poet-King of Beers.”
What was it, this subterranean river that flowed between addiction and literature, those two measureless seas? And which was the costlier habit? Did I inspire young Derek, up in his bedroom, to start writing or to start sniffing glue? I remembered another story, this one unwritten but true: I no longer owned a single one of those books. I’d sold them all to buy drugs.
Derek and I drove home in a stupor, burping contentedly, and he seemed almost comforted when I locked him to his bed and said good night. Then I checked my email, and there it was:
Thank you for you letter. It was happy to receive. It miss you L
You is in L.A. writing movie? It excite! See you maybe soon J
I was so excited I had to read twenty pages of Derek’s book before I fell asleep.
* * *
We sat side by side on the plane. The Lionheart ceremony was tomorrow, when I’d toast his success with one last cup of pee. Although it should have been a victory lap, our mood was a bit melancholic. Derek confessed that he felt safer with me around to tuck him in and keep him in line with dildos. For my part, though I’d made a decent chunk of money, I still saw a vast, hopeless void ahead. Except for one bright spot, Song Moon.
I’d answered her last email, sidestepping the question about my screenwriting job, and mentioned how I’d be staying at a swanky hotel in Manhattan. To my delight, she agreed to visit that midnight.
We put up at the Pierre. Afraid of losing my charge so close to home, I didn’t even visit my apartment. The suite was far larger anyway, with a view of Central Park, and I had my own room. It was as if I were visiting some other, finer city, also by chance called New York.
Lionheart folks came and went. Derek’s suit was tried and adjusted. We ordered room service, and I perched on the couch, singing for Song Moon in my head while I forget which “Star Wars “movie played on the grand TV. At last, after an intergalactic millennium, Derek yawned.
“Better get some sleep,” I told him. “Big day tomorrow.”
“But it’s only dinner time in L.A.”
“Still, you don’t want to be jetlagged. Biggest day of your life.”
“Really? I assumed you thought it was bullshit.”
“Well, yeah, but big bullshit, you know. The biggest.”
A few lightyears later, I bundled a happy lion off to dreamland. “Hey,” he said, as I buckled his ankle restraint. “I want to be serious for a second.”
“Uh-huh.” I pulled the blanket up to his chin.
“I know this is all a lie and you don’t respect my work and I don’t give a shit about staying sober, but still I want to say thanks. I couldn’t have done it without you.”
“It’s not a total lie. That book’s inspiring lots of people to change, even if you’re not one of them. You still wrote it.”
“Yeah, that’s true. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight.” I gently shut the door. Then I slathered my armpits with deodorant, brushed my teeth, and trimmed my ear hair. I was drawing back the drapes, to impress Song with the view from “my” suite, when there came a gentle tapping on the door. I checked my warm but raffish smile in the mirror and opened up. My visitor punched me in the gut.
My eyes crossed in pain, but as I clutched my burning belly and gasped, like a drowning man, for air, I ascertained the following: my visitor was indeed young and Asian, but she was not Song Moon. She was a big, muscular and very angry dude in a Marine Corps T-shirt.
“Surprise, you old perv,” he called, and struck me again in the nose. I felt a sickening crunch, like tasting a bone in your chicken salad, and a flower of pain bloomed across my world. I fell on the floor, which was thickly carpeted, and felt much better.
“Who are you?” I asked the floor, softly, as my blood seeped in.
“Not who you expected, huh? I’m Tony Moon, Song’s cousin. She told me about you. I’m the one you made the date with, asshole.”
“Oh.” Satisfied, I shut my eyes. Tony admired the view.
“Some place you got, for a teacher. This a two bedroom or what?”
I was smiling into the carpet, amused that this knucklehead didn’t even know we were in a hotel, when I realized where he was headed. “No!” I moaned, loudly, or thought I did.
“What the fuck is this?” Tony yelled. “You a homo, too?”
“Help! Help!” I heard Derek trilling in panic.
I began heroically to crawl. “Don’t go in there. That’s my retarded little brother’s room.” I climbed to my feet in time to greet Tony as he stormed out, waving a fur-lined pair of cuffs and the dildo-ball-gag.
“What the hell were you going to do to my cousin?” His fist slammed my temple, or perhaps a freak lightning burst entered the hotel and split my skull, but either way, the entire city went dark.
* * *
I woke up the next day on the bathroom floor, my wrists cuffed to a sinkpipe and the ballgag in my mouth. As I lay on the tile, facing a wall-length mirror, the dildo that jutted from my face jiggled and hopped like Pinocchio’s nose, mocking me gleefully.
“Help….” I heard Derek whispering hoarsely.
“Glurg bur vip glurg,” I answered.
“Who’s there?” I could hear him thrashing about like a trapped rabbit.
It took me three hours to unscrew the pipe, while our cellphones both rang ceaselessly. Finally it came free, releasing a faceful of old stinkwater. I pulled off the ball-gag and stumbled in to Derek. His eyes were wild with fear.
“Call the cops,” he burbled. “We were robbed by a Chinese gang.”
“Well not quite.”
I explained. He was not pleased. But considering his own indiscretions, he agreed that the cops, the Lionheart people and Dr. T were all best left uninformed. Besides, there was barely time to clean up and get to the ceremony. Derek fetched his suit and I went to the minibar to ice my nose and lip. I looked like a cartoon of myself.
“Oh God no,” he called again. For a second, I thought Tony was back with his platoon, but I found Derek alone in his undies.
“He took my laptop. My Lionheart speech was on there.”
“I’m sure if you calm down you’ll remember. There was this time I got high and accidentally erased…”
“You don’t understand. I didn’t write it.”
He sat on the couch, looking into his hands. “I didn’t want you know. A ghostwriter did it. I didn’t even write the book.”
“Oh.” I sat beside him. We shared an exhausted silence. I knew he was afraid of my judgment, but for the first time since we’d met, I felt none. Even as a phony and a cheat, Derek had managed to provide a grateful world some hope and comfort. What, in my twenty years, had I given?
“Find some paper and a pen,” I said. “I’ll write your speech.”
* * *
The Lionheart went off smoothly, or so it seemed from the echoes of laughter and applause. With my ward safely delivered, I’d decided to ride out the trip in the bar. I was not conspicuous. This was a writerly gathering after all, and drinks were free; I was shoulder to shoulder with thirsty literati. I elbowed in beside a long-haired old man in a shabby overcoat, and before I knew what I was saying, almost as a joke, I called out, to no one really, “Double shot of bourbon, quick.”
I was shocked. This is how it happens, I thought, just like the stories I’d heard. You lose your way. You forget. And then, without knowing it, you sleepwalk into a nightmare from which no one is promised to awake. I saw that my hands were trembling and I gripped the bar. I noticed that the old man next to me was doing the same thing, clutching the marble with white knuckles, although not, in his case, just for moral support. Then I realized who he was. A poet. Very great.
“Raymond Torquette,” I said.
He turned, the dank grey locks parting to reveal an eagle beak, sunken cheeks, overgrown white brows, and way, way back there, the black eyes that had glowered from the book covers of my youth. “What?” he asked.
I held out a hand to shake. He didn’t let go of the bar. “I just want to say that it is a great honor to meet you. Your work has meant a lot to me.”
“Then buy me a damned drink,” he said, in the lordly growl I’d heard in recordings. “I’m broke and the damned bartender won’t serve me.”
I was about to say the drinks were free, but then I noticed the empty glasses on the bar, and the stains on his shirt, and the torn front pocket flapping open, as though for quick access to his heart, and I understood why the bartender had cut him off. A drink landed in front of me, dark brown whiskey swelling the rim of a thick glass. “Bourbon double,” the bartender said. My nose tingled. I took a deep sniff and pushed it toward Torquette.
He brightened. “Hey thanks,” he said. The two shivering hands went up slowly and closed around the glass like a wounded bird. He bent to meet the drink and sucked it up, tilting back to let it slide on down. I could imagine the warmth spreading through him, like golden fire, like rough honey, like love. I even felt a bit better myself. Then I smelled urine and noticed the puddle at the great poet’s feet.
* * *
I got Ray Torquette to the men’s room, put him in a stall, and tipped the attendant twenty bucks. Then I went to find Derek in the ballroom, surrounded by admirers.
“Listen,” I whispered. “Ray Torquette passed out. I’m taking him home.”
“Ray Torquette? He’s here? I’m coming.”
He made his excuses and met me out front, where I was strolling with my arm around Torquette, asking him where he lived and getting only burps and muttered goddamns. Derek hailed a cab and we propped the grey eminence between us.
“Where to?” the cabbie asked and Torquette, from some kind of reflex, called out an Upper West Side address. We cut through the park in silence.
“I can’t believe this is Ray Torquette,” Derek said as the noble head lolled on his shoulder. “I used to recite his poems with my eyes closed, like prayers.”
“I know,” I said. “I remember the first time I read ‘Burnt Edges,’ I wanted to cry. Not because it was sad, because it was just so good. He made me want to be better. To write better. That’s the best compliment I can give.”
“Yeah,” Derek said. “It is.”
The taxi stopped at a crumbling SRO. We hauled Torquette up in the elevator and found his key, the only thing his pockets contained besides wads of linen napkins embroidered with a lion’s head. His room was appalling. Roaches scattered when we flicked on the single bulb. The thin foam mattress was covered in rubber sheets.
We didn’t say much, Derek and I. What would we say? We got him into bed and rode the elevator back down. I shook his hand.
“Thanks,” I said. “And congratulations, you did it.”
“Whatever.” He shrugged. “We did it.”
“Anyway, you’re free. Go celebrate. But I need a meeting.” I turned to leave.
“Hey, wait,” he called. “Can I come?”
* * *
We went downtown to Midnight Madness, a meeting summed up by its name, and sat on folding chairs and drank rank coffee. We heard a bunch of losers describe their downfalls and we laughed and laughed. Then we held hands and prayed, each to his own strange God.
Derek asked me to sponsor him and he stayed sober for a few months, calling everyday, going to meetings. Then he stopped, but I saw in a magazine that a huge movie star had signed on to play him. I also read on the internet that he bumped up from models to supermodels. Ray Torquette died of cirrhosis. The Times did a round up of comments by famous writers, and Derek’s quote was especially moving: “He made me want to be better. To write better. That’s the best compliment I can give.” The movie came out and I saw him on Charlie Rose and David Letterman and even back on Oprah, where he cried about being high the last time and she hugged him and the audience cheered. He signed a new deal, for a memoir called “Liar: A True Story.” Then he OD’d in a hotel room in Maui and died.
Meanwhile, I got another job, teaching writing in a men’s prison, where I had no problem resisting the urge to expose myself. It was scary at first, but the students loved it, and one or two could write. After a great deal of urging from friends, I also sent a couple of new stories to Yoel, Derek’s agent, like he’d asked. A month later, I got a response. He’d had his assistant read them and unfortunately, my stories were “not for us.” I was disappointed, of course, but he was right. It’s not for them. It’s for us.