[For Norman Spinrad’s many fans, and for those of you who have never sampled Norman’s work, Tor.com presents an excerpt from the first chapter of He Walked Among Us, which Booklist called “one of the best SF novels of the new century.”]
“Why, you shall say at break of day:
Sail on! sail on! sail on! and on!”
—COLUMBUS, by Joaquin Miller
“Have fun saving the world, Dex,” Ellie said dryly. “But do try not to get too beered out.”
“Must you rain on my parade?” Dexter Lampkin muttered sourly.
She pecked him on the cheek. “I just don’t want you to wrap that damned thing around a tree, is that asking too much?” said Ellie. “Peace?”
“Peace,” Dexter grunted and closed the door behind him. He had been going to these first Wednesday things for three years now. A dozen or so fans of his out-of-print novel, drinking beer, sneaking the occasional joint, calling themselves ”Transformationalists,” and convincing themselves that they were somehow going to save the world in the process.
Each first Thursday, he swore he would never go to one of these things again. Each first Wednesday, he went anyway.
Because a few of these people were real scientists?
Because they believed in Dexter D. Lampkin even though he found them ludicrous?
Or because, God help him, some part of him still believed in THE TRANSFORMATION too?
Out in the front yard, the Santa Ana wind rattled the sere skeletal palm fronds, set dusty swirls of dead leaves dancing, and dried the back reaches of his throat. Your average Angeleno professed a loathing for the Santa Ana, which ripped shingles from your roof, whipped brush fires up into roaring infernos, and supposedly brought out the homicidal crazies. But Dexter took a great big honk as he walked across the yard to the garage.
Dexter loved the Santa Ana.
He loved those negative ions sweeping in off the desert, stoking up the old endorphins, tingling his dendrites with norepinephrene, boosting the middle-aged biochemical matrix of his consciousness into hyperdrive.
He loved the way the hot desert wind blew the Los Angeles basin clear of smog, perfumed the air with bougainvillea and chaparral instead of undead hydrocarbons, the technicolor blue daytime skies and the nights like this one—crystalline, heated to the temperature of twenty-year-old pussy, redolent with the musk of the California Dream.
And if the acrid tang of far-off smoke all too often spiced the Santa Ana, well, hey, despite Ellie’s endless urging, Dexter hadn’t fallen into the real estate trap, now had he?
As he kept telling her, any writer who sunk his freedom money into a house and a mortgage was a prize schmuck. And anyone who thought it was a cagey investment to do so in a venue famous for earthquakes, brushfires, and mud slides, where affordable insurance usually covered everything else but, deserved what he was sooner or later going to get.
For truth be told, Dexter also loved the Santa Ana just because loving the Devil Wind was somehow a finger held high in the air to the face of LA.
Not that Dexter hated Los Angeles with the provincial chauvinism of his former Bay Area compatriots, who believed anything south of the fog-bank they were so cleverly fortunate to have chosen to inhabit was nothing but Orange County roadside ticky-tacky and braindead yahoos.
Indeed one of the charms of Los Angeles was the very lack of a local equivalent of that smarmy Northern California boosterism. While the Bay Area brooded endlessly over its supposed rivalry with La-La Land, people down here were only dimly aware of San Francisco’s existence, crappy climate but great Italian and Chinese restaurants, right, ought to fly up for a three-day weekend sometime, we get a chance, babes.
LA didn’t take itself seriously at all. In place of chauvinism, what was required of Angelenos was attitude. The attitude that expressed itself in hot dog stands in the shape of hot dogs, houses built to resemble the Disney versions of Baghdad or Camelot, the Chinese and Egyptian theaters, and the Hollywood Sign itself, an enormous emblem proclaiming the obvious in towering pharonic letters a few molecules thick.
On a personal level, one knew one had achieved the proper LA attitude when, what else, one had found a soulmate of a car.
Dexter flipped up the garage door and smiled a silly boyish hello to his.
When Dexter and Ellie were living in Berkeley, they had had a fairly new Toyota and a late middle-aged Volvo. Down here in Fairfax their two-car garage contained, in addition to cartons of Dexter’s author’s copies and moldy manuscripts that surely would be worth big bucks as collector’s items some day, Ellie’s two-year-old Pontiac Firebird coupe and Dexter’s ancient red Alfa-Romeo convertible.
By any rational automotive standard, the Alfa was an unreliable piece of shit. Its leaky gaskets caused it to slurp oil at the rate of a pint every thousand miles, the gearbox made ominous noises, the shift lever now had to be held down in second, and the electrical system had been rewired so many times by amateurs that even new heavy-duty batteries mysteriously died at the usual inopportune moments.
But Dexter loved the Alfa. Not for its all-too-obvious flaws, but because it was an authentic red Italian sports car that whipped around the curves as if on rails, snapped your head back in a satisfying manner when you came out of one and stood on it in second, and iwas a hoot to drive back and forth to the mechanic, which was often.
Was it juvenile for a forty-three-year-old writer with an expanded middle and a wife and kid to support to chunk out north of three thousand bucks a year in insurance, repair bills, oil, and expensive imported Italian parts to maintain this decrepit automotive wet-dream?
Ellie was certainly of that opinion.
“It’s pathetic, Dex, it’s your mid-life crisis on wheels, when are you gonna dump the thing and get a reliable second car?”
“The upkeep on the Alfa’s less than the monthlies on another new car,” Dexter would point out logically.
“You piss away half of that every year in repair bills and oil.”
At which point, Dexter would give her the ghost of the very leer that had lured her once tasty young bod to him across a crowded room a decade ago, the glamorous cocksman’s leer of the thirty-one-year-old Dexter D. Lampkin, of a risen young star along the science fiction convention circuit.
“Cheaper than a mistress in a tight dress of the same color,” he would say.
It was an old joke that had long since ceased to be funny, and an old threat that had long since ceased to have bite.
Ellie knew that he might cop one of the readily available quick ones at a science fiction convention from time to time, but she also knew that he was not likely to screw anyone at such scenes that he would care to contemplate in the morning, and he knew that she didn’t really care as long as he respected her need not to know. Both of them knew what on between writers and fans at these conventions. Both of them knew what it was to be the belle and the beau of such a masquerade ball. Which is what they had been when they met at that publisher’s party at the Seattle Westercon.
Dexter D. Lampkin had won the Hugo for best science fiction novel the year before, a silvery rocketship awarded by the fans who staged these conventions. An appropriately phallic trophy for someone not entirely above using it to add to his reputation as a convention cocksman.
This was more a matter of getting stoned and/or plastered enough to lose one’s sense of sexual esthetics than honing one’s jejune skills as a seducer. Any published writer who weighed less than three hundred pounds, and some who didn’t, could get laid at these things. The question was, by what?
Why did science fiction fans of both sexes tend to be so overweight? Why did they tend to be pear-shaped and look strange about the eyes? Why did masses of them crammed into convention hotel room parties exude such clouds of anti-sexual pheromones?
The story that Norman Spinrad told Dexter at some con or other had the awful ring of scientific truth.
“My girlfriend, Terry Champagne, had a theory that allegiance to science fiction fandom is genotypically linked to a minimal distance between the eyes, narrow shoulders, and enormous asses. One time, we were going to a convention in some horrible fleabag on Herald Square in New York, crowds of people going into the subway, your bell-shaped general population curve on the random hoof. As a scientific experiment, we stood across the street from the con hotel trying to predict who would go inside. Terry scored better than seventy-five percent.”
Ellen Douglas, however, would have gone undetected as a science fiction fan by the genetic criteria of Spinrad’s former girlfriend. Dexter had known her by reputation before he ever set eyes on her, for Ellen was what was known in the science fiction world as a Big Name Fan, what in the rock biz would have been called a Super Groupie.
But in the world of science fiction fandom, one did not achieve such status by screwing stars like Dexter D. Lampkin. One got to screw the stars by achieving the status of Big Name Fan. By reputation, Dexter knew Ellen Douglas as a convention organizer, fannish panel personality, and fanzine gossip columnist.
She was also reputed to be a great beauty who knocked ’em dead at masquerades in famous minimalist costumes, but fannish standards of pulchritude being what they were, Dexter had given this a heavy discount for hyperbole until that moment when their eyes met for the first time across that sea of flabby flesh in Seattle.
All right, so this lady might not be quite movie starlet material, but oh yes, she had it, particularly in the usual convention context, and oh boy, did she flaunt it! Natural blond hair permed into an incredible afro, regular features, big green eyes the regulation distance apart, and this wonderful ripe body artfully barely-contained in a tight low cut thigh slit black dress.
It had been a magic moment, a wild weekend, and a frantic slow motion cross-country romance, as Dexter and Ellen fucked their way from convention to convention for about six months, before she finally gave up her place in St. Louis and moved into Dexter’s little apartment in San Francisco, and soon thereafter into the house in Berkeley.
For two or three years they were the Golden Couple of the Greater Bay Area Co-Prosperity Sphere, the circle of science fiction writers, their significant others, and the surrounding cloud of fans, hangers-on, fringe scientists, and Big Name Dope Dealers to same who formed what was the largest science fiction community in the United States. Those were the days to be young, and in love, and a science fiction writer in Berkeley, and Dexter D. Lampkin!
The science fiction genre had completed the transformation from lowly pulp publishing backwater, where for a quarter of century 5 cents a word for short fiction and $3000 for a novel had been considered hot stuff, into a “major publishing industry profit center.” Meaning that a hot young talent like Dexter D. Lampkin could command thirty or forty thou for a novel. Dexter could take six months or even a year to write a novel. He could afford literary commitment and social idealism and enjoy a life of relative bourgeois ease at the same time.
He could even believe he could change the world.
A lot of science fiction writers did, and some of them had. Arthur C. Clarke had inspired the geosynchronous broadcast satellite, the Apollo astronauts credited science fiction with putting them on the path to the Moon, DUNE and STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND had created the hippies and the Counterculture, and L. Ron Hubbard had turned an idea for an sf novelette into a multimillion dollar real-world religious scam.
Dexter had even read a piece by some French intellectual who had opined that science fiction writers should get together, decide the optimal future for the species, and, by setting all their stories in that future, call it into being thereby.
Given the difficulty any three science fiction writers had agreeing on how many letters made up a word at 5 cents per, this kind of collaborative messianism did not seem entirely practical….
Dexter wrestled down the top, looked under the car to see whether the size of the oil puddle demanded a look at the dipstick, decided it didn’t, put the key in the ignition, and heaved the usual sigh of relief, when, after the usual catch and hesitation, the starter managed to turn the engine over.
The science fiction community did already accept certain truths as self-evident that had yet to penetrate the obdurate brain-pans of the so-called ”mundanes,” aka the rest of the species.
Foremost, that the Earth was the cradle of a future space-going humanity, and in a galaxy containing hundreds of millions of stars similar to our own, it would be ridiculously arrogant to assume that our evolution was unique. And therefore, advanced space-going civilizations who had achieved mastery of matter and energy and long-term stability should abound.
But no less than Enrico Fermi had asked the obvious question: If so, where are they? Why haven’t we detected them? Why haven’t they visited us or at least sent a cosmic postcard?
The answer was not than reassuring. Namely that the natural tendency of sapient species was to do themselves in before evolving to the long-term stable stage.
After all, no species was likely to develop space travel without unlocking the Faustian fires of the atom first. It was hardly guaranteed that any species would develop clean sources of power like fusion or space-born solar power before the necessary precursor technologies like fossil fuels and nuclear fission poisoned the biosphere. And these were only the most obvious means by which our own species seemed likely to expire. So it seemed logical to assume that we were only average dickheads, that the present crisis we had entered, say about the time of Hiroshima, was something that all sapient species must pass through, the historical moment, as Dexter put it, when the lunatics take over the asylum.
Sooner or later any species that developed an evolving technology was going to get its hot little pseudopods on the power of the atom, long before which its activities would have begun doing unpredictable things to the biosphere, both of which were likely to occur long before it had the technology to escape the consequences by colonizing other planets. Or, if the foibles of the human race exhibited only average shitheadedness, before it evolved the necessary wisdom to transform itself into a civilization capable of surviving even another few centuries of its own history.
The human race was going through its transformation crisis right now, and judging by the lack of good news from outer space, the chances of negotiating it successfully seemed something like slim and none.
On the other hand, Dexter’s New York agent had little trouble getting him a $40,000 contract for a science fiction novel based on the 30 page outline he batted out around this material on a hot weekend with the aid of some excellent weed.
Dexter put the Alfa in gear, pulled out of the garage, and headed towards his rendezvous with the rather pathetic latter-day fans of that very visionary novel, a novel which his agent still hadn’t been able to get back in print.
“Transformationalists,” they called themselves. Their bible was THE TRANSFORMATION, Dexter D. Lampkin’s exercise in science fictional messianism, the book with which he really thought at the time he was going to change the world.
NASA picks up a funeral oration from an extraterrestrial civilization by a species not much in advance of ourselves which has destroyed the viability of its planet via atomic war and atmospheric degradation. Worse still, these aliens have received similar messages from several other intelligent species who have also done themselves in by similar assholery. This appears to be the galactic norm. If there are any intelligent species out there who have successfully passed through their transformation crises, they don’t seem to have any interest in foreign aid to Third World planets.
The government tries to sit on it, but a few scientists in the know are horrified, and a secret conspiracy of “Transformationalists” gradually comes together. They know what has to be done to transform the human race into a successful long-lived space-going species. Big bucks have to be poured into fusion, space-born solar energy, the colonization of the solar system, artificial photosynthesis. The burning of fossil fuels and the use of dirty fission reactors must be halted, massive tracts of farmland must be reforested, and, complete nuclear disarmament will probably be required too.
But how are they supposed to cram all this down the species’ throat?
They hit upon the idea of creating an alien from outer space, a visitor from a far distant civilization that has survived its own transformation crisis, to serve as their mouthpiece.
So they recruit a 16 year-old hippie-dip runaway and go to work. They profile the perfect transnational wet-dream fantasy and surgery and genetic tinkering transform her into the most stunning woman the world has ever seen, with apple-green skin and purple hair.
They raise her intelligence to super-genius level, program her with the millennial history and scientific knowledge of this imaginary advanced civilization she’s supposed to be from, and erase all memories of her previous incarnation so that she is convinced she is Lura, ambassador from the Galactic Brotherhood of Advanced Civilizations, dispatched to save the Earth.
The Transformationalists sell Lura as the savior from space and begin to effect the great Transformation through her, presenting their visionary program as the tried and true path of all those civilizations who have succeeded in passing through their Transformation Crises.
Many plot twists later, the civilization of the Earth is indeed transformed, the final McGuffin being the capture of Lura by a mob of the dispossessed, and her impending martyrdom.
Some of the Transformationalists try to tell the world the truth to save her. But since Lura herself contradicts them, believing that she is a noble being from an advanced civilization, they fail, she is martyred, and the Transformationalists have no pragmatic choice but to turn her into the legend that successfully puts the seal on the great Transformation.
In the epilogue, an immense spaceship then manifests itself in the solar system to welcome humanity into a real Galactic Brotherhood of Advanced Civilizations. Earth has negotiated its Transformation Crisis on its own. That’s the entrance test. That’s why the galactic silence. The Galactic Brotherhood has no interest in communicating with species who have not yet proven themselves worthy.
Dexter poured his heart and soul into this one.
It ended up taking over his life completely, became an obsession, a mission, a cause.
Before he began, he felt he had to travel the convention circuit, pouring booze and dope into scientists of his acquaintance and scientists of their acquaintance; conning them into serving as his brain trust, creating something not unlike the Transformationalist cabal in his unwritten novel, at least in his own mind at the time.
By the time Dexter was ready to write page one, six months had passed in a blur since he had signed the contract, he had gone through about $5000 in travel and entertainment, and he had a dossier of speculative papers from cutting-edge scientists about 2000 pages thick.
The contract called for Dexter to turn in the manuscript in twelve months. He was eight months late. The contract called for about 100,000 words, but Dexter turned in 250,000, and after three months of cutting under editorial supervision, the final version still came in at 220,000. It took harder work over more months to write than anything Dexter had ever done, and by the time he saw the galley proofs, the $40,000 was long gone.
But Dexter knew that THE TRANSFORMATION was his masterpiece, his destiny, the work for which his name would be remembered for a thousand years, the mission he had been born to fulfill.
It came out 6 months later, and it bombed.
“Too intellectual for the kids who they’re marketing sci-fi to these days, Dex,” his agent told him. ”What they want is space opera series, or likewise in wizards and dragons, Star Trek and Star Wars novelizations, role playing tie-ins, and novels based on the laundry lists of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.”
Broke, devastated, with Ellie now pregnant with Jamie, Dexter spent ten days listening to his wife whine, and staring into the black hole his life had become.
His agent had timed it perfectly. On the eleventh day, he called and dropped the other shoe.
“Hey, it’s not like your career’s over, Dex. You get me a strong outline for a trilogy, preferably fantasy, and I’m sure I can get you a contract for $30,000 a book, maybe even more if there’s game potential in it.”
“Fuck you!” Dexter snarled and hung up on him.
“Fuck you, Dexter D. Lampkin!” was Ellie’s take on it when he conveyed the gist of the conversation. “What are we going to live on, your Polish serial rights?”
She kept hammering at him. Bills began to pile up. His American Express card got pulled. Dying inside, Dexter was about to surrender his soul to the inevitable when he ran into Harlan Ellison at a convention in Phoenix.
Ellison, a Los Angeles scenarist and short story writer who had flourished on a high economic level for decades, set him straight in no uncertain terms.
“Are you nuts, Lampkin, you got to ream out crap to stay alive, don’t piss on the work that really matters to you to do it. Instead of writing three hundred pages of sci-fi bullshit and ruining your reputation for $30,000 a pop, come down to Hollywood and bang out 48 page tv scripts for $15,000 minimum. Buy yourself time to do your real work and keep it separate from what you do to make the rent.”
The Santa Ana ruffled Dexter’s hair as he crossed Sunset and drove Laurel Canyon Boulevard up through the hills. The night was warm, the canyon was heady with vegetal perfume, he kept the tach over 3000 as he whipped through the curves, just to feel those gees, just to hear the double-overhead-cam engine growl, whoo-ee!
So it hadn’t exactly worked out as smoothly as the picture Harlan had painted—prime time tv script gigs were few and far between—but considering the alternatives, Dexter figured he was doing all right.
The cartoon shows were hot for an sf writer accustomed to writing novellas in the time it took the usual derelicts to write a 30 page script, and while the money was pretty shitty, it was usually there when needed. There was a certain amount of magazine work, bullshit he could write in his sleep. Dexter even found that he had a knack for writing album cover blurb, ad copy, even gags for third rate comics.
He made enough money via the Scam of the Week to be able to spend half his time writing his novels. He was now older and wiser enough to know that most science fiction writers had a book like THE TRANSFORMATION in them, the visionary masterpiece that would express the full brilliance of their genius and enlighten the world. He was older and wiser enough to know that most of them were going to bomb.
He was middle-aged enough these days too to know that the Alfa was an extended hardware metaphor that would have Sigmund Freud chuckling in his beard—the forty-three year old one-time visionary with the expanded waistline zipping up over Mulholland towards his boys’ night out with the ghosts of his youth in his equally superannuated red Italian dick on wheels.
But as he crossed Mulholland destiny sent him a sign.
Up from the Valley side came another old red Alfa of approximately the same vintage. The top was also down, and in the car was your prototypical California beauty, long honey-blond hair blowin’ in the wind, could have been all of twenty-five.
She honked her horn.
Dexter honked back.
Her smile was radiant.
Dexter waved, and then she was gone.
But not before he remembered that it was old stogie-chomping Siggy himself, who, when tweaked by some smartass as to the obvious symbolic nature of the cylindrical object perpetually stuck in his yawp, had proclaimed: ”Sometimes a cigar is a cigar.”
“Kapplemeyer’s?” said the Bimbo. “For the tenth time, Jimmy, what the hell are we doing in the Catskills in November?”
“Scouting talent, kid,” Texas Jimmy Balaban told her, as he turned the rented Buick off the highway at the splintery old wooden sign and up the drive that might have been last paved when George Burns was still playing straightman to Gracie.
“Here?” said the Bimbo, whose name was Sabrina.
“Matter of instinct, babes,” Texas Jimmy muttered,”The nose knows.”
What was he supposed to tell her, that since Kapplemeyer’s Country Club Resort Hotel was the kind of dump that Texas Jimmy Balaban ordinarily wouldn’t be caught dead in, he had reason to hope that Marsha’s divorce dick wouldn’t think to look for the live item here either?
You’re getting too old for this shit, Jimmy, he told himself as he pulled up in front of the hotel.
Yeah, sure, that’s what he had been telling himself at moments like these for about twenty-five years. You’re getting to old to get married again, you’re getting too old to get cleaned out again in the divorce courts, you’re getting too old to chase young pussy, you’re getting too old to dodge house dicks and keyhole peepers. Right. Learned my lesson. Never again.
Indeed, Texas Jimmy had had no intention at all, well hardly any, of chasing after any nookie on this trip to New York. He really had come to the Apple on business, but only to secure some bookings for a couple comics he already had under contract. All he had done was hang around the hotel bar for a few drinks, he hadn’t been looking for any action, not really.
But let a pair of formidable young knockers like Sabrina’s heave into sight, let a pair of juicy red lips start cooing seductively after he had just happened to mention that he was a hot-shot talent agent from Hollywood….
How was he supposed to know that Marsha’s P.I. had followed him out from the Coast with his microphones and cameras? Well sure he had slipped the house dick fifty bucks to let him know if any wise-guy came nosing around his room! Didn’t everyone do that? Look at the shit he’d have been in if he hadn’t!
“You get off on this sleazing around, Balaban,” wife number two used to tell him. ”It’s the sneaking around in crummy motels that gets your pathetic pecker up, If you weren’t looking over your shoulder for detectives and divorce lawyers, you’d never be able to raise a hard-on!”
Well Tanya had had the disposition of a speed freak wolverine, and Texas Jimmy would have been hard-put to remember very many situations when impotence wasn’t the least of his problems, but in his more philosophical moments, he had to acknowledge that she sort of had a point.
A state of contented monogamy with a wife and kiddies and the whole nine yards was impossible for Texas Jimmy to imagine as other than the moral equivalent of condition terminal in Sun City. On the other hand, a romantic streak, or an instinctive self-knowledge he knew better than to examine, kept him from simply leading the carefree bachelor life of the disconnected playboy.
Not that he enjoyed being tailed by divorce dicks, not that he had enjoyed the financial consequences of his first two divorces, but he had to admit that the tummelling of it all did indeed probably do much to maintain his edge. In this, he knew, he was like the comics he managed. Comedians with sex lives that a Jewish mother could love were few and far between, and of the dozen or so in Texas Jimmy’s stable, eight of them would be going through some kind of crazy tsuris at any given time. It wasn’t that doing stand-up comedy was a sure ticket to the rubber room, but that you had to maintain that edge to stay funny. Like a top, once you stopped whirling and twirling, you tended to fall on your ass.
Kapplemeyer’s Country Club Resort Hotel was five rambling wooden stories of faded pastel green with forest green trimming. A sagging covered porch ran across the front of the building. In the summer, no doubt, the beach chairs would be filled with gorked-out old folks and the rusty green lawn tables laden with the cloyingly sweet hi-balls and planter’s punches favored by same, but now they were deserted, making the place seem even deader that it probably was.
“Jesus Christ,” observed Sabrina as an ancient bellman in a musty puke-green monkey suit emerged from the main entrance and tottered down the stairs.
Inside the lobby, a gray-haired and stooped clerk managed to remain standing behind a heavily-revarnished front desk. A dining room behind closed glass doors to the left. On the right, the open entrance to the hotel nightclub, labeled “Kapplemeyer’s Fabulous Sunset Room” in peeling gilt letters. Three old duffers in leisure suits and two old ladies stuffed into hideous pastel capris comprised the lobby life.
“What are we doing in this shithole?” Sabrina hissed in Jimmy’s ear as they approached the desk.
“I told you, it’s business,” Jimmy snapped back.
“Yessir,” said the desk clerk in a tired wheeze, “can I help you?”
I hope so, Texas Jimmy thought, observing the ever-more skeptical pout souring Sabrina’s bee-stung lips. He had taken the precaution, didn’t everyone, of schtuping the hotel desk in New York twenty to book this room for him. Tell ’em that I’m a big time agent from Hollywood don’t want to be disturbed by no papparrazi, their discretion will be appreciated, had been his instructions. It was the truth, wasn’t it?
“I’ve got a reservation,” he said. “Name of Balaban….”
“Texas Jimmy Balaban?” said the desk clerk, emerging from his coma.
Jimmy smiled patronizingly, glancing sidewise at Sabrina, whose eyes had widened, whose pout had softened. “The one, the only,” he said.
“We’ve reserved the Presidential Suite for you, Mr. Balaban—”
“Hey, I didn’t—”
“—no extra charge, of course, compliments of the management.”
Sabrina breathed a wordless Wow. That had been the point. But the freebie upgrade had been more than Jimmy had hoped for.
“Well I do appreciate it,” he said. He leaned closer, nodded in the direction of Sabrina, slid a twenty across the desk, winked at the clerk. ”But if anyone asks, I’m not here, the room is registered to Joseph P. Blow, get me?”
The Presidential Suite was a living room with a bay window overlooking the deserted tennis courts, a big bedroom with a king-sized bed, a monster bathroom with double sink, tub, and separate shower stall. The air within, however, was stale as Joe Miller’s Joke Book, the plush living room furniture exuded a dusty odor, the first rush of water in the toilet taps was a rusty brown, and there was a tell-tale rime at the water-line in the toilet bowl. Kapplemeyer’s probably managed to rent it out to full paying guests about as often as Frank Sinatra topped the bill at the Fabulous Sunset Room, which did much to explain why they had comped it as an upgrade to the big time agent from Hollywood in the off-season.
“Not bad, huh?” Jimmy said as Sabrina pranced around the living room.
She came to light on the couch. Jimmy stood over her gazing down her cleavage.
“You weren’t shining me on, were you?” she said. “You really are a big-time agent from Hollywood!”
Texas Jimmy smiled at her. ”Would I bullshit you?” he murmured.
Sabrina took both of his hands in hers. “You know what I’d like now?” she said softly.
“What?” Jimmy purred.
“Could we…could we have some champagne, I mean it would be perfect, just like in the movies…”
“Why sure,” Jimmy said. “I’ll call room service. Why don’t you go into the bedroom and slip into something more comfortable.” He winked lugubriously. ”Like nothing at all….”
Sabrina giggled and departed. Jimmy called room service.
“A bottle of champs.”
“The best in the— Uh, something classy that don’t cost an arm and a leg, know what I mean?”
About five minutes later, room service arrived with a bottle in an ice bucket and two glasses on a silver-plate tray. Jimmy glanced at the label, saw that it was Moet and Chandon, a famous French brand, gave the bellboy a good tip, and took it into the bedroom.
Sabrina was stretched out across the bed on her back with her arms and legs wide open wearing only a great big smile.
Jimmy popped the bottle, did the honors. “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid,” he said Bogartwise, clinking glasses.
Only much later, when he took a second look at the label on the now-empty bottle, did he realize that they had fobbed him off with some knock-off version of the real French stuff that had been bottled in California.
It was an unseasonably warm autumn evening for the coast of central California, and so Amanda had moved the proceedings out of Xanadu’s auditorium to the back lawn of the main building.
Here, she wouldn’t be upstaged by the magnificent view of sunset from a Pacific seacliff afforded by the front veranda, but the surf breaking on the rocks below could still be heard as a rushing rumble in the background, and the stars could be seen beginning to emerge at the crown of the purpling heavens, and the perfume of the surrounding redwood forest seemed to sound just the right note of olfactory languor for the subject at hand.
Amanda began pacing in small circles before she started talking, her simple white caftan and long unfettered black hair flowing in the wind of her passage, her dark brown eyes and aquiline nose forming the visage of a bird of prey whose gaze she kept fixed on the same central point in the audience.
“There are paths that you never see until you discover that you are already on them,” she said, “there are doors you can never find until you have already passed through them.”
This was the standard costume she used for ”Walkabout Through the Dreamtime” and the standard opening.
“The blinding flash that transformed Saul on the road to Tarsus, Joan of Arc awakening in mid-conversation with her voices, Albert Hoffman peddling his bicycle as the LSD he has unknowingly absorbed alters the world around him….”
This was also pretty much the usual group she drew with this one. There were twenty-three of them sprawled comfortably on piles of assorted cushions, split roughly evenly by gender, median age in the early forties, a lot of professional creators, many of them in various states of blockage; screenwriters, painters, a sculptor, poets, a composer, the usual dilettantes and seekers, but no performers.
“Moses confronted with the Burning Bush, Mohammed finding himself frantically taking dictation from Allah….”
Pacing faster and faster, making them track her.
“Transcendent experiences wherein the everyday mind is transformed by powers from elsewhere before it knows what happens! The rare peak experiences of prophets, and visionaries, and God-struck saints!”
Amanda stopped dead in her tracks, arced a prophetic finger in the collective face of her audience, her visage stern and a bit feverish, as if about to summon the ineffable from the vasty deeps before their very eyes.
“Right?” she demanded in a voice of thunder.
“Wrong,” she said in quite another voice, sinking down into the rattan peacock chair set out for her and folding her arms across her chest with a little smile. “I’m talking about a path we all find ourselves on every night, the door we all walk through on the way to it, the path through the dreamtime, and the door to sleep.”
The opening theatrics were over, and she could open up and just be Amanda.
“We never remember the moment we fall asleep, do we?” she said, as if talking to a couple of friends in her living room. ”We can never remember the moment we passed through that doorway. And when we’ve got insomnia, it’s the agony of Tantalus trying to summon it up by act of conscious will, now isn’t it?”
Amanda had a repertoire of a half dozen of what she called “experiences,” not just because it was a clever marketing tool which played well on the New Age Circuit, but because experiences were what she truly sought both to convey and obtain.
“And then there we are in the Dreamtime, without even knowing we are there, more often than not. The magic land of our dreams, of beauty and of terror, of spirit messages and satori, of dire punishments and inexplicable powers, stranger than truth and wiser than fiction….”
Places like Xanadu had existed up and down the coastal mountains of California long before fourteen-year-old Amanda Dunston had run away from Marin Country for her three-week magical mystery tour in the Haight-Ashbury’s Summer of Love.
“The boys in the lab coats can tell you all about the structure and biochemistry of the brain, and how Rapid Eye Movements are the physical signature of the dream state….”
Wooded mountains tumbled to the rocky coast of California starting not that far north of Los Angeles, and the further north you went, the grander the scale of the landscape, the deeper and mightier the forests, and the emptier the wilderness of the works of modern man. This was California primeval, loamy brown and forest green, a long fog-girt jumble of seacliff mountains and misty canyons like no other coast on the planet; the secret spiritual spine of the land magically hidden in plain sight.
Small wonder that Zen monasteries and nudist communes, solitary hermits and beatnik poets, ascetics in hair-shirts and blue jeans and free love libertines, and who knew what Indian shamans and secret medicine lodges before the white man came, had slip-slided away into these hidden mystic vastnesses.
“But that’s like giving a detailed chemical analysis of smears of paint on the canvas and calling it a useful description of the Mona Lisa.”
So what was now called the New Age Circuit had always been here in one incarnation or another, for the sacred orgy ranches, the seminar centers, the plush retreats for artists and writers and well-heeled pilgrims, grew naturally out of this landscape like magic mushrooms and wild marijuana.
And Amanda kidded herself not, as long as there were paying rubes to be fleeced, there would be snake-oil salesman and sleazy side-show gurus working the Cosmic Carney Circuit. Indeed, she had to take care to avoid becoming one herself, having better tools with which to do so than most.
For few others along this circuit also acted in tv and commercials, and no one else she knew actually coached performers. And she fretted that some of the ”experiences” in her repertoire perhaps did have too much clever show business technique about them and too little genuine satori.
“Well, tonight, we’re going to start with the unscientific notion that the visions that come to us in dreams are on the deepest reality level the same visions that come to us in the act of artistic inspiration, that the door to the Dreamtime is also the door to our creative imagination….”
Which was why “Walkabout Through the Dreamtime” was her favorite.
“So if we can learn how to open that door by act of conscious will while we’re awake, we can summon dreams forth into our waking minds, summon inspiration forth from our own vasty deeps and gain conscious control of our own creative powers….”
There was a bit more of this lecture stuff—lucid dreaming, dreams as arising into the human mind from the collective species unconscious—but it was more or less by way of convincing the customers that they were getting their money’s worth, timewise. The real heart of it, the techniques themselves, could be explained, if hardly mastered, in a few minutes.
“Tonight I want you to to be as drowsy as possible before you go to bed. Then just lay there and watch the stream of your own consciousness. Don’t try to think of anything but don’t try to hold your mind empty either, just let whatever happens happen.”
Amanda stood up slowly, peered at the group, narrowed her eyes slightly, as if watching for something.
“Just observe the tropical fish of thought swimming through the waters of your mind….” she murmured. “If you watch the right way, you’ll know it when it happens. Instead of the words and images and feelings going out of your mind into the darkness, words and images and feelings will start floating up out of the darkness towards you….”
Amanda grinned, straightened suddenly, held up a finger. ”That’s it!” she exclaimed. “That’s the doorway! What’s coming up out of it are dreams. You’re right on the edge of sleep, and they’re coming up out of the Dreamtime for you.”
Now she paced in small circles, staring at the audience like a raptor. ”Pull back the teeniest eeniest bit until you feel that the words and images and feelings are coming out of you once more. Then do the same thing over again. And again. Several times before you let sleep take you. Do this for a few nights, and you’ll learn to recognize the doorway….”
She stopped pacing. “What’s really on the other side of the doorway? Where are the dreams coming from? Your subconscious? The Jungian Collective Unconscious? The Mind of God?”
She shrugged ingenuously. ”It doesn’t matter. Once you’ve got this technique down, you’ll be able to retain consciousness of the opening of the doorway, you’ll find yourself able to slip from the waking state into lucid dreams, you’ll have learned how to open the doorway and step through it.”
She sat down slowly. “You’re creative people, but you’re all different, so how you do the next step is up to you,” she said. “Set up a recorder, or your computer, or your easel, whatever, by your bedside. Lay down and wait for that opening of the doorway, let the dreams start coming through….”
She leaned far forward and then spoke in a strong stage whisper, conveying the effect of someone imparting a secret while trying not to arouse the attention of unwanted eavesdroppers.
“And then what you’ve got to do is hold the door open while you sit up in bed and take up your instrument and…let the dreamtime play it through you….”
Amanda laughed. ”That won’t be easy,” she admitted. “But sooner or later, you’ll wake up the next morning with some drawings, or some words, whatever, that will seem were put there by the elves. And then you must immediately take that work as a beginning and go on.”
Amanda stood up again, and began walking slowly towards her audience. “If you persist, you’ll be sitting there one morning, wide awake at your work, and the doorway will open, and the Dreamtime will come pouring through! This is not magic or supernatural mumbo-jumbo but conscious access to a transcendental reality whose existence no human can possibly doubt—the realm of your very own dreams.”
Amanda detested the very concept of the supernatural, the notion that there was a level of reality discontinuous from the natural realm. That kind of superstitious drivel had perverted the metaphysical insights of the Vedas into a ludicrous pantheon of petty godlings, turned the purity of the Buddha’s original vision into a series of magical formulas, and in general gave mystical experience an intellectual bad name.
The supernatural was a contradiction in terms. What is, is real. And what is real, is natural. All belief systems—astrology, Tarot, free market economics, or the Roman Catholic Church—were obstacles on the path to experiential enlightenment.
Of course science was just another belief system conning itself into believing that it knew what was real and what was not, and scientists another priesthood holding onto the franchise of their own particular brand of Ultimate Reality. And Amanda had experienced far more than is dreamt of in their natural philosophies, , moments when maya’s veils parted long enough to reveal the formless clarity at the core of all being, the chaotic unity at the heart of the world.
What is, is real.
Amanda had touched that transcendent reality via acid and mescaline and some pretty nasty synthetics as a young teenage runaway during the Summer of Love, had followed the Pied Piper into the Magic Mountain for a season. But she had been unable to return to ground zero in command of the visionary powers sampled therein, and neither she nor her generation of Flower Children had returned from their journeys as Lightbringers to joyously transform the world.
But Amanda Dunston’s parents had not seen it as their duty to stuff the genie back into the bottle upon her return from San Francisco, had not sternly sought to convince her that life was real and boredom was earnest, had not treated the tales of her psychedelic adventures as the demented ravings of a drug-crazed teenage hippie, to be expunged from her reality track by psychotherapy or worse if necessary.
Instead, they had listened to her babbling tales of telepathic communion at group-grope orgies, of ego-death on acid at the Fillmore, of transcendent orgasm on mescaline, of annihilation of the I-Thou interface, and discussed it all with her at endless length, sometimes with a joint being passed. They had suggested certain readings, introduced her to mandalic art and mantric music, subsidized a retreat at a Zen monastery, and rather than dismiss her experience and that of her generation as aberrant lunacy, had gently persuaded her that she had, after all, been very young, and that what she had supposed was ultimate Enlightenment had only been her first steps upon the Road that goes ever on.
“Walkabout Through the Dreamtime” ended not with some grand rhetorical flourish but with Amanda delivering the final line of the formal presentation as she walked among her audience while they rose from their pillows around her.
“There’s a higher level,” she said quite conversationally, “not that I’ve attained it, but I’ve talked to people who say they have, and that’s when you can open the doorway any time and place you want.”
And she was speaking now directly to some female poet and a blocked screenwriter, as she shrugged, and smiled a slightly wistful smile. ”Some day, who knows, maybe I’ll get there.”
And her audience had broken up into a community of the usual seekers, and Amanda had quite naturally become just one of them, without being conscious of stepping through that doorway either.
“The first few hits are free, kid,” her father once told her with a Cheshire cat smile, “or so at the time it seems, after which you finds yourself spending the rest of your life on the Pilgrim’s Path to the Palace of Wisdom, to learn when you are fortunate, to teach when you are called upon to teach.”
Oh what schlocky webs we weave! Texas Jimmy Balaban thought morosely as he knocked back another slug of heavily-watered bourbon in Kapplemeyer’s Fabulous Sunset Room.
If he hadn’t picked up Sabrina in the New York hotel, he wouldn’t have had to flee into the Catskills, if he hadn’t told her that he had dragged her to a dump like Kapplemeyer’s to scout talent and revealed his identity to the management like a putz to boot, then just maybe he could have escaped the last hour and a half of torture.
But no, when the desk called the Presidential suite, the suite they had comped him fer chrissakes, to invite the big time agent from Hollywood to catch the floor show, in a position to refuse.
Given his admitted propensity to pick ’em for tits and ass rather than sparkling personality, Jimmy all too often found himself wishing he were elsewhere once he had gotten his rocks off, so he was not unfamiliar with post-coital depression. He even knew the fancy shrink’s term for the phenomenon, having looked it up once to make sure that he wasn’t turning faggot or something.
But being forced by his own cleverness to watch an endless succession of excruciating acts he wouldn’t have tried to book into a prison benefit on Devil’s Island die in agony attempting to rouse this audience of brain-dead zombies from its collective coma raised post-coital depression to an Academy Award winning level.
What a toilet bowl!
The walls were painted the pastel vomit green that seemed to be Kapplemeyer’s signature, only to jazz up the Sunset Room, someone had dumped cheap glitter into the bucket before they slathered it on. The stage was just about big enough to handle a quartet and an act at the same time, the lighting consisted of a single fixed spot, and the sound system seemed to have been scrounged from a bankrupt biker bar in Bumfuck Mississippi.
The room had about thirty tables, plus a dance floor, meaning that it could squeeze a hundred thirty, a hundred forty, in the summer high season, and probably did, seeing as how the nightlife within a thirty mile radius of Kapplemeyer’s consisted of an all-night gas station and an abandoned gravel pit.
At the moment, however, there were twenty-one, count ’em, and Jimmy out of habit always did, people, besides himself and Sabrina, in the audience. Some of them might even have been alive, thought it was hard to tell. The only ones who seemed to be significantly under a hundred were a traveling salesman type in his fifties with a nineteen year old hooker, a beefy good-old boy in his forties with the severely overweight little lady, and three Japanese guys iwho hunched over their drinks nervously as if slowly realizing they had gotten off the subway in Harlem by mistake instead of the Village.
It was an audience that Texas Jimmy wouldn’t have wished on Adolf Hitler and the Auschwitz Boys, an audience that he wouldn’t even have wished on the succession of acts actually condemned to face it.
Thus far, there had been a forty-year-old female vocalist in black leather and a pink mohawk slaughtering covers of Madonna and Annie Lennox, a black ventriloquist and his whiteface dummy, a trio of ancient hippies spastically warbling Golden Oldies from Woodstock, an actual fucking Gypsy violinist, and an Elvis impersonator gay as a treefull of chickadees.
The house band consisted of four pimply teenagers who looked like they’d cut your throat for a quarter and played like you’d be willing to pay it. The MC, a balding yutz in a too-tight tux with cuffs up to the shins and sleeves to match, had introduced himself to Jimmy before the agony began as the Master of Ceremonies, tennis coach, and assistant manager.
“Hey, Mr. Balaban, babes, you’re in luck tonight,” this schmuck had babbled, “we’ve booked a fabulous comic all the way from Hollywood tonight, the one and only, the incredibly talented, the world famous…Ja—ack Dunphy!”
Jack Dunphy was a name that Texas Jimmy dimly recognized, an ancient refugee from the local game show circuit last seen doing used car slots in Bakersfield.
That had been about ninety minutes, five shots of bourbon, and a million years of stupefaction ago, and the booze had been too thoroughly watered to function as anesthesia. Sabrina, on the other hand, after sharing the bottle of champagne with him in the suite, had gone on to a series of cutely-named sweet mixed drinks, most of which seemed to contain rum or gin or maybe both, and seemed to have succeeded in getting herself fairly thoroughly snockered.
At least she had stopped complaining about the acts, and sat there quietly turning green from the loathsome combinations churning in her stomach. Jimmy hoped she wasn’t going to throw up, not that he could blame her, if this went on much longer he would probably puke himself.
On the stage, Elvis in drag had been replaced by a goddamn dog act, two horrible little yapping Yorkshire terriers in pink and blue bows being put through their pathetic paces by a fiftyish woman in a black tux and top hat who in a previous incarnation might once have been a Vegas chorus girl.
Weird, Jimmy, thought, really weird. It was passingly strange to go this deep even in a dim dive like this without putting on the comic. Given the amount of time that had expired, Jimmy was beginning to have some faint hope that the ordeal was about to be over, that Dunphy hadn’t shown and this was the last act on the bill.
They couldn’t have something worse that this in the wings, could they?
The dog act ended to a smattering of applause from the salesman and polite grunts and head-bobs from the Japanese businessmen.
Beat. Empty stage. Beat.
The MC staggered onto the stage, looking backward over his shoulder with a goofy dazed expression. “Uh, ah, ladies and gentleman, ah, I’ve been informed that Jack Dunphy can’t be with us tonight, he, uh….”
“Fell into the reactor pool and turned back into a two hundred pound frog!
A loud off-stage voice, penetrating and raspy: a bit like Jimmy Durante, a bit like Popeye, a bit like a circular saw hitting sheet-metal.
The MC looked back at the audience with a sickly dumb-ass grin; given the previous level of acting ability he had displayed, Jimmy was pretty sure this was not an act of which he had expected to be part. What gives?
“But, uh, he’s arranged for a replacement, the fabulous, the world-famous, the one and only, uh, ah—”
“Ralf!” barked the off-stage voice. Really barked it. “Ralf! Ralf! Ar-A-El-Ef, just like it’s spelled, Monkey Boy!”
“The amazing, uh, Ralf….”
The MC exited rather hurriedly stage right, as the man behind the voice bustled on from stage left.
He was built like a slightly overweight miniature gorilla, legs a bit too short for the body, arms a bit too long. He had thick curly black hair looked like it was combed with an eggbeater, blazed with silver here and there, like he once stuck his dork in a light-socket. He had dumbo ears that Jimmy would’ve almost bet were prehensile, and big brilliant blue eyes rolling like slot machine tumblers that just didn’t seem to go with his grayish and unhealthy-looking Mediterranean complexion. Bulbous beaky nose that seemed redone by a plastic surgeon for comic effect, and a huge thick-lipped mouth in constant motion.
“Peace and Love, people to the power,” he rasped, making a V-sign with his pudgy right hand.
He was wearing blue jeans, some kind of tie-dyed satin peasant blouse, Reeboks with the laces untied, and a brass peace sign on a leather thong approximately the diameter of a small Domino’s pizza.
He paused, did a take, took two steps forward, shielding his eyes from the glare of the spot with his hand like an Indian scout, peered out into the audience.
“Hey, wait a minute, this don’t look like Woodstock! Wheresa tie-dyes? Wheresa dope? Wheresa topless knockers?”
Although this failed to raise the audience from the dead, Texas Jimmy found himself moving to the edge of his chair. There was something about this guy, something about his delivery, something about that kazoo of a voice, something about the weird stance he had assumed before this audience, something about his entrance, that added up to a crazy energy that went right to Jimmy’s backbrain….
The nose knows, Jimmy thought.
Ralf put his hands on his hips, regarded the audience indignantly. “Hey, what is this, my agent told me I was doin’ the capper on the Age of Aquarius, not the deathwatch at the Sun City freezer!”
“Where’s Joe Cocker? Where’s the Airplane? Where’s Hendrix? Hey, if this is Woodstock, you corpsicles gotta be the ones got stuffed inna time machine!”
Ralf stuck two fingers in his big yawp and emitted a piercing whistle. ”Anybody still alive out there?”
He strutted to the lip of the stage, pointed imperiously at the salesman’s teenage hooker.
“You!” he snapped. “Come on, I know you’re still breathing, I can see your boobs moving when I stare down your cleavage, where the hell am I?”
“Kapplemeyer’s Fabulous Sunset Room!” the girl managed to croak in a squeaky titter.
“Kugglehammers’s Flatulent Schlockschtick Gloom?”
As a shriek of outrage that set the mirror ball vibrating.
Ralf’s eyes rolled in horror. He recoiled a few steps back, staring around the room as if really seeing it for the first time.
“These toilet-colored walls….the MC in the ten dollar funeral parlor tuxedo… those dumb tropical drinks with the puce plastic parasols…” he moaned. ”Oh my God…oh no, tell me it ain’t so, those idiots missed Woodstock and dropped me in the Borscht Belt! ”
Texas Jimmy’s antennae were twitching like a roach’s on a bakery shop floor. The previous hour and a half’s boredom was forgiven and forgotten.
This guy’s material wasn’t exactly something to write home about, and he hadn’t raised a chuckle yet, but Jimmy was certain that none of this was scripted, that he was winging it.
Ralf balled his hands into fists. “I’m gonna kill my agent!” he screamed. He did a take. ”Only…only the son of a bitch ain’t even gonna be born for another century!”
He shrugged, stared imploringly at the audience.
“This is the end of the Psychedelic Sixties, right, the slagbrains at least got the time right, didn’t they?” he said plaintively. “Didn’t they? Dylan, the Beatles, Charlie Manson an’ his Dune Buggy Death Commandos, all that good shit?”
“Wrong century, asshole,” the Good Old Boy called out, “what planet you say you’re from, haw, haw, haw?”
This actually drew a few snide snickers. Ralf timed it perfectly, doing a teeny take before snapping one off that turned it into a straight line.
“Planet of the Apes just like you, Monkey Boy,” he mugged, scratching head and armpit chimpwise, “only back when I come from, we’ve actually started to walk upright!”
The timing drew a few laughs on its own, even though Jimmy was pretty sure even the yucks here who were laughing didn’t really get it.
Ralf did a take, held his nose. “Wait a minute! When am I? I didn’t inhale? Clarence Thomas and his Coca Cola pubic hair? Boris Yeltsin takes a meeting with Jack Daniels? Nixon’s tricky dick? What’s long and green and hangs from trees in the Mekong Delta? Not funny, Monkey People?”
“This is the act you dragged me to this dump to see?” Sabrina whoozed.
“Shaddap,” Jimmy said out of the side of his mouth without looking at her, without conscious thought, then glanced in the direction of her bilious outrage. ”I’m sorry, babe, but zip it and dig it, okay, I’m working.”
“Gimme a break, willya, they told me 1969 when they conned me into the time machine, they told me Woodstock, not the Borscht Belt, my agent promised me a quarter million Baby Boomers on LSD would laugh at the old rubber crutch act, not twelve dead bodies an’ Vlad the Impaler!”
“This guy sucks….” Sabrina opined before subsiding into sullen silence.
From the muttering grumbles, the rest of the audience, such as it was, would seem to agree.
“Come on, give me a hint, what’s funny now? Billy Beer? Radovan Karadzic’s Ethnic Laundromats? The Mother of All Fuckers?”
Okay, so this act was going over with this audience like a big black fart in a Williamsburg synagogue. The material was just what you might expect from a broken-down third rate comic from the twenty-second century dropped back here with the wrong joke book. Only there wasn’t any joke book. He was for sure ad-libbing all of it. Or rather the character he was playing, Ralf, the schlocky comedian from the future, was ad-libbing it.
This guy was totally in character.
And that was what had Texas Jimmy Balaban snapping his fingers for a waiter and fishing in his wallet for a business card. Because the character he was so totally into was indeed like an intrusion from another time zone, another movie.
Like an unknown comic name of Robin Williams dropped down to ad-lib his own alien into an otherwise nowhere sitcom called Mork and Mindy.
“Go backstage, give that guy my card as soon as he gets off, and tell him Texas Jimmy Balaban wants to buy him a drink and talk some business,” he told the waiter, slipping him a card and a tenner.
Okay, so the chances were probably slim and none that Ralf was a great comic actor and stand-up ad-libbing genius in the same package like Robin Williams. But if this guy was no Williams, then there was only one thing he could be, and that was something more common, a phenomenon with which Jimmy was quite familiar.
Who in the Business wasn’t?
Tiny Tim. Pee Wee Herman. Howard Stern.
Talents who were either off their nuts from the git-go or who had created one character to play all the time and gotten so far inside their singular schtick that they forgot to remember that it was a schtick. Major freak acts like that were few and far between, but the syndrome was quite common among the less stellar stable of clients who Jimmy booked onto the voracious late night variety and afternoon chit-chat circuits.
Texas Jimmy handled about a dozen real comics of varying degrees of mediocrity, and these were the clients he lived and died with. But to pay the rent, and the car payments, and the alimony, and keep up the necessary front, Jimmy, no less than the producers he dealt with, could not afford to turn up his nose at the “specialty acts.” The whacked out speed-freak Madonna clones, flying saucer weirdos, yogurt enema gurus, and transvestite Marilyn Monroe channellers who filled airtime for a season or two before the boys in the white coats arrived with the nets and straightjackets.
At the very least, Ralf the Comedian from the Future would be an improvement over the usual run of such freak acts. Either the guy was a genius comic actor, or he was crazy, but either way, he had the moves and the timing. If he was sane enough to work with professionally written material and take a little coaching, who knew how far he might go?
Hopefully not quite as far as the Elvis impersonator who Jimmy had done quite well with for about eight months. After which, he had disappeared, and was next seen in full gear trying to crash an old pink Cadillac Eldorado convertible through the gates at Graceland….
That Ralf came surging up to their table no more than five minutes after make his escape from the morosely zombified audience still wearing his stage gear and squinting at Jimmy’s card seemed to betray a certain eagerness.
Up close, the outfit looked even cheesier. The tie-dye shirt seemed to be made of some kind of cheap plastic. The jeans sure weren’t denim, and the phony leather label said ”Levi Riders.” The peace medallion reminded Jimmy of a slightly outsize Philadelphia pretzel, all it needed was the mustard. Ralf himself would need something slathered on his puss before he faced any camera. His grayish skin and big dirty pores reminded Jimmy of a moonscape, and there was something unhealthy-looking about his gums and teeth.
“Texas Jimmy Balaban?” Ralf said. “Funny, you don’t look like a Texan.”
He eyed Sabrina’s cleavage as he plopped himself down on a chair, looked back at the card, looked at Jimmy, did a take. “But you do look like an agent.”
“You on the other hand look like you could use a drink,” Jimmy said, motioning for a waiter. ”What’ll it be, Ralf?” he said when a sixtyish character apparently still wearing his Bar Mitzvah tux waddled up to the table.
“Your bartender know how to make a Survival Special?” said Ralf.
“No,” straight-manned the waiter, “how do you make a Survival Special?”
“A double shot of two hundred proof alcohol in a tall glass over ice with tap water from Chernobyl. If you survive it, you’re something special.”
“Hah, hah,” said the waiter. “Now would you like to order a real drink?”
“That is a real drink when I come from, Monkey Boy,” said Ralf.
“Stoly on the rocks with Evian and a slice of lime,” Jimmy said quickly. ”That okay, with you, Ralf?”
“You got real vodka?” said Ralf. “You got real lime? I hate that synthetic stuff, tastes like toilet disinfectant, and looks like snot jello.”
The waiter rolled his eyes and departed. Sabrina grimaced.
“”Hey, you’re not on stage any more, you can relax now,” Texas Jimmy suggested.
“I can’t tell you how glad I am to hear that,” Ralf snapped at him sarcastically. He plucked at the front of his atrocious plastic simulated tie-tied shirt.
“My agent tells me to learn a routine for the Sixties, they costume me in this and stuff me inna wayback without so much as a change of underwear, here’s some period pocket money, you can buy what you need when you get there, and then they screw up and drop me back half a century or so late, the time machine’s supposed to make the pick-up November 15, 1969, which means it’s come and gone decades ago, so I’m stuck here in this Monkey Boy suit, with no gig and about enough money to buy one decent change of clothes, in a century, which, as you will find out, Balaban, is not gonna be one vintage year after another, but hey, I can relax, no problem!”
He spit it all out like schtick, but it wasn’t really funny, and his heavy brows were frowning, and those blue eyes seemed to burn with something like real anger.
Or, thought Jimmy, genuine craziness. Either that, or this guy simply didn’t know how to turn it off.
Whichever, there was no percentage in pressing the issue. Texas Jimmy was not inexperienced in dealing with people who claimed to be straight off the boat from Atlantis or Busby Berkeley’s tap-dancing cousin from Mars. The operative question was not whether such people were loco in the coco or whether they were just determined to keep shining you on, but whether their schtick was marketable. And if so, whether they were unencumbered by previous contractual arrangements.
“Can I ask you a serious question?” Jimmy said neutrally.
“Do you expect a serious answer?”
“Do you really have an agent?”
“Do I have an agent…?” Ralf repeated slowly. “You mean do I have an agent now…?”
“I mean do you have a contract you can’t get out of?”
“I will, in about a hundred and fifty years or so,” Ralf said. He scratched his head theatrically. “But I’ll be dead by then, won’t I, so who cares, let the son of a bitch sue me.”
The waiter arrived with Ralf’s drink.
Ralf took a big gulp, smacked his lips, fished out the lime slice with his fingers, held it up to his eyes and studied it reverently for a moment like a cutter appraising a raw diamond, then popped it into his mouth peel and all, and chewed it slowly down with what seemed like an expression of genuine bliss.
“The dim dumb past do have its compensations,” he said with a smile.
Jimmy’s brain began to feel like it was floating free in its skull socket, and given the amount of watering the bar whiskey in this joint had been forced to endure, it could hardly be the booze.
This last little piece of business had been a little too convincing to be a piece of business. Either Ralf was sincerely schizzy, or…or…aw, that was ridiculous….
“We were talking about representation,” Texas Jimmy said, attempting to beam the conversation back to planet Earth. ”I think your act has potential—
“—needs work, needs professional material, you understand, but I think you’ve got it. I take 30% off the top, but out of that I pay the gag writers, and the acting coach, and the insurance, and if you want, I can handle your finances at no extra charge too. Interested?”
“Well, yeah,” Ralf said. “I mean, under the circumstances, what choice do I have? My pick-up’s long gone, and it’ll take another century or so for my slagbrained previous agent to even be born yesterday, so I guess you got yourself a client, Mr. Balaban.”
“Hey, look, the deal’s off if you’ve got a valid contract with another agent, the last thing in the world I need is any more legal tsuris,” Jimmy admonished, “my wife is giving enough of—”
“Your wife!” shrieked Sabrina. “You didn’t tell me you were married!”
“In name only, babes,” Jimmy said hastily, patting her hand in reassurance. ”And not for much longer, believe me, there’s only a few little legal details to—”
“You’re gonna get me subpoenaed as a co-respondent in some tacky—”
“Relax, will you, they can’t extradite you to California for a crappy divorce action, besides which I don’t think the detective—”
“You knew you were being tailed, you son of a bitch?” Sabrina shouted. “That’s why you dragged me all the way up here to this shithole, isn’t it!”
“Zip it,” Jimmy hissed as the heads of a few of the less comatose patrons turned shakily in their table’s direction.
Sabrina’s face became hard as an IRS auditor’s heart. ”If you don’t give me cab fare back to New York right now, Jimmy Balaban,” she hissed back at him, “I am going to start screaming. About how you shot me up with heroin so you could jam your diseased penis up my innocent virgin bunghole.”
“Three hundred bucks should about cover it,” Sabrina said, folding her arms across her ample bosom.
“I don’t have that kind of cash on me,” Jimmy told her. “But tomorrow we’ll find a cash machine—”
“On the count of three! One! Two! Thr—”
“We got a deal, I’ll lend you the cash,” Ralf said. ”You can pay me back tomorrow.”
From a pants pocket, he produced a roll of bills, peeled off three, handed them to Jimmy.
They were hundreds. They were so new they stuck together. The ink didn’t seem quite—
“Gimme!” said Sabrina, snatching them out of his hands with a nice theatrical flourish, and flouncing out stage right.
“Could I see another one of those bills, Ralf?” Jimmy said suspiciously.
“What’s the matter with them?” Ralf said nervously, forking one over. “Don’t tell me those slagbrains screwed that up too!”
Jimmy studied the hundred dollar bill. He was no expert judge of funny money, but if the hundred was counterfeit, he couldn’t tell, and if he couldn’t tell, your average cabdriver couldn’t tell either. It certainly seemed like a perfectly legitimate hundred dollar bill, if a bit hot off the presses. But then, you sometimes got bills like that if the bank happened to have gotten a brand new supply from the Treasury….
Jimmy looked again.
Did a take.
The year on the bill was 1969.
© 2010 Norman Spinrad