Saturday Morning Post #91: Prelude to an Obsession

In the original prologue to “24 Exposures,” find out how a photographer will wind up weaving himself through all of the stories even when we don’t know he’s there.

This is the first story from the collection that served as the prologue which I left out when I first posted here. However, it’s also the shortest piece in the book and would fit into one installment, so it made sense to run it now. That’s because starting next Friday will be my annual Holiday Countdown, featuring a different video on a different theme each day of the week from the day after Thanksgiving (which takes place on November 25 this year) through to New Year’s Day.

Yes, it may way of arranging a little vacation that time of year since I can curate it and let it run on its own — but can you blame me?

He learned an enormous lesson from an abandoned moldy bag of bread. He hadn’t been looking to learn anything when he’d picked it up. The best lessons were always like that.

It was that long, underused stretch of beach off Playa del Rey, bounded on the east by LAX’s runways, the north by embattled wetlands and the south by the main sewage plant for all of Los Angeles county, which was improbably called Hyperion, the mythological Titan who was father of the sun, the moon and the dawn.

Then again, his father was Uranus, making the name imminently appropriate.

And all that shit flowed out to the sea, the endless western boundary, the final roadblock to manifest destiny. It was an inspiration to everyone who lived here, but also the reason they were all a little mad, trapping them as it were in the edges of the west coast, pockets of innovation that could just not escape.

To go east was to go backwards, into the past, back to whence most of them had come. It was unthinkable, an admission of defeat. And that was the delusion of Los Angeles. So many dreams were promised here that no one could conceive of not succeeding.

But so few did, and those fifteen minutes dangled ever ahead, a golden carrot. To be here was to be a success in itself, and yet not. It was Valhalla’s waiting room, but it was also a perpetual Ragnarok, the destruction taking years.

Perhaps it was really Purgatory, a room to be endlessly circled but never left, with no point to it at all. But there had to be people in this city who expected… less. The ones who were content just living here, working some anonymous and uncreative job for someone else, cashing their checks, having their families. Were they the real gods, or just Loki’s footstools?

Is it “hell is what you make it” or “it’s hell until you make it?” He didn’t know, least of all right now, on a winter’s day as he wandered the empty beach, the sky clear but cold. His camera bag was slung over his shoulder, one hand hooked firmly around the strap, thing trapped under his arm. It was an old habit, one he’d developed when he was sixteen. There was that one, and the hand on the lens move when the camera was hanging unused around his neck, and…

Goddammit.

He shook his head, realizing that all of his odd photographic habits weren’t his at all. Every last one of them he’d learned from his father. Just like that right arm across, left elbow on right hand, left thumb on chin thinking pose he always did when feeling dubious about a sales pitch. But his father had never been a professional photographer — Air Force didn’t count — and he, the son, was. That was different.

He was a pro up until a few weeks ago. He’d been doing full-time work for a local weekly, doing really good work, and then his editor suddenly let him go. There were feigned excuses, all of them horseshit, and absolutely no warning, but he’d actually felt relived to be rid of the place. The editor, Brendan Montauk, was a first class hypocrite who adopted children like he was collecting postage stamps and invented paranoias and conspiracies to convince himself of his own importance. Sure, Brendan had run a feature article about his star photographer once. But, ultimately, it all meant nothing.

It was a bizarre place to be, really. He’d been that close to moving up to something bigger. He’d been that close a lot of times, experiences that had all come to nothing. His work had been on the cover of Time once, with a feature, about a group of Civil War re-enactors. That had gotten a lot of attention and some studio work, but it was only directing photography for in-house training films that no one would ever see. He burned through a string of small newspapers and limited circulation journals, then landed at Melrose magazine, went over to Seventh Street when that had folded, and wound up on the beach today.

The building to his left said “Deauville.” That must have been code, so the lifeguards could direct each other to trouble spots. But the word was just too weird, because Deauville was the name of the country club to which his father had belonged forever. Still belonged to, although the name had long since been changed to the too cutesy faux Scottish Braemar.

It was weirder, because the first restroom building he’d passed had said “Kilgore,” which he most associated with World War II, his father’s war. His father was hiding everywhere out here, and was probably waiting on the bottom of the sea, should he chose that westward exit to his current state of mind.

But he wouldn’t. He was too afraid of death, that lurking nothing on the other side. No, he’d go on, survive, continue the struggle somehow. He always did. Just like his father.

Then he saw the flock of birds. They were a mix of pigeons and seagulls, taking turns at dashing up to a plastic bag quickly and pecking at it, then jumping away. The whole thing seemed arbitrary and pointless. The birds looked confused and helpless.

He waded into the crowd and it fluttered away in a feather shockwave as he picked up the bag. It felt nearly full and, when he opened it, it was — almost an entire loaf of sandwich bread, a little bit moldy, but otherwise intact.

He shoved his hand into the bag and grabbed. The bread crumbled in his hand, but he got hold of a big piece, pulled it out and tossed it to the birds. Some of them got it and darted over. Others were slower to catch on, but soon they all did, and he was flinging bits of bread left and right, conducting the flock like an orchestra.

Then he looked up and had the nearest thing to a beatific vision that was possible for an atheist without a good dose of LSD in him. Above and in front of him, against a deep blue sky, half a dozen gulls were just hovering, tail feathers fanned down to grab the breeze and keep them in place. It was an amazing sight, and he was standing in the middle of it all, part of this flock of wild creatures, the center of their attention, their random benefactor.

He moved slowly to a low bench nearby and sat, continuing to dole out the bread as he reached into his bag and pulled out the camera, flipping the lens cap off with a thumb to let it dangle on its keeper as he turned the light meter on and brought it up to his eye. And there was nothing but sky. As if on cue, the birds had descended, and the moment was gone. In trying to save it, maybe he’d been the one to destroy it. But at least he’d seen it so, in that sense, it was preserved, for a while.

Input visual, output verbal. That’s how he’d scored once on some personality quiz in one of the magazines that had published his work. The first part, yes, definitely true. But the second? He was the least talkative person he knew, at least to the world outside. Oh, the running monologue in his head never stopped, sometimes not even when he was asleep, but he assumed that was the way it was for everyone. Wasn’t everyone pretty much the same?

He continued throwing bread, watching the birds, singling out a couple of the more solitary seagulls for special tosses of particularly large chunks. In his personal hierarchy of common birds that were cool, seagulls were number two, right after crows.

Ducks were next and pigeons were somewhere way down the list. But they were not last. Last place for worst bird of all time were geese. Combine the stupidity of a turkey with the attitude of a pit bull with jock itch, you get a goose. Fail to pay attention around a goose, you get a goose with a beak, or worse, and always hissed at.

He hadn’t made up his mind about owls. They were huge and looked really amazing the few times he’d seen them soaring from one apartment rooftop to another. But the one time an owl had soared at him, landing on a tree branch not three feet from where he was standing on his apartment balcony, it had startled the hell out of him. And owl faces were just so flat and pale, anyway.

His other list was dogs, horses, deer, goats and sheep, the last item only referring to the four-legged kind. He hated two-legged sheep, and yet knew so many of them.

As he was noticing with the birds now. The pigeons were walking right up and pecking at the crumbs at his feet, oblivious to his presence. The seagulls, however, were keeping their distance, always keeping one eye on him, hopping into the air when he made the slightest move. If he’d wanted to, he could have reached out and gotten a handful of pigeon, but he’d never get near the gulls.

The pigeon were sheep, deluded into complacency by a pile of crumbs, not knowing whether the creature dropping them was benign or a predator. It was pure stupid luck which ones survived and which ones didn’t, and yet there were so many of them. There wasn’t a place you could go in the entire county and not see a pigeon. But seagulls only showed up inland to presage a coming storm.

Finally, the bag was empty. He dumped out the rest of the crumbs, then wadded the plastic and stuffed it into the nearest garbage can. The gulls departed as he stood, but the pigeons were still scavenging and fighting over crumbs as he left. Scavenging and fighting over crumbs. He’d seen a lot of that, and had had enough of it. He wanted to be a gull, spread his wings and catch the ample breeze, hover over the heads and out of reach of the others.

Pigeons do not hover.

* * *

Los Angeles was an odd duck, cobbled together from thousands of little pieces, neighborhoods whose physical separation was negligible but whose psychological distances were enormous. A few miles north of him now, up the coast, was Santa Monica, beach resort turned liberal haven and shopping magnet. If you went directly north a few miles, you’d land in the West Valley, land of old, white conservatives. Another mile or two north of that was purely Spanish speaking, sandwiched between the rich conservatives in the south and the richer conservatives in the north. That whole area was really more of a province than a part of the greater city, and provincial was the perfect word for it.

The photographer had grown up out there and had fled it at the first opportunity, never to return. The closest he’d ever come back again was eleven miles east, in a cosmopolitan mixed Hispanic-Anglo neighborhood thriving with the sounds of Banda and rap, both of which were definitely frowned upon back in Woodland Hills.

That was a name that had become a misnomer over time. The one real hill in the area, the one that had hovered protectively over his high school, had long since been removed to make room for endless rows of anonymous and overpriced condos, locked behind security gates and guards, a bastion of the most scared of the scared, the people who had fled there to get away from anyone whose skin was darker than a glass of milk or whose native tongue was not English.

But that wasn’t the only pocksolation of the city. Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, and Hollywood all ran together in a line, and the three places couldn’t be more different. Liberal money and haughty attitude on the west; trendy bohemian, gay, Russian, ultra left in the middle; poor, young, struggling musicians and artists on the east.

A circle with no center is, by definition, not a circle, but when the center is everywhere, the edge is nowhere. There were physical edges to this city-state plopped between sea and mountains, there were psychological edges within it, but it was amorphous, indefinable.

Los Angeles County alone was bigger than, and richer than, a lot of countries. You could drive for miles to the north or east and still be in the county, although there’d be nothing around you but desert or mountains, until you came upon yet another sprawling city that was Los Angeles and yet wasn’t.

You could walk the streets for hours and not see another pedestrian, or pull onto the freeway and be surrounded by thousands of anonymous car-armored motorists. You could walk the beach on a winter weekday for miles and not see another person, and then suddenly come upon a group.

Which is what happened when he finally got back to the building named Kilgore. Of course this would be one of the hotspots. It was at the bottom of the steep walkway that granted admission down the sheer cliff from the road above. Path of least resistance and all that, as the crow flies.

Today, incidentally, gulls had moved up a notch, dropping crows to the number two position.

He paused by the building, pondering what to do next. There was a sign nearby that warned, “Law Enforcement Monitors This Area. Lewd Conduct Will Not Be Tolerated.” Jesus, he hated passive voice, that blameless tense that said nobody is responsible. Why not, “We will arrest you?” But, as with most scarecrows, a little looking around revealed no apparent enforcement behind the words — no video cameras, no obvious police cars, just this green and white shibboleth of authority, which was hanging in the wrong place anyway. It was on the back wall of an outdoor shower area, but that wall faced the cliff. Anybody wandering up to get rid of sand would never see it.

He wandered on, around the corner of the building. A couple of surfers were under those showers, one of them with his wetsuit unzipped and pulled down to expose half his ass. Was that considered lewd? Or just necessary if one didn’t want to drive home with sand up the crack?

No sirens blared, no cops arrived. Something about the ocean was — or should have been — light years away from the Puritanical fear inland. Nature’s greatest power was thudding onshore a few dozen yards away. The rules of civilization should not apply here, at least not the artificial ones.

He walked on, past the picnic tables and onto the sand, toward the water. Offshore, a few surfers maneuvered the waves. On land, people wandered in ones and twos and threes, looking for seashells or watching the surfers or staring off to sea. The roar of the ocean was constant but muted, a reminder of what really controlled the world.

And then he saw her, walking up from the sea like Venus, a girl, probably not more than twenty, with long, brown legs, narrow waist, large breasts, dressed in the smallest of fluorescent off-orange two pieces, which was wet. She might as well have been naked, although the entire effect was tasteful, not lewd. Despite the sheer material, she wasn’t sporting a cameltoe. Maybe a toenail, but it wouldn’t have frightened the horses.

And her head, from the neck up, was wrapped in a sort of hood, like a mutant turban, which hid her face, except for her eyes, which were kept behind dark glasses. It was a very Lana Turner effect, except that even Lana never had a body like that.

The girl went to her spot on the beach, picked up her towel to dry herself off. He watched her, contemplating asking if he could take her picture. But what fascinated him wasn’t everything that was showing. It was what wasn’t showing. Why the hidden face? He would have assumed she was a Muslim or something, except that the outfit probably violated almost every religious code. And when she re-placed her towel to lie down on it, she took off her top and set it aside. There were no tanlines on her breasts, nor was there any silicon in them, as proven by their actions when she lay on her back.

He took his camera out of the bag as he moved away toward a lifeguard station. Maybe he could get a shot with his telephoto, not even have to ask. After all, her face was concealed. There were no rights issues there. He had just sat down, camera in his lap, using the heads-up viewfinder so he wouldn’t have to hold the thing to his face, when the girl suddenly sat up, twiddling at the hood, trying to knock sand from it. Finding that to not work, she knelt, unwinding the contraption, finally pulling it off to shake the sand from it.

The photographer gasped. This girl, who was so perfect from the neck down, had been hideously disfigured from the neck up, an obvious burn victim with barely a face to speak of, mottled skin, slits for eyes and a misshapen bump for a nose. She’d obviously started some sort of reconstructive work on one ear and her hair was coming back in sporadically, but otherwise the face and the body did not belong together.

He pushed the shutter release on the camera and heard a single, lackadaisical “thuk.” That was the mirror swinging out of the way for the shutter to capture the image, but the shutter didn’t open and the film advance didn’t wind. Instead, the “Battery Out” light flashed in the viewfinder, slowly dimming, then going out.

“Shit,” he muttered to himself, reaching into his bag and then realizing he’d committed the cardinal photographer’s sin. He’d forgotten to bring the extra battery packs today. All of them were recharging on his kitchen counter. He had mis-estimated the juice left in this one, and now the shot was gone, the moment over and the girl was re-wrapping her head.

His father would have checked and double-checked that he’d had at least one extra battery. His father wouldn’t have forgotten something like that. The photographer felt so stupid as he shoved the camera back in the bag. His father wouldn’t have forgotten because his father had never done anything spur of the moment or spontaneously. Everything was planned, deliberated, thought out in advance. Carefully orchestrated for safety, and all so utterly fucking boring.

His father had been an architect before he’d retired, not a designer but an engineer. Someone else created the fanciful concrete dreams, but his father was the one who figured out how to make them stand up under their own weight. His work was never seen, and it was regulated by a thousand rules and requirements. Straight lines, physics, geometry. Limits.

The photographer couldn’t drive for more than ten miles without seeing a building his father had worked on. And yet, they were works that bore someone else’s signature.

A seagull, maybe one of them from before, veered toward him and he watched as its tail feathers flicked down, stopping it dead in mid-air over his head. He wanted to reach up and just pet it, but knew that any movement would send it on its way. He just watched, seeing this holy creature float above this profane world.

Thinking about that profaned face floating above that angelic body, and realizing his father would have looked away.

Limits.

That was the difference, that was how he was not like his father. The old man lived in a limited world, out among the frightened Republicans of the West Valley. He’d been out there for forty years. But the photographer had no limits, had tried almost everything at least twice, and had come close to capturing an image that would have made his father turn away in horror.

The seagull let out a single call, then flew away and now he knew what he was going to do, how he was going to create his own, signed work.

He stood and walked back to the car. Time to go home, load up the batteries and set off on a mission. There was beauty in the world, and there was ugliness. The two together became grotesque.

He was going to traverse this giant freak of a county called Los Angeles, and his lens was going to capture the most grotesque thing he could find and, at last, he would be someone else no more. He would find himself…

* * *

Saturday Morning Post #87: Until the Thrill is Gone (part 4)

In another story from “24 Exposures,” meet Dan and Sylvia, a couple who can’t quite keep it in the bedroom. Or the house.

The conclusion of the saga of Dan and Sylvia’s ever-expanding search for more exciting public sex. Watch for a character from one of the previous stories to drop in at the end.

A little over a week later, they were standing on an overpass above the 405 freeway, halfway through the mountain pass that separated LA’s rich Westside from the equally rich West Valley. It was five o’clock on a Friday afternoon, and traffic was moving in its usual fashion in both directions, so many blood cells stuck in an artery long since made useless by auteoporosis.

Dan had taken care in choosing this overpass. It wasn’t one of the main roads crossing over the freeway. It was an off-street, one lane each way, an obviously long-forgotten political payoff to some rich residents on either side of the manmade canyon. It was also hard to get to from both directions, narrow twisting roads up through the hills that doubled back on themselves. Dan had stood there for an hour a week ago, and not a single car had driven by.

They had parked as close as possible to the end of the overpass, then walked to the center and stood there, Sylvia’s simple floral print dress occasionally wafting in a sudden, short breeze. They could see the freeway for a mile in either direction, and the freeway could see them.

“Oh, Dan,” Sylvia said when he took the blindfold off of her. “This is… how did you find this place?”

“It took work,” he said. “Just like it would take work for anyone to get to us.” He kissed her and she melted into him, pulling his shirt up, which he quickly tossed off. She was out of her dress just as fast, fingers fumbling as she tore open his pants and he let them drop to the ground, stepped out of them. It was just the two of them up here and hundreds of commuters down there and it was perfect.

She leaned against the chain-link fence that wrapped the overpass and Dan stood in front of her, stooping slightly as he slipped inside. He wrapped his fingers in the fence, kissed her on the shoulder, then looked beyond, at the cars below. Traffic had just slowed to an almost dead stop, and he could see faces looking up at them through windshields. Horns honked, but they were not the angry horns of traffic. They were acknowledgements, admissions. “We see you. Thanks!” Safe in the anonymity of their cars, these people could do what they had mostly refused to do before — admit they were watching.

He saw big rig drivers give thumbs up and flash their lights, saw a convertible full of young women raise their shirts and flash their breasts, caught a glimpse of some guy in a Beamer with a blonde head bobbing in his lap. He saw them all and they saw him, they all saw him, they all saw him —

“They can see me — “ he thought, in time to his frantic hip-thrusting. In out, in out, one two, three four, they can see me, they can —

He threw his head back and almost screamed as he came like he never had before. That’s when he saw the helicopter hovering above them, but he didn’t care. This had been the moment they’d been looking for. He put his hands on Sylvia’s breasts and kissed her right between them and she moaned, “Oh god, Dan…” and then it was her turn to frantically writhe against the fence, like she’d never stop, and she probably wouldn’t have except that the sudden short whoop of a siren right next to them cut through everything, froze them in their tracks.

Two police cruisers, one from each direction, parked at angles across the road, two officers approaching from each. Dan and Sylvia looked at each other. She smiled and came again.

Dammit. Dan wished he had that ability. All he could do was smile vaguely at the nearest officer and say, “Hi.”

* * *

There had been no formal complaints filed. Sylvia’s father’s lawyer had insisted on that point and maneuvered the DA into an absolute interpretation of the law. George was an expert at that sort of thing, so they were only charged with disorderly conduct. Of course, they’d made the evening news, thanks to that helicopter, and although everything was blotted into a video mosaic onscreen, they both knew that the real footage would get out, creep around the world and perpetuate their act for years.

But the terms of their probation demanded that they attend group counseling, one of those stupid twelve-step groups for sexual compulsives. Yeah, that was the best way to treat a bunch of addicts, put them in a room together to talk about what most compelled them. Except that, after listening to their sad, twisted stories for a while, it all got depressing and, for the first time, Dan and Sylvia felt a little bit ashamed about all the things they had done.

They were walking through the mall one weekday afternoon, holding hands and saying nothing, just window shopping, when they heard the calliope tune of the carousel. They looked at each other, smiled.

“Ah, the old days,” Dan said.

“You want to go for a ride?” Sylvia asked him, but there wasn’t even a hint of suggestiveness in her voice. “Just for old time’s sake?”

“Sure,” he said, and they walked down, bought their tickets and got in line. When they got on the carousel, they picked separate horses, next to each other, and held hands as the thing started to turn, hidden mechanisms lifted them up and dropped them down and the world outside spun into a blur. There was something just so… sweet about a Merry-Go-Round. A horse race to nowhere, with no winners and losers, none of the mess or danger of real horses, everything turning in a proper circle until the end was reached. But, since it was a circle, there was no beginning and no ending. You came out where you came in, moved without moving.

Sylvia leaned her cheek against the rod that skewered her horse, looked at Dan, who was staring forward, smiling. He sensed her looking, turned. At the same time, both of them simply said, “I love you.”

And at last the great wheel stopped moving. Dan climbed off his horse, helped Sylvia down and then there was a loud thud, the carousel rocking slightly to one side and turning a few degrees forward. Screams echoed from the mall and people came running. Dan and Sylvia stepped off, walked around and saw the crowd that had gathered. Some poor, dumb schmuck had just taken a header from one of the balconies above and had landed on top of the thing, torso dangling over the side of the main axis, mirror cracked where his face had hit, bounced off and stopped to stare lifelessly at itself.

“Let’s get out of here,” Dan said, and they did.

They didn’t talk about the man who fell the rest of that day, but they both thought the same thing. Maybe it was a warning. At least it was a reminder. They sat very close together on the couch while they watched the news that evening, then they went to bed, Sylvia in a long silk nightgown and Dan in pajamas. Dan reached for the bedside lamp, shook his head. “That poor guy,” he said. Then, he turned out the lights and, in the dark, under the covers, they quietly made love, then fell asleep in each other’s arms.

* * *

Saturday Morning Post #87: Until the Thrill is Gone (part 3)

In another story from “24 Exposures,” meet Dan and Sylvia, a couple who can’t quite keep it in the bedroom. Or the house.

The story of Dan and Sylvia continues, as they seek ever bigger sexual thrills.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to welcome your Los Angeles Dodgers…”

The crowd went nuts as the players trotted onto the field, Dan and Sylvia in the nosebleed section of the bleacher seats. It was a bright summer evening, the sun streaking in from the west, making half the stadium glow, leaving the other half dunked in shadow. Neither of them were really baseball fans, but they decided to give this a try and were now sitting high up, away from much of a crowd. It was always like that when the Dodgers played some small town, who cares team. Dan did know enough about baseball to have selected this game for that reason.

But they’d also decided to wait until the first home run to do anything. Their actions would be dictated by the figures dashing around the field below, beyond their control. They held hands tightly in anticipation. It could happen at any second, or not at all.

It didn’t happen at all during the first four innings. There were RBI’s, to be sure, each of which they celebrated with a long kiss, but nothing over the fence.

At the end of the top of the fifth, they were both getting a little antsy. “I wish these guys could hit better,” Dan grumbled as the next batter came to the plate and managed only a base hit after two foul pop-ups into the stands. The next batter struck out and the third took a bean ball walk to first. The fourth batter put one right in the left-fielder’s mitt.

“Aw, shit,” Dan said.

“We still have four innings left,” Sylvia explained.

“We can change the rules…” Dan suggested, but she gave him a sour look.

“That’s no fun now, is it?” she answered. Before he could say anything, there was an enormous crack from the field and the growing wave of a cheer from the crowd. They turned to look as the ball arced into the air, climbing for right field. The batter was already running for first base and the outfielders were going long.

They held each other’s hands tightly as they stood, watching the white dot go, their grip tightening as it reached its summit, seemed to hesitate in the air for just an instant, then began its descent. The journey only took a few seconds, but seemed to last an hour. The ball arced downward, the right fielder ran for the fence as fast as his legs could go. He lept, raising his gloved hand into the air, above the fence, the ball whizzing right toward it.

“Fucker’s going to catch it,” Dan muttered, disappointed.

But he didn’t. The ball sailed two feet over his head, over the wall, out of the ballpark. The crowd went nuts as the three runners came home.

“Grand slam,” Sylvia said.

“No, one runner short of that. But it’s time for us to round the bases.”

The sun had dropped below the edge of the stadium by now, and though the stadium lights were bright, it seemed dim enough and distant way up here. Sylvia eased herself onto Dan’s lap, facing the field, and he ripped open the Velcro on his fly and slid into home. To anyone watching, it would have just seemed like a wife sitting on her husband’s lap, bouncing up and down excitedly at the game’s progress. Thousands of people, and none of them would have known better…

Which was kind of the problem, Dan realized. This wasn’t quite as exciting as he’d imagined. He leaned forward and licked Sylvia’s ear, but he could tell she wasn’t quite getting the thrill she’d hoped for, either. Down below, another batter struck out and a wave went around the stadium and the game went on, everyone oblivious to Dan and Sylvia.

That just wouldn’t do, he thought. As they went into the top of the sixth, the two of them just going through the motions, Dan ran his hands down Sylvia’s thighs, grabbed the hem of her dress. He hesitated, then lifted it, up past her hips, exposing the game already in progress. She realized what he was doing but didn’t stop him. If anything, she started grinding with more fervor.

Dan watched the crowd below, still oblivious, but then he noticed a man a few rows ahead and twenty feet to the right who seemed to have spotted them. As Dan looked over, the man turned away, nudged one of his buddies, and they both looked. Pretty soon, the whole group of them was glancing over, about a dozen of them, smiling and saluting with their beers. Dan smiled back and grabbed Sylvia’s hips, guiding her banging, whispered in her ear, “We have an audience down there.”

Sylvia looked over, saw the men staring at them, felt herself pushed closer to the edge. She looked across the stadium, the distance deceptively vertiginous, the lower stands smearing back forever before rising into the upper decks, colorful dots that were the fans swimming and swarming. Then, they both heard the noise, rising from the crowd while no one was at bat. It was a mixture of cheers and hoots and laughter, a growing muttering.

They both caught a glimpse of the diamond vision screen, before the image changed to an innocuous shot of the bullpen. It was them, the two of them, dozens of feet tall, fucking in living color for an audience of thousands, for just an instant, but that instant was enough and both of them went off in a shuddering, quaking orgasm.

The men in the bleachers applauded as Sylvia pulled her skirt down, got off of Dan’s lap and kissed him. He kissed her back, then noticed the movement far below, the blue blazers starting to climb. “Time to go,” he said. She nodded and they hustled along the back of the bleachers, down the far side and out an exit, into the parking lot, managing to avoid security but getting several appreciative nods and thumbs-up from the peanut vendors and ushers they passed.

Too bad that game hadn’t been televised, but they’d given the fans something to talk about for a long time. As for Dan and Sylvia, the memory was enough ammunition for a short time, a week of reliving it, before things got boring again. Not that they would ever be bored with each other, but they had moved the boundary again, had further to go next time. Always further, but they were both coming up short on ideas. They stopped by the gym again one morning, but the old desk boy had moved on and the woman behind the counter looked too butch and humorless to appreciate a show, so they left after legitimately working out. They rode the subway some more, even performed once for an approving audience of skater boys, but it wasn’t the same.

They banged on a crowded beach, in full daylight, but everyone pretended to ignore them. Sure, everyone was probably staring when neither Dan nor Sylvia were looking, but when either of them glanced at the crowd, it was as if they didn’t exist. They didn’t even finish, just suddenly stopped, Dan rolling off her, pulling his trunks back on. “What is with these fucking people?” he said.

“It’s this town,” she answered, wriggling back into her one-piece. “Everybody is too jaded, thinks they’re too sophisticated to be disturbed. Maybe we should have picked a beach where they have lifeguards, at least they would have noticed.”

“They would have arrested us.”

“Is that such a terrible thing, though?” Sylvia wondered aloud. “What do they do, give you a ticket and send you on your way?”

“With our luck, they probably wouldn’t even notice.”

“We have been lucky,” she said.

“Well, what are we expecting, really?”

They lay there for a while, baking in the sun. Maybe this was the wrong place. The crowd was mostly young, college kids, tweenies, no children, no old people. Half of them would probably have done the same thing if they had the guts. He glanced over, saw a young couple lying on top of each other, making out. They were fully clothed but obviously dry-humping each other silly. Maybe Dan and Sylvia’s performance had been inspiration for that. Maybe it was just hormones.

“Dan…” Sylvia started, then went silent.

“Yes?”

“You remember that night in the park? When the police showed up?”

“Oh yeah,” he said. “How could I forget?”

“When I saw them going into that bathroom, knowing you were there… it got me really, really excited.”

“Same here, when I heard their radios. And you’ve never tried to climb out a small window with a hard-on.”

“I want that,” Sylvia said. “How do we get that again? Where can we go, what can we do?”

“I thought this was the place,” Dan shrugged, sitting up, grabbing his shirt and putting it on. “Let’s go,” he said, standing.

“Where?” she asked. He shook his head. He had no answer.

* * *

Saturday Morning Post #87: Until the Thrill is Gone (part 2)

In another story from “24 Exposures,” meet Dan and Sylvia, a couple who can’t quite keep it in the bedroom. Or the house.

The continuing story of Dan and Sylvia, and their search for every more extreme public sex.

“Somebody is watching us,” he whispered in her ear, but he didn’t stop rubbing the lather all over her breasts, didn’t stop plowing her from behind. She turned her head slightly, blinking water out of her eyes, but she couldn’t see anyone. They were in the men’s locker room at his gym, a twenty-four hour place, and it was four in the morning. Other than the desk attendant, the place had been deserted when they’d come in. Dan hadn’t told her what he had in mind, but she figured it out when he lead her in there, past the rows of lockers, opened his own and quickly put his clothes in, gesturing for her to do the same. She was ready to jump on him right there, but he pulled a soap container out of the locker, smiled and walked to the showers.

“Let’s turn around,” she whispered back and Dan obliged, putting his back to the water, Sylvia facing the entrance at an angle. She looked through the opening, couldn’t see anything at first. Then she saw the shadow, on a bank of lockers, caught a glimpse of an elbow, moving up and down. A head tilted ever so slightly into view, just an ear and an eye, a shock of hair. She pretended not to be looking, eyes half-closed.

“I think he deserves some sound to go with this picture,” Dan whispered to her again, one hand sliding down her body, one finger finding the right spot. Sylvia let loose the moaning, in overdrive, but she wasn’t faking it. She never faked it, never had to. “Fuck me,” she spat out. “God, fuck me, fuck me, harder.”

Dan was grunting out a counterpoint to her fugue, a basso profundo, “Yeah. Oh, yeah. You are so tight…” From out in the locker room proper, there came a single half-stifled groan. Sylvia saw the shadow go rigid, an uplifted chin, and then she just lost it, screaming and clawing her thighs and flying up on tip-toe, bouncing her ass as hard as she could while Dan slammed into her with several loud “Uhng” sounds and then they were finished, turning to face each other, kissing once, rinsing off and hurrying back to get dressed.

The locker room was empty now, but they both saw the pearly glop on the floor, smiled at each other. For once, an audience that hadn’t feigned indifference. As they left the place, the boy at the desk glanced up, then pretended to look at his magazine with great interest. Dan and Sylvia held the laugh until they were outside.

“What a little pervert,” Dan said, and Sylvia cracked up again. She’d grown thoughtful by the time they’d gotten to the car, quiet on the drive home.

“What are you thinking?” Dan finally asked her.

“I never realized how exciting it was to have a stranger watching us,” she said. “I mean, to know that somebody was there. And even if he hadn’t been playing with himself… the idea — “

“Is a huge turn-on,” Dan finished, nodded. “And it didn’t matter to me who it was. Desk boy, or another member, whoever. I think we found out something interesting this morning.”

“What next?” she wondered, putting her hand on his on the center console.

“I’m sure we’ll think of something,” he answered.

And, of course, they did.

* * *

The desk boy at the gym served their purposes for a while. It got to the point where he’d be heading over to lock the door immediately after they went through to the weight-room, they could hear the click, and once he even forgot to take down the “Temporarily Closed” sign before they left, Sylvia had noticed that. But he properly kept his distance, always spying on them from outside, never approaching. The closest he had gotten was to stand in the doorway once while they were facing away. Sylvia could see his reflection in one of the chrome fittings, but he wasn’t really doing anything, just standing there, one hand down his pants but strangely motionless. As she turned around to face Dan, the desk boy vanished like a shadow.

They got bored with him eventually. He never mentioned what he’d seen and they’d never brought it up. After all, the point wasn’t to seduce the college boy at the counter. It was to know they were entertaining him without any of the awkwardness of actually being caught. They got as bold as to go at it on the rowing machine one night, gym clothes tossed aside, and she saw him looking at them in one of the many mirrors, his pants around his ankles, hand pumping furiously, but she could tell he was having a really hard time keeping it up. They’d become routine for him, and for themselves, and she told Dan when they got home that it was time to move on.

They were walking in Hollywood one evening, trying to come up with ideas, when a woman tore out of a small theatre, slammed into them and kept going up the street, losing a shoe in the process. “Crazy bitch,” Sylvia said. Dan picked up the shoe, watched after her as she ran to the subway entrance, kicked off the other shoe and descended.

“Who the hell takes the train in this town?” he muttered, but then Sylvia’s eyes lit up and she didn’t even have to say it. Dan took her hand and they headed for the station.

The mezzanine was deserted as they trifled with the ticket machines, bought round-trip fare for the two of them, then headed to the escalator down to the platform. There was a train in the station as they reached the bottom, door open. Dan and Sylvia ran, hopped inside just as the doors closed. This car was empty, the last one. Through the far window, they could see the woman sitting, at the distant end of the next car, just staring into space.

“Next stop, Hollywood and Highland,” the driver’s voice announced, and the train was already decelerating.

“That wasn’t much of a trip,” Sylvia commented.

“No,” Dan said, “But the next leg looks like it’s about seven minutes.” He was staring at the schedule on the wall, grinning. No one got on at the next station, and the second the doors shut, they were out of their clothes, Dan hanging onto the overhead rails as Sylvia pulled herself up, balanced her feet on two seatbacks and slid into position. They were done and dressed again just as the train pulled into the next station, which was crowded, but everybody seemed to be going the other way. Again, no one got onto this train. Dan could still see the woman in the next car, but couldn’t make out her face from here. On the next leg of the trip, which was the last, they dared each other to get naked and walk to the end of the car. When they got there, they realized the woman in the next car had dozed off. She wasn’t even paying attention to them.

A little disappointed, they got dressed again and behaved themselves all the way back to where they’d started. Maybe this trip had been a bust, but it still gave them some ideas, and in the next few weeks they performed for various audiences, always one car away, many of them ignorant of the goings-on, others plastering their faces up against the window and staring. They even perfected their timing so they’d still be naked when the train pulled into the station, but clothed and ready to exit by the time the doors opened.

They hit the high point two weeks later, when there was one other passenger with them, a man with an expensive camera who nevertheless looked somewhat rumpled, seedy and world-weary. He sat at the far end of the car, staring out the windows as the seven-minute stretch began. Sylvia didn’t have to look at Dan twice. They were at it in a New York minute, up against the back wall of the train — and the man started taking pictures, just casually firing off shots, no flash needed in the brightly lit car, but they could both hear the click and whirr of the thing, one shot after another and they stared into each other’s eyes, climbing to a higher, wider plateau than they had before, Dan practically banging Sylvia right through the rear door to an appreciative but anonymous audience. They were so excited they nearly blew their timing at the next station, actually having to crouch in a rear seat still pulling their clothes on as more passengers entered. But none of the new crowd caught them or noticed, luckily for them, since two uniformed LAPD officers hopped on at this station to check tickets. They finished their round trip with silent smiles. Dan had wanted to thank the photographer, but he had vanished when they stopped, slipping away into the night.

“How soon do you think we’ll be famous on the Internet?” Dan wondered.

“We can only hope,” Sylvia smiled at him.

They never did find the pictures online, despite the best of Dan’s searching abilities, which was disappointing. Just the idea that millions of strangers could get a look at what they’d done excited both of them, but without verification, it was an empty hope. Dan had suggested setting up a webcam and performing for the world, but Sylvia didn’t like that idea. It was too impersonal, too safe. It didn’t have the danger of a real-life intruder.

“We could always go back to the gym, see if that kid wants to join in,” Dan suggested.

“He never will,” she said.

“We can find somebody who would,” he went on, hopeful. But Sylvia just shrugged, reached for her blouse and wrung it out to drape over her shoulders. It was cold out here in the middle of the park in the middle of the night, wet grass all over her back. The sprinklers had come on while they were going at it, which had been a thrill at the time — were they automatic, or did some groundskeeper do it, and was he watching them? But now it was just uncomfortable and she was shivering. Dan got up, knocking grass off his legs. “Be right back,” he said, walking away, clothes still scattered.

“Where are you going?” she asked him.

“I have to pee,” he said, trotting now toward the small outbuilding with the dingy yellow light glowing from inside. Sylvia watched him disappear, hoped no one else was in there. Being an exhibitionist was one thing, but walking naked into a men’s room in a park in the middle of the night could be very easily taken as the wrong kind of invitation if Dan weren’t alone.

For once, she was a little worried, so she put her clothes on despite their dampness, then gathered up Dan’s clothes, about to head for the restroom when she saw them — two cops, in uniform, hands on their billy clubs. She crouched to the ground, skittering sideways to hide behind a bush, wondering what to do. The cops walked past the outbuilding, peering into the park, shining flashlights at random. She ducked, watching the beams play past her, hoping the cops didn’t see her. One of their radios squawked in the distance, the only sound. Then, they turned and walked into the men’s room and Sylvia froze. She couldn’t do a thing to warn Dan now. What could she do, scream? That would get the cops away from him, but there’d be so many things to explain. She watched the yellow rectangle of light, expecting to see Dan being dragged out in handcuffs, every second adding to her excruciating wait — and, she realized, every second, she was getting more turned on. What if they weren’t really cops? What if they were, but they liked the idea of finding a strange, naked man all alone in a men’s room? Maybe they had Dan cuffed to a stall right now, giving him a thorough cavity search —

And then there was Dan, appearing from around the corner of the restroom, racing for her, and this adventure had excited him, too.

“Come on,” he said as she got up. He took his clothes from her, but carried them under his arm as he ran to their car, opened the door to let her in. He ran around to the driver’s side, got in, but didn’t start the thing.

“Right now,” he pointed to his lap. “Quick, quick.”

Sylvia didn’t need to be told twice. She dove down on him, taking him all the way to the back of her throat. He tensed up almost immediately, shot his wad with his hand knotting in her hair, then started the car and drove off down the road.

“What happened in there?” she finally asked him.

“I heard their radios before they came in,” he said. “Climbed out the window. They almost saw me.”

“They could have arrested you.”

“Yeah, I know. Isn’t that hot?”

“It would have been big trouble.”

“Exactly…”

He grinned at her and she knew he was right. She realized she’d been casually fingering herself since they got into the car, started moving her hand in earnest now.

“Having to explain to them, they’d probably take you away with a tarp over you, you’d be stuck at the police station until I came to make bail. There’d be a police record, a court case. Everybody would know. Everyone would know about… everything, I’m sure, and those photos would turn…”

She never finished the sentence, since she’d finished herself at that moment and Dan pulled into their parking space, stopped the car, got out. He opened her door, still naked, and she stumbled out, still a little shaky. “What about your clothes?” she asked.

“Leave ‘em,” he said. “I’ve got my keys.” He lead the way back to the apartment and was ready to go again before they even got in the door. As they entered, she was already pulling her dress off and he flicked on the lights, shut the door and opened the drapes. They did it two or three more times, right in front of the window, finally falling onto the floor exhausted as the sun was coming up. They knew for certain that several joggers and the guy delivering the Times had seen them, one of the joggers stopping to trot in place for a long time as they put on their show.

They fell asleep in the living room and didn’t get up until early afternoon. They went to see a movie, but only held hands in the theatre. They were practically the only ones in the place, and everyone else was sitting in front of them, focused on the screen. No point in doing anything that wouldn’t be appreciated. They started making out in the car afterwards, but it was the middle of a weekday. The lot was deserted. They gave it up before they’d proceeded to anything more and went home, not even having time for a quickie before Dan had to go to work. He asked Sylvia if she wanted to come by later, but she said no. Why bother? The place would be empty. The gym? Maybe, but the kid had already seen them enough times and never did anything, what was the point?

“Want to go fuck on the police station steps?” Dan winked at her.

“Even for us, that’s a bit much,” she answered, kissing him good-bye. “See you later,” and he left. She made herself a cup of tea and sat at the computer, searching for “subway sex” and “subway couple” and every other combination of words she could think of that might blaze the ethereal pathway to their one recorded moment of glory, but there was nothing. It had been a lot of good times with no absolute proof, other than their memories, which were morphing as they sunk into the past, better probably than they’d been in originally happening, but far short of… something, some ultimate, some unknown thrill that was floating out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered but refusing to hint about itself.

Dan called her around one in the morning. He was going to be late. “The troublesome twins up to their old tricks,” he said. “This time, the fight got started inside, so I have to give a witness statement.”

“You really have to make them stop that,” she sighed.

“Yeah, what do I care, I don’t own the place, and people always tip more afterwards.” He paused, then she could hear the suggestion in his voice, “The place is crawling with cops.”

“Keep your pants on,” Stacey told him, not rhetorically. She hung up and went to bed, knowing Dan wouldn’t do anything that extreme. He couldn’t. She wasn’t with him, after all, and that was the entire point of the game.

Together, chasing the thrill. But what could they possibly do next?

* * *

Saturday Morning Post #87: Until the Thrill is Gone (part 1)

In another story from “24 Exposures,” meet Dan and Sylvia, a couple who can’t quite keep it in the bedroom. Or the house.

This is another story from the collection 24 Exposures, in which a sexually adventurous couple keeps pushing the boundaries — but how far can they go?

Dan and Sylvia hadn’t done the carousel for a while, but they had done it long enough to perfect their timing. Jump on last, just before it started, find an empty horse on the inside track that wasn’t near anyone else, and climb aboard, Sylvia in front.

As soon as the horse started moving, Dan would undo his fly and Sylvia would lift the back of her skirt. Neither of them often wore underwear anymore. Then, it was a simple matter of them riding the Merry-Go-Round, her riding him, and they’d perfected it so that both of them would cum just as they felt the motor disengage and the great wheel begin its slow deceleration. They had an entire four minutes from that point to rearrange things and pretend it had just been an innocent children’s ride, climb down laughing, and walk away through the mall, no one but them the wiser.

It had been their first game, early in the marriage one Tuesday afternoon. They were bored, they went shopping, the mall was practically deserted and there was this huge, old, beautiful wooden carousel.

The horses looked like they were made of wedding cake frosting but the lights and the gold gilding gave off the giddy heat of a long-lost sex trade midway. Neither of them remembered who suggested it first. It was probably something they both thought of at the same time, exchanged that look, smiled, and bought their tickets.

It had been the beginning of their big adventure and, all things considered, it had been a pretty tame effort. Eventually, they’d do it on a Sunday afternoon. Now that was exciting and dangerous, the mall jammed with people, the carousel stuffed with riders. But it was still pretty safe and no one ever noticed and they never got caught and it only took about a month or two of doing that trick at least once a week for them to both decide that they needed something… more.

They had that discussion one night at three a.m., in the afterglow of a particularly rough, loud fuck that made the glasses rattle in the racks above the bar where Dan worked. Sylvia was lying on the bar, smoking, while Dan zambonied her crotch with a rag. Their clothes were scattered all over the place, but it didn’t matter. They were the only ones there, even though Dan had left the door unlocked.

“Can you imagine doing this with a full Saturday night crowd?” he asked her.

“Oh yeah,” she answered, still a little tingly. That rag was hitting the right spots.

“Right on top of the bar like that, everyone sitting here watching. Bet the tips would go way up.”

“Like yours did, she thought,” but she wasn’t really listening at the moment. She grabbed his wrist, held his hand tight and she didn’t have to say what she wanted. Dan smiled, adjusted his technique slightly and hit the magic spot again.

Sylvia’s hips flew off the bar, taking his arm with them, her feet shot straight out and she let loose a guttural half-moan, half-scream. Dan certainly envied the instant-reset ability of women. It would be five or ten minutes more before he was ready for another round.

Sylvia rolled off the bar, went for her panties, which she had been wearing this evening. She sat on a bar stool to put them on, but Dan leaned over, took them from her hands, sniffed them, then pulled them on his head.

“I like that outfit, barkeep,” she said. “Now give me a stiff one, straight up.”

“I think I already have,” he smiled before kissing her. Sylvia was amazing. He had dated a lot of women before he met her, and with all of them, it had always been the same. If the sex didn’t start out dull and boring, it got that way quickly.

Dan couldn’t count how many times he’d be at the two month point and find himself humping an inert lump in the bed, a hot-looking woman who nevertheless started acting like an appliance once things got serious. Place on back, spread legs, insert tab A into slot B…

Sylvia was different. She was as adventurous as Dan was, with just as nasty an imagination. Two months passed, then three, then a year and then he knew he was in love and he proposed to her on St. Patrick’s day, in this bar, and they’d been married on Hallowe’en and celebrated their first honeymoon bang on a balcony of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, high above the neon lights and thronging tourists. If it wouldn’t have gotten him fired, he would have laid her right there on the bar during happy hour. Hey, they were adventurous, but neither one of them was stupid.

That was the key to everything — the illusion of danger, the possibility of getting caught, but only a possibility, never a reality. Being seen was one thing. It was a big thing, part of the thrill. The trick was making passers-by only think they’d seen what they’d seen, or to only be seen in places where no one could immediately do anything to stop them. The police were to be avoided at all costs, and both of them had perfected the ability to get completely in or out of their clothes in eight seconds flat. Speed was not necessarily an asset, and Dan had discovered the joys of Velcro flies after one near-accident with a zipper.

They’d been married for three years now, and it just kept getting more interesting.

Sylvia had slipped her dress back on, was smoothing it down, looking for her other shoe. It was just icing on the cake that a woman with Dan’s appetites was also so attractive. She had butterscotch skin and an oval face with high cheekbones, green eyes that just wrinkled slightly when she smiled. And she had one of those long, graceful swimmer’s bodies, high hip bones that dove into legs that went on forever, an absolutely flat belly with an oval navel from which Dan had frequently tongued maraschino cherries or olives or whatever else they happened to have handy. And, like Dan, she was completely clean-shaven. Unlike Dan, she had only deigned to get one small tattoo, a tiny sunburst right above the point where her spine curved between her buttocks. It was a very sensitive spot, as Dan well knew.

He was staring at her and she noticed, smiled. “Let’s get home,” she said. He nodded, looked for his jeans. Sylvia watched. He was still sweaty, the slick glow on his skin under the bar lights helping define his muscles. He was one of those guys whose body was built wide but shallow, so he looked more hulking than he really was, with an almost rectangular torso between wide shoulders and wide hips, which ran straight down into massive thighs. His face didn’t quite fit the image, although Sylvia thought that just made him sexier. He had an innocent, All-American boy kind of face, with pouty lips, long nose and doe eyes. He shaved everything but his eyebrows, had tattoos on both biceps, his lower back, his left thigh and his right ankle, and had five silver rings in one ear, two silver studs in the other, along with piercings in his tongue, both nipples and his navel. She knew he’d probably soon add a small silver ring to the head of his penis, since he’d been talking about it, though Sylvia tried to dissuade him from that idea at every opportunity. She didn’t want that part of him out of commission for a single moment. He’d always remind her that his tongue had recovered perfectly well, and could fill in when necessary. She’d counter with, “A dick is different than a tongue.” He’d stick his tongue out at her, wiggle it triple-time, then say, “And you know it.”

He was very talented with his tongue. And his fingers, and every other appendage. He had once gotten her off with his big toe under the table in the back booth at Canter’s while they were having dinner with her parents. Was it any wonder she loved this man?

“Ready?” he asked her, lifting the pass-through to come out from behind the bar. He was now completely dressed, her panties sticking out of his shirt pocket. She took his arm, smiled.

“Always,” she said.

As she waited just outside the door while he locked up, Dan said, “Hey, next time, let’s do it in the parking lot. Butt-naked, right on the asphalt, right over there.”

At the time, it had been one of those, “Yeah, sure, right,” suggestions. They were adventurous, but neither one of them was stupid.

But then, inevitably, even the carousel and the bar and fucking on a deserted beach in a rainstorm and blowjobs on the freeway at rush hour got a little routine. They both sensed it, that’s how in tune with each other they were. They were still very much in love, still bringing each other to mind-numbing orgasms on a staggeringly frequent basis. But somehow, it just wasn’t quite the same as early on.

“Does it feel like the thrill is gone?” Dan asked her one afternoon while he was finger-fucking her on the sly in a crowded elevator in a very tall building. Even though she was clenched around him like a vice and was practically panting, she still nodded, said, “Well, yeah.”

“Me too,” he whispered in her ear before the blood went to her head and she started vibrating, biting her lip so as not to make any telltale noises. He removed his hand, put his arm around her shoulder and she could smell herself on his finger. She wondered if anyone else could, but she knew that even if anyone had, they wouldn’t say a thing. Maybe that was the big problem. Nobody paid attention. They might as well have been doing this on a desert island, for all the intentionally averted looks and exaggerated ignorings they had received.

“We’ll think of something,” he said. And, eventually, they did.

* * *

Saturday Morning Post #84: The Freedom of Disguise (Part 1)

In this short story, we visit the world of small theatre in L.A. and one producer/director secretly using the artform to help his actors improve themselves.

Here is the next short story from my collection called 24 Exposures, which I wrote over 20 years ago, the first of three installments. This one is set in the world of small theatre in Los Angeles, something with which I’m very familiar as audience member, writer, techie, and performer.

Opening night and the play was working like a charm. Near the end of the first act, Bill knew he had a success on his hands. He’d cast the leads perfectly, and their big emotional scene was dynamite onstage. They had achieved something beyond chemistry, and the entire audience was riveted in dead silence. That was always the measure of the success of a piece — the cough ‘n shuffle factor, Bill called it. Make an audience stop doing both of those things, and you knew you had them in the palm of your hand.

When the moment finally came, the big moment, when Mark and Loretta suddenly expressed their forbidden love and kissed for the first time, the audience gasped. In the world of Bill’s play, the priest and the nun had just crossed a line, broken taboos, connected… And Bill could see from his vantage point in the booth that these two weren’t just stage kissing. As the fade out on the first act came, Bill smiled to himself. Everything he’d just seen onstage was incredibly real.

As the play ended and the audience applauded the curtain-call, Bill left the booth and went down the dark, warm, narrow hallway, down the hollow-thudding stairs and opened the lobby doors. It was a small place but all his, one of hundreds of small theatres scattered all over Los Angeles. He’d been smart enough to pick a place near the great off-white way in Hollywood, along with all the other small theatres, near a subway station. It was named the Gloria O’Ferral Theatre, in honor of his mother. He wasn’t in this business for fame and riches.

The usher opened the theatre door behind him and the flood of houselights poured forth. The small audience snaked out, cigarettes deploying among the few who smoked as soon as they hit the sidewalk. Bill went back into the theatre where some of the cast were already wandering among the seats, ready to party. “Good show, everyone,” he called out. “Excellent work.”

“Author, author!” someone yelled back. It was Andy, the stage manager.

“What’s next, Little Billy?” That was PJ, one of the actors. Everyone called Bill “Little Billy” because he was six-foot-five.

“Oh, you’ll see,” he said with his best enigmatic grin. He did have a very specific part in mind for PJ, and thought he was ready to tackle it. Bill just hadn’t fine-tuned it all yet, so he didn’t want to tip his hand.

The party was as much of a success as the show, with everyone in a great mood. Somebody took over the sound system and kept an endless techno-beat going, and the company were dancing on the stage or schmoozing in the aisles. Bill looked around the room proudly. There were fifty people in the company, and he felt like they were all his children, even though he was only forty and, while most of them were in their twenties and thirties, there were a number of members older than Bill. Of course, the company felt like a family and quite a lot of them literally became family. They’d had eight marriages, all of them still together; half a dozen gay and two lesbian couples that had met here; and one very Bohemian ménage between two straight actors and a goth actress named Brigid. Yes, the place was incestuous, but in a good way.

Then Bill noticed Mark and Loretta, off in a corner together, his arm around her. It looked like the ninth marriage might be on the way. If not now, then definitely by the end of the run. It always amazed Bill how the veneer created by acting could make two people incredibly intimate insanely quickly. That was the truth highlighted by falsehood, the freedom of disguise. It was the secret of all great acting and all great art — revealing everything while appearing to conceal it.

He spotted PJ, sitting by himself on the edge of the stage, watching the dancers. He was an interesting kid, with a lot of raw talent, recently arrived from one of those flat, green midwestern states. But there was something holding him back so far, a certain timidity whenever parts got too intense, especially if they involved any degree of sexual tension. Bill had no idea what the wall was. Maybe it was just the insecurity of youth. But he was determined to crack it and make PJ a great actor.

Insecurity. That was the word for Donna. She was a walking neurosis machine, and she was off in her own corner, too. Bill didn’t even have to follow her eyeline to know that she was staring at Vince, resident young male romantic lead in the traditional mode. Donna was always staring at Vince when she wasn’t asking anybody she could buttonhole, “Do you think… does Vince like me?” It was as annoying as hell, but Bill knew better than to tell her the obvious because she’d crack like an egg. He’d seen the result once when Loretta had finally snapped at Donna.

“Why don’t you just fucking ask him instead of all of us?”

Donna fled the theatre in tears that time. She was a champion at fleeing in tears. Bill would have to write that into a play soon.

He really wanted to do something to help her, but he knew that telling Vince about her obsession would be risky. Then again, how could he not know about it? Everyone knew everything here. Or most everything. But Donna had reached the point in her delusion that she was saying things like, “He’s a Libra and I’m a Cancer. That’s a good match.”

But how would she ever know…?

Maybe that was the problem. People never wanted to know the answers to their most burning questions. Certainty would leave an unfillable vacuum behind, and fire can’t burn in a vacuum. Bill knew that every question answered always led to more, and those often led to interesting adventures, but that was a lesson he preferred not to force on people. Such things were always better discovered than revealed.

But Donna had spotted him and swooped, and now she was standing there, eyes darting to the floor when they weren’t staring at him with bothersome intensity. There was chit chat, mixed with random compliments, then the inevitable Vince question. “Do you think he’d go out with me?”

“Donna,” Bill gave her his most encouraging smile, “Why wouldn’t he? Have you asked him out?”

“Oh, he doesn’t know I exist.” She said more, she always did, but Bill wasn’t listening. He was already working on the next play in his head.

Bill’s eyes wandered and he saw PJ, who had been cornered by Natalie. She was talking and he was mostly listening, often gazing past her at the dance floor, at nothing in particular. But no, Bill knew, it was someone in particular. He could just never figure out whom. PJ was very sly about that — it was impossible to tell which company member had caught his eye, and he was as reluctant to approach as Donna.

Well, at least he didn’t talk about it. But Bill was going to figure it out. And he’d figure out a way to solve that acting problem, too.

But he had half of his next play cast already.

* * *

Gloria O’Ferral was Irish as far back as anyone knew. Her great-grandfather and his brother had arrived in the nineteenth century, via Ellis island. The name had originally been Farrelly, but underwent an immediate metamorphosis upon arrival.

Contrary to popular myth, though, the names were not changed by disinterested employees on Ellis island. Rather, the immigrants self-reported and, depending on circumstances, that could lead to big changes right there. Some were illiterate and couldn’t even spell their names, so you might wind up with Connelly, Conelly, Connelloy, Conley, Coneley, and so on in the same family.

Others wanted to sound less foreign, so a name like Schmidt might become Smith. Still others were proud of their heritage, and that was the case with Gloria’s ancestor, who proudly added the O’ prefix that his family did not have, then simplified the rest. Farrelly became O’Ferral.

Meanwhile, his brother couldn’t spell the name in Gaelic, where it had about four hundred letters, half of them “H,” so he just simplified it and scrawled it out the way he thought it was spelled in English, so he became a Fearl. Of course, they were both dead now…

As was Gloria O’Ferral. That had been thanks to a little sloppiness at the dialysis center she’d been going to, and their failure to completely purge the cleaning fluid out of a machine before jacking it into her. Ironically, she died half an hour before her pager went off announcing a kidney had been found. Bill, only child, widowed, orphaned, had finally been encouraged by his friends to pursue a lawsuit, and the payoff (after attorneys and taxes) had still been like winning the lottery.

He bought his dream, the theatre, and his other dream, a house, and still had enough left in the bank to live like a corporate executive on investment interest alone for the rest of his life. It had driven the dialysis center into bankruptcy, which was only the cherry on top of a sundae whose sweetness could never make up for the bitter dish in which it was served. But Bill could make up for it and would make up for it. His theatre was more than a hobby or a vanity project. It was a mission.

When his attorney had handed him the check and Bill counted the zeroes, an amazing thing happened. All of Bill’s fear and doubt vaporized. He didn’t have to do it anymore, didn’t have to justify himself to the world. He didn’t have to need or want, he didn’t have to kiss someone else’s ass. There was only one thing to do with that kind of windfall. Share it.

He invited his five closest friends to dinner a week after he got the payoff, and under their dessert plates, each of them found a check for two hundred thousand dollars. Two months later, he was showing off his new house and three months after that, was giving a tour of the theatre just before it opened. They were not a huge commercial success at first, but word of mouth started to spread, and eventually they were selling out. The location didn’t hurt, either. It became easy to get actors to join the company. Then again, it was always easy. Bill didn’t charge any dues, and the word “free” was thespian catnip.

And in two years, they had a thriving, happy company and the theatre critics only had to say “at the O’Ferral,” and everybody knew where that was.

Another show over, and Bill was spending his days writing the next one. That was how he liked to work. Concentrate on one project from beginning to end, then let it go after opening night and dive into the next one. He’d have a good first draft finished by the time this six-week run was over, or extend the run if he wasn’t ready yet. Then, he’d work it with the actors for two or three weeks, polish it up and start rehearsal. There would always be another play running during this process, but Bill left those to Andy to choose and direct, reserving only the right of casting approval for himself.

That was the key to it all for him — casting. He’d actually postponed plays if a particular actor wasn’t available. He was always very specific in his writing.

The next play was a romantic comedy. That was also in keeping with his pattern, since the previous play had been a tragedy. It was going to be something of a bedroom farce, involving three couples, lots of entrances and exits and missed cues and misunderstandings, with everything resolving itself at the end. Vince was a natural for the lead, and so was Donna. Anyway, Bill was always encouraging her to do comedy, and this was the perfect chance.

PJ had the doe-eyed innocence that made ribald situations even more amusing. Maybe Mark and Loretta would want to play the other couple. That just left one part open, the role that would be paired ultimately with PJ’s character. At the moment, Bill didn’t have a clue who to pick. He didn’t know enough about how this play would end, and that often dictated a character more than anything else.

He was still wondering about it a week later when they had a reading in the theatre of one of the plays Andy wanted to do. PJ was in the audience and Bill mentioned the role for him at intermission. PJ was excited about it, wondering who he’d be playing with. Bill told him he wasn’t sure yet, asked if PJ had anybody he wanted to work with.

“What about Brigid?” he asked.

“Hm…” Bill pretended to think about it, but Brigid was all wrong. A goth was already comic enough and he was doing farce, not satire. Besides, he was waiting until he could cast her as Lord Byron’s doomed sister, Augusta.

It was after the show, during the milling around time, that Bill noticed PJ off talking to Max. That’s when it hit him, and the play solved itself before his very eyes. Of course. If he matched up two actors as the third couple, then the comic implications multiplied. Suddenly, anybody could be suspect with anybody else. It was perfect. As he wove the knots in his mind, they all collided to form the tapestry with the answer. Yes. Start out with the male couple not knowing they’re gay, and using that complication to drive the other two couples together, apart and back together again.

He rushed out of the party and upstairs to his office, where he locked the door, turned on the coffee pot and started his frantic typing.

* * *

Saturday Morning Post #71: Gratuity

In another short story from the 24 Exposures collection, Joanne and her husband have an… interesting relationship… and good reasons for it.

“That bush needs a good going over, see?”

Joanne pointed to a far corner of the yard. Pedro peered past the pool, nodded. “I’ll trim it for you, real nice. Real nice.”

“And, of course, mow the lawn. The mower is in the shed, all gassed up and ready to go. There’s lemonade in the kitchen, but try not to go upstairs if you don’t have to. We just had the hallway re-floored, it’s still drying.”

“Okay.”

“You can use the pool when you’re done, if you want. The yard’s very private.” Joanne checked her watch. “Shit, I’m late and I have to drive all the way to the Westside, excuse me.” She started for the door. “Uh — Pedro, right?”

“Yes.”

“What happened to Manuel, anyway?”

“He quit.”

“Really? That’s too bad.” She shook her head, thinking to herself that these gardeners kept getting better looking. And Pedro had to have been working out a lot. He didn’t get that t-shirt exploding body just trimming hedges. “I’ll be back in about three hours. Have fun.”

Joanne exited through the house and Pedro went right to work, putting on his gloves and heading for the recalcitrant shrubbery. She didn’t even glance back. She never glanced back. These were good kids, mostly. Hard-working. She was glad her husband finally found a decent agency.

Outside, she climbed into the Mercedes, checked her make-up in the mirror and started the car. She backed down the drive, then headed off and went around the corner. She parked the car, got out and locked it, then quickly walked back to the house, where she carefully let herself in and snuck upstairs, shoes off, tiptoeing up the stairs, gingerly across the carpet and down the hall until she was in the master bedroom, door locked behind her. The house was quiet. Big, empty and quiet. It never felt more empty than when her husband, Carl, wasn’t there, but never, ever felt quite full.

Through the bedroom windows, which were tinted on the outside, she could see Pedro working below. Not a shirker by any means. He was plowing into the bush with determination, but also a little artistry. Good. He wasn’t just hacking away at random, he was applying some shape to the thing. That was a positive sign. The agency had chosen well.

The phone rang. Joanne cursed under her breath, jumped to answer it, whispering, although there was no way Pedro could hear her from up here.

“Hello?”

“Is your pussy moist yet?” It was Carl.

“No, but I’m sure you’ve got a big stiffy,” she whispered.

“Why are you whispering,” he asked. “Where are you?”

“In the bedroom.”

“Naughty girl.”

“It’s the safest place to keep an eye on him, you know that.”

“So is he working hard or hardly working?”

“Working pretty hard, actually. It looks like he has a touch of topiary genius. What time are you going to be here?”

“I don’t know, how long do you think?”

“I told the guy I’d be gone three hours. That was about ten minutes ago. Figure it out from that.”

“Hey, so what do you think they’d think if they knew we were spying on them?”

“I’m spying on him. Who knows, nowadays, they probably half expect it, and that’s why he’s doing such a good job.”

“So, see you when I see you.”

“Sure.”

“I’m going to fuck you to within an inch of your life, you know.”

“I can hardly wait.”

“I’m waiting hardly. Bye.” And Carl hung up. Joanne smiled, went to the mini-bar and poured herself a drink. It’d have to be vodka on the rocks. She couldn’t risk all the noise the genesis of a proper martini would make. Outside, the lawnmower started up. She glanced out the window. Pedro was just starting to push the thing up the lawn, but already he was drenched in sweat. The white tank-top he was wearing was translucent, and he kept wiping his forehead with his arm. Joanne took a sip of the vodka — a little bit on the astringent side because she could never get it cold enough without torturing it in the shaker, but that was a small price to pay for knowing that the help was reliable. She wondered if the spying was the reason Manuel gave for quitting. Probably. Sometimes, people reacted strangely to having their diligence questioned. Still, the agency had never mentioned anything. They never did.

This new one looked very diligent, though. Joanne could just make out the tattoo on his left bicep, one of those blackwork faux tribal things that were so popular now, circling his arm like a garland of thorns. At least it wasn’t some gang thing. That would have made her very uncomfortable.

Then, Pedro stopped mowing. Joanne wondered to herself, “Now what’s he doing?” But, in due diligence, he only stopped long enough to peel off his shirt, ring it out and stuff it around his belt. Then he continued with his mowing. There was another tattoo on his back, same motif, running shoulder to shoulder. There were probably more and Joanne wasn’t sure, but when he turned around to mow the other direction, she thought she saw the glint of a ring in his left nipple.

“These kids,” she sighed to herself. When she and Carl were that age, the height of rebellion, if any, for a boy was a single earring on the “not gay” side, provided anyone could agree which side that was. Oh well, it was her generation that had pushed the envelope in the first place, so the increasing heights of body modification in this one were just some kind of weird karmic debt being paid off. Or so Joanne liked to think. At least the kid took care of that body, even if he was also defacing it. It was kind of like buying a new 750-i, then painting the hood lime green and keying the side panels.

Outside, the sound of the mower continued its gentle Döpplering — up, back, up, back — like a giant and very angry mosquito. She realized then that the sound would tell her whether Pedro was working or shirking, and so sat down in an armchair with her drink and a book and waited.

* * *

The lawn was enormous, bigger than most, Pedro realized. Manuel had warned him about that, but also told him that the Coopers were generous tippers. “She’ll tell you to use the pool,” he’d added. “And you can, they really don’t care.”

Quite a difference from some of his customers. He remembered one time, one of those hundred and ten-degree days, when he was working on a crew, hacking down the overgrowth on a house that had just been sold. End of the day, the boss jumped in the pool because he was about to pass out from heat stroke. Since they were already wearing shorts anyway, so did the rest of them, not really to swim, just to cool off. They’d all just gotten out of the pool when the new owner appeared from nowhere — she hadn’t even moved in yet — and launched into a shrieking tirade full of incoherent sputtering and legal threats and the more than implied statement that these little brown people had tainted the water and now she’d have to have it professionally changed. The woman was huge, four hundred pounds if she was an ounce. Hell, her arms were bigger than Pedro’s chest. All he could think was, “Jesus, lady, if I’d known your fat, greasy ass had ever been in that pool, I never would have gotten near the water.” The boss gathered everyone up, shooed them off the property, then followed them. They could still hear the woman from the backyard, making a call on her cell phone to bitch about the outrage to some acquaintance. The boss shook his head, laughing, as they all got into the truck. “Some people live for that shit,” he said.

No, the Coopers seemed like nice people, and the house was incredible. Two stories, sort of three, Spanish-style, gigantic yard with some kind of guesthouse at the back. There were high walls, cypress trees all around. It was like being in some kind of private park, an Eden with an impossibly green lawn.

Up and back. Up and back. It wouldn’t have surprised Pedro if he walked a good mile doing this. At least he could skip the Stairmaster tonight. He wondered what kind of business these people were in. He’d never met the husband, but the wife was in amazing shape and she had to be… well, old. Older, anyway. Maybe thirty. Or forty. Pedro was nineteen, so he had no sense of age when it came to adults. There were pretty much three categories: about my age, just kids or grown-up.

He wondered if they were drug dealers. There were two pretty expensive cars out front. But they didn’t have that look. Something too whitebread about the wife, and “Cooper” was one of those very WASPy, old English names. The kind of people who belonged to country clubs and supported D.A.R.E. and hung out in art galleries and at the opera. Pedro could tell they didn’t have any kids. The house was too neat inside. No toys, no play sets in the yard, and the wife did look way too young. Not too young to be a mother, but too young to have had kids. That was a subtle but important distinction. Being a parent wore people out. Pedro had seen it. He had a couple of friends who’d knocked girls up at sixteen, seventeen. Two years later, they looked like tired old men, transformed into beer-bellied vatos with dark circles under their eyes long before their time.

Up and back. More than halfway done and shit, was it hot today. One of those days when even the air sweats and the sky is so blue it hurts. He paused for just a moment, tried to wipe his face with his shirt, but they were both too wet. On every return trip across the lawn, the pool glimmered at him, more and more inviting. And he was invited, that was a nice gratuity even if it wasn’t money. These were the good kind of rich people, the kind who didn’t ever seem to notice what color someone was or how much money they had in the bank. Most likely, they’d started out piss-poor and worked their way up. Maybe the husband was a doctor, or he owned a business or something.

Pedro wanted that some day. Nothing fancy, just his own gardening company. No. Landscaping. That was the word, the big fancy word that brought in more money. Funny how words worked like that. A barber would charge you ten, twelve bucks for a haircut. A stylist would charge you thirty, forty, but do the exact same thing.

A landscaper. Not a gardener. Not and never just a gardener. Gardeners only maintained things. Landscapers created life, with artistry and planning and fertilization.

And there the garden ended. Pedro had made the last turn, come to the last row and gladly leaned down, shut the choke and killed the mower’s engine, which sputtered out into an ear-ringing silence. That was one of his favorite sounds. That and the little clicky-clack noise the thing made when you rolled it, done with, back to the shed.

The rye grass in the catcher was still warm as Pedro dumped it into the garbage, little bits and shards wafting up to stick to his sweat-drenched skin. The smell was rich and dark, almost a little overpowering. When the trashcan was full, he leaned over and took a whiff, shoved his hands in and played with the debris a little. Warm on top, cold beneath, it reminded him of his childhood, helping his father mow lawns. But there was also a muskiness to the smell that reminded him of something else.

He was almost done. All he had left to do was some edging, and then he’d have finished, so he grabbed the trimmer out of the shed, started it up, and neatly trimmed the borders of the lawns all the way around.

When he’d finished edging, he took the trimmer to the trash can and gently cleaned the grass off the blades, letting it fall into the bin as well.

A big ball of sweat rolled down his arm, dropped with a single plunk into the grass cuttings. Pedro took a whiff. He was pretty musky, too. He couldn’t have been happier about Mrs. Cooper’s invitation. He turned from the garbage and headed over to the pool.

He tested the water with his hand. Perfect. Not too cold, just the right amount of coolness. He sat down on a lounge chair, untied his boots and took them off. Now there was a strong smell that should be inflicted on no one else. He tossed his socks into one boot, did the same with his wallet and keys, then stood, undoing his belt. He felt a little bit weird doing this in a strange yard, but the place was quite secluded. He took off his pants, put them on the chair, walked toward the pool in his underwear. He dipped in a foot. Damn, it felt nice. An escape from this heat. He put in his other foot, stood on the step, ready to dive in, but then he realized he still had on his watch. Cheap thing probably wasn’t waterproof. He walked back to the lounge chair, taking his watch off, looking at the time, calculating. Realizing. Mrs. Cooper had said three hours, but it had only taken him forty-five minutes to do the yard. That meant at least two hours…

He scanned the yard again. Just walls and trees, no neighboring houses visible, and he knew the gates were locked. “What the fuck,” he whispered, then he slipped his boxers off, tossed them onto the chair and walked naked into the water. He waded in fast and dunked himself under, as much at this point to cool off as to slow down the raging hard-on that had popped up when he’d dropped his shorts. It was very strange to be butt-naked in someone else’s yard, but for the moment, the place was all his and he was in paradise.

* * *

Joanne thought she heard a splash, but she wasn’t quite sure. The edger had stopped a few minutes ago, and then nothing. She listened, then put down her glass and book, went to the window. The water in the pool was shimmering; Pedro was doing laps. The lawn looked immaculate, at least. He’d proven himself to be very good at his job, so far.

She crossed to the walk-in closet, turned on the light, surveyed her wardrobe, since her work upstairs was done. That was when she noticed the gun box on the top shelf, lid askew. She pulled it down and looked inside. Empty. She wondered if Carl had the gun. Probably. Just as well, she didn’t like that thing very much.

* * *

There was a raft next to the pool, and after swimming for a while, Pedro dragged it in, climbed on top of it and lay on his back to bask in the sun. This was nice. This was nice, the life a successful businessman — a landscaper — should have. He’d only just noticed that he was getting excited again, probably the sun, when he rolled over on the raft and saw Mrs. Cooper standing at the end of the pool, just standing there in a white dress, looking at him.

He kept rolling, right off the raft, falling into the water, getting a mouthful and sputtering. He came up for air, hiding behind the raft, looked at his employer, not sure what to say or do.

“Uh… you said I could… I didn’t want to get anything wet, I hope…”

“It’s all right, Pedro,” she said. “I thought I’d go for a swim, too, if you don’t mind.”

Before he could say anything, she dropped her dress and stood there in just her panties and damn, was she well put together and Pedro realized he was now living one of those Penthouse Forum letters, the kind he’d jerked off to so many times before. He didn’t know if she’d had a lot of work done or what, but he didn’t care. Her breasts were perfectly round, large but not ridiculously so, her nipples standing firm despite the heat. Her stomach was flat and toned. The raft drifted away, but Pedro didn’t even notice. He just stood there and little Pedro just stood there and Mrs. Cooper ran her hands slowly down her body, hooked her thumbs into her panties and rolled them off, an inch at a time, a process that seemed to take forever. She kicked them aside and stood up and Pedro could see that she was almost clean-shaven, just a landing strip of blond hair pointing the way to Nirvana.

She walked into the water, walked over to Pedro, grabbed his cock with one hand and kissed him, jamming her tongue into his mouth. Then she leaned back, rubbed her breasts against his chest, put his hands on them. “How about them apples, huh?” she said as he stared at them, wide-eyed. He shuddered, then kissed her hard, thrusting his hips. She ran her hands down his back, gave his ass a good squeeze, then pushed him away.

“Pedro, I want you to fuck me,” she whispered. He just nodded inarticulately. “Good,” she said, then she took his hand and lead him to the edge of the pool.

When they got out, Joanne took a good, long look at him for the first time. He was built like a little brick shithouse all right. Big pecs, full on six-pack, strong legs, great smile. And he was hung like an ox. Jesus, was she looking forward to having that thing inside her. She just hoped he didn’t cum too soon. He looked like he was about to shoot his load right now.

And he did have a nipple ring, which she found strange and interesting at the same time. She gave it a little tug and Pedro sighed loudly, closing his eyes. “A lot of you kids have these nowadays,” she said. “Why?”

“Keep doing that, you’ll find out,” he said and she noticed he got a little bit harder, a little bit impossibly bigger. She wished Carl could see that thing. It would put him to shame. She turned Pedro around, slapped him on his tight, round ass, which didn’t even jiggle when she did so. “Over there,” she said, indicating a lounge chair by the guesthouse. Like an eager puppy, he trotted over. She followed, knelt on the chair and spread her legs. He knelt in front of her, ready to just ram it home, but she put a hand on his shoulder, pushed him down.

“First things first, dear. It’s like a fine automobile. You have to warm it up before you drive it home.” He laid down, rolled over and buried his face between her thighs, his tongue snaking into her, and this kid was very good at it. She moaned and leaned back. Truth to tell, this part wasn’t necessary. She was more than ready as soon as she’d come downstairs. But muff munching wasn’t Carl’s favorite thing, so she might as well take the opportunity.

Ah, Carl. She wondered what he was doing right now. He was a good husband, really. A great husband. He’d started from nothing and worked his way up and everything around her now was his doing. From the moment they’d met, he was determined to give her everything she ever wanted and he had succeeded. Succeeded, she reminded herself, with one glaring exception, which was why she was sitting on the gardener’s face right now.

Carl had lucked out by inventing a fad, then he continued his streak of luck through a decade, one must-have Christmas item after another. He did all his manufacturing overseas, where labor was cheap. Then again, in some countries, eighty cents a day was a pretty good wage. He liked to think — and he’d pretty much proven to himself — that he was doing a good thing, helping impoverished people to have a better standard of living.

And Joanne liked to think she was doing the same thing. Pedro seemed to be enjoying himself, and the poor boy probably didn’t get a lot of this among girls his own age. Not if they were Catholic girls, naive enough to think that sex was some divine act. No, it was a pretty profane act, if you did it right, and Pedro sure as hell was doing it right.

He was still hard as a rock, and Joanne wondered if she should risk returning the favor. She didn’t want him blowing it before he’d fucked her. She ran her hands down his body, one hand down his thigh, and tickled his balls. His dick twitched and a single clear drop formed at the tip. Yeah, too risky, it was hair-trigger time. She pulled herself off his face.

“Fuck me now,” she said. He jumped up, nodding, and she lay down on the chair. Pedro got on top of her, that wild look on his face, took aim and plunged inside with no problem. His eyes rolled backwards as he started humping her, in and out, up and back, grunting and moaning like a pig in a vice. She leaned up and grabbed the nipple ring in her teeth, ran her hands down his back and grabbed his ass, which was nice and sweaty. He was banging her double-time now, but just in case he decided to be polite and pull out, she pushed a finger against his asshole. He reacted with a quizzical look for just an instant, but then she shoved her finger inside, holding him more or less like a bowling ball, pulling him forward. No backing out now. In any case, the finger seemed to do it. He reared up, every muscle tense, yelled out, “I’m gonna — “ and then he did, in mid sentence, slamming into her five, six more times, shaking and groaning, blowing his hot load home in a series of wrenching spasms.

Pedro could hardly see straight. That was a good one, and he’d have to remember that finger trick. He pulled his softening member out of Mrs. Cooper and found himself nose to barrel with a gun.

“Hi. Tending the wrong bush, hm?” The man holding the gun was Mrs. Cooper’s age, tall, perfect teeth, perfect hair, probably went to the same surgeons she did. He was wearing an expensive looking suit, holding a martini in his free hand.

“Carl…” Joanne said, but Pedro wasn’t paying attention to the conversation by this point. It was her husband, and he wasn’t here to make small talk.

Pedro jumped up, arms raised in about as submissive a gesture as he could muster, backing toward his clothes. He was halfway there before he noticed that Mrs. Cooper had already disappeared. He caught a fleeting glimpse of her backside racing toward and then through the open guesthouse door.

“Hurry up,” Carl said, gesturing with the gun. Pedro nodded, grabbing his boxers to put them on. “Just get out,” Carl added. “And if I hear about you telling anybody you fucked my wife, well…” he cocked the gun, “I know where you work, remember?”

Pedro snatched up his clothes, not putting them on, and ran across the lawn. He fumbled with the gate, then darted out into the street and took off, trying to hold his clothes in front of himself. He’d gone three blocks before he ducked behind a hedge, out of breath, and started to get dressed. Looked like he wasn’t going back to work on the Cooper’s house any time soon.

* * *

Joanne came out of the bathroom, adjusting her clothes. Carl was standing there, waiting. “Well?” he said.

She shook her head.

“You’re sure?”

“Yes.”

“But I saw him, he came inside you, didn’t he?”

“He came like a fountain, but…” She shrugged, gestured vaguely, fighting back tears.

“You’re sure about this?”

“Trust me, okay? It’s… believe me, I know. Everything is doing what it’s supposed to.” She tried to laugh. “She’s b-a-a ck.” Her attempt at a joke made her cry harder.

“All right. All right,” Carl said, walking to her and taking her in his arms. “We can still make this work. I really want this to happen, you know that. We’ll try again, next time it’s… next time you’re… you know.”

“Ovulating,” she said, the word sounding so cold. Carl nodded, held her tight.

“That last one was a good-looking kid, too,” he said. “It’s a shame. You don’t suppose he’ll be back, do you?”

She shook her head. They never came back, that was the whole idea. No complications later, in case…

She looked past Carl’s shoulder at the calendar on the wall, the X’s and circles. Carl noticed, glanced over. “It’s been two weeks,” she said. “If it was going to happen…” She trailed off, buried her face in his chest.

“So we’ll try again in another two weeks, don’t worry. Sooner or later.”

“There has to be something your doctor can do.”

He gently lifted her chin, kissed her forehead. “I wish, but… Hey, I made a promise to you, and we’re going to make it happen.”

Joanne couldn’t help but smile through her runny mascara. Carl really was a great husband. He’d do anything for her. He’d proven that half a dozen times, and she knew he’d keep on proving it, for as long as it took.

No matter how long that was.

* * *
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