The Saturday Morning Post #1

This is a series of reposts while I take care of some medical issues. I don’t know how soon I’ll be back to posting regularly, but I will let you all know! Here is the first even installment of The Saturday Morning Post.

* * *

THE ROCKY ROAD FROM WALGREENS

I can’t believe how crowded it is at four in the morning in the 24-hour Walgreens on 7th in the Jewelry district. It’s your typical urban storefront business, taking up the entire ground floor of a 12-story building erected in 1923. Once upon a time, its footprint probably comprised multiple stores. Then again, in those days, specialization was everything, so that the bakery, butcher, deli, dry goods, grocer, liquor, newsstand, pet, pharmacy, stationary, and toy departments were their own individual businesses.

There’s a reason they call them supermarkets, superstores, big boxes and… face it, those terms are retro. I really mean Amazon Alphabet. Same idea. Everything available under one big metaphorical roof, delivered by the same drone army. Except for those of us, rich and poor, who buy local. Like me, this very morning.

Above the store are tons of apartments. I’d read somewhere one time that this building has the equivalent of just over five acres of living space in it. For some reason, most likely the lack of proximity to schools, there are also several hundred registered sex offenders living in it. This might explain why this particular Walgreens has adult magazines, although they come wrapped in discreet black plastic with only the title logo, date, price, and UPC code printed on the outside in stark white. Well, UPC in black bars in a white box, but there’s nary a VQR or AQR code showing, for reasons that should be obvious.

As I wait in line, I glance out the windows, not missing the irony that this Walgreens is directly across the street from a similarly-situated Rite Aid — they’re direct competitors — although it’s only the Walgreens that is open 24 hours a day.

I can’t believe that anything down here is open all night long, but a few years back, right when they finished the Purple Line extension, the city started paying pharmacies in certain areas to stay open, providing them with armed, on-duty LAPD officers, two per storefront.

The real razón de ser for the extended hours is that the city also subsidizes them to keep a good-sized supply of naloxone auto-injectors on hand to be administered for free by the rotating staff of ever-present nurses (these subsidized by the county) in order to prevent yet another needless opioid death. Yes, this sort of defeats the whole “auto” part of “injector,” but by the time most of these people make it in the door, they’re on the edge of not being able to do anything ever again.

Before the program, it wasn’t uncommon to walk down certain city blocks in the morning and have to step over the bodies. They were as prolific as those e–rental scooters had once been, and just as annoying. At least the scooter companies had all folded after the perfect triple disaster. First, pissed-off residents had started vandalizing and trashing the things almost from the beginning, one annoyed citizen becoming an infamous folk hero for tossing them into the Venice canals. Certain cities banned them outright, starting with Beverly Hills, then extending to Burbank, Glendale, Malibu, and West Hollywood. Next, an endless parade of hackers kept pumping out what they called “Scoot Free” apps that would fool the system into not charging riders, and they would defeat every new patch as soon as it came out in the longest known run of continuous Zero Day Exploits ever perpetrated.

This was just about the point that the original scooters that had survived started to hit 5,000 miles of use, at which point a terrible flaw suddenly revealed itself. Because some manufacturers had gone cheap, the batteries in the things would explode with enough force to launch the entire handlebar assembly into the air at least a hundred feet — or about thirty-two if the average hapless rider didn’t think to let go. Ironically, this was one of the few times that obesity saved lives by reducing the launch altitude to a survivable height (yay, physics?), although dislocated shoulders were very common.

Those companies had all either gone bankrupt or moved to other endeavors before the summer of 2025. But that really has nothing at all to do with why this Walgreens is so crowded at four in the  morning on a Tuesday in April. I’m thirteenth in line with two checkers on duty behind the dozen registers and, it being four in the morning, everyone looks extra bad — especially more so under the fluorescent lights. I’m trying to imagine what circle of hell this resembles through the 16K HD cameras that are watching us all from every direction when I notice the customer in front of me.

He’s twelfth in line, and he has only two items — both of them family-size twelve-packs of toilet paper that I can see are labeled “triple-ply” and “ultra-absorbent.” (Ah, “ultra” — that super meaningless advertising buzzword!) I look at his face, general demeanor, and hollow desperation in his eyes, and put it together quickly. Junky. Up until probably this morning, when for some reason he couldn’t score, and the inevitable end result of suddenly going off of a powerful constipating agent is probably just starting to kick in and he knows it.

Well, isn’t this going to be fun?

I shift the pint of Häagen-Dazs rocky road from my right hand to my left to warm up my fingers and wonder how long this is going to take. My ice cream run is an occasional indulgence, although it’s usually just in and out. I have no idea why tonight is so different. Still, I know I have time, since they keep the freezers cold enough here that the ice cream stays at brick consistency for ages.

On the other hand, the glacial pace of the line isn’t giving me any confidence. I have to wonder what the hell all these people are doing up at this hour. In my case, it’s simple. I had business to conduct online in real-time with Hong Kong, Melbourne, and London simultaneously, and the only time that synced them up was a window that had started two hours ago, even if it meant that Melbourne had to stay a bit past office hours. I’m used to it, everything turned out very well, and so my ice cream run was a bit of a celebration of a job well done.

As for the rest of these people, though? It’s doubtful that any of them have just completed a multi-billion dollar deal. Most of them seem to have come here desperately seeking relief from some great physical malady. I can see that a lot of them clutch small cardboard boxes that are strapped to security devices three times their size.

Small enough to steal easily, expensive enough to care about — ergo, cures for the torments that steal the sleep of humankind. You never see those security devices on playing cards or Scotch tape, either of which can vanish into a pocket in a second. And the customers’ distresses were etched deeply into their faces and even distorted their bodies. Hell, if I were a casting director, half of these people would make it onscreen for the next Zombie or Medieval Plague thing to be shot. The other half would probably land on the exciting new reality show Poor Life Choices!

Meanwhile, the flat screens are everywhere around us, scrolling through a series of happy images of stock-photo people of all possible demographic combinations as they enjoy freedom from acne, allergies, arthritis, athlete’s foot, bloating, constipation, cramps, depression, diarrhea, ED, hemorrhoids, migraines, social anxiety, and more. (Name your malady, it’s up there.) All of these seem to involve exuberant poses on stark white backgrounds or frolicking somewhere in nature with an implied loved one or family. The predominant color palette outside of white and various tones of human flesh involves “serious medicine” blue and “snap out of it” red, both of which happen to be Walgreens logo colors.

What? I’m in the psychology of marketing. I know how this shit works: All too well, especially on those who haven’t been vaccinated against it. But as I stand here waiting for the line to take one more Sisyphean step on its way up to the summit of catastrophe, I realize that I’m standing in a pile of anti-vaxxers, to use the quaint term from my college days before we got real and called them what they really are: pro-diseasers. Except that these people don’t avoid vaccinations against the diseases we finally did kill (again) like measles and polio. They embrace the ones we still can’t kill, like capitalism, commercialism, and corporatism, all of which are ultimately fatal.

Well, fatal unless you’re actively spreading them, in which case they confer a weird immunity on you which is called wealth. But that’s neither here nor there. And, anyway — ooh. Look at all the shiny hope they’re advertising on those screens!

And as the people in line distract themselves with the magic totems of HEALTH and HAPPINESS and SATISFACTION and LOVE and SEX and POWER being projected at them, I start to distract myself with the people in line and, sure enough, it’s a parade of all of the typical personas we create and manipulate in the lab before we take them into the field.

Oh. Pardon my jargon. A “persona” is a profile created by marketing people to describe a segment of the target audience for a particular brand, product, or industry. Generally, a company will have three or four, ranked in order from most loyal customer down to “not loyal, but still buys our shit.” And yes, thank the Lords Zuckerberg and Brin, because creating personae became so much easier once social media exploded and everyone became all the more willing to unknowingly complete marketing surveys with every single click. What? You think those free personality quizzes are there just out of the kindness of someone’s heart? Nope.

Remember these important words: “If a company is willing to give you something for free, then you are the product.” If you’re fine with selling yourself for nothing, then great. It makes my job much, much easier.

A consequence of this, though, is that I’m always hunting personas in the wild and, like I said, this place is full of them.

Look right now — there’s a “Karen.” She’s with checker number two. Well, Karen is the general industry term. In my shop, we refer to her as “Expired Yoga Pants.” I watch as she wastes a good ten minutes predictably bringing up the “Nordstrom Argument,” as in, “You should give me what I want because Nordstrom will refund anything without a receipt!” I wonder if she knows that a policy like that would drive a company out of business fast.

TL;DR: Nordstrom was infamous for allegedly actually giving refunds for anything, whether they sold it or not, with the classic example being a tire, or tires, or snow tire, or snow tires, returned for a cash refund from either an experienced clerk, a new and confused clerk, or the founder of the store himself, in either Nome, Fairbanks, or Seattle. In other words, the story is complete bullshit, even though you’ll hear it in business classes to this day as an example of “The customer is always right.”

By the way, “the customer is always right” is also bullshit. The correct version is “you should always make the customer feel like they’re right.” A huge difference, because you maintain goodwill either way, although the correct version is generally impossible to achieve with a Karen.

Now, while I’m watching Expired Yoga Pants go into high dudgeon at the young woman behind the counter, I realize that the guy in front of me has started nodding up and down, and I can hear him saying the rosary under his breath in Spanish, picking up the words “Santa Maria, madre de Dios ruega por nosotros los pecadores…”

“Perdóneme, señor,” I ask him, “¿Usted está enferma?”

He glances at me with a mixture of surprise and suspicion — white guy speaks Spanish? — then replies quickly, “No, no señor. Estoy bien. Sólo es que está muy temprano.”

Before I can reply, our conversation is ended when the customer at the counter pulls the ultimate “Karen” and screams, “I want to talk to your manager,” I can almost hear some of the other people around me shrug in glee when the tiny transwoman behind the counter, who can’t be more than 19, quietly replies, “I am the manager. I won’t be talked to like that. Get the fuck out of my store. And don’t come back. Bitch.”

So much for the customer always being right. Sometimes, the business is so much more right.

Expired Yoga Pants huffs out without her goodies and, I suppose, if everyone in this line at four in the morning on a Tuesday in April weren’t so desperate to check out and get relief, there might have been some kind of applause. Or at least smiles.

All the time that “Karen” was taking up the manager’s time, the other checker is being monopolized by… well, there’s no marketing persona for this one in my industry because, frankly, we don’t care, so we don’t even spend time collecting their data. At least my shop came up with a creative name for them — “Bathtubs.” As in… they’re usually white, mostly empty, going out of style, and circling the drain.

Yeah, cruel maybe, but they’re not a victim of marketing, they’re a victim of capitalism and time — although not quite a victim in the sense you’d think. My grandfather told me that what I’d heard about his father was true: When people back then retired, they could afford to do all kinds of shit. Travel. Maybe go back to school and learn new things. This bathtub’s generation wasn’t victimized by capitalism and time by having too little of either. Rather, he was victimized by having too much of both.

People like him are also victims of themselves. They grow old and die because they refuse to stay young and think.

Casinos, cruise lines, hotels, manufacturers of all kinds of assistant devices, pharmaceutical companies, and resorts market to these people hand over fist. Why? Because the good times of three quarters of a century ago meant that they actually retired with lots of money and pensions they could live on and they probably owned real estate that they bought for a few thousand dollars that is now worth a few million. I don’t deal with those industries, although I’d guess that they probably call their versions of their personas Thurston and Lovey — either that or Rich Uncle Pennybags.

But those people must have been a total fantasy, right? I’ve heard rumors that they existed, but I think they all finally died out around the turn of the century. The ones that survive now, the bathtubs, are their kids more likely. And it’s really sad to see how being forgotten by society grinds them down to… stubs, really. Or… no, there’s probably a better word (note to self: pitch this idea tomorrow, although we’ll never market to it) Yo-yos. An alleged toy from their youth that describes what they do — they keep coming back to what they know.

Which is why I watch this old man pause for at least twenty seconds between every step of this fucking transaction, and it makes me want to throw things at him.

Clerk: “That will $55.23.”

(Take your time to view a streamer on your dev here.)

Yo-Yo: “Fifty… fif… uh?”

(Loop that vid about four times, we’ll get back to you.)

Clerk: (heroically) “Yes. Yes. How do you want to pay?”

Yo-Yo: “Oh… kay…”

And then begins the epic drawing of the sword. No, sorry… the wallet. The ancient wallet full of actual money that is laboriously pulled Excalibur-like from one of the pockets of the ill-fitting and ridiculously colored shorts that this Yo-yo wears over black socks and sandals. Yes, it’s on a chain. Yes, it has too many snaps and zippers, and yes, it’s as much a mystery to him today as it was the day that his granddaughter gave it to him ten years ago because she had no other ideas and found it when she stopped to get FroYo in a strip mall on the way to his 75th birthday party.

This is about the point where I resist the urge to ask him how he even got here or if he knows what year it is. Hell, what century? And if you think that’s being snarky, sorry. But by the time I’m that old, I’m pretty sure we’ll have cured it, and migrated off of the planet anyway.

Or we’ll all be dead. Did I mention that, a week ago, it snowed here? And today it was 110. Four in the fucking morning and it’s still 85 degrees out. In April. A week after it snowed.

Between the time that “Karen” has come and gone and Yo-Yo is halfway to counting out two dollars, some kid who’s probably about fifteen hits the other counter. He’s riding a one-wheel, busily dictating a text into the headphone/mic dangling from his left ear, and has about fifteen items in his basket. Damn if he doesn’t get them all out to be scanned in something like ten seconds, is swiping the pring on his left hand over the paypoint even before the checker announces the total and has bagged everything before she smiles and says, “Have an okay day!”

He was in and done in less than half a minute. God, I love this generation, whatever they decide to call it, although one commentator, I forget who, suggested Generation Yuzz, because that was the first letter “Beyond Z” in the Dr. Seuss book of the same name. I suppose it would also work as Generation Yass, because these kids get shit done fast.

Oh yeah — kids his age fall under a persona we call “Jacobella,” named for the two most common baby names of the decade they were born in, and nicely also delineating the idea that they really don’t believe in any kind of binary designation, whether it comes to gender, race, sex, sexual orientation, political belief, religion, or… anything. They are definitely not generation “Either/Or.” They are generation “Yes, and more.” And they are the first generation which we have not broken down by gender or sexual orientation because, honestly, that would be impossible and pointless.

They’re a tricksey bunch for marketers because they’d rather spend their money on experiences, preferably ones they can share with their friends, or spend it on loved ones or give it away to charity. Of course, the oldest of them are only just about to graduate high school, so they’re living at home, and the youngest of them haven’t been born yet, but they’ve been monetizing their lives since at least fourth grade and will probably either live at home until well into their 30s or move into group homes with at least twenty people sharing an open loft or warehouse space in the seedier parts of the edges of the centers of town, like DTLA.

In other words, in five years, about six blocks south of here, between Pico and the 10 and Hope and Lebanon, is going to be full of Yuzzes, but that will only last for about five years before the Millennials smell money and gentrify the hell out of that place, too.

But I do digress… The end result of a Jacobella following up the “Karen” and beating out the Yo‑Yo is two customers down, eleven to go, and I could continue to tick off the marketing personas all night long, except I won’t, because when we got to ten to go (another Yuzz, only buying one thing, in and out, five seconds), something I should have predicted happened.

Remember the guy in front of me? The one buying bulk TP and nothing else at that hour? The one with the wild eyes and desperate look? I pegged it — a junky who’d suddenly been knocked out of the saddle, and was soon going to face one really, really major need.

See, when you’re on any variation of the opiates that don’t kill you, a very interesting thing happens. Your intestines nope out, your asshole shuts up for the week, and everything in your digestive system turns into cement. Boom. Locked. Your anus treats your shit like it’s the gold in Fort Knox.

All well and good, until somebody lets the Night Watch go, at which point it doesn’t take long before the dragon melts the walls, the castle gates open up and the troops all flee. (Sorry about the old streamy metaphors, but I had a nostalgic rewatch of that classic HBO tits and dragons series a couple of weeks ago. )

The tub of ice cream in my hand has just barely started to soften, but I can tell by El Vaquero’s expression that his stool has gotten a lot softer, and he’s not going to make it through the gauntlet of remaining personas, which include such gems as All the Things, Chatty, Coupons, another Karen, Price Check, Sloth, and “What?”

When he’s about eighth in line, I hear the quiet but unmistakable, “¡Chingadas!” so I calmly step back…

If you’d like more from the rest of the book, let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading.

Photo Credit: City Hall, DTLA, taken by the author, © 2017 Jon Bastian

Saturday Morning Post 93: Six-Pack Mary (Part 2)

Another piece of a short story from my 2001 collection “24 Exposures.”

We continue with more stories from my collection 24 Exposures, which was written around the turn of the century.

“Oh, so you’re married?” Kathy looked at the paperwork on the clipboard. “How long?”

“Uh… five years,” Myron said, trying not to let his voice shake.

“Children?”

“No. I mean, not yet.”

“Let me get the insurance papers for your wife, then.”

“I don’t need those. I mean, she has her own insurance and everything, so…”

“Ah. Then you’ll have to sign the waiver.” Kathy fished a form from a rack on her desk. “Are you covered under your wife’s policy?”

“No.”

“What’s her name?”

Myron stammered for an instant. He hadn’t thought about this part yet. “Uh — Myra,” he said.

“Oh, what a pretty name,” Kathy replied. “Is that why you go by Ron?”

“Y-yes.”

“Got it. I know this couple, the husband and wife are both named Kim. Now that must get confusing. Let me just go make a copy of your ID, and then we’ll introduce you around.”

She took his passport and I-9 form and walked out of the office. Myron sat there, twiddling his fingers, looking at the walls. It was a nice office, a little ritzier than his last place. They sold real estate and, according to one of his friends, the support staff was ninety-nine percent gay. He’d munged his resumé a little bit and landed a job in accounting. He could have gone for middle management, but that would have complicated things. This way, no one worked for him, so everyone was fair game. Besides, if things worked out right, he’d be the harassee, and he wasn’t going to complain.

Someone pushed a cart up outside the door, stopped, came in with the mail. Myron looked up, then had to look away. This boy was too painfully gorgeous. He was probably twenty-two at the oldest, tall, ruggedly cute. He put the mail in Kathy’s in-box, glancing toward Myron briefly.

“Hi,” he muttered, then walked out. There was a bit of a mid-western twang in that word. Myron let himself sneak a peak at the kid’s back as he walked out. Broad shoulders, probably a swimmer’s build that was barely hidden by his blue jeans and white, long-sleeved dress shirt. And out of the corner of his eye, Myron had noticed that those jeans were pretty well stuffed in front.

Outside, he heard Kathy say, “Thanks, Max,” and then she came back in, handed him his passport as he stood. “And we’re all set, Ron,” she gestured him to the door, extending her hand, which he shook. “Welcome to the ECM family.”

* * *

Myron sat at his desk, idly toying with his wedding ring as he studied spreadsheets. Brown suit, blue shirt, black tie. That was the hardest part, really — forgetting everything he knew about fashion. That, and remembering to leer approvingly when one of the few straight men in the office commented on some actress’s ass, occasionally throwing in a lewd comment of his own. Men certainly were pigs, weren’t they?

And he got to know Max, the mailroom boy, who was from Kansas and wanted to be an actor, and Chris and Billy and the other Chris and Cary and Doug and not one of them was over twenty-five and only one of them — the cutest one naturally, Max — wasn’t known as a total friend of Dorothy.

“The big secret is mixed signals,” Mike had told him when Myron had finally decided to take the plunge and begin the process in earnest. “Straight guys flirt all the time, except they don’t know they’re doing it. And gay men are afraid to flirt back with them, because that’s taboo, so it just cranks the pressure up more. The big trick is to make them want you without showing any interest at all.”

That had been the hardest part to figure out. Obviously, he couldn’t go around telling the boys, “Hey, nice ass.” But what, then? He was at a loss there and had been meaning to call Mike and ask him when, one day, Chris brought him a huge stack of papers and plunked them in the in box.

“Oh, thanks,” Myron said.

“Hey, it’s not like you’re going to actually do work with those or anything,” Chris said teasingly.

“Suck my dick,” Myron shot back, smiling, remembering to use the ‘d’ word and not the gay-giveaway ‘c’ word. And Chris blushed, looked down, thought a moment, then just went, “Uh, yeah,” and walked away.

Myron knew that look. That reaction. He’d scored a direct hit. Weird. And he cultivated the banter, played the game for a while and it seemed like the file boys were coming by his desk more often, hanging around in slow moments. He started telling them things were a little bumpy with Myra. She was spending more time out of town on business, and when she was in town, she didn’t seem to be as interested in sex. “And forget about getting blowjobs anymore,” he told Doug. “Quickest way to make a woman stop sucking your dick is to marry her.”

“Hm…” Doug said, raising an eyebrow. “And what are we going to do about that?”

Myron smiled, fished the proper response out of his repertoire. “In your dreams, Dougie-boy,” he said, grabbing his own crotch in straight-guy fashion. Doug grinned and walked away and Myron knew he’d thrown down the gauntlet. The trap was set, the game was meet — or was that “meat?” — and maybe all this incredible effort would be worth it.

* * *

“Wow, nice place,” Doug said as they walked into the apartment and Myron turned on the lights. He hung his coat in the closet next to Myra’s collection, went to the kitchen.

“Can I get you anything?” he asked. “Beer, wine?”

“Beer’s great,” Doug said, flopping on the couch, which was a bit too frou-frou for Myron’s taste, but it was his wife who’d picked it out, after all. Myron came in with two beers, handed Doug one and sat in the armchair.

“So, how’d you like the show?” Myron asked him.

“It was… interesting. Especially the second act.”

“Oh yeah, that. What do you think got into Christine?”

“She’s kind of a prude. Hey, I enjoyed that part of the show. Max sure has guts. To do that, I mean. In front of everyone.”

“Yeah, actors are all a little weird, aren’t they?”

“Max is a good guy. He’s just… confused.”

“Isn’t he… you know?”

“We all think so, but he doesn’t. Hey, did you know that Joyce is trying to make a play for him?”

“Joyce? Mousy Joyce in accounts payable?”

“Yep. Good luck.”

“Hey, pardon me for saying this, but even I think Max is a little light in the loafers.”

Doug laughed.

“What?”

“God, I haven’t heard that expression in years. It’s so… shit, that’s something my mother would say.”

“Bite me.”

“Watch out, I might…”

Myron snorted, swigged his beer. “You guys are okay, really,” he said. “It’s kind of nice to work in an office and not have to play that Monday morning game.” He threw on his best dockworker voice, “‘Yo, Vinnie, get any pussy over the weekend?’”

Doug laughed again. It was such a vulnerable laugh. He was a cute kid, average height, naturally square shoulders, not a gym queen. He had one of those All-American faces that could only have come from generations of various European immigrants intermingling through the great migration, cute little upturned nose, high cheekbones, strong jaw, dark hair and steel gray eyes, slightly short upper lip and jutting lower lip that just screamed “Kiss me.” Doug took another sip of beer, wrapping those lips around the bottle, looked away a little uncomfortable. “So, when do I get to meet your wife?”

“Oh, one of these days. She’s in Houston for the week, on business. Again.”

“And, how is… everything?”

“Don’t ask. My balls are as blue as a frozen Smurf.”

That got a big laugh out of Doug, but he also turned three shades of red. Myron got up, walked to the TV. “Anyway, you wanted to see the tape, so…” He picked up the remote, went back to the armchair. He’d lured Doug all the way to the Valley with the promise of a bootleg editor’s copy of the next big blockbuster — Myron had decided his wife worked in The Industry — and the bait had worked. He dimmed the lights, pushed ‘play’ and sat back waiting for the tape to do its job.

The TV screen plunged into blackness, and then flashed to life, but this was no studio summer blockbuster. It was a big titted blonde, servicing five hunky men at once, via every orifice and both hands, moaning and shrieking in her best fake tones. Myron silently counted to five, then raised the remote.

“Oh, Jesus, sorry. Sorry,” he said, intentionally hitting pause instead of stop. “Wrong tape.”

Doug laughed nervously. “It’s okay,” he said. “You know, I’ve never seen straight porn. What’s it like?”

“Pretty much just like that,” Myron gestured with the remote.

“You think those boobs are fake?”

“Probably. Know how you can tell?”

“I have no idea.”

“They don’t slide into her armpits when she lies down,” he explained, secretly glad that he’d started listening to Howard Stern, strictly research, mind you.

“Really? That makes sense. She’s got an incredible body,” Doug added, pointing at the frozen image onscreen. Myron gave him a look. Doug explained, “Hey, just because I don’t want to fuck it doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate it. And you can’t tell me there’s not at least one guy on that screen, you look at and think, ‘He’s got a nice body.’”

“I hadn’t noticed.”

“Come on. The one on the right there, I mean, completely objectively, that’s a nice body, isn’t it?”

Myron glanced at the screen, looked down, feigning awkwardness. Then he drained his beer, got up, handing Doug the remote as he headed for the kitchen. “Yeah, I guess so,” he said. “But if I was at gunpoint, I’d take the guy with his dick in her left hand.” He went to the fridge, grabbed two more beers.

“Eeeew,” Doug said. “That’s the most disgusting one. You must be straight.” By the time Myron came back, Doug had pushed play and the boob-jobbed blonde was screaming and wailing in ersatz earnest. They sat and watched the TV in silence for a while, until the five guys had blown their loads all over the blonde.

“Well, that made me horny,” Doug said. Myron had finished two more beers by this point, said nothing until he noticed Doug looking at him.

“Yeah, well, okay, me too, don’t get your hopes up,” he said, adding a weak smile.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Doug said, receding a bit into the couch.

“You want another beer?” Myron asked, lurching for the kitchen. Doug shook his head no, feet jittering nervously on the floor. Myron got one beer out of the fridge, from the six pack on the left, the one he’d previously dumped and refilled with water, then went back in the living room, stumbled and flopped on the couch, as far from Doug as possible.

“God, I’m drunk,” he said, waving the red flag. Doug had taken his shoes and socks off, undone a couple of shirt buttons. On the TV, a new scene had started. One woman, two men, kissing and licking her. Doug stared at the TV while Myron stared at Doug.

“So Joyce really wants to bang Max, huh?”

“Uh, yeah. You haven’t heard her? Shit, she’s probably told everyone but him.”

“I was kind of surprised at the theatre, though. That kid has got one really big dick on him.”

On screen, the blond put the woman on her back and stuck it in, and then the brunette climbed behind the blond and started fucking him up the ass. Doug stared, only having half heard what Myron had said. Then, as he looked at Myron, Myron looked at the TV, knowing what he’d see.

“Fuck. I didn’t know it was that kind of tape…” But he didn’t reach for the remote, he just stared at the screen for a long moment. He could hear Doug breathing now, a little ragged. He turned to the kid, going in for the kill.

“You ever do that?” Myron asked. “Get poked, I mean?”

Doug nodded.

“Doesn’t it hurt?”

“A little. At first. But then it feels… pretty incredible.”

“I could never do that. I mean, take it up the shitter. He looks like he’s enjoying it. Let me tell you something, never get married. I mean, to a woman. Myra, she won’t give me oral anymore, and the one time I asked her for anal, she looked at me like I was Charlie Manson. Do me a favor, tell her it doesn’t hurt all that much, maybe she’ll do it. It really doesn’t hurt that much?”

Doug shook his head, putting down his beer. He stared at Myron, face turning bright read, lip quivering. “Ron…” He looked away, then grabbed the remote, stopped the tape. The room got dark and quiet.

“Yeah?”

“I… “ Long pause. “Don’t get pissed or anything, okay? But, if your wife isn’t doing her job…”

“What do you mean?” Myron said, shifting on the couch to face the kid, trying not to sound as anxious as he was.

“Seeing Max tonight, and now that tape, and the beers… God, I am really, really horny and I know you are, and…”

Doug wasn’t looking at him, both hands clawed into the floral print sofa. He took a deep breath, then started to stand.

“Sorry, no, I shouldn’t have… I should go…”

Myron grabbed Doug’s hand, pulled him back onto the sofa so they were sitting right next to each other. He could feel Doug start as he did so, inhale sharply, scared.

“You know,” Myron said, “I’m pretty horny, too. Horny and drunk.” He let it linger just long enough, then added, “But no kissing, okay?”

Doug stood, took him by the hand and led him into the bedroom.

* * *

Saturday Morning Post 92: Six-Pack Mary (Part 1)

The Saturday Morning Post is back with an all-new story from 24 Exposures.

Returning after a hiatus, we continue with more stories from my collection 24 Exposures, which was written around the turn of the century.

Myron had decided, sadly, that he just wasn’t marketable anymore. He’d passed the magic age of thirty, but unlike his luckier friends, he looked like he had. That, and, despite the gym, he’d developed a bit of a gut. Oh yeah, and thanks to his maternal grandfather, his hairline was inching ever backward. Still, for a long time, he’d been hopeful, still going to the same clubs, hanging out with the same people, cruising the same guys. He was handsome, his friends told him that. Only, now, instead of getting lucky all the time or even once a week or occasionally once a month, there was nothing. Nobody looked at him, nobody hit on him, nobody wanted him.

It had been one year, seven months and nineteen days since the last time he’d gotten laid — and even that one had been a last-call desperation parking lot mutual handjob, and nothing more. All right, fine, maybe his wild days were over. He’d try to live with that, but in the meantime, he’d also keep trying, keep playing the game, hanging out in Boys’ Town even though he’d long since stopped being one of the boys.

There was this kid on the dance floor tonight, somewhere between twenty-one and six-foot three. Blond, muscular, grinding away and having a great time. He was wearing black boots and a pair of tight leather shorts that laced up the sides, an unbroken line of tanned flesh showing behind the laces, and god, would Myron like to get some of that, slowly untie those things until the forces of nature and the sleeping monster inside couldn’t be contained anymore and pop, the shorts would fall to the floor and… and fat chance, Myron. He’d seen this kid before, and he was a total cock-tease, especially last Hallowe’en, when his costume had been a G-string and green body paint. And only two years ago, Myron would have walked over to him and said hello and maybe have had a chance.

He contemplated buying the boy a drink, trying that old approach, when Myron saw Roger strolling toward the dance floor. That tired old thing — the girl had to be fifty if she were a day, and that couldn’t have been real hair. An nobody’s teeth were that white. That sad queen was just fighting the truth, and she looked old. Myron hated Roger, but at least seeing that relic made Myron feel a bit younger.

And Roger walked right up to the boy, they kissed each other and, with one hand stuffed proprietarily down the back of those leather shorts, Roger led the kid off the dance floor and out of the bar and —

“Motherfucker,” Myron muttered to himself. It was the money. Of course it was the money. Roger was old and ugly and pretentious as hell, but he had cash. Wads of it. And Roger didn’t, and he really hated that bitch.

“Hi, My,” it was Michael, one of the only people in these places who’d talk to him anymore. Michael readily admitted that he was (gasp) forty-seven, his hairline had receded further than a speedfreak’s gums, he was at least thirty-pounds overweight, and yet Myron knew he scored all the time. True, he’d never actually seen Michael leave a bar with anyone, but on those few occasions when he ran into him in the street, he’d have some pretty young twink with him. And, Jesus, even the way he dressed — Michael looked like he shopped exclusively at the Big K. How the hell did he do it?

“Okay, what’s wrong?” Michael asked as he sat. Myron shrugged, nodded his head toward the dance floor.

“Why do I keep coming here?” Myron asked. “I haven’t got a snowball’s chance in hell of getting laid, but…”

“But, like everyone else, you keep doing the things that used to work. Yeah, I know. Getting older sucks ass.”

“Yeah, but you…” Myron gestured vaguely. They both knew what he meant.

Michael laughed, took a swig of his beer, shook his head. “Pathetic, isn’t it? I have to beat them off with a stick — pardon the expression — but I make you look like Ricky Martin.” Michael studied Myron a long moment, making him uncomfortable. Myron could tell he was considering something, dreaded what he knew was coming. Michael was going to tell him how he should improve himself, all the things he’d already tried to no avail. Go to the gym — failed. Minoxidil — he was one of the impervious ones. Botox, facelift — not without insurance, babe. Myron was ready for that boom to fall when Michael instead drained his beer, put cash on the bar and got up.

“Follow me, I’ll tell you my secret.”

“Gee, Michael, could you?”

“Call me Mike. And, yeah. Come on.”

Myron followed him out of the club, past the sweaty throng who didn’t notice them, out the doors into the cool and quiet air and up the crowded street. It was Saturday night, prime time, and they were everywhere, the callow objects of desire who had become unobtainable Holy Grails.

At the corner, some hot little skate punk was strolling by with his friends. He trotted over, gave Michael a big hug. “Mike! Call me, okay?” the kid gushed, hopeful. “You still have the number?”

“Sure do,” Mike said. The kid smiled and hurried back to his friends. Myron just gawked.

Michael — Mike — didn’t say anything as they walked the rest of the two blocks to the Greenery, went inside, got a quiet booth in the back and sat contemplating their menus. Myron didn’t want to push it and Mike said nothing but small talk until their meals had arrived.

“So…?” Myron finally asked as he dug into his Caesar salad.

“So,” Mike replied, “You used to get it pretty regularly, right?”

“All the time,” Myron said. “I couldn’t go into a club without getting hit on.”

“Yeah, me too. Then it stopped, and I couldn’t figure out why. I hadn’t changed, not that much. And it stopped for me forty pounds and a head of hair ago. It was like a neon sign popped up over my head. ‘Danger! Thirty! Danger!’”

“I never looked thirty…”

“You don’t look thirty. Anyway, these kids can smell it, they know. You were there, you remember. They have this perverse belief that they can walk into a bar, get lucky and find a boyfriend. They all want to get married, and most of them want to marry guys their own age. They don’t wake up to that bullshit until later. Until too late. By the time most of them hit our age, they’re either half of an old married couple, rich enough to buy it or just tired of the whole thing.”

“But you’re not tired of it.”

“Hell no. But you only get tired of the game when you start losing, and believe me, I’m still winning.”

“Right, which is why we’re here, isn’t it?”

Mike smiled, wiped fried chicken grease off his chin and put down his napkin. “Right,” he said. “The secret to winning at the game at this stage is to change the rules.”

He let the statement hang there, but Myron was clueless. Change the rules. Didn’t that mean paying for it? Or dating people who were — gack — their own age? Mike let Myron look puzzled for a moment, shoveled a lump of mashed potatoes into his mouth, swallowed. Then he leaned forward, spoke quietly.

“The big secret,” he said. “You want these boys all over you, there’s one thing you have to do.”

Silence, until Myron could take it no more. “What?” he demanded.

“Go back in the closet.”

Myron dropped his fork. “What?”

“You heard me. See, if you’re an old, desperate queen, nobody cares. But if you’re a challenge…”

“A challenge?”

“It’s exactly what they do to us, but in reverse. Get it? I guarantee, when you were twenty-five, you wouldn’t have looked twice at half the guys you want to jump on now. But they’re not interested in you, and that just makes you more interested in them. But… if they think you’re straight — “

“Whoa, hold on. That’s what you did?”

“Yep. So, all of a sudden, I’m not an easy lay. Like I said, I’m a challenge. There’s a huge hurdle they think they have to get over to get into my pants, and when they succeed, they think they’ve pulled a big coup. They’re suddenly more desirable, least they think so, because they’ve managed to get a piece of something that has no desire for them.”

“Pretending you’re straight…”

“More than pretending, Myron. You can’t just go around telling people you’re straight. That doesn’t work. And you can’t hang around in the bars all the time anymore. Only every so often, and you tell the boys it’s just when your wife is out of town — “

“Wife?”

“Absolutely essential. No, you don’t have to get married. But you do have to create that illusion, or didn’t you notice?” Mike waggled his left hand, revealing the gold band on his ring finger. “It’s a little bit of an investment, naturally — half the closet full of ‘her’ clothes, tampons in the bathroom, that kind of stuff. But, believe me, it pays off.”

“This is insane.”

“I know it is, but it works. Hey, you think I like dressing like this?”

Myron studied him. Cheap blue dress shirt with a small rip in the sleeve, and he could see Mike’s T-shirt through the thin material. That, and he was wearing brown pants, heavy polyester, with a black belt. Mike stuck his foot out and Myron looked down. Brown loafers, white socks.

“Disgusting, isn’t it?” Mike laughed. “I cringe when I get dressed in the morning, but sometimes you have to swallow your pride.”

“And you get laid a lot?”

“All the time. That kid we met in the street? He’s convinced I’m his special project, the confused bisexual who’s trying to come to terms with things but can’t. I always kick him out afterwards, get all nervous and guilty. But goddamn, he could suck a bowling ball through a garden hose.”

Myron laughed, disbelieving. And yet, he’d seen Mike around with plenty of hot ones. Could it really be so simple?

“So, how do I start?” Myron asked.

“Are you out at work?” Mike asked.

“Yeah.”

“Then step one is to find a new job. Something in a liberal office where people can be open, but where they don’t know you. And you live in this part of town?”

“Right up the street.”

Mike shook his head. “Rule number two. It’s okay to live in WeHo, but not this side of town. This is the gay ghetto. I mean, you could keep living here, but then you’d have to be seen with a living, breathing fake wife, which just complicates things. No, at the very least, you need to be east of Fairfax and south of Melrose, although a move to the Valley couldn’t hurt.”

“Blech.”

“I’m just trying to help here.”

“It seems so… extreme.”

“Desperate times, desperate measures. Hey, if you don’t ever want to get laid again, fine…” Mike signaled for the check. Myron thought about what he’d said. It was just too much. Changing jobs, finding a new apartment, getting two new wardrobes. Or hanging out in the bars, the sad, drunken queen in the corner, never getting hit on, never meeting anyone, getting drunker and sadder and older and fatter and…

And fuck that. Maybe Mike was right. Myron had seen the evidence himself. Mike scored. A lot. And, by all rights, he shouldn’t have.

Mike studied Myron’s face as he signed the credit card slip. “You’re seriously considering it, aren’t you?”

“It’s so much, though.”

“But, believe me, it’s worth it.” Mike stood. “Just think about it. I know it’s a lot to get your head around right now, but you’ll appreciate it eventually.” He started for the door, Myron standing to follow. Mike stopped. “Oh, one other thing. Your name? Myron. It’s kind of… well, kind of gay. You have a middle name?”

“Bruce.”

“Ouch.” Mike thought about it a moment. “Ron. Try that on for size. Very butch-sounding. No straight man would ever willingly go by ‘Myron.’”

“Gee, thanks. I think.”

“Don’t mention it. Ron.”

Mike laughed, patted Myron on the shoulder and walked out. Myron just stood there, staring after him, not knowing what to do.

Roger and his twink came in the place and the owner greeted them, escorting them to the best table. Before they’d even sat down, Myron hustled out the door into the cold night air and walked the two blocks home, not looking at anybody.

* * *

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 #86: The Freedom of Disguise (Part 3)

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. This story focuses on the Gloria O’Ferral Theatre Company in Hollywood, and its owner, Bill, who believes in creating his characters in order for his actors to have huge breakthroughs and learn about themselves. His latest effort involves Max and PJ.

Fifty minutes later, Bill crept back into the theatre, careful not to make any tell-tale noises. He snuck up to the darkened booth and edged to the glass. He looked down at the stage and smiled. He’d gotten the acting breakthrough he’d hoped for.

Max and PJ were on the bed, shirts off, PJ on top, making out like a couple of horny teens. If he could get that onstage, everything would work out. Max started pulling PJ’s pants off and PJ made no objection, but Bill knew they’d had enough rehearsal for today. He snuck back downstairs, opened the front door quietly, then slammed it, making sure it was quite audible. He turned on the lobby lights and dawdled, counting to fifty before he entered the theatre.

Max and PJ were sitting, keeping their distance on the stage, shirts on, although PJ’s was inside-out.

“Hi guys,” he called out. “How did it go?”

“I think I get the scene now,” PJ explained, Max covering a laugh and a glance.

“You two want to try it once, then?” Bill asked as he took his seat in the front row.

“Sure,” PJ replied, moving to the bed, Max joining him.

“Okay. And, lights are off, anticipatory laughter from the audience, cue the maid, she turns the lights on — go.”

Max and PJ looked at each other, startled. Significant comedy pause… and then they vacuum-locked their faces together, PJ wrapping a leg around Max, Max dragging PJ in with both hands and the moment was beautiful. It really would bring the house down, the big revelation when everything else made sense.

The boys finally broke and looked at Bill, who applauded. “Excellent,” he said. “We’ve got a winner on our hands.”

And indeed they did, at least for this third of the cast. All through the rest of rehearsal, PJ was flying, nailing everything, not holding back at all. Bill had broken the wall, freed his talent and he saw that it was very good.

One down, two to go…

* * *

The secret was always discovery, not revelation. With actors, it was like training lab rats. Never show them the cheese, let them wander the maze and think they figured it out themselves. Donna was great at figuring things out, but lousy at letting herself realize she had.

Then Bill saw her walk into a car. She was coming to rehearsal and happened to arrive at the same time as Vince, and they were both crossing the street, talking but not looking at each other, at least not openly. Since they were jaywalking, they had to go between parked cars and Vince lead the way, but Donna was paying no attention at all and — wham!

Right into the side of a big, brown American beast, rebounding, stopping. Bill heard her call out, “God, I am so stupid.” Vince hurried over to Donna, took her arm gently, probably asking if she was all right. He guided her between the cars to the sidewalk, looking very concerned. She kept nodding, looking for the hole to crawl into, but Vince’s concern was completely genuine.

They both spotted Bill, walked toward him.

“You didn’t see that, did you?” Donna asked him.

“See what?” Bill lied. “Hey, guys, you know what? Your director did a stupid thing tonight. Come on inside.”

They entered the theatre and Bill explained his faux pas. He had intended to work with Mark and Donna, but had called Vince instead. It was too late to fix that, and anyway all of Vince’s scenes were fine. But would Vince mind reading Mark’s part tonight, working with Donna?

And of course he wouldn’t, and so they did, Vince reading from the script as Donna played the scene — and played it with something much different than had ever appeared opposite Mark. That was, of course, the plan. Donna’s character was supposed to be madly in love with Mark’s but afraid to say it, until this moment in the play, when she confessed her love. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her, Mark’s character was madly in love with her, et cetera, et cetera. Each of them was supposed to think they were talking about someone else.

Suddenly, it played beautifully. Donna was a little giddy and shy and hesitant, and so was Vince and the whole thing positively reeked of two people crazy about each other but unable to just say it. Artifice catapulted to reality, and Bill gave himself a mental pat on the back. This show was going to come together like none of the others ever had.

And by opening night, it did. He’d heard rumor among the company that Donna and Vince went out for coffee one night, then dinner and a movie soon thereafter. The grapevine reported that Vince finally admitted he was crazy about Donna but was still in the middle of getting a divorce, something he’d kept secret though, so he hadn’t dared say anything to her. But, as soon as it was final, would she…? And she would and they did, eventually, and on opening night, their acting soared.

So did PJ’s and Max’s. The curtain call got a standing ovation and the opening night party was rambunctious with the joy of success.

Except that Max was standing alone afterwards, PJ nowhere in sight. Bill walked over to him. “Good job, Max. But where’s your leading man?”

“He’s not mine,” Max explained, looking around. “There he is.” He pointed and Bill looked, seeing PJ talking to other cast members, his arm around a young man who wasn’t part of the company.

“He’s got a boyfriend already?” Bill asked, amazed.

“He’s had him for six months,” Max said. “He finally decided to let the big secret out.”

“And you?”

“You cast us on purpose, didn’t you?” Max answered.

“Okay, I confess,” Bill said. “I did. I thought…”

“No, I appreciate it, really. He’s a good kisser. He’s just taken, that’s all.”

Bill smiled, nodding. This play had been more of a success than he could have hoped for. He excused himself, started to walk away when Max continued. “And Vince and Donna. And Mark and Loretta. Funny how every time we do a show, some new couple gets together, isn’t it?”

Bill stopped, looked at Max, wondering if he’d figured it out yet. Maybe, but Bill wasn’t going to tip his hand. “Funny how theatre works that way, isn’t it?”

“Very funny,” Max answered, and Bill was sure his secret was safe. “So what’s next for us, Little Billy?”

“Oh, you’ll see,” Bill replied. “You’ll see.” He made a mental note. Max had mentioned once that he never thought he’d be able to do nudity onstage. That was an actor’s block that needed to be removed, one more step in Bill’s big mission. And removed, it would be.

All their blocks would be removed, eventually, and they would be better people for it. True love would be discovered and true talent revealed and Bill’s company would continue to be one, big happy family. That was the promise he’d made when he’d cashed that big check, the promise he’d continued to keep. It was the price he’d agreed to pay for his windfall, but it was a debt that constantly paid him back with happiness.

His fear had been removed, and he was going to do his best to do the same for others, for this big, wonderful company. His children, his stars.

Because stars were meant to shine, after all, and the show would go on.

Significant dramatic pause, and then Bill exited to his office, already working on his next play, hoping for another rousing success.

* * *

Saturday Morning Post #85: The Freedom of Disguise (Part 2)

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. In the first installment last week, we met Bill O’Ferral, owner of the Gloria O’Ferral Theatre in Hollywood, having just opened another successful original play and starting work on his next — but he has ulterior motives, as he believes in creating his characters in order for his actors to have huge breakthroughs and learn about themselves.

The first read-through had been hilarious, with Andy and the actors constantly cracking up. Only a few minor rewrites required, then they were good to go.

PJ was waiting for Bill afterwards, when everyone else had gone.

“Hey, PJ, what can I do for you?” Bill asked, ushering the actor up to his office.

“I like the play, a lot,” he said when they were upstairs. “How are you going to stage the… some of the stuff?”

“You’re worried about kissing Max, aren’t you?”

“Well… a little.”

“Let me tell you my theory of comedy. The more intensely real the actors play it, the funnier it is. The magic word is ‘commitment.’”

“Yeah, but all three times?”

“My other theory of comedy. First time, warning. Second time, reminder. Third time, brings the house down. Fourth time, never.”

“Okay, but… why do they kiss, anyway?”

“Because… your character thinks he’s in the room with Stella, and the other guy thinks he’s with Elaine. This is it, they’re finally alone, or they think they are, with the woman of their dreams, wham. It ain’t gonna be a peck on the cheek. And then the maid walks in and turns the lights on. Boom. Funny.”

“Okay, but the second time — “

“You think you’re with Elaine now, and he thinks he’s with Stella. Only this time, both guys are much hornier, because now they think they’re finally with the women of their dreams, et cetera, et cetera, funnier.”

“Right. So why — “

“And the third time is kind of the point of the play, when the lights come on and the two guys see each other, significant comedy pause… and realize they’re the man of each other’s dreams. Set up, topper, reversal, house down.” God, Bill thought, I sound like some alta cocker ex-Vaudevillian. “Look, it’ll be a riot, people will remember you. You want to get noticed as an actor, this is the perfect part.”

“Okay. But it’s comedy, I’m more of a dramatic actor.”

“Weren’t you the one who told me you wanted to try doing comedy?”

“I… yeah. But I thought more like, you know. Verbal, like Neil Simon, wordy, witty… Comedy. Not farce.”

“Farce is the ultimate extension of comedy. Much more difficult to pull off. If you can do farce, you can do anything.”

“Really?”

“Think about it. How many Oscars does Tom Hanks have? Do you remember ‘Bosom Budd…’ No, of course you don’t. Well, it was a farce, and that’s where he started. And he was wearing a dress.”

“Tom Hanks?”

“Yes.”

“But he didn’t kiss anybody, did he?”

“I don’t remember, but probably. Because it was a farce.”

“They’d never let men kiss on TV.”

“Not in a drama, no, because a drama is all real and serious and scary. But comedy, you can get away with a lot more.”

“Oh.”

“Anyway, don’t worry about it. I’m not even going to get to that in rehearsal for at least three weeks. Maybe four.”

“Okay. Can I think about it?”

“You will anyway. But in four weeks, I think you’ll be ready.”

PJ nodded and left the office. Bill hoped this wouldn’t be a problem. Maybe hearing an audience laugh and knowing he did it would loosen him up eventually.

Bill also wished he could convince him to stop going by PJ and use his full first name, Peter. The initials sounded like a kiddie actor or a porn goddess. Of course, that meant he would absolutely have to change his last name. Or maybe not. Memorability was a plus.

Still. His last name was Packer.

His parents were either incredibly naive or terribly twisted.

His middle name was Johnson.

Twisted.

* * *

Donna was bumping into the furniture again.

Normally, this would have been a problem. However, Bill had written exactly this awkwardness into the part and it was working like a charm. Funny how she didn’t start doing it until Vince was at the same rehearsals. Yes, Donna was doing a scene with Max, Vince wasn’t even on the stage, but Bill knew exactly why she had turned into a fumfering schoolgirl. He made no comments about it during rehearsal, even though he could see that it was annoying the hell out of Max — but that was part of the idea, too. Max was a nice guy, but the part he was playing needed to have the limits of his patience tested. That’s what Bill was seeing on the kid’s face right now and it was perfect.

“I am such a clumsy, big-footed ox,” Donna whined to him afterwards. “I’m sorry, I was lousy up there today.”

“No you weren’t,” Bill said. “You mean you weren’t acting all that stumbling around?”

“No — “

“Well, you fooled me. That’s exactly what the scene needs to work.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Of course Stella is awkward, she’s madly in love with this guy, but she can’t tell him. You see?”

“Oh…”

And Donna smiled, sort of, a rarity, and went on her way. Bill saw Max sitting in the front row, looking at his script, sulking. He walked over to him.

“Hey, Max, nice job up there.”

“Wasn’t easy. She was — “

“All over the place, I know, I told her to do that. And I need you to remember that anger, use it. That’s what makes the scene work.”

“Really? But it’s a comedy.”

“A lot of comedy is really very angry underneath. Remember, you think you’re madly in love with Elaine and you’re trying to go talk to her, and Stella won’t leave you alone. You’re too polite to tell her to go away, but you let just a little bit of your annoyance show. You’re like a teapot waiting to blow its whistle, except that it doesn’t happen until the next scene.”

“Ah…” Max nodded, conviction in his eyes. “Of course. Now it makes sense. Thanks.”

Bill gave him an encouraging smile, then went onstage to work with Vince and Loretta. Vince was staring off into the house. “She’s good,” Vince said.

“You mean Donna?”

“Yeah. I had no idea she was such a natural comic actress. I’m jealous.”

“Well, keep an eye on what she does. Study her, and you’ll learn a lot. Now, let’s get cracking, act one, scene four, Martin and Elaine, you each think the other one is madly in love with you, but you’ve both been misinformed, let’s take it from the top…”

And they ran through the scene, Bill noticing that neither one of them was quite crackling like they should. Loretta never had that problem with Mark onstage. Those two clicked. Of course, they’d been dating since the middle of rehearsal for their last show. Max and PJ had that chemistry onstage, too, more or less, with Max enthralled and PJ distracted, which would make the ending work perfectly. They hadn’t rehearsed any of Vince and Donna’s scenes yet, by design, nor had they gotten to the big moment between Max and PJ. But they were going to, soon, and that particular rehearsal would be crucial to making this whole thing work.

Max and PJ, right. Bill turned toward the house, where the two were sitting, different rows, not together. “Guys,” he called out, “This is going to take a while. Could you two go up to my office and run your lines?”

Max hopped to his feet while PJ dragged his stuff together and stood. Bill watched them leave, then turned his attention back to Vince and Elaine. An hour with them, then it was time for act two, scene five.

That was exactly why PJ was so broody tonight. The kid was still nervous. Bill had assured him many times, “It’s only acting. None of it is real, you’re just playing games up there.” PJ always nodded and agreed, but it hadn’t seemed to have sunk in yet. It had better, tonight, or Bill just might trash this whole project. No sense re-casting at this point. But, as a director, he had a lot of tricks left to use. That was always the secret — make the actor find it in him or herself for real, then remember it, use it, be it.

If PJ and Max could manage their big scene, the others would be easy. If they couldn’t…

But Bill pushed those thoughts from his mind as he worked with Vince and Loretta.

* * *

Act two, scene five. The kiss.

Max was sitting on the bed onstage, PJ on one of the chairs, as Bill explained his approach. They weren’t going to start right in on the scene. Instead, they were going to do some exercises. He had the two actors stand toe-to-toe and hold their arms out, placing their hands palm-to-palm. Max complied like a trooper, but PJ was being sarcastic, making jokes, trying to distract himself.

“Now,” Bill said, “Here’s the hard part. I want you two to look at each other, so the ends of your noses are touching, and stare right in each other’s eyes. And you’re going to stay that way until you can do it for three minutes straight without looking away or losing it. Ready?”

“You better not get snot on me,” PJ cracked.

“Ready…” Bill reminded.

PJ nodded, put his nose to Max’s, then scrunched it up and shook his head to make it an Eskimo kiss, stepping away and laughing.

“Sorry. Sorry…” he called out. “Okay. Here we go.”

They assumed the position again, but after about thirty seconds, PJ lost it once more, letting out a snorted laugh. He apologized again, got back into place, but it just wasn’t working. Bill paced, thinking. After about five tries he’d reached his limit. “All right, all right, let’s try something else.”

“What are we trying to do?” PJ asked. “I mean, if you tell me — “

“It’s called trust,” Bill answered. “You two have got to trust each other completely if this is going to work.”

“I trust him,” PJ insisted.

“Then kiss him,” Bill shot back.

PJ made a face, then planted a perfunctory peck on Max’s cheek.

“Excellent,” Bill dripped out with sarcasm. “When Max plays your grandmother, that’ll be perfect.”

“Can we just try the scene?” Max asked.

“Fine, let’s just try the scene,” Bill gave up. “Max, come here a second.”

He pulled Max aside, where PJ couldn’t hear them, whispered. “Do me a favor, help snap him out of this for me.”

“How?”

“One word. Tongue.”

“You want me to — “

“If you don’t mind.”

Max laughed, smiled. “Okay. As long as you admit it was your idea, because he’s going to freak out.”

“No problem.”

The actors took their places, kneeling on the bed, arms around each other. Bill sat in the front row, called out, “All right, the lights are off, lights off… maid enters, lights on. Go!”

Max and PJ looked at each other, startled. Significant comedy pause… and then nothing, and then Max took the initiative and flew into the kiss and two seconds later, PJ was jumping away, wiping his mouth.

“Hey, hey. Gross. Jesus, he fucking frenched me.”

“I know,” Bill called out. “I told him to, that’s what his character would do. And yours.”

“No one’s going to see that.”

“I can see it fine from here.”

“Can’t we do a stage kiss?”

“Not in a theatre this size, not if you want this to be the funniest moment in the show. Come on, you want the critics to call you a wimp, PJ?”

“Sorry,” Max whispered.

“Not your fault,” PJ replied.

“Okay, let’s try this one,” Bill stood. “No tongues, but do the kiss and I want you to imagine it’s a wrestling match. Both of you try to push each other off the bed. Got it? Take it again.”

They repeated the scene, but this time the kiss looked different, more real, sort of, the two of them locked together in combat. One of Max’s legs slipped off the bed, but he braced himself against the floor, pushed back. The two of them toppled the other way, sliding to the floor, Max on top. He pinned PJ’s arms, lips still together, but then PJ turned his head away.

“Okay, uncle, you win.”

Max sat up, staying on top of PJ, and turned to Bill.

“How was that?” he asked.

“Better,” Bill said.

“Dude,” PJ called out, “Up, up. You’re busting my nuts.”

Max climbed off and they both sat on the floor, looking at their director, who was looking contemplative.

“Well?” PJ asked.

Bill rattled his fingers on his script, other hand pressed to his lips as he thought about it. He couldn’t recast and change Max’s part to an actress, that would undo too many other threads in the piece. He couldn’t replace PJ. Anybody else would be all wrong for this role. But what to do? Finally, he stood up again, grabbing his briefcase.

“I think I might be the problem here,” he announced. “I’m making you both self-conscious, and that’s unfair of me. So, I’m leaving. But — you still have another hour of rehearsal scheduled, and here’s what I want you two to do. Give each other a backrub. Keep the clothes on, it’s just a stress thing. And while you’re doing it, the massagee is going to tell his life story and answer any questions the massager has.”

He walked to the door, Max and PJ silently nodding, watching him. Before he left, he turned back and said, “I’ll be back in exactly sixty minutes. And remember, it’s all about the show. The play’s the thing, and all that.”

He turned off the houselights as he left, then ran up to the booth and adjusted the lights, dimming them and bringing up the blue gels they still had hung. He waved good-bye to them from the booth, killed the work lights up there, then made sure they heard him exit out the front door, then went down the street for a late bite to eat. The rest was up to them.

* * *

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