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GIGOLO


by

K. Wilson James



Torbin Zepto was drunk.  Again.

He looked blearily at the countertop in front of him, the same countertop where he sat every time he binged at Divine Molly’s.  Torbin had no idea who Divine Molly was, of course.  Nobody did—the bartender’s name was Frederick, the owner was a guy named Christopherson; even the developer had a name like...like...well, Torbin couldn't remember the developer’s name offhand.  But he knew it wasn’t Molly.  And it wasn’t important.  Not tonight.  Torbin knew not to weary his addled brain with trivialities tonight, tonight of all nights.  He focused his hazy vision on the four pint glasses that stood in a haphazard zigzag.  An elated fizz filled him.  And this time it wasn’t the beer.

It’s payback time, fellas, he thought glibly.

Payback.

It sounded good to Torbin.  He had finally done the deed, and now Sunny was going to deliver.  In precisely twelve minutes, Sunny would stride into Divine Molly’s with her liberated-woman gait…and deliver.  In twelve minutes.  It felt like twelve years.  Torbin leaned his elbow languidly into a puddle of Bud and cursed.

This then, is my bliss. And this too, is my damnation.

“Whayasay, Zebco?”

Frederick was a tall scruffy grad student who was perpetually unruffled, and never did bar business without a lit Red in mouth.  Ash peppered Frederick’s t-shirt as he spoke to Torbin, who chose to ignore the deliberate mispronunciation of his name.

“I said, ‘damnit.’ Try and clean your countertops once every decade.”

Frederick inhaled a long contemplative drag on his Marlboro, making the pseudo-analytic face that Torbin imagined he gave to his college coursework.  Philosophy major; Freudian theory and Wordsworth poems, Torbin fabricated.

“Sorry, man.  Whata you all riled up about, Zebco?  Can’t be just the countertops.”

“My name is not Zebco, you half-wit!”

“Dumb thing to be riled up about,” deadpanned Frederick, barely containing his amusement.

“Aw, shut your hole,” Torbin retorted boozily, hunching away from Frederick and checking the clock.  Nine minutes.  Hurry up, Sunny.  Hurry up, clock.

“Hey, Frederick…zat clock work?”

Frederick had begun to polish empty martini glasses, and now looked up at Torbin condescendingly, feigning pity.

“Torbin…Torbin.  You see that skinny hand?  It’s ticking, isn’t it?  Still moving.  See, there it goes…‘I think I can, I think I can.’  Up, up, up…yeah, I think it’s workin,’ old boy.”

Torbin managed a woozy glare before his measured response, almost whispered to keep himself from beating the young loafer over the head with a beer glass.

“Is it slow…or is fast?”

For the sole purpose of irritating him, Frederick exhaled a throatful of smoke in Torbin’s face before speaking.

“Oh, I’d say it’s right on time, so you’c’n simmer down, shooter—you got an appointment or somethin’?”

Torbin shifted on his stool.  Grunted,

“Yeah.  In about eight minutes.  Gimme another beer.”

“Say please,” wheedled Frederick.

“Fuck you.”

Frederick chuckled as he pitched his cigarette into the sink and poured Torbin another beer, nonchalantly sloshing a fifth of it out of the glass.  Torbin straightened up from his drunken slouch, now in a moment of drunken indignance.  He recklessly jabbed the air with his forefinger, attempting to make a point.

“Y’know, Fred’rick…I pay you to put at least a teaspoon of it in the glass.  Why don’t you actually do it, and make my two bucks worth it?”

“Why’d you get so drunk if you got an appointment?  This is the fifth time this month you’ve gotten sloshed and then had an appointment.”

“Why can’t you ever answer a question without asking another one?”

“You’re pretty witty for a drunk bastard.”

Torbin kept quiet as he watched Frederick light up another Red.  He didn’t want to waste any more energy.  He rested his head on the countertop, in the crook of his left elbow, and pushed his eyes as far up in their sockets as they would go so he could check the wall clock.  Five minutes.  Typical, Sunny—you’ll be here.  Right on time.  Why can’t you be early, just once?  He just wanted her to get here.  Now.  It amazed Torbin that Sunny was so contemptible that her dark shiny hair and big breasts had absolutely no effect on him.  In fact, actually anticipating her arrival—now, that’d be a cold day in hell.  And today just so happens to be one day of the year when good ol’ Frederick decides to crank the AC and the ceiling fan, just to annoy me.

How prophetic, Torbin thought sourly, but decided against nagging Frederick to turn off the fan.  He decided he’d rather give Frederick a blowjob than give Frederick the sublime satisfaction of withholding decent room temperature from a customer.

Torbin gloomily reflected on how many times he had slouched on this same barstool, pondering his unfortunate circumstances.  But tonight—tonight might be the night.  The night that gave his problems a prayer of being solved.  Not that he didn’t have his misgivings.  Some fearful shadowy corner of Torbin’s psyche was on the verge of popping out of obscurity and convincing him that he should stagger back home and stand her up.  A minuscule fatalistic part of him wished that she would be late, or just forget to show—because although his deed was done, he wasn’t satisfied.  It wasn’t good enough.  He needed more time.  More time to construct what where viable reasons to him and drunken excuses to Sunny.  Walking out, though—that would be just stupid.  It was toying with the prospect of fatalism that was tragically romantic, Torbin concluded, rather than actually being fatalistic.  Yeah, I’m staying right here.  For the—what?  The fifth time?  Yeah.  And I’ll wait until she shows up.  Hurry, Sunny…hurry…the one time…when the deed’s done…when I want her here early…because tonight might be it…

“Hey, Fred’rick.  You ‘member the last time I met Sunny here?”

“Sunny?  That her name?”

“No, actually, that’s just her CB handle…she’s a truckdriver, y’know.”

Frederick’s lips formed an exaggerated ‘O’ shape as he bent down to look for a rag in the counter’s cavity.

“Ooooh….a truckdriver.  Spiffy.  Tell her I want one of those Graceland lighters next time she gets to Memphis.”

“I was being sarcastic, imbecile.”

Torbin noticed with much consternation that when Frederick stood up, he chose that moment to be accommodating and decent.  Arrogant clowns like him didn’t tend to be either.  They tended to be guffawing schmucks who laughed at their own jokes because nobody else would.  And they tended to be young.  But Frederick’s straightforward and apparently sincere reaction came anyway.

“Yeah, I remember.  Your appointments have been in that corner every single time so far.  And all I heard was buncha yelling.  Didn’t catch much, because y’all were here on Friday.  Busy night, ‘snot like Wednesday.  You never come in here b’fore on a Wednesday.  Why so anxious to share a Wednesday night with me and an empty bar?  What is that you do, anyway, to where you need weekly meetings?”

“Sweet Jesus on a kebab, Fred’rick.  If you end another statement with a question…,” raved Torbin, downing a third of his beer in one gulp.

“End a statement with a question.’  Man, Zebco, you are drunk.  ‘Cause if it’s one thing I learned in elementary school, it’s that a statement doesn’t end a question.  It ends in a period.  And all I wanted to know is what you do for a living that requires weekly meetings with a chick named Sunny.  That’s it, brother.  ‘N no more grammar lectures if you tell me.”

Torbin refused to dignify that little gem with a reply.  He fidgeted and lifted his bloodshot eyes to the clock behind Frederick once more.  Two minutes.  Come on, Sunny.

A large grin, somehow both dopey and catlike, slid across Frederick’s face.  Torbin was only slightly amused.  He thinks he’s onto something.  This should be rich.

“Well…hmm.  Let’s play detective here,” drawled Frederick.  “Ah ha…You’re the one they was lookin’ for when that uptown boutique scandal went public.  Yeah, yeah…I got your number, buddy.”

Torbin rested his chin in his left hand.  Stared impassively and silently at Frederick, who removed the Red from his mouth like gay man, with two fingers in a stiff sideways peace sign, thumb tucked daintily under.  Torbin suspected that this was unconscious insinuation of competence.  He noticed that fairly often, smart-aleck shitheads like Frederick got their imitations of savoir faire from gay men.  Because gay men get the girls and Frederick could probably use one of those.  Torbin smiled a tipsy grin.

Frederick was oblivious to the wayward musings that dawdled through Torbin’s intoxicated brain.  He leaned against the back counter casually, taking a deep drag on his Red.  Gangly right leg crossed over the left, eyebrows raised.  In a frenzy of melodramatic theatrics, his face sagged into a pitying pout.

“No?  Hmm.  Oop!  Got it.  I figured it out.  Easy.  AA.  That’s what it is.  AA meetings.”

“AA meetings in a bar, stone drunk every time.  You got it, Freddo,” Torbin intoned fuzzily as he thumped his forehead lightly on the counter and kept it there.  On the way down, he saw the clock again.  One minute.  Keep breathing.  Tonight’s the night.

Frederick lapsed into an easy silence, appearing to forget the joke.  He chews his lip like a retard, Torbin noted upon lifting his head.

“You’re a gigolo.  Aren’t you.”

Torbin raised his head a little farther and saw that Frederick’s eyes were still focused on some vague point in space.  It was like he had never spoken at all.  And it sounded completely serious.  Torbin knew it wasn’t, of course, but was shaken by the fact that Frederick did not even raise his voice at ‘aren’t you.’  Unusual for someone asking a question.  Doubly unusual for a rabid serial interrogator like Frederick.  Torbin rested his head back on the countertop and actually answered the deadpan jest.  To his own surprise.

“You’d be surprised at how close that guess is.”

‘You’d be surprised at how close that guess is’?  Did I have to say that?

Frederick had no time to reply.  Their thrust and parry was cut short by the sound of no-nonsense staccato taps marching into Divine Molly’s.  High heels.  Torbin didn’t have to raise his head.  Or turn around.  He knew.

Sunny.

Frederick let out a mirthless well-I’ll-be-damned chuckle, realizing who had just walked into his bar.  Torbin cringed inwardly.  He’ll pretend he has no idea.

“Evenin’…anything I can do for you tonight?”

Torbin sighed morosely.  You know your life’s in a rut when your bartender gets predictable, he told himself.

“Torbin.”

The strident voice cut through the smoky air.  As soon as her angry anti-greeting reached his ears, Torbin realized that Sunny had ignored Frederick.  He sat up.  Frederick wasn’t used to being ignored.  He huffed indignantly on his Red.  Said nothing.  He was already ambling away from Torbin, attempting to ferret out a glass that hadn’t been polished.  As Frederick went, Torbin caught his amused raised-eyebrows expression and felt hotly defeated—the skinner little greaser was going to hear every word, and caw relentlessly about it later.  Yeah, yeah, keep grinning, punk.  There’s nothing funnier than a plastered writer who’s apparently in serious trouble with his agent.

“Torbin!”

THUNK.  From his peripheral vision, Torbin saw her slim briefcase slam down in the seat of the barstool to his right.  To him, that urgent sound proclaimed that this meeting would probably be a failure.  Just like that last one.  And the one before that.  Torbin realized that being obstinate would be futile.  With her, it always was.  It would be even worse this time.  He was now faced with an angry Sunny.  A very angry Sunny, who would tell him exactly what he didn’t want to hear.  No doubt.  The beer sloshed in his stomach.  The fact that his previous anticipation was utter horseshit was now almost painful.  He swiveled his head toward Sunny.  Made a feeble attempt to delay her hissy fit.

“Hey, Sun…Have a beer,” Torbin slurred.

“I…don’t believe you.”  Sunny’s dark eyes glittered balefully.  Torbin recognized that gleam.  In fact, he thought that admonishing malevolent glimmer was what made her curves matronly.  Not sexy.  Like a crabby librarian.  Her attitude wasn’t enough to subdue him, though.

“Whadaya mean, you don’t believe me?  You’re in a bar, Sun.  Bars have beer.  Ask Frederick.”

“I don’t want beer!  Why are you drunk?  For the fifth time in—what?  A month?”  Sunny shook her head, tossing her briefcase on the countertop with a clank and sliding onto the stool.

“You should get drunk too.  These fun little chats would be even better if—”

“Shut up.  I don’t want to deal with your antics tonight.  So you keep your mouth shut, while I talk.  Clear?”

Sunny’s steely glare all but singed Torbin’s retinas in the instant she locked eyes with him.  Her over-emphatic verbal confrontation was usually mildly funny, but tonight was different.  Torbin sullenly rubbed one temple and mumbled, “Clear, boss lady.”

Her briefcase clacked open.  His spirits shriveled further at the sound of rustling papers.  Office-white forms, legalese marching neatly and murderously across them.  He slouched on his stool, wanting to stagger back home.  Ready to welcome his post-binge ritual of tripping on the cat, puking and then going to bed.  Four blocks to the loft, a couple hundred miles to the cabin in Maine.  Both seemed equally distant right now.  Right now—angry Sunny and a briefcase full of white papers.  That was right now. 

“Look at this.”

The whiteness of the document nearly blinded Torbin.  He blinked, brought the pint glass to his lips.  Turned his head away before his blurry vision could comprehend.  Just to disgust Sunny, he spit. 

“Buy me another beer and maybe I will.”

WHAP!  Sunny’s left wrist snapped the paper-clipped bundle across his face with lightning speed.  From the far end of the countertop, Frederick sniggered impishly.  Torbin recoiled sluggishly.  My life’s fizzing away like that Alka-Seltzer Jamie threw in the toilet last year…and Sunny Ritz is getting off on assaulting me—God, I hate that woman!  He made every effort to yell at her, but only managed a dull slur, complete with spewing saliva.

“You want to know what you are, Sun?  You’re a real—a real—”

“A bitch?  Is that what I am, Torbin?  Well, yeah, that’s exactly what I am!  And I think I have a right to be!  Think about it—I’m your agent.  You’re the best Victor Erickson’s got.  And you want to know why?  Because you make the most money!  And that means Erickson’s publishing house makes money!  That means Erickson is just thrilled when his publishing house rakes in more than HarperCollins!  And do you know what that means?  That means I make more money—all because people buy your stuff…For some inexplicable reason, the American public just eats up anything you crank out!  In short, everybody’s rich and everybody’s happy if you do everything you’re supposed to!  That’s the simple truth right there, and I’d really like to keep things that way!”

Torbin’s eyelids hung lazily at half-mast.  You’d like to keep things that way?  Well, how nice.  Ha—you’d like to keep yourself in that penthouse, is what you’d like to keep.  He knew otherwise, though.  The money was her trump card; somehow, he knew it wasn’t all materialism with Sunny.  But he promised himself he wouldn’t give in yet.  The white paper Sunny clenched in her fist still wavered in front of his eyes.

“Sun,” he whined.  “What do you want?”

Sunny smacked her right hand against the countertop, pewter ring making a high-pitched crack.  Her damp overcoat and red silk scarf rustled impatiently, in synch with her movements.  She rolled her eyes toward the dim fixtures on the ceiling.  Made a manicured claw out of her hand, giving the virgin-smooth document some wrinkles.  She didn’t notice.

“Torbin!  I want your book!  I want your book now!  It was slated to be presented to Editorial a month ago!  A month ago!  When I talked to you then, you told me it wasn’t through.  Finishing touches or something like that.  At our second meeting, you said it still wasn’t through.  You said that two more times!  And you were drunk.  Every…single…time.  Last week, you were so plastered I bet you don’t even remember what I said—tonight’s your last chance!  Tonight’s it, Torbin.  No book, no contract!  Which would be a real shame, you know that?  All those awards, eighteen million copies, a book tour and a bunch of special favors—you’re going to let yourself be has-been just so you can putz around in a crummy bar and complain about your life?  Go for it; by all means!  Go be a dirty old bum!  Nobody in the entire publishing industry has time to wait for you!  Nobody needs an unreliable drunk!  You have a three-book deal, Torbin, and this is your third!  How hard is it to finish the thing, stop annoying everyone—most notably Erickson—and get your contract renewed?  Huh?  How hard is that?”

His words flew through his drunk mind, swirling painfully like razors in a washing machine.  He realized what her left hand was crushing.  His contract.  The one he had signed seven years ago.  When he was young and naïve and believed his stuff was high art.  When he actually believed in art.  And now look at me.  The down-and-out-artist-writer-whoever.  I’m a stereotype.  And Sunny won’t let me forget it till she her way.  Agents—gold-diggers.  But—if I don’t give her my manuscript tonight, my contract won’t be renewed.  I have to turn it in.  I need the contract.  I owe something to Cyril.  And Jamie’ll breathe down my neck and may break it if I don’t pay alimony and child support and everything else she nailed me with.  Compulsive psycho.  But Cyril’s my boy.  “No book, no contract.”  I have it.  It’s done.  I did the deed.  He tried to take another sip of beer, but his aim was off.  He gulped air as his lips searched for the edge of his glass. 

“Sun…Sun…I have it.  At my apar’ment.  My loft.  It’s done.

Sunny’s features grudgingly unwound.  She clicked her burgundy acrylic tips on the countertop.  Sighed. 

“Your loft.  Not here.”

Torbin watched her chestnut coif shake exasperatedly as he tried formulate a response.  He made his vision shift to the wall menu past his garden of beer glasses.  He was in dire need of a focal point that wasn’t Sunny Ritz.  But instead of a lit-up drink list stained with god-knew-what, he now faced Gene Simmons.  Tongue lolling.  In full KISS regalia.  On a t-shirt.  Frederick’s t-shirt.  Frederick.

“Wipe that grin off your face, Freddo.”

Frederick’s feline face contorted further into gleeful wickedness, looking demonic as he exhaled smoke through his nostrils.  He intentionally ignored Torbin, and focused his attention on Sunny, turning the Smarmy Customer Service Dial up to full volume.

“Ma’am, is there anything I can get you?  A drink?  Bloody Mary, maybe?  House special tonight, ma’am.”

Torbin wondered why Frederick felt the need to talk like John Wayne every time something with breasts wasn’t immediately off-put by him.

“Fred’rick.  We’re trying to have a meeting.  Ma’am here does not want a Bloody Mary.  Especially your Bloody Mary.”

Sunny’s no-nonsense nails beat on the countertop again.  She overrode Torbin with an irritated exhalation.

“Actually, I’d like a Sprite.  Diet if you have it, please.”

“‘Diet if you have it,’” Torbin mimicked nasally.

“Can it, Zebco.  What’d you win awards for, anyway?  I bet it’s gardening manuals.  Or those Dummies books.  Or some journalistic milestone that everybody and his mother knows nothing about.”

“Thought you told me to can it,” muttered Torbin.

Gene Simmons’ face crumpled as Frederick stooped to steeple his elbows on the countertop, propping his scruffy chin in his hands.  Dragging on his Red without touching it.

“Ah, come on…what you worried about?  That I’ll think your prizewinning work of art sucks the big one?  Don’t worry your drunk little head over my verdict, Zebco…chances are, I’ve never even heard of it.”

Sunny’s manicured cadence sliced the smoky air once again.

“Um…excuse me.  My Sprite?”

“Yeah, yeah, diet if I have it, right?”

Sunny’s mouth constricted into an unamused little pucker.  Torbin couldn’t resist a snort.  He anticipated a volley or seven between Sunny and Frederick—Sunny hated insolence.  I’ll be here till I’m stone-cold sober if that moron aggravates her.  Sunny cleared her throat, noisy and businesslike.  Like her nails.  She watched expectantly as Frederick counted his meager tips.

“Well?”

“Well…what, ma’am?”

Oh, goody.  More dib-bulb input from everybody’s favorite bartender.  Way to go, Freddo.  Torbin fidgeted on his stool, not as grateful for being forgotten as he had imagined.  Sunny stretched her face into a falsely cheery, slightly patronizing smile.

“My Sprite.  Please.  Diet if y—”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, diet if I have it.  I just missed it the first two times, y’know.”

Frederick didn’t wait for her reply.  He straightened himself as slowly as he could, making sure that Gene Simmons was completely wrinkle-free before reluctantly bending down to search for a Sprite in the bowels of the counter.  Torbin was quietly agog, and not without some admiration.  In his world, nobody treated people like Sunny Ritz that way.  Especially grungy bartenders.  But here was Frederick.  Casually rising.  Clunking the warm can in front of Sunny.  No glass.  No ice.  Torbin felt a crazy need to laugh.

Sunny’s round Chanel-ed lips popped open in a disbelieving pout.  Torbin was hopeful as he watched Frederick lope away down the length of the counter.  He never thought he’d actually be grateful for the good-for-nothing greaseball.  Nice work, Freddo…the longer she spends grousing about your bad service, the less time she spends making my life miserable.

His enthusiasm didn’t last.

“Torbin.  Your manuscript?”

Torbin looked at her.  Stared into her eyes, trying in vain to detect even a morsel of merriment.  Yep, she means business.  He gestured with a slack hand toward her unopened Sprite.

“Y’know, Sun, that’s Sprite’s not diet.  You might want to get Fred’r—”

“Manuscript!  Now!”

“Well…well, you want me to walk to my loft and pick it up?  Or what?  ‘Cause I—”

“You disgust me.”

Torbin slouched low, feeling drool collect on his lower lip as he forced himself to look at her.  If he had a tail, it would be between his legs.  Great.  Pity…pity…get her to feel sorry for you.  That always works…

“Sun…I haven’t had a decent waking hour in about five months…c’mon…”

Sunny’s features softened into the look Torbin imagined she adopted whenever she saw those Save the Children ads.  Hey, whining actually works.  Too bad I actually do feel sorry for myself.

“Torbin…is it Jamie?”

Torbin slucked the saliva from his bottom lip the instant before it plopped to the countertop.  When isn’t it Jamie?  He gave a sarcastic snort.

“And you wonder why I’m drunk all the time.”

Sunny rolled her eyes slowly skyward and let soft, patient tones creep into her voice.  Torbin didn’t usually concern himself with other people’s karmic processes, but he couldn’t shake the assumption that Sunny had been an ingratiating relationships counselor in a past life.

“Torbin, aren’t you glad?  Glad you don’t have to deal with her anymore?  From what I’ve heard, it didn’t sound like she was conducive to your productivity in the work environment.”

“‘Conducive to productivity?’  Future reference, Sun—ixnay on the psychobabble sludge, OK?  Jamie ruins my life and my ‘work environment’…whether she’s here…or whether she’s in California,” Torbin slurred matter-of-factly.  He wondered if Sunny would be able to see through it.  She did.

“Your son.  Cyril.  You miss him, don’t you?”

Torbin slowly lowered his forehead to the countertop.  He almost never had conversations with Sunny without trading insults.  This was new.  And he was too drunk to appreciate its shock value.  Sunny Ritz—a human ‘how do you feel’ Geiger counter.  How sweet.

“Queen of the Obvious strikes again.”

Sunny didn’t avert her eyes.  Or offer any sign of irritation at Torbin’s sardonicism.  She replied with Torbin’s least favorite question. 

“Torbin…do you want to talk about it?”

Yeah.  I hate that question.  Definitely worse than how do you feel.

“No, Dr. Laura, I don’t want to talk about it.  Let me put it this way…would you like to talk about it if the devil incarnate took your kid to California and then demanded disgusting amounts of alimony?  And then complained every time you wanted to see him?  And then tried to bilk you for all you’re worth with alimony?  Did I already say that?  Yeah.  I did.  See?  Would you want to talk about it, Sun?”

Torbin felt momentary satisfaction.  He always did after a good rant.  And Sunny’s open-mouthed bleeding-heart expression was enough to make him almost glad his life was so pathetic.  He watched her long, moisturized fingers wind around her unopened Sprite can before she spoke. 

“‘Devil incarnate,’ huh?  How long were you married?”

“Too long.”

“Three years?”

“Four.”

“Four years, huh?  What…I mean, why…well, how did you two, ah…?”

“‘What  happened between us?’  ‘Zat what you’re trying to say?”

Torbin leaned forward and let himself free-fall onto the countertop.  The sound of his forehead thumping against the varnish made Sunny flinch.  Well, good.  All I want to do is go home.  Send Dr. Joyce Brothers on her merry way and go home.  Without having an in-depth Jamie discussion.  He closed his eyes.  Heard Sunny’s outerwear rustle.  He knew she was going to make every effort to probe tactfully.

“I, ah…I sense that you don’t know what happened…maybe?”

She senses this.  Well, how deep.  And the Lifetime Achievement Award for Redundancy goes to…

“Torbin!  Answer my question, and at least try to act like you’re alive!”

Torbin raised his head slowly.  Drug his wrist slowly across his soggy lower lip.

“You want to know what happened, Sun?  I really couldn’t tell you!  I couldn’t tell you what happened with me and Jamie.  Oh—oh, I’m sure it’s prob’ly my fault or whatever, but—but I mean, come on!  One day she’s talking about life insurance…parenting programs…mortgages.  Real Brady Bunch stuff, you know?  Then, a month later, the old folks on the fifth floor can hear her screaming about how inadequate I am.  She had this huge fit—threw a whole bottle of my Alka-Seltzer down the toilet.  Said  she never should have attempted a family unit with an irresponsible writer.  ‘Attempted a family unit.’ That’s how she put it.  Jamie’s one of those flaky yoga people.  Too bad I didn’t figure that out before she slapped me with alimony and took my son to…to…La Jolla…or wherever…”

Torbin’s ranting recessed to the inside of his head.  Yeah, La Jolla—definitely a higher percentage of vegetarian yoga freaks…  Sunny took advantage of his silence.

“Torbin…go home.”

His eyebrows peaked cluelessly.  Go home?  That’s it?  Go home?  Am I that pathetic?  He didn’t open his mouth, hoping Sunny had a motive other than pity.  She did.

“Go home.  Get your manuscript…and bring it back.  Then you can get some rest, get your contract renewed…”

Torbin tilted his head backward, staring at the water-stained ceiling.  He resigned himself to the inevitable.  Reached down toward the rungs of the barstool, where his trenchcoat was draped.  He fumbled in its folds.  What he pulled out clattered onto the countertop.  Thirteen black floppy disks, bound with a twisted rubber band.  Torbin laggardly scratched his head. 

“Each one’s got a chapter on it.”

There’s the deed.  It’s done.  I don’t know whether to shoot myself or shoot Sunny.

Sunny glowered.

“You are the most difficult person I’ve ever met.  Without a doubt.”

Probably why you never followed that  agent trend—sleeping with your richest client.  Being difficult has its advantages.

“Why did you waste all that time?  You told me you left it at your loft!”

Torbin’s eyes roamed the room.  Obviously, Sunny doesn’t understand the deeply personal process of stalling.

“Yeah, I s’pose I could have given it to you when you asked for it—instead of stringing you along—and you would have left, and I’d be smashed in peace…but I can’t help it, Sun.  I love torture, what can I say?”

Sunny didn’t reply.  Her lips slipped downward into a schoolmarm scowl.  She picked up the bundle of disks and tossed it into her still-open briefcase.  Her coat crackled decisively as she buttoned it.  The dim barroom light hazed in Torbin’s eyes.  He slouched in relief.  Or self-disgust.  She’s leaving.  Finally.  By Friday Erickson will treating me to lunch and clapping me on the back for my ‘oustanding contribution.’  Except that it’s mediocre.  At best.  God, I’m selling myself.  Dirtball Frederick was actually right—I’m a gigolo.

“Excuse me?”

Torbin refocused his vision at the sound of her voice.  Sunny was frozen.  Her eyes were locked on him.  Her mouth worked in circles of bothered bemusement.  Somebody needs an exorcist.

“Wha—?  I…I didn’t say anything.”

Sunny twitched her head like an itchy mare.  Emitted an incredulous half-laugh.

“You said, ‘I’m a gigolo.’”

I actually said that?

“What…ah, what prompted that?”

Torbin watched her ease back onto her barstool.

“Sun, you have what you came for.  You have the chapters.  You plan to leave now?  Or stay for another round of twenty questions?”

For the first time since Sunny marched into Divine Molly’s, she seemed unconfident.  Unsure of where to put her hands.  They flitted over her hair and lighted on her red scarf.

“I…I…it just escapes me as to why you would claim to be a gigolo…that’s all.  Particularly when you haven’t been spoken to.”

“The devil made me do it.”

Torbin’s head landed on the countertop with even more velocity than before.  Isn’t that typical of Sunny?  She wants an explanation for one lousy off-color remark.  One…  He spoke again.

“It just popped out, Sun.  Come on—don’t you ever do that?  Think something completely mindless and then—much to your astonishment—you say it?  Huh?  Don’t you ever do that?”

Sunny withdrew an enlightened inhalation.

“Right.  I understand that.  But what baffles me is why on earth ‘I’m a gigolo’ just popped out.

If I tell you, will you leave?  I just hope Frederick’s not around to hear me bleed.  Torbin lifted his head.  Pivoted his chin left and right.  The greasy bartender was nowhere in sight.

“You really want to know why I’m a gigolo?  You’d really like to know why that just popped out?  Why I’ve been drunk five times in the last month?  OK.  I’ll tell you.  My son is in California.  My ex-wife is like one of those exploding cigars.  I need a contract.  For them.  But my book’s lousy.  I know it.  Erickson’ll know it.  But everybody’ll buy it.  It’ll be everywhere.  Talk shows, bestseller lists.  And they’ll lie through their teeth just so they can sell me to their readers and their viewers.  You get that?  I didn’t write anything I’m proud of.  But I’m selling it.  So they can sell me.  I need a contract, Sun.  For Cyril.”

Sunny started to laugh.  An uncharacteristic girlish giggle.

She’s laughing at me.  How sympathetic.

“Torbin, no one really gets it.  You know that, don’t you?”

“You’re an agent.  The only thing you need to get is money.”

Sunny’s laughter died dutifully.  But the ghost of a winsome grin betrayed her.

“Well, well, well.  If isn’t Mr. Zebco and his lady friend.  You enjoy that little interlude without me?”

Lucky for me that Frederick never seems to hear anything important before he interrupts.  But too bad for him—yeah, he’s cursed.

Sunny’s eyes remained centered on Torbin.  Frederick was invisible.

“Torbin.  Nobody knows anything.  Really.  Erickson, all his pawns.  They don’t know anything.  Even if your book is trash compared to your last four—they won’t care.”

He was torn.  I can’t believe Sunny’s completely ignoring him.  I want to look at him…catch his reaction.  But this is just too good—if we both ignore him, I wouldn’t be surprised if he starts melting.

“So.  What you’re saying is that they’ll still love the garbage I produce because I make them money.”

Sunny clicked her tongue.

“No.  I’m saying they’ll love the garbage you produce—if indeed it is garbage—because you’re an illusion.  All these great works, and they don’t know you—you’re a recluse.  Your pseudonym is nothing like your real name.  You don’t do interviews—except for that one Esquire spread…but those pictures aren’t exactly dead giveaways.  Anyway—you haven’t had a jacket photo since your first book.  Most of your fans probably don’t even know what you look like.  You don’t even make public appearances.  You’re—you’re just this shrouded figure behind the pages—so your work will always have an allure.  That’s your selling point, Torbin.  Nobody knows anything about you as a human being…and they don’t care.  So quit worrying.”

“So now they’re stuck with a bad book and nobody to blame it on,” Torbin grunted.  “I don’t see your logic.”

“Zebco.  You want another beer?”

Torbin reluctantly faced Frederick.  Gene Simmons was rumpled again.  In fact, Frederick’s entire demeanor was rumpled.  Ha—watch him starve when the world doesn’t revolve around him.  God, I take it back…he’s not cursed.  He is a curse.  A festering pustule.

Torbin wagged his head slowly.

“Fred’rick.  I think I’m wasted enough.  And—and has anybody ever told you that it’s a very unattractive habit to pop up out of hell—or wherever you come from—and interrupt a serious conversation?  And how ‘bout counting your tips in public?  That’s rude.  And calling me Zebco.  I ever tell you that’s impolite?  Actually, I ever tell you you’re impolite?” 

Frederick leaned against the back counter and yawned.  He drug on his Red and sent the smoke streaming out his nose.  Fished out a diminutive wad of crumpled bills and began to thumb through them.

“So what you’re saying…Zebco…is that you want me to leave you alone.  I’m hurt.  Really.  I am.”

Torbin chuckled, almost involuntarily.  I can’t believe I’m laughing at him; the weasel.

Chilly pressure on Torbin’s right cheek forced his head around ninety degrees. 

My God.  She’s touching me.  And she’s ignoring Frederick again.

“Torbin…did you hear anything I said?  Forget Jamie.  Please.  Forget how bad you think your book is.”

The same vague laugh escaped him.  Her cold fingers laced his face.  Bizarre.  Erotically bizarre.

“Sun—”

“Torbin, even though your face is on the wall at Barnes & Noble…it’s not—it’s not—you!  Don’t you get it?  You’re selling Kramer Jacobs!  Not yourself—Kramer Jacobs.  It’s a just name.  It’s what people buy.  You’re not a gigolo—they buy Kramer Jacobs…not you.”

“You’re Kramer Jacobs?”

Frederick’s outburst shattered the enchantment.  Or whatever it was.  Sunny and Torbin took in Frederick as if they had never seen him before.  Sunny studied Frederick’s paralyzed features.  She deduced.  Turned to Torbin.

“He didn’t know?  That you’re Kramer Jacobs?”

“Gee, what tipped you off?  Could have been when he said he thought I wrote gardening manuals.  Or did you think he was joking?”

Sunny nodded mutely.  Admiration sneaked into her incredulity.  She shook her head slowly.

“God, you’re difficult—”

Torbin interrupted with more good nature than he’d intended.

“Yeah.  Thanks.”

“—one of the reasons I never wanted to sleep with you.”

Never wanted to sleep with me?  Is that past tense for a reason…or did I just miss something?

Without another word, she clicked her briefcase shut and strode purposefully out of Divine Molly’s.  How about that.  The most abysmal binge of my life ends with a sort-of proposition from…Sunny.  The more frightening thing?  I may start to like agent trends.  And Freddo the Pest actually knows who Kramer Jacobs is, and lo and behold, seems impressed—who’d believe that he would turn out to be a closet literati? But maybe this isn’t happening.  What’s that cliché about dreams being better than reality?  But—no.  Frederick’s still here, so I must be awake.

“Kramer Jacobs.”

Torbin met Frederick’s wide-eyed gape.  No trace of wise-guy wit.  Not one iota of impassivity.  Last week he proclaimed  that God is dead, and now he’s looking at me like he thinks I made the world in seven days.  Unbelievable.  Frederick blinked.  Wet his lips.  He didn’t take his eyes off Torbin as he fumbled in the counter’s cavity.  He righted himself unsteadily, never looking away.  Never blinking.  He tossed a battered Esquire on the countertop.  Well, how about that.  My only interview in five years. 

“Page 56,” Frederick stammered, his voice cracking.  The magazine lay open in front of Torbin.  He stared at himself.  Top-hat.  Dapper tuxedo.  Clean-shaven.  What a con-job that was.  No wonder Freddo never recognized me…but he knows  it now.  Frederick’s Adam’s apple bobbed skittishly.

“You’re Kramer Jacobs.  You—you won a Pulitzer.  A Pulitzer.  I mean, I thought—you.  I didn’t know that you—God.  This is amazing.  You’re amazing.  Kramer Jacobs!”

Frederick’s lips split in a reverent grin.  Utterly devoid of vindictiveness.

Sunny was right.  They really don’t get it.  But thanks anyway, Freddo.

“No.”

“Yes!  I’m telling you, man—like, Valley of the Shadow of Death and all your other stuff…I just can’t believe it—and that chick?  She said she’d sleep with you, dude!  Wow.  Kramer Jacobs.”

No, they don’t get it, do they?  But coming from Frederick, it’s flattering.  Yeah, I’d have to say it’s flattering.  Just this once.  Possibly—being a gigolo just this one night isn’t so bad.

Torbin slid slowly off the barstool.  Reached under the seat and hoisted his jacket into his arms.  Put it on.

“No.  Not Kramer Jacobs.”

“But—”

“Not Kramer Jacobs.  Torbin.  Torbin Zepto.  But you can call me Zebco.”

Frederick’s eyebrows inched up his forehead.  He nodded.  Just barely.  Spoke.  Just barely.

“But…but…you’re still…”

Frederick’s quiet protest was absorbed into the hanging smoke.

Torbin laughed.

“You were right, Freddo.”

“Me?”

“I am a gigolo.  You said I was a gigolo.  And I am.”

“Huh?”

“I’m a gigolo…but just for tonight.”

He doesn’t get it.  But somehow, that’s OK…maybe Kramer Jacobs isn’t so mediocre after all…but I’m still glad I’m not him.

Torbin turned and walked out.

 

 

The End.

 

 

   


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

'Texas native K. Wilson James was born in 1983. She is a journalism major at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where she ponders ethical media and entertains herself with other bored locals. As the cornerstone of her undergraduate work, she plans to enter the political press arena through internship.'



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