I’ve talked with my wife and my psychiatrist and my dog and they’ve agreed I should indeed release these stories in book form—or ebook form–all together in one nifty package. The book will be entitled: Something Waits. It should be up and running on Amazon within a week or so. Meanwhile, here is your final freebie from that much larger collection.
For those keeping track of such things, this story–the last one I’m formatting for Something Waits–was also the last one to appear in the original 1987 Twisted Tales trade paperback. It’s only the second time the story has seen print and wasn’t originally intended for that first collection. Back then, going over the material for Twisted Tales, I decided a couple of pieces might not be palatable to 1980’s reader’s tastes, some being derived from hairy chested men’s magazines of the decade before, a little raw around the edges for a family-oriented publishing house like Blackthorne. That none of them feels that way now is, I suppose, a sign of the times. But removing those stories, I felt, made that first collection slightly wanting in word count. It needed one more tale to fatten up the book. So I sat down in 1987 just before publication and penned (in long hand in those days) a story I’d been meaning to get to for ages. And that’s the one that follows.
As stated, many of the stories for this present iteration were taken (and refurbished in some cases) from the above mentioned Twisted Tales–but not all. Some that appeared in the old collection were left out of this new collection because I wanted the new book to lean most heavily toward my mystery/horror yarns (with the exception of Pride of the Fleet, I guess). In their place I’ve included some new stories—to my mind—some of my best.
Over the years I’ve gotten a lot of kind requests from fans to reprint the Twisted Tales short story collection in its original form. I often seriously considered it. That volume is long out of print and had a somewhat limited run to begin with. Some out there weren’t even aware of the stories, then or now. But after a time I realized their relative scarcity—including the terrific Richard Corben illustrations inside—lent a kind of nostalgic mystique to that first collection I hated to tarnish. Some people actually collect my stuff and might not be thrilled with the idea of making it readily available again.
Also, I was never very thrilled with the ongoing confusion generated by Twisted Tales the prose short story collection, and Twisted Tales the comic books. They had little to do with each other except having been authored by the same writer, but the identical titles sometimes caused trouble. EBay hopefuls sometimes purchased a book of short stories while expecting a stack of comics—and vice versa. To eliminate the problem this time out, I updated not only the stories themselves but the title as well. Adding the new tales to this latest collection further distances the two editions and offer a nice bonus to you faithful readers of this blog.
So, what you will hold in your hands (or Kindle, or Nook) with Something Waits is not a clone of Twisted Tales. Several stories from that now rare collectionnot included here are: Roomers, Jessie’s Friend, Black Death, etc. If you want to read those nightmares, you’ll need to dig up a battered copy of Twisted Tales online or at Half Price Books. Or, if this volume proves popular, wait until they’re included in yet another compendium of my early New York scribblings.
Meanwhile, here’s one more freebie. Then if you crave more Jones, buy the very reasonably priced Something Waits on Amazon. And you won’t offend me in the least if you download copies of my novels like The Deadenders or Shimmer or The Tarn while you’re there. Send one to a friend, they make dandy Christmas presents or…funeral tokens, or something: the gifts that keep on giving. Not unlike those to be found in private little clubs like the one below, that caters somewhat exclusively to
Mr. Conway had passed the little shop a thousand times without once thinking about it.
This does not mean he wasn’t aware of it. He was. He didn’t, in fact, much like it. But he didn’t think about it, didn’t dwell on it, because cold weather was cold weather and restless nights were restless nights and little porno shops at Central and Sixth were whatever in heaven’s name they were supposed to be and there was nothing much you could do about such things. Something about freedom of the press, Mr. Conway supposed.
So he ignored the freezing Chicago winters, suffered though the acid indigestion that too many bottles of Sominex can provide, and drove airily past the dun colored little porno shop. Every day. On his way to work.
Today he pulled before the red street light that shared the corner with the dingy little shop as usual. Glanced casually askance at the shop’s front and the clumsy attempts at rhetorical seduction (Beaver Books! Nudes! Must be 17!) and snorted self-sanctification. What was the world coming to? Turned back in disgust to appraise the red light—now turning green—he depressed the pedal and shot away. About two yards. After which the car stalled a moment, then quietly died.
“Oh for God—“ Mr. Conway twisted the silvery ignition key again. Nothing. He twisted it three more times, imploring nonexistent vehicle deities, twisted some more, cursed nonexistent vehicle deities, cursed the guy behind him leaning on his horn obnoxiously, finally flopped back impotently behind the wheel in resigned defeat. The street light turned red again. The guy behind him kept leaning on his horn. Mr. Conway twisted at the stupid key again, banged his knuckles furiously against the wheel, finally rolled down his window to Arctic winds and signaled the jerk behind him around with a freezing arm. Retrieved his cell phone from his expensive Armani overcoat and punched in The Auto Club. Noticed the little screen was blinking up apologetically at him: BATTERY NEEDS CHARGING.
Well, he was going to be late for work, that was obvious.
Not, he supposed, that it mattered a great deal. He’d hand trained his hand-picked staff to practically run the place without him. Wasn’t he, after all, the boss? Didn’t he own the most successful advertising agency in Chicago? Didn’t he still gross millions annually while the rest of the country wallowed in recession? Damn right he did.
So a little stalled Boxter problem on a Wednesday morning of a slow work financial week was, in the scheme of things, hardly a crisis. He’d simply have to find a phone somewhere, call the Auto Club. Be on his way again before lunch. Meanwhile, Stan, his partner and right hand, could watch the store. Run the store if it came to that. Stan was a miracle. Stan was the greatest sales representative Mr. Conway had ever seen—ever hired. That was six years ago this month. In the interim months of remarkable growth, Stan had gotten out there in the field, dazzled and tap danced and secured clients like crazy, furnishing Conway and Associates with some of its highest paying accounts. Microsoft? Was it really true their company represented Microsoft now? Damn right it was. And wunderkind Stan Waterman was largely responsible. Had they made the cover of both Fortune and Time in the same week? Damn right they had, while continuing, in these economically challenged times, to run roughshod over the competition. Which is why Conway and Associates had gladly altered the logo on its company stationary to Conway and Waterman Associates, simultaneously cementing not only a new family member but a new family of blue chip accounts and Dow Jones averages. Oh, C. J. Conway knew how to pick ‘em, all right, where to find ‘em. Instinct, that was the answer. Like his father before him. He could find talent. He could find a panther eating licorice in a coal bin at midnight, as they laughed with him and patted his back at company parties. He could find anything.
But he couldn’t find a phone.
Not anywhere on the entire rundown, disheveled, freezing-ass block. Maybe because most of the block was boarded up or vanished under the wrecking ball. There was the greasy little Mexican grill way down on the corner; they had a phone, one of those old fashioned wall jobs with a rotary dial that was quaint as hell but kept spitting his quarters back indignantly.
Two blocks he wandered through the slush and cold and still could not locate a phone. A pizza parlor he tried had one, but not for customer;, a dry cleaner had one but the phone company had shut them down, business was bad. A Chinese restaurant certainly had one but they didn’t speak a word of English no matter how insistent his gestures.
He wandered on through high drifts and crusted slush until his new $250.00 shoes were wet, his toes calcified and he was right back where he started beside his inert Boxter, which now had a ticket under the front wiper. He’d tried every store and shop in a three block radius. Except one.
Funny thing was, he’d never been in one.
No, wait, there was that time in the 70’s when Izzy Bickford and he had gotten faced in school and stumbled into that little joint south of Bridgeport, what was the name of that joint? Anyway, he’d been too out of it to remember much about the experience. And now…well, now what was the point? Any twelve year old kid with access to a computer could download more pink, slippery flesh and heaving chests than all the remaining little walk-in sex stores in North America put together. What was surprising was that the dun little shop was still here at all, even on this rundown street. It couldn’t even lay claim to being shabby chic anymore. By its sheer ubiquitous presence, porno had become sooo last year. That a specialty shop like this one could even exist was more eye-opening than anything within its grimy little walls. To say nothing of being an outdated eyesore to the community. Certainly not a place for a successful, well-known CEO like himself; there were certain standards to which he must adhere. Being caught in this dump wouldn’t be considered embarrassing; it would be considered feeble-minded. The place was an anachronism.
So, naturally, they had a phone.
“Sure, mister, help yourself! On the wall over there!”
The man behind the scarred counter was grinning, for no reason apparent, like a Cheshire cat. Neanderthal.
Mr. Conway regarded the hand-worn receiver of the old black rotary phone with a jaundiced eye; probably swimming with herpes viruses in a hole like this. Christ, what a way to start the week.
But it worked. The filthy thing worked and the Auto Club would be glad to come out and peek at his car. Only thing was, everyone in the Windy City was having car troubles today in this inclement weather, it might take them a little while. Like two hours, actually.
Fine. Great. He couldn’t go back to his car because the heater wouldn’t run. He couldn’t hang around the Chinese or Mexican places because it had begun to snow again and his feet were already freezing. He was going to have to stand around this little snatch-happy hellhole surrounded by rack upon rack of coagulated flesh and engorged orifices. It was that or call Stan at the office and Stan was always working a client at lunch hour. He could try a cab, but then he wouldn’t be around when the Auto Club finally got there.
He looked up quickly as the shop door dinged and a woman in her twenties breezed in. A woman! In this clit pit! And she was actually scanning the merchandise! Mr. Conway couldn’t believe it. It was…it was…
…it was embarrassing. May as well admit it. Passé or not, porn could still be embarrassing, still had that going for it. Good for you, he thought, turning his back on the woman and pulling up his collar, power to the peter! He headed for the door.
It only took one short blast of cutting, icy wind.
In a moment, he was back inside the stuffy little shop, back to the embarrassing woman, back to staring out miserably at the blowing snow and struggling traffic. He dug his hands in his coat pockets, leaned hunched up against the jamb, and wiggled his toes, trying to reclaim some circulation there. Okay, fine. He’d stay right here in the doorway! He still had his brain! He could work anywhere! He could work on the Brewster account in his head, lay out the whole campaign! Filth and embarrassing lady at his back, clean white flakes at his front.
Except he didn’t want to think about the Brewster account. It was…messy business, the Brewster account. Something he’d been putting off now for some time. They kept phoning the office, lauding him to the skies, assuring him that Conway and Waterman was the only advertising firm they’d even consider trusting their very special needs with. And he kept putting them off. Stalling for time. Pleading over-commitment.
Not so in the beginning. When he’d first heard of the Brewster thing, he’d done backflips, lifted his wife in the air and regaled her about how it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Brewster Foods was a major breakfast cereal company with a small wing in the bakery goods arena. While hardly competitive with the likes of General Mills, they did well enough regionally and were even considering expanding their confectionary market. But that was the least of it. Some egghead lab genius who had never contributed much before beyond a new way to thicken malt had come up with this ‘safe cigarette’ brainchild. It was a product made entirely of natural ingredients! And, most importantly, it really tasted like a cigarette! Yet it was tar and nicotine free! The thing even contained properties that were good for you for chrissake! It only needed a sophisticated, trendy ad campaign of the kind Conway and Waterman Associates were famous for.
“A thing like this,” he’d told his wife ecstatically, “could put us ahead of Young and Rubicam! It could take off like a rocket, cover the globe in a matter of weeks! We could retire on the first year’s profits alone!” And he’d landed the account himself, all by his lonesome, hadn’t even told Stan about it, let alone the staff. He wanted to wait until it was sewn up, then spring the surprise.
Sounded so good. Until that dark (very dark) night when he was seated alone before the bedroom hearth, toasting the crackling flames with a glass of his best champagne, and his cell phone had burred beside him. And a low, whispery voice that could not be recognized and would not be recognized said the words that made all that expensive champagne go sour in Mr. Conway’s mouth. “The safe cigarette is death.” Click
That was all. But that was enough. Enough to prompt Mr. Conway to break every rule in the book and have one of the precious ‘safe cigarette’ highly guarded prototypes spirited away from Brewster Labs and into the hands of a college buddy and corporate chemist. Where it was analyzed from one nicotine-free millimeter to the next. And yes, it proved to indeed be tar-free and carbon-monoxide free, and yes, it was composed almost entirely of natural food products that would harm not a hair on anyone’s head. Until you lit it. Then, you had, oh…a seventy/thirty chance of contracting irreversible lung and heart damage within six years.
And it had been such an expensive bottle of champagne.
So now he was trapped: either keep his mouth shut and sign with Brewster for the campaign—thus exposing millions of innocent smokers to a probable and lingering death and his soul to perdition’s flames—or say no to Brewster and watch about a billion bucks fall into someone else’s less moral advertising lap. I may be a so-called advertising Czar, Mr. Conway reminded himself, but I’m not a man completely without principle.
He blinked out at the snow. Well, this was getting him nowhere. Take the plunge or cut bait. This damn Brewster thing was giving him acid indigestion. Maybe a heart attack at his age. The doctor had warned him…
He watched absently as a cement truck ground its way through the traffic. Carrying foundation cement to some suburban mall site, no doubt, some glass enclosed, temperature controlled, antiseptically designed marvel that would soon fill up with yet more Starbucks, yet more Gameco’s, restaurants, department store anchors. Some of which owed their success to one or more TV spots Conway and Waterman had created. Great country, America. Make a smart man rich. Halleluiah.
Mr. Conway consulted his watch. Still a minimum of an hour and a half before the Auto Club worked him into their schedule. He leaned back against the weathered door jamb and closed his eyes. I feel very old just now, he thought, very tired…
It wasn’t always so. Those early years before Stan Waterman joined the company, for instance–years when Mr. Conway had drummed up all the clients himself, run all the paper work, hell, even swept the damn office. Lots of waiting around in doorway then too, hopeful waiting, in doorways and austere little foyers on hard plastic seats. Lots of long, unending hours, nights away from home in crummy hotels. He found himself grinning remembering it. He and Althea had only just met, two kids fresh from school, full of ambition, piss and vinegar. Working hard and spending every spare second together. He grinned wider, recalling Althea when her hair was long, free of gray, remembering the two of them overlooking the twinkling Chicago lake… the back seat of his old Dodge, its window steamed opaque. It may not have been much of a car, much of an apartment, but how they’d made love in those days…how they’d made love…
He snapped from reverie, looked down at his watch again. Still over an hour to go.
All right, he’d fought it long enough. He hadn’t built one of the most successful ad agencies in the country by standing around doing nothing. He had a curiosity like anyone else—better than most. If there was nothing but this seedy little porno shop to appraise then he’d by God appraise it! You can learn from anything; his dad had taught him that. To hell with public image: he was stuck here and he had to stretch his legs, get that damn Brewster thing off his mind! He turned in the doorway and faced the dark little orifice. Snorted a silent laugh. What an apropos metaphor: ‘dark little orifice.’
The man behind the counter looked up from his copy of Reader’s Digest. “Need to make another call?”
Was that sarcasm in his voice? Did other patrons use the phone as an excuse to come in here, peruse the pink-fleshed pamphlets and sticky-paged smut?
“Just…browsing,” Mr. Conway muttered.
And he did. Up and down the aisles, over and around the racks. And, while there was actually a modicum of variation in this athletic coupling, even a distinguishable categorizing of preferences and practices, it all became pretty redundant after a while. Pretty predictable. And in the end, pretty “—boring.”
“How’s that?” from the counter man.
Mr. Conway looked up in surprise, unaware he’d spoken aloud. “Nothing. Talking to myself.”
But the counter man had heard. “Bored, you say? Seen the retro peep shows in the back? Only a quarter.”
And now he saw it, the little curtained doorway against the back wall and the hand lettered sign nailed above it: ADULT MOVIES 25 CENTS! Retro, indeed, at that price!
His hand dipped involuntarily into his tailored slacks, fondled the change there. Yes, he had a quarter or two…
What the hell. He nodded rueful thanks at the counter man and pushed through the threadbare curtain.
It was even worse in here, this narrow hallway with the red painted doors and the red colored bulbs stationed above them. It was dark and dank and smelled like urine and something else. All the doors were closed. But only some of the bulbs above them were lit. Presumably a lit bulb meant an occupied room. He stood there in the narrow, plank wood aisle between the rows of doors under the hellish red glow of the bulbs and felt like an idiot. Worse: a pervert. He needed to get out of here.
But he’d come this far…
He selected an unlit door—number 14—sighed admonishment at himself and entered. There were no interior lights and in the musky tightness he could only just make out the length of wooden bench at the opposite end of a short cubicle, on which he was, presumably, to sit. He closed the door behind him, stepped gingerly across the sticky floor and parked himself philosophically on the bench, back to the wall. He was now facing the inside of the door across from him. Now what? Darkness pressed against him. To whom did he give his quarter? His pupil receding, he glimpsed a glowing swatch of chrome to his immediate right: a coin box. It was the old diner-style table juke box idea. He fingered the metallic surface, searching in braille for a friendly slot, found one, and sacrificed his quarter. He had a sudden almost amusing thought: one-millionth part of the vast Microsoft account allotted to watching dirty movies; please enter that into accounting, Miss Linquist.
The coin rattled, clinked; a distant whirring filled the cubicle, followed by a yellow shaft of light stabbing above his head. An incredibly freckled young woman appeared on the back of the door. No, she wasn’t freckled, it was the watermarks and stains on the worn, endlessly run 8mm film loop.
The woman was seated at an old wooden desk, poring over a stack of papers. There was a strategically positioned American flag beside the desk but other than that only a blank, curtained background…so it took him a moment to realize this was supposed to represent a school setting, a teacher at her desk. A man in his mid-twenties wearing a high school sweater entered frame right. He approached the desk and handed the young teacher his test paper. The young teacher appraised it, looked appalled, slashed a red pen across it and soundlessly reprimanded the ‘student’ with over-theatrical gestures. The young man hung his head. The picture jumped a splice—blurred, composed itself again. Now the young man was turning about before the desk, the teacher ordering him to lower his trousers. When he did, the mortified teacher picked up a short ruler and addressed the young man’s backside. She lifted the ruler. The images flickered a moment and went black. End of show.
Mr. Conway blinked in darkness. Was he really supposed to waste another quarter on this? He consulted the luminous dial of his thinly sleek Movada: still at least an hour before Auto Club Time. Yes, he’d waste another quarter.
Rattle, click, whir.
The young man was punished as predicted. Then, for reasons not immediately clear, was ordered by the teacher to turn around and be rewarded. The teacher knelt, covered her mouth with dismay and delight at what loomed before her. She shook her finger at the naughty thing and scolded it, as if it possessed an intelligence separate from the young man’s. Then she put down her ruler, leaned forward and addressed the young man’s front side. The film flickered and went dark. Mr. Conway was out of both quarters and patience. He heaved himself from the wooden bench, crossed the sticky floor and pushed dismissively at the red-painted door, the bulb above it winking out appropriately.
A furtive figure with waxy, wary features and a long topcoat was waiting in the narrow hallway impatiently a few doors down. He was rocking on the balls of his feet, humming incoherently to himself and nodding his head anxiously. Mr. Conway stepped past, gave the man a wide berth. The man on rocking and nodding at no one until Mr. Conway had moved further down the aisle–then darted through door 14. The red bulb winked on and, for all Mr. Conway knew, the man was nodding and rocking still inside the little cubicle at the teacher and her ruler. Rattle, click, whir.
Mr. Conway sighed and pushed through the worn curtain in comparative brightness. Back in the racks and magazines and pamphlets and glass cases with various colors and lengths of rubbery “marital aids.” He stood about a moment, first on one foot, then the other. There was nothing else to see now, he’d seen it all. The man at the counter looked up from his Reader’s Digest smiling. “More quarters?”
Mr. Conway rolled his eyes. “No thank you.”
He turned toward the shop door and the promise of freezing blasts, when he happened to notice for the first time another door in the shop. It stood in a small shadowed alcove to the right of the cashier counter. Another hand lettered sign adorned it: MEMBERS ONLY. The door was closed.
Mr. Conway paused. “What’s that?” he gestured.
The man behind the counter grinned companionably. “What’s what?”
Mr. Conway pointed. “That door to the right of you.”
The man behind the counter didn’t look and didn’t stop grinning. “Oh, that. That’s for members only.”
Mr. Conway closed his eyes a moment, summoned patience quietly, opened them again. “I can see that. What’s it for?”
The counter man’s grin seemed frozen in place. “Oh, you wouldn’t be interested in that.”
“Perhaps I would,” Mr. Conway informed him, then added an indifferent shrug to underscore the perhaps.
Still grinning, the counter man shook his head. “Naw, I don’t think so.”
This was absurd. Ridiculous. Screw this jerk.
Mr. Conway marched to the door, hauled it open, already squinting anticipation at the expected blast.
“Come back and see us, now!” from the counter.
The frigid blast came but with less intensity. The sun was out, the sky beginning to blue. The Auto Club man was waiting for him at the curb. “Got over sooner than we thought!”
Mr. Conway didn’t bother concealing his relief.
The Auto Club man looked past Mr. Conway at the winking neon of the dun colored little shop; then he looked back at Mr. Conway. Now the Auto Club was grinning…not unlike the man behind the counter. Mr. Conway rolled his eyes.
* * *
Back at the office he sat in his private oak paneled sanctum at his burled wood desk and stared out the window at the city below.
It was about all he did these days. The staff had grown large and capable and the business nearly ran itself under Stan Waterman’s masterful hand. And that was fine. That was what success was all about, right? Wasn’t he, after all, the boss? Didn’t he own the most successful advertising company in Chicago? Didn’t he gross millions annually? Damn right he did.
So what if things got a tad tedious now and then? That was the price of success. Everything had its price, he supposed, even success.
Too bad Stan wasn’t around today, though. He missed Stan sometimes, missed his lousy office jokes cribbed the previous night from Jay Leno Show. They used to take lunch together all the time in the old days, or sit around Stan’s office spit-balling little local accounts sometimes just for the sheer hell of it. Small time stuff. Fun stuff. That little hardware store client had been fun, talking the ego-driven store owner into appearing in his own TV spot for “audience recognition.” Right. You couldn’t even understand the moron when he did remember his lines. But, of course, using the owner saved them the money of hiring real talent. They’d laughed about it for weeks.
There were no more little accounts now. Stan was always gone in the afternoons, schmoozing some hot client across town or across the country, putting together the next boffo presentation. Stan was a genius. And a good friend. They’d been so excited that day—long ago now—when he’d landed their first major account: Pillsbury. They partied all weekend with the wives. Funny. In some ways it had been more exciting coming in to work when they were poor and struggling, when the whole thing was a game. “We’ll keep doing it until it’s not fun anymore!” Stan had laughed.
At home, later, Mr. Conway sat in front of the TV.
It was about all he did with his evenings these days. Althea was out and about at one of her meetings. Noon time and evenings, out at her meetings. What were they? —fundraisers or something, a chance for her to mingle with the beautiful people, get half lit. Another price of success: lose your wife to the bright lights, big city. Seemed like they hardly spoke anymore. Seemed like they hardly saw each other anymore. Certainly never made love anymore.
Well, they were older, that was to be expected. People don’t make whoopie as often once the kids had grown and gone off to college, off to their own lives. The parents settled into a slower, more comfortable pace, a more predictable routine. A good book would do just about as well after a hard day at work. Right?
Right? He wasn’t so sure somehow. He still wanted to make love sometimes, still found his wife attractive, older or not. He heard himself sniggle before the TV now: maybe he should rent an old school desk, give her a ruler, see what would happen! He could imagine the expression on Althea’s face—or lack of one. Might be worth it, though, if he could stop laughing long enough to explain it to her. Except.
Except she was never around anymore to laugh with. Always those damn fundraisers, social obligations. Oh well, hell. He was no spring chicken anymore. No more all-nighters like when they were first married. By the time ten o’clock rolled around these days he was beginning to lose steam. He wasn’t eighteen anymore.
It was enough just to lie in bed before the TV and occasionally catch one of his own spots. Still gave him a little thrill seeing the major campaigns all dressed up and ready for primetime. Ford. Prudential. And he was generally pleased with their current look since they’d brought that hot West Coast art director on board. Oh, it wasn’t exactly the look he would have used, but Stan seemed to think it was more cutting edge than the old stuff. You had to keep up. Couldn’t lag behind, appear dated. That was why he and Stan had always been successful, not afraid to bend to young ideas, take risks. He sat there now under the TV’s glow and thought: what was behind that little MEMBERS ONLY sign anyway?
Strange thing to have hanging in a porn shop. ‘Members’ only? What members? What could a little dump like that possibly show to customers that wasn’t already out on the front racks? What were they doing, attempting to appeal to a higher clientele? What the hell did that character behind the counter know about higher clienteles? He could show them a thing or two about higher clienteles!
Whatever it was it wasn’t that engorged pink mess out front; that stuff was about as arousing as a gynecological convention. No. It had to something else entirely. Something completely different. But what? He was only interested because he was in a creative field himself, had a natural inclination for the imaginative…
Mr. Conway glanced at his watch, sighed, heaved up and turned off the downstairs TV. He trudged to the bedroom and the upstairs TV. He clicked it on, watched the stock reports while undressing, flopped atop the duvet and channel surfed awhile with the remote.
Real girls maybe? Is that what they had behind that closed door? Yes. Perhaps. Bring in more business.
No, that didn’t make sense. That would make it a nightclub and they’d have to have a license for that along with a whole other set of hassles from the city. Dump like that could never afford it. Kiddy porn? Hmmm. No, that was worse. That was guaranteed jail time. And that guy behind the counter didn’t look stupid. Smarmy little smile, maybe, but not stupid.
Wait a minute! Maybe it was one of those—what did they all them, those godawful movies you used to hear about in the ‘70’s? Snuff films? That was it! The little grease ball at the counter had a projector set up in the back of the store for a bunch of psycho perverts sweating and twitching and getting off on people killing each other!
No, no, hold on. Surely the police would be on to that sooner or later too. Especially with that little alcove door so recklessly flaunting its MEMBERS ONLY sign.
He snorted and shrugged it off, killed the TV, the nightstand light and turned over, fluffing his pillow. No point in waiting up for Althea. Probably out on the lake somewhere, big yacht bash with the mayor. He closed his eyes, snuggled down, waited for sleep.
The smile on that little jerk behind the counter… like he knew something Mr. Conway didn’t know himself. Impudent asshole. He could buy that crummy little hole in the wall a hundred times over, put in a real store, dress up the street, get rid of the sleaze. Maybe he’d speak to Althea about it, her buddy the mayor. Might be good PR for the firm. Maybe even contribute some company money to that rundown block, a pro bono thing. Smarmy little grinning prick. What the hell did guys like that do for a life?
Althea got home at ten.
Mr. Conway was almost asleep but her perfume woke him.
“Did you have a good day?” she asked—her usual while undressing.
“All right, I guess,” from his pillow.
He watched her. Two children, eighteen years of marriage—and she still had a figure. Not the same figure but definitely a figure. Remarkable. The expensive spas and occasional lifts didn’t hurt, he supposed, but still…
“The Brewster people called again,” he remarked, watching her graceful back.
“Oh? What did you tell them?”
He sighed. “I didn’t take the call.”
She slid heavy silk over still-firm breasts. “Oh, darling, why don’t us just take the bloody account?”
It surprised him—her tone. Impatient. Maybe a little dismissive. “It’s a question of morals, Althea. The product is potentially dangerous.”
She tossed her slim shoulders. “All cigarettes are potentially dangerous, that hasn’t stopped you before.”
He stuck his hands behind his head. “This is different. They want this marketed specifically as a safe cigarette, that’s the whole point. There isn’t a campaign without it. I don’t want to be responsible for duping millions of nicotine-happy teens with something they think is harmless. Anyway, morals or not, we’d be creating a potential climate for hefty libel suits down the road.” He sighed heavily. “Just doesn’t feel right.”
She slid her long legs in next to him and reached for her light. “They’d sue Brewster Foods, dear, not Conway and Waterman.”
“That’s not the point.”
She yawned, “Okay.” She said nothing more and he let it go. He still hadn’t told Stan about the Brewster thing; maybe it was just as well. He lay against the warm, perfumed length of her and listened to her breathing grow regular. In a moment she was asleep, soughing gently.
“Althea? How would you feel about spanking me with a ruler, then sucking me off? Only swallowing this time?”
He said it to the dark, to the walls.
He drifted off himself a few minutes later, thinking about the little alcove door with the MEMBERS ONLY sign. Maybe it was a joke. A play on words. ‘Members’ as in ‘penises.’ Did that make sense? He was snoring himself before he’d decided.
* * *
Thursday morning Jack Binder of Binder Plumbing called and suggested lunch.
The Binder account had been an early one, a low-paying one for the firm, but it had helped keep Conway Associates eating during the lean years. Mr. Conway believed it was important to remember your beginnings and those that began with you, so he accepted the invitation to lunch, suggesting they dine at the Chinese restaurant where nobody spoke English he’d recently discovered.
That was his excuse.
The truth was, immediately after they’d finished eating and waved good-bye and let’s-do-it-again at the corner, Mr. Conway walked briskly the two blocks to the corner where his car had been stalled the day before, and directly into the dingy little porno shop.
“Nuther phone call?” grinned the counter man.
Mr. Conway countered the counter man’s grin with one of his own. “How does one become a member?” he demanded, nodding at the little alcove door.
The counter man held his grin. “Oh, that.”
“Is there a fee? A membership tariff of some kind?”
The counter man shook his head. “No membership fee.”
“It’s free then? All right, I’d like to join.”
The counter man put down his Reader’s Digest. “Join what?”
Mr. Conway gestured impatiently. “The club, the club! Or whatever it is you’ve got back there.”
Facetious eyes studied him. “You wanna join somethin’ you don’t even know what it is?”
Mr. Conway rocked once irritably on the balls of his feet. “Let’s just say my curiosity’s aroused.”
“Yeah? That’s what’s aroused?”
“Very cute. Come on, what do you say?”
Now the counter man turned at last, slowly and deliberately as though seeing Mr. Conway for the first time. He studied the door in question. Then he looked back and studied Mr. Conway a long moment. “Naww…you ain’t ready for that yet.”
Mr. Conway raised up on his toes again, cleared his throat indignantly. “Aren’t you a little presumptuous? How exactly does one qualify for admittance?”
The counter man cocked his head reflectively, looked Mr. Conway up and down unhurriedly. “Well now, you might call it intuition. I can always tell about potential members.” He turned leisurely in his chair and gave Mr. Conway the once-over one more time–from his Brooks Brothers tie to his Andre Bellini shoes. “A fella has a certain look.”
He shook his head. “You ain’t got the look.” The grinned widened. “No offense.”
“Try cubicle 12.”
“I’ve already admired your retro peep show.”
“Not number 12 you ain’t.”
“I’d prefer the members only club, thank-you.”
“Sorry. Maybe some other time. We don’t let just anyone in. Try number 12, we guarantee satisfaction!”
What am I doing? he thought with some amazement, standing here in this sleaze hole on my lunch hour talking to this grinning idiot about peep show rooms! I should get out of here!
So he did. But not before investigating cubicle 12.
It was an experience. The girl was nothing special. But the guy! He could only have been a circus performer—a sideshow freak. Such convolution, such gymnastics! Mr. Conway had never seen the like. Triple-jointed is what the guy must have been. It was a truly educational experience. Mr. Conway was tempted to applaud after his last quarter finished the reel.
But it wasn’t what he’d come to see.
“Do I qualify for membership now?” he addressed the man behind the counter.
The grin was really getting on his nerves. “Come back some other time!”
“Don’t think I don’t know what you’re up to! Don’t think I just fell off the turnip truck—I’m a man of means, a man with more money, more connections, more…everything than you could begin to conceive in your wildest dreams!”
“That’s nice.” Grin.
“I was pulling bait and switch tactics when you were still in your Buster Browns! I know how to prime a customer, dangle a carrot, tease the mark, slam shut the trap and close the deal! I’ve been up against the best, pal, the very best! There’s nothing a punk like you could teach me! Now I want to see what’s behind that door!”
“Fine. No problem. But some other time.”
Mr. Conway rocked righteously on his heels. “Impudent little slug! I won’t be back!”
* * *
He came back every day for the next month.
And always the answer was the same: polite, congenial, unhurried but firm. “You ain’t quite ready yet.”
The little door, the dangling sign, haunted his dreams. Both the day and night variety. He saw the dangling sign at the office. He saw it superimposed over the TV screen at night. He saw it in the faces of his employees, in his won ton soup, in the silk luster of his wife’s evening gown. He fantasized about it when he should have been working, conjuring every conceivable scenario, every possible image of defilement and debauchery, every imaginable tableau of rampant licentious libertinage.
But none of these, he knew, were the answer to the mystery, the secret. Something extraordinary lay beyond the flaking veneer of that warped little door. Something he could wonder about forever and never know until he saw. There was a kind of crude genius at work here, a subliminal sort of hypnosis, and only those deemed privileged were rewarded. Only the elite.
Mr. Conway was one of the elite. He could sense it, feel it in his bones, always had. He’d been born one of the elite, the privileged, the inheritor of greatness and greatly coveted secrets. He just couldn’t convince the grinning man behind the counter. Not yet…
* * *
He became a man obsessed.
He was nearing the point of drastic action: sneaking down the darkened block at night, forcing entry into the filthy little hole, revealing what lay hidden behind the little door under the reproachful eye of the full moon. He actually felt cunning enough to pull it off; but that wasn’t the way, he knew. In some cosmic way he understood that this was a privileged event, a trust to be earned. A road paved with patience.
One bright, sunny but typically dull Tuesday afternoon several months later, he had an inspiration. Why not make this Tuesday different? Break routine! Skip lunch, forget all about Conway and Waterman Associates, forget all about the dingy little porno shop on the corner, jump in his car, whisk himself home without so much as a phone call ahead and surprise Althea with dinner at the most expensive, secluded hideaway in town! They hadn’t done that years, and she used to adore that kind of spontaneous frivolity…before the company had become the center of his life, filled his every waking hour, turned him, perhaps, into a husband that didn’t deserve her. It was a splendid idea.
The problem was, by the time he arrived home to their nine room mansion, Althea was already eating. Only she wasn’t alone and she wasn’t doing it in the dining room exactly. She was doing it in the swimming pool with Mr. Conway’s trusted friend and partner Stan Waterman.
The pool was just off the driveway so Mr. Conway had a front row seat of the entire show in vivid, commercial-free detail. He never would have believed his wife was such a…gourmet. She certainly had a surprisingly healthy appetite. Perhaps the most tragic thing was that all the splashing and huffing wasn’t what bothered him most—or even that it was his best friend and business partner providing the smorgasbord. It was the fact that Stan had apparently been frittering away his afternoons this way for some time now, frolicking with his supposedly jaded, un-passionate wife instead out cementing deals. That’s what bothered him the most, and that Mr. Conway found sad.
He sat there for a long time in his beautiful Boxter and watched them. Eventually he realized the main reason the scene was so arresting was he’d seen it before, or at least some variation of it. Then it came to him. His business partner was using the same contorted gymnastic techniques as that guy in the film behind door 12! It was amazing! He really had it down! Ole Stan must have watched that film a hundred times inside that sweaty little cubicle! Mr. Conway couldn’t understand why he and his partner hadn’t crossed paths before now under the grinning man’s counter! Trouble was–he had to admit–ole Stan was pretty good. Althea certainly seemed to think so.
The rest of scene played out like a bad B movie. The Boxter screeched to the edge of the pool, Mr. Conway leapt out, Althea shrieked piercingly, Stan leapt around the water like hooked carp searching for his bathing suit, Mr. Conway chasing him with the aluminum pool skimmer.
Afterward, Mr. Conway went for a long walk.
But not to the little porno shop. He didn’t even think about that. He thought about his childhood mostly, how comparatively happy that had been, in contrast to the last few years of what had become—he had to face it—the lifeless corpse of a marriage. And he felt himself grow bitter inside, laughing a mirthless laugh, shaking a mortified head. Goddamn Stan Waterman: no wonder the bastard never had lunch with him anymore…
Later that night at home, as he was turning down the bed in the guest room, tossing back his third vodka gimlet and allowing himself to visualize the first vague images of what would doubtless prove a phenomenally costly divorce, the phone rang. It was Stan Waterman and he wanted to apologize. He’d had a few gimlets himself, apparently.
“Stan, go fuck yourself.”
“Please, I don’t want to dissolve the partnership!”
“Stan, the partnership is dissolved.”
“No, please. It’s a big mistake doing that, trust me.”
He started to hang up , then—probably because the vodka was making him feel perverse—he added a parting shot: “By the way, your technique isn’t half as good as that guy in room 12.”
There was a sobering pause from Stan’s end. Then: “You saw the film?”
“The guy had it all over you, Waterman. Good-bye.”
“Wait! Listen, there’s something I’ve got to ask you! That little alcove door to the right of the counter, the one marked ‘members only,’ did…did you get inside it?”
Well, that was some consolation at least: the cuckolding bastard had never seen the inside of the mysterious little cubicle. At least that hadn’t been taken from him! He snapped shut his cellular and sat there staring at it. But by God, he’d see it! And he’d see it tonight! And he wouldn’t take no for an answer! He’d taken enough shit today!
Mr. Conway dressed quickly, strangely steady on his feet and clear-headed after three vodka gimlets, and passed his wife’s door on his way downstairs.
“Darling, I’d like to talk with you—“
He hardly heard her. He was on a mission.
* * *
He arrived after midnight but the shop was open 24 hours, so that was fine.
He pushed through the front door, marched straight to the wood counter and the grinning face behind it. His voice was level, controlled, but adamant. “I want to—“
“—join the Members Only Club,” grinned the Cheshire face, “of course. We’re all ready for you, Mr. Conway, step right this way!”
‘Mr. Conway’? Had he ever mentioned his name?
The counter man stepped to the door with the little hand-lettered sign and placed his fingers on the silvery knob. He turned. “One hundred dollars, please.”
He’d expected something like this. All right. He was prepared. He’d pay, gladly. Nothing was going to prevent him from stepping through that paint-flaking door, even if he found only an empty, cobwebbed room.
And that’s about what he found. That, a single straight-backed metal chair, and a portable, glass beaded home movie screen atop a crooked stand. The counter man gestured toward the metal chair. “The feature will begin in a moment. Popcorn?” And he snorted a laugh.
“Just get on with it!” Mr. Conway snorted back, seating himself imperiously.
The counter man exited. In a moment the room went dark. There was faint, familiar whir, and the screen grew bright. The lighting and sets seemed Spartan even by grindhouse standards. The girl wasn’t even pretty. She wore a plan gingham dress and a plain, even old-fashioned, hairstyle. And a very plain smile. Her figure was…well, plain.
She stood in an ordinary little apartment kitchen preparing what appeared to be a simple evening meal. Nothing fancy here either, not even particularly healthy food: the old-fashioned meat and potatoes variety as opposed to the vegetarian dishes he had forced on himself in recent years. After the meal was prepared (and it took some time, during which the hard metal chair grew even harder) she brought it smiling into a modest dining area and placed it on a modest walnut table before the camera. She lit a candle, unfastened her apron, and then—to his further amazement—sat down, dished herself a portion and began eating.
This also took some time.
Mr. Conway cleared his throat impatiently, craned over his shoulder at the mote-dancing cone of light behind him. The projectionist and/or counter man were not to be seen in the gloom.
After dinner, the girl cleaned the dishes, winked at the camera with a warm smile, and moved into the modest living room where she relieved the hall closet of a sweater. If Mr. Conway thought he was about to witness a strip tease, he was wrong. She merely put the sweater on over her dress and left the apartment. The screen went dark momentarily.
Mr. Conway squirmed in the metal chair. What the hell was this leading up to?
When the camera next picked her up, the girl was walking in a city park at night. She trailed the shore of a dark expanse of lake, the moonlight silvered on its still waters. The stars were out, millions of them, and they twinkled jewel-like overhead. Occasionally the girl would turn and smile at a couple passing her on the park walkway, holding hands, heads together, taking their time, stealing a kiss between lamplights.
After a time, she came upon an empty bench facing the lake. She sat down. The camera sat down beside her. She looked out at the lake. The stars were diamonds in the clear air, reflected in her glistening eyes, which really weren’t that unattractive in close shots. She sat gazing contentedly at the lake for the next twenty minutes.
Then she turned to the camera, smiled warmly again, and mouthed three simple words. Mr. Conway couldn’t quite make out what they were. In a moment, the screen went dark. The lights came up. The counter man stood grinning from the doorway behind the projector.
Mr. Conway stared back, incredulous. “That’s it?”
The grin never faltered. “That’s it!”
“A hundred dollars for a walk in the park with a homely girl!”
“Don’t forget the dinner and lake.”
“A hundred dollars!”
The counter man shrugged. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Mr. Conway stood up fast, fists clenched at his sides. “I want my money back!”
The inevitable shaking of the head. “Club dues are non-refundable.”
Mr. Conway started to steam…then settled down, nodded contemptuously, wryly. “So that’s it, huh? That’s the scam: lure a guy with vague promises and sly innuendo, get him worked up for months, then rip him off! Is that how you keep this little dump operating, off the money from gullible slobs like me?”
“You’re among our most valued clientele, Mr. Conway.”
“I’ll bet I am.”
He shouldered past the grinning face and stalked to the shop door. He felt…strange inside.
“I’m having dinner with the police commissioner tomorrow night,” he said authoritatively. It sounded about as pertinent as it did likely.
“Bon appetite!” from the counter man.
Mr. Conway slammed the door behind him.
* * *
Things were even worse the next day.
He arrived at the office early, bent on setting the wheels of partnership dissolution grinding. He was greeted by looks of sheepish guilt from most of his staff amid a sea of cardboard boxes. The boxes were slowly being filled by the staff with their personal effects. For one ludicrous moment, he thought Stan had gone completely crazy and fired everyone in the office; then the awful truth became apparent. Stan was leaving all right, and taking the staff with him. And from the looks on their faces, it was a voluntary decision.
It wasn’t until that moment he understood the depth of Stan Waterman’s deviousness…and his height within the firm. Who, after all, dealt with all the major clients day after day, having carefully, skillfully built up a personal relationship with them through the years, ate dinners at their homes, knew all their kids by name? And what self-respecting office employee wouldn’t go with the player who held all the most marbles–and the contacts to secure more marbles? The answer was confirmed a few minutes later when Mr. Conway found himself alone in a desert of empty desks and cubicles.
He went to his own office and sat down in his leather chair, sat down very hard. He stared out the window. A skeleton crew of old timers had remained loyally behind, but he was essentially alone in the building and assumed—if he hadn’t completely lost his edge– just about wiped out financially. So this is what Stan had meant on the phone when describing the break-up as a ‘big mistake.’ His mistake, not Stan’s.
He called his secretary to order lunch in, but his secretary had defected too. He called his lawyer and his lawyer was just sick about the whole thing, just really broken up because gosh he’d known Mr. Conway for years even before Stan had joined the firm–but when faced with the choice of going with the most assets the ugly truth was, Stan simply had more—
Mr. Conway hung up.
He stared out the window. Even after the sun began to set. He was, most likely, ruined.
Funny, then, in the midst of all this, he should be thinking about the girl in the film. The plain girl in the plain gingham dress with the plain but somehow sincere smile. She wasn’t pretty, that girl. But she’d had nice eyes…
* * *
He found more packing going on at home.
Althea wasn’t going to wait around and endure all the gory details of a divorce, he could handle that. She had friends in Jamaica. She’d phone him.
The house was quite still without her but that was nothing new. He sat staring at the Jay Leno Show silently, seeing only two soft brown eyes, a gingham dress, a lake, and stars that twinkled restfully, peacefully off its mirrored surface. Althea and he had walked beside a lake like that once, in another time, another world. It was what he was thinking about when he finally dozed off. It was, in fact, what allowed him to doze off.
He woke the next morning knowing exactly what he would do, what he must do. It was the next logical step in his life, perhaps even a preordained one. And he didn’t even have to go into the office to do it. He phoned Brewster Foods right there in his bedroom.
“Conway here, Mr. Brewster. Sorry it took so long to get back to you. Yes, we’d like to begin work on the Safety Cigarette campaign right away. We’re very excited about it.”
After that he called his office and told the remaining staff all about the account. It felt good to get it off his chest finally. They were very excited too. Then, he dressed, drank a glass of orange juice and headed in. Strange how good he felt despite all the recent upheaval in his life. He felt relaxed, almost peaceful. When he arrived at the office it was to a chorus of cheers. We’ll show Waterman what a Conway and Associates campaign can do! This was a slam dunk! Why, the account was so big they’d have to hire a new art director immediately!
He interviewed one that very day, took him to lunch at the Chinese restaurant where no one spoke English, an affable young man from L.A., full of daring new L.A. ideas. They shook hands at the corner and the young man started work that afternoon. Mr. Conway didn’t join him back at the office, though; he walked down the street a couple of blocks from the restaurant.
“I want to see the film again,” he told the man behind the counter.
“Great film, isn’t it!” the man grinned. “Only one in the whole place I still look at. Reminds me of my first wife!”
“I’d like to see it again, please.”
“Why certainly, Mr. Conway, you’re a member now!”
He stepped to the door and paused beside the silvery knob. “Two hundred dollars, please.”
Mr. Conway went pallid. “Two hundred! That’s highway robbery!”
“That’s the price.”
Mr. Conway stamped his foot. “It’s ridiculous! I won’t pay it!” And he turned on his heel and stalked to the door and slammed it behind him.
He went back, of course. Again and again, week after week, month after month, to sit on the bench beside the girl and watch the lake… watch the diamond stars reflect on its surface. Even though the price doubled with every visit and he spent a small fortune in the process. He had to. It was the only way he could sleep at night. Besides, wasn’t he, after all, the boss? Hadn’t he just sewed up the most important advertising campaign in history? Wouldn’t it gross millions of dollar annually?
Damn right it would.
Copyright 2011 Bruce Jones Associates, Inc.