Demolition Derby

         If there is a God who rules over the universe, then He seems to be taking His lunch break every time I am forced by circumstances to spend an afternoon in the bowels of Las Vegas. Oh, do not misunderstand me. I love (Well, love is a bit of a stretch here. It is like saying that one ‘loves’ ones favorite hooker, but I digress…) Las Vegas. The lizard lounge singers, the creepy oldsters hanging on for dear life at the Roulette tables, the plastic showgirls with what seem to be atomic mushroom cloud nipples, even the stimuli as simple as the sound effects from a 1980s era arcade game (Man loses at an electric slot machine, and there is a sound effect eerily similar to when a ghost catches up with Pac-Man…) mix together into a surreal blend of sensations (‘surreal blend’ sounds like a Cosmo-faddish, whipped cocktail, does it not?); and as a result, we experience enough of the Las Vegas nightlife to give us a reason to feel sore in the morning. This is why we travel out to that desert wasteland of gaudy casinos and cheap women. For some strange, perhaps masochistic, reason, we actually want to feel sore in the morning, after having indulged God knows what the night before.

         But notice that I am referring to Las Vegas at night. As for the daytime, well, it calls to mind Gettysburg the day after General Lee retreats to Virginia. Imagine flies, corpses, and oppressive heat. Okay, there are no real corpses on the Strip; but when the previous night’s tourists have flown away, and the next night’s tourists have yet to arrive, there are the wasted lives of those who live, eat, and breathe this town twenty-four seven. In essence, they are the walking dead. They sift in and out of the shimmering asphalt as they wander from their low rent apartments to their dead end jobs in the casinos. Even the hookers are twenty years older (When will the Church canonize the lovely woman, whoever she is, who stared at a cave drawing and came up with the idea of makeup?) as the desert sun wreaks havoc on their skin and hair. As much as the nightlife is a cocaine binge of fleeting sensations and growing paranoia, the daytime is dead, plain and simple, just a graveyard of lost money and broken hearts baked into a paved boulevard. It is all quite sad, but for the fact that the casinos begin their happy hours long before the first hint of sunset, and the air conditioning inside is about as strong as a wind tunnel at an Air Force training facility.

         I am not inside one of those casinos right now, although I could use even a watered down happy hour cocktail. It is said that the ideal way to silence the shrill scream of a hangover is to feed her about a gallon of hot coffee (straight, because even a cube of sugar at that time is likely to turn your stomach upside down). That is utter nonsense, I say, unless one wants to have a nasty hangover and be incapable of sleep at the same time. Instead, the real way to lessen the punches of a nasty hangover is to drink. Yes, that is counterintuitive; but think of it this way. If the plane is going to go down anyway (All of the propellers are dead, the pilot has sent a ‘mayday’ message back to the airport tower, and the stewardess had informed you that there are no more nuts.), then would you not rather glide than tailspin back to the earth?

         My problem is that I am not suffering this afternoon from the kind of sick bowels and cold goose bumps that comes from drinking too much alcohol. I am not a temperance man per se; but overindulgence of demon rum, thankfully, is not one of my vices. Rather, I have bottomed out in the affairs of the heart. My ‘Las Vegas Divorce’ (handed to me today by the same, old, swollen kneed, Elvis impersonator, who had handed my ex-wife and I a marriage license way back in a previous lifetime) is folded neatly in my back pocket. The signatures have yet even to dry, although in this heat I cannot imagine that that will be the case in another five minutes or so. Now, I know that I should be happy to see that ‘old sow’ go back to the barn from which she came. God only knows we have been a couple of demolition derby drivers for some time now, crashing insults into one another, bouncing our money woes, our private indiscretions, even our favorite pets off of one another. Still, truth be told, the bittersweet end to our derby is more bitter than it is sweet, at least in my gut, and perhaps in hers as well.

         If I follow my own fine advice about gliding, instead of tailspinning, back to the earth, then I should be talking up a showgirl right now, or perhaps sitting in my hotel room (air conditioning, cheap room service, free HBO; really, there are worse situations in life, like, for example, the exact same scenario inside a hotel room in Toledo, Ohio) and responding to personal ads posted on Craigslist by ‘women working on their weight.’ A couple of one-night stands, an extended romance with a college co-ed half my age (English Major preferred, but not the Feminist Studies variety), who thinks that I am the next D.H. Lawrence in Drag; and I should be as happy as a clam at high tide, right?

         Except that life is not that simple. Well, on second thought, maybe it is, at least for those guys who never seem to mature beyond their fraternity years.

         Nevertheless, for me, there is no such thing as ‘no strings attached.’ The strings are always there, hidden for a while, perhaps, but liable to tie me up at the worst time. Thus, I cannot really go from a demolition derby to a lazy week at Club Med. The money woes, the private indiscretions, the way my wife’s cat looks at me, all those pitfalls will batter me still even if only in my nightmares.

         Instead, it is better to go from one demolition derby to another. Maybe, the next derby will be a little less personal. It is going to be a real estate deal; and I am going to play a nominal role, like an extra in a film shoot. I am not an expert in real estate; but my guess is that ripping my heart out of my chest and handing it to my wife (Actually, she is my ex-wife now, remember?), so that as much as she wants she can kick it through the goalposts, well, none of that sick and twisted personal dreck is likely to be part of any real estate deal. I shall be able to experience the thrill of combat, even if only vicariously through all the participants, without putting my heart on the line.

         Okay, perhaps, ‘experiencing the thrill of combat’ is overstating it. I am going to be an extra on a film shoot, after all. Ask any extra how ‘thrilling’ it is to stand for hours in a dehumanizing cattle chute, while the A.D. on that shoot is screaming out grazing instructions from a clipboard (‘Never look at the actors straight on,’ Little Mein Fuhrer snaps. ‘Never speak until spoken to. Remember that children should be seen, but not heard,’ and so forth); and you will realize that ‘thrill’ is not really part of the program.

         It is more accurate to say that, for me anyway, this is something to do. I know that that does not sound like much; but given my state of mind, it is truly better than a happy hour highball and a kick in the pants.

         I walk up to the Bellagio. There is an enormous, gaudy, dancing fountain out front that is indeed spectacular at night. Right now, under a blazing desert sun, it looks somehow wilted. The melodious geysers spit up foam like a line of octogenarian Rockettes kick out legs. We observers actually feel sorry for their effort; and though we may applaud politely when the show is done, we have no desire for an encore.

         For her own sake, Las Vegas (and this lackluster Bellagio fountain) really should close up shop from sunrise to sunset. It is better to be a ghost town than a flophouse; I scoff, as I lean upon the rail that overlooks the Bellagio fountain.

         I am not there very long, before I hear the familiar voice of Dicky Cohen coming down the walkway. I turn to my left and observe him talking on his cell.

         As always when Dicky is on the phone, he is totally absorbed in whatever he hears on the other end; and yet the vaguely sly, smart, distant grin upon his face suggests that he is two or three steps ahead already of the guy gobbling up his ear. Physically, Dicky is handsome, but unassuming; and as a result, he can blend into a crowd when he desires to do so. His mind, though, never blends. It always stands apart, observing, strategizing, seeing the opportunity, where the rest of us would see nothing at all. Because of his mind, his gift of gab, and the mercurial fun dancing in his eyes, he has a certain charisma about him that has served him well. He is a risk taker, and yet he also inspires confidence. Few are able to say the same, which is why so many come to him with their various real estate opportunities and conundrums. One wonders why he does not don a red, ornamented cape, a pair of red, plastic boots, and a stylized DC upon his chest.

         But he would never dress in such an outlandish manner (except, perhaps, as part of a gag), because at heart he is an ‘everyman.’ His is the hardscrabble rags to riches story we Americans so love; a modern day Horatio Alger tale that has almost as many defeats as victories. He is an Englishman, actually; but that distinctly American myth of the self-made man, not just the man who succeeds but who succeeds in spite of the fact that he is supposed to lose when going up against the big boys in pinstripe suits, is very much alive in his veins. God alone knows how much he is worth (and, indeed, even God may not know of all those bank accounts out there); but except for an occasional splurge (a high powered automobile that those big boys in pinstripe suits believe a man like Dicky really has no business operating, let alone owning), he is usually understated. He will not forget from where he came, which is perhaps his strongest attribute. It is a cruel memory, sometimes; but it keeps him on his toes, when comfortable men let down their guard. The last man standing may not be Dicky Cohen, but there is no doubt in my mind anyway that he will be a gentleman very much like him.

         Let me be straight with you, Dicky says over the cell.

         I listen up. Dicky saying ‘let me be straight with you’ is like Jesus saying ‘verily, I say unto you.’ What comes next is the critical point. Either the person on the other end gets it, or he does not. If he does, then Dicky can continue to take his hand and to lead him where he should have been going from the start. If he does not, then Dicky will cut off the conversation soon enough. There are only so many minutes in a day, and he cannot justify squandering his any more so than the rest of us.

         You are a good man, but you are weak, Dicky explains. The banks simply will not budge with you. Why should they when they have you by the balls, and they know it as much as you do?

         Dicky sees that I am listening. He winks at me, and smiles. Obviously, in Dicky’s view anyway, the conversation is heading right where he wants it to go.

         Look, if you need to sign the house over to anyone before the end of the year, then I am the best candidate, Dicky explains. I can fix the house up, take care of the maintenance, professionally stage it for viewing…

         Dicky stops to listen to the man on the other end. He stops by me at the same time. I continue to stare at the Bellagio fountain, but clearly my mind has been drawn into this conversation.

         If I am in the driver’s seat, then I can turn the house to make a profit for both of us, while satisfying all the debts, Dicky concludes.

         How can Dicky make such a promise? I think. How can he really know the banks will cooperate with him, when they have been knocking his client around like he is the last man left in a demolition derby? Sure, there is confidence, but this is ridiculous, is it not?

         Actually, it is not at all ridiculous. Dicky knows his business much better than his client; and, in my view, he even surpasses the so-called experts in the field. What may appear like an outlandish claim to the rest of us is in fact well reasoned already in his mind. Perhaps, this is genius on display. Perhaps, this is grit. Regardless, it works out for him a lot more often than it does not, and so I allow for his past success to justify his confidence here.

         Also, while I have not yet been briefed on this deal, I know that Dicky’s reputation as a ‘miracle worker’ at the negotiating table extends far and wide. I presume that Dicky’s client knows this, which is why he is considering Dicky’s proposal of deeding his house to him for no purchase price.

         You’re making the right decision, Dicky states after listening for a while.

         I see the confident smile on his face. I see the dollar signs in his eyes. In that moment, without knowing anything more about the deal yet, I realize that all is well. It is just a case of Dicky seeing everything through to the end, right?

         Actually, the deal will turn out to be much more difficult for Dicky than I had foreseen then. I had hoped to step into a ‘demolition derby’ of sorts. I am not a masochist; but I wanted just a touch of the old excitement to refocus my mind, and most especially my heart, away from my divorce. All fine and good, I suppose, but little did I anticipate standing so near to a bare knuckle fight over the destiny of a financially underwater beachfront house on the Florida Keys. In the end, of course, Dicky found his way to the treasure chest full of gold; but a few uncomfortable moments in the meantime certainly knocked me around the hard demolition derby. I presume that Dicky felt the slings and the arrows, too.

*   *   *

         Elvis can cut a rug. I’ll concede that much, if compelled to surrender my honest opinion about the sweaty, fat, fifty-something on the Karaoke stage just now. Okay, I’ll even acknowledge that his costume is not half bad. His jumpsuit is two sizes too small, which is pretty accurate if he intends to impersonate the King circa 1977. His sideburns are jet black; his shoes blue suede; his lower lip hanging low and trembling, like he cannot decide if he is about to give you that sexy stare down that made him millions, or if he is simply tired and dumb from drug withdrawal. Probably both, because even at the tragic end Elvis had been still too much a performer for his silly antics on stage to be only attributable to the stash. Elvis had given it all for his fans, just like this here ‘Karaoke Queen.’

         The problem is the voice. He pretty much has the vocal swagger, though frankly it is hard to imagine any man passing ‘Elvis Impersonations 101’ without learning that much. He even manages to sing a ‘high baritone’ (amorphous grey area between baritone and tenor) about every fifth note. In other words, about twenty percent of the time he almost sounds like the real Elvis Presley. That is well above average by the low standards of late afternoon happy hour Karaoke.

         Well above average, but not good enough, in my mind. After all, four out of five notes are so off the mark they serve no other viable purpose than to tell me again, and again, and again, and again (one ‘again’ for each of the four bad notes, but of course you caught that already, didn’t you?) that this boozy, good ol’ boy hound dog is NOT the real Elvis Presley. Every red blooded, God fearing, patriotic American knows that the real Elvis Presley faked his drug overdose, so as to become a masked professional wrestler south of the border. Elvis pursues his true vocation; and we are stuck with an endless line of Elvis impersonators, who reek of Jack Daniels and who remind us just how low the gene pool can go.

         I know that I am being unduly hard on the poor guy. Nevertheless, there is a valuable lesson to be learned here; and that is that everything has to work, in order for a performance on stage, or a real estate deal hashed out inside the boardroom of a creditor bank, to sit well with participants and onlookers alike. The stars have to align just so; or if they refuse to do so on their own, then the real estate deal needs someone like Dicky Cohen to enter into the negotiations and, as necessary, to force those stars to end up where they need to end up for the sake of the deal. It is not good enough for four out of five sung notes to be off kilter. Neither is it good enough for a would be deal to remain diseased and stinky, because one of the participants is in over his head, or because too many of the ‘experts’ lack the intellectual creativity to imagine a novel pathway out of this mess. Just as an Elvis impersonator has to get us to suspend disbelief, so must a deal be structured in such a way that everyone leaves escrow with a big smile on his or her face. It does not matter if the smile is joy in obtaining more or less what one wanted in the deal, or if it is relief in getting Dicky Cohen out of ones ear. All that matters is that everything comes together at the very end.

         Too bad there is no ‘Dicky Cohen’ for this God awful ‘Karaoke Queen.’ A voice that is wrong four out of five times is just plain wrong.

         I’ll have another Scotch and soda, I say to the passing waitress.

         The waitress is dressed like one of the Andrew Sisters. I truly admire her boogie-woogie khaki skirt, jacket, and hat. It brings out the shitfaced patriot in me; the kind that stands at attention with his wet pants draped over his ankles.

         So much for the divorce hangover. I am now focused on the normal kind.

         Dicky sips his Vodka Martini (‘shaken, not stirred’). I have no idea if this is his first or fifth one for the afternoon. He handles them like he handles an ornery real estate problem: Two or three steps ahead of the alcohol, steady on his feet, thoughtful in his eyes, able when necessary to knock down completely the bloke to his side with just a sentence or two of his deadly English wit. Most men drink either to get their dander up or to call it a night. In all the watering holes in which I have shared a drink with him, Dicky has made it pretty clear he does not need booze to get his dander up. All he needs is an opportunity to put down a jackass, who has been giving him lip for no sound reason. As for ‘calling it a night,’ if he does really sleep his mind even then is never far removed from whatever deal is occupying him at the time. So why does he drink at all? Maybe he takes a drink now and then to let the rest of us know that, indeed, even real estate geniuses like himself can let their eyes droop before going in for the kill.

         ‘Going in for the kill’ is an important phrase here. Most divide their time between work and play. For Dicky Cohen, for Sherlock Holmes, for James Bond, indeed for any number of those real or fancied men who show themselves to be critical players in the arena we call ‘life,’ the division is not between work and play. It is between ‘the kill’ and ‘setting up the kill.’ Of course, there is no real blood shed in a real estate deal (unless, perhaps, we are talking about a casino in the middle of a desert somewhere and the ‘escrow officer’ goes by the name of Vinnie the Fink or Vito the Vapor Rub); but in every negotiation, there is the one, sublime moment when everyone at the table acknowledges finally who has been the hunter all along and who has been the rabbit in the tall grass. Dicky is always the hunter. If the bankers, the lawyers, the realtors, and the buyers and the sellers do not know this about Dicky when he first hands them his smile and his business card, they surely will know when they sign the escrow papers.

         That Elvis bloke reminds me of my client, Dicky reflects.

         Sideburns? I inquire, while I throw up all sorts of hand signals in an effort to get the attention of the waitress.

         He had his act together in most ways, Dicky continues without appearing to hear my comment. Successful medical doctor, several very lucrative patents in his name, pretty wife, happy kids, neutered dog, foxy mistress…

         I hardly hear Dicky at this point. I am more than a bit peeved that ‘Little Miss Andrew Sister’ neither sees nor hears my commotion. How the heck shall I get cold plastered if I sweat out the former drink before downing the next one?

         But just like Elvis up there does not quite master the voice, neither does my client ever really understand real estate, Dicky concludes.

         Oh, uh, so no sideburns, I mutter, as that waitress leaves me in the dust.

         No, Dicky answers. But he does have a title of sorts…

         Oh, really? I say with an interested smile.

         Yes, Dicky continues. Look at his stationery sometime. By rights, he can call himself Dr. Jeffrey Grim, M.D.; but instead he goes by the name Sir Jeffrey Grim, Owner and Protector of the Grim Estate, Manor’s Lord of All Things Grim, or something like that anyway. Cost him either his soul, or fifty thousand on his American Express card. He claims he paid the second way, but I’m not so sure…

         I do not hear Dicky about how his client paid for his title online. Instead, half drunk on booze and totally plastered on ‘divorce blues,’ I focus on the fact that Dicky’s client is a ‘Sir.’ It adds a certain romantic allure to the real estate deal. After all, in my imagination at least, saving a ‘Sir’ from his financial woes is almost as fairy tale like as saving a ‘Damsel in Distress’ from her foreclosure.

         Dicky takes a sip of his Vodka Martini. He turns back to the Elvis on stage but does not seem to look at the performer at all. Instead, with a sly grin on his face, he recalls what has been relayed to him about the formative stage of this real estate deal gone terribly wrong.

         Like most successful men, Sir Jeffrey thought that he could do just about anything, Dicky comments. He purchased a beachfront lot on Key Largo; by all accounts, one of the best slices of paradise on a cove anywhere. This was a few years before the crash. Most of those ‘experts’ predicted appreciation for years to come, especially with high-end properties like this one. For all his smarts he did not know enough about real estate to question their rosy assessment. So he tore down the little house that was there, procured a bank loan for $10 million, put $3 million of his own funds into the kitty, and set out to construct a dream home. He had not even finished it, when someone offered him $16 million hard cash. He could have doubled his investment right then and there without losing one more wink of sleep in overseeing the crew and giving reports to the lending bank; but somebody had whispered ‘$20 million’ in his head, and he would not budge on that price. A man will hold onto his dreams, especially when he does not know any better. Needless to say, he was caught off guard when the bubble burst, and property values started to tailspin just about everywhere…

         Like my marriage, I reflect.

         What do you mean? Dicky asks.

         Well, it is said that the second happiest day in the life of a yachtsman is the day he buys his yacht. The happiest day is the day he sells it. And why pray tell? Because he got tired of paying through the nose for maintenance, repairs, docking fees, everything else that he just had to purchase ‘to keep up with the Joneses.’ The damn yacht had become a chore, a ball and chain. Sort of like an ugly marriage toward the end. Or like Sir Jeffrey’s home after the crash…

         By your own logic, today should be your happiest day, Dicky interrupts.

         Who can say I’m not happy? I slur stupidly as tears stream down my face.

         Dicky considers me a moment. He then looks back at the sweaty Elvis.

         You’re right, though, Dicky continues. Sir Jeffrey’s house is his ball and chain. It will be mine, as soon as we record the deed; but even then, I suspect the mental strain will be his until we manage to pay off the last of his creditors once and for all. As for the day we finally sell the house, well, we can expect a twinkle in his eye that looks downright radioactive.

         Sir Radioactive, I mutter humorously. Did you know there is a twinkle in your eye? You may want to get a handle on it, before it blows the rest of us all to smithereens.

         I consider myself to be pretty funny, and so I laugh.

         Dicky is not taken by my attempt at humor apparently. He smiles gamely and then glances at his watch.

         There is more to tell, but the hour is late, Dicky says, while gesturing for the waitress to bring the check.

         Oh, yes, of course, I mutter as an attempt to push the humorous thought out of my mind.

         We go Dutch on the bill, and I follow Dicky into the late afternoon sun. I hear one of the Elvis impersonators start to sing ‘Hound Dog,’ as I shut the door to that offbeat Karaoke waterhole.

         Maybe, I am nothing but a hound dog, as the song says, snooping around Dicky’s door, wagging my tail in the hopes he will feed me a few scraps of real estate knowledge from his vast experience. What a pitiful thought! Even in my post-divorce doldrums, I have enough self-esteem to think myself above a weak and whiny hound dog, do I not? Of course, I do. Surely, I have something of real merit to contribute to this matter. Like that lawyer in the Iran-Contra hearings famously said, I am not a potted plant. I am not here to tag along. I am here to play a role that in one way or another is actually going to matter, or so I hope…

         Dicky breaks me out of my stream of consciousness. He pulls out a smart phone, and asks me where I am staying the night.

         I tell him, and he says that he will call my room when he is done with his next meeting. We then shall discuss the time and the place to meet for supper.  Dicky implies that he will tell me the rest of Sir Jeffrey’s sad tale at that time.

         You should take a nap, Dicky advises. You’re whining like a sick dog.

         I am taken aback. I am not sure if I should be grateful or incensed at the advice. The look on Dicky’s face suggests that he is sincere, though one cannot be sure. The Brits are known for the very dryness of their biting tongues. Still, I cannot deny that I had whined a bit more than I should have when I did not get that waitress to notice me. Moreover, I am as sick as a dog right now; and even the late afternoon sun is hot enough still to turn my headache into a nasty case of desert fever, if I do not cool off and drink some water soon.

         I decide to thank Dicky for his advice; but before I can do so he answers his cell phone, hurries across the Strip, and waves goodbye. I feebly wave back.

*   *   *

         How is it possible for a butt to be squeezed so tightly into a bikini? I am not an expert at physics, but doesn’t Newton’s Third Law imply that that bikini bottom exerts as much force on the butt as the butt on the bikini bottom? From what I can see, though, what is swaying up there on that lifted stage is all butt. The bikini bottom seems almost to have vanished, like it has been sucked into a singularity, or something. My mind wanders, and I contemplate a big black hole at the center of the universe slowly, but surely, pulling us all backwards, while we fancy ourselves moving forward.

         Back to the beginning, I mutter, while looking away from the topless girl on the lifted stage, and staring stupidly at my cocktail.

         But if that is the case, then progress, ambition, achievement, everything in our lives that gives us a reason to wake up in the morning, are no more than idle illusions. ‘From dust to dust’ is hardly a motto for success.

         Dicky has not arrived yet for our supper at the Darling Dolls restaurant. I do not have to see the hopeful expression on his face to know what he thinks of that black hole at the center of the universe. In Dicky’s mind, that black hole, large and imposing as he is, is just another self-important arse that needs to be cut down a few inches with one of Dicky’s dry witticisms. Dicky may know that he cannot top God, but everything in the physical universe is just wild game to be hunted down and put up on his trophy wall. That includes that Mother of All Black Holes that presumes to turn our hopes and ambitions into idle fairy tales.

         Another topless girls strolls onto the lifted stage. Together, the two girls seem interchangeable, like Barbie dolls off the same conveyor belt, or like the parts of a Winchester rifle. I actually prefer the Winchester rifle analogy, since I practically can hear the vicious crack of a rifle shot every time their red, hard nipples stand at attention. As if to augment that very point, the two girls wear identical pink cowgirl hats. God forgive the silly Indian who tries to scalp them.

         This is not actually a ‘Cowgirls and Indians’ show, though. Now and then, the girls stroll casually back to a table. Each of them retrieves a large card that they hold over their torsos (round of boos each time for blocking the boobs) for a few seconds. They stand side to side, so that the two enormous cards can be read as one: ‘G-56’ one set of cards reads; ‘B-5’ the next set of cards reads; ‘I-40’ the next set of cards reads; and so forth, until an old witch with a smoker’s gravelly throat belts out ‘Bingo,’ or until Christ Jesus sees fit to return in glory.

         ‘And Bingo was his Name-O,’ I sing a bit off key.

         I cannot remember from where that jolly line of music comes; probably, a silly song for children, for in retrospect we realize that we learn pretty much all that we need to know about life in preschool. Adolescence and manhood are just protracted opportunities to relearn those lessons.

         And so what does ‘Bingo’ teach us about life? That it is a game of chance based on the Bingo cards we have been dealt. Life consists of sitting there in an insufferable stupor affixing the beads to the squares.

         As with the black hole, Dicky would say that that so-called ‘lesson’ is an enormous, foul smelling, crock of you know what. Yes, there is chance in life. A person can step off the curb and be hit by a bus that seems anyway to drive out from nowhere. Nevertheless, what we measure as ‘success’ or as ‘failure’ truly has little, if anything, to do with chance. Rather, it has to do with the extent a person knows his business, maps out his moves, and finally refuses to take ‘NO’ for an answer.

         Take Sir Jeffrey’s predicament, for example. In his mind, no doubt, he is the victim of a real estate bubble burst that no one could have predicted. Like a chance encounter with a bus when stepping off of a curb, he just has the bad luck of being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

         No doubt, Dicky is kind enough with his client. There is no point really in telling an otherwise smart and successful fellow that he is a total rube when it comes to real estate. Nevertheless, Dicky recognizes what every seasoned card shark knows: What seems like chance to the rubes sitting in front of Bingo cards all day, or slinging the worn handles on slot machines all night, is not chance at all from the perspective of the house. ‘The house always wins,’ because for the house anyway these supposed ‘games of chance’ are not chance at all. Rather, like with professional wrestling bouts, or with Presidential elections, these are rigged events meant to entertain the rubes just enough to get them to shell out more dollars and to guarantee that the house wins in the end. The fundamental difference between Dicky and Sir Jeffrey is that Dicky knows the ‘ins and outs’ of real estate well enough to leverage the risks, like a seasoned member of the ‘house,’ while Sir Jeffrey has the mindset of a rube.

         So what does that make me? I ask myself, while shedding a solitary, self-indulgent tear. A rube wise enough to know that he is a rube? What good is that in the end? Is it not better (Okay, maybe not better, but surely kinder, no?) for a rube to think that, indeed, life is just a game of chance; that he has no more responsibility than to take the licking and to keep on ticking; and that the final winner is not better than the loser, just luckier in the Bingo cards dealt to him?

         Except that I know too much to accept that opinion. I have studied, and in some cases have known personally, a number of life’s ‘winners,’ including of course the real estate genius scheduled to meet with me here any minute now. These guys are not just luckier than the rest of us. Often, they are not smarter either, at least in an academic sense. What differentiates them from us is that they know their business better, they work a heck of a lot harder, and when all that human fertilizer hits the fan, they are confident in their ability to pull out a victory from apparent defeat. Knowledge, work ethic, confidence, these then are the keys to success; and, really, what does chance have to do with any one of these? Very little, in the end, which means that, unless we are born into this world with a severe mental or physical disability, we own our successes then as much as our failures.

         I see Dicky walking towards me. As always, his ear is glued to his cellular phone. He has that sly, calculating grin on his face. He may be hearing a tale of woe; but in his mind, he is contemplating a real estate opportunity to be sown now and then reaped down the road.

         That brings another metaphor to my mind. It is Biblical in origin, and yet it seems fitting here in Sin City: The farmer knows the seeds he sows. He knows if he is throwing good or crappy seeds into his soil. He does not willy-nilly grab stuff out of his burlap bag, and toss it over his shoulders, without any clue as to what he is putting in his soil for the harvest to come. Now, if that is true of the farmer, then it is true also of the seasoned real estate investor. He knows what he is planting when he buys his land and procures his construction loan. Yes, he may be surprised a bit by the amount of sun or rain (real estate market ups and downs) months down the road, but probably not so surprised as to lose his shirt entirely. The smart farmers, after all, weather the storms. They keep so much in reserve year after year, diversify their seeds, rotate their fields. The same is true of the smart real estate investor. The farmer’s harvest may not turn out to be ideal; just like that real estate investor may have to accept that $16 million hard cash offer (Oh, boo hoo!), rather than hold out for that $20 million of gold bullion horded by the leprechaun at the end of the rainbow. But the smart, old farmer survives; and he wins more than he loses. The same is true of that devil smart real estate investor who knows his business and then always plays to win.

         I almost imagine the devil horns popping through Dicky’s forehead, as he is finishing up his conversation. I do not sense anything evil, unless it is ‘evil’ to seek out opportunity where most everyone else sees defeat. At most, I sense an enthusiasm for a game that most others would find too stomach churning in the risk involved. Also, I sense a calculating mind that most others would deride as vaguely ‘immoral,’ unless of course this very same mind were to be put to their service. I am reminded of how everyone hates that calculating prick attorney in the downtown sky rise, until they need that same attorney to get them out of a jam. Set aside all the highbrow philosophizing, and ‘situational ethics’ in fact is simple: What I need at the time is ‘good.’ What I do not need I can put down as ‘bad,’ since I can feel so much more ‘ethical,’ when I can put it down as ‘bad.’

         Ready for more story time? Dicky asks me with his charming grin in tow.

         Of course, by ‘story time’ he means the rest of what he has learned thus far about the plight of Sir Jeffrey Grim. ‘Story Time’ also means an educational opportunity. Teachers teach through stories more often than not. In part this is because many of us learn faster to the extent we can visualize our lessons; but, in part, this is also because many of us react negatively to the idea that we are being lectured to by someone ‘smarter’ or ‘better’ than us. ‘Story Time’ is not a ‘lecture.’ It is only a ‘story,’ a wry laugh shared over cocktails before supper.

         And so I follow my friend across the Bingo Room, passed an old fashioned Roulette table, around a lifted stage occupied by a lizard lounge singer stuffed unglamorously into a sequined jacket and fancy feather boots (a Tom Jones rip-off butchering ‘She’s a Lady’ to a group of screaming sixty-something gals, who are wearing identical ‘Cowgirl Up’ T-shirts), and through a far quieter hall that is occupied by geezers in tweed jackets losing their retirement savings in poker games. Everything earlier had suggested the ‘Land of Toys’ from Pinocchio, but for adults rather than children. On the other hand, this last hall suggests an old and seedy Las Vegas almost entirely forgotten. The cigar smoke lingers heavily, and the Mafioso types in double-breasted suits stare out from the dark shadows as if daring any jerk to give them a reason to brandish their knives or revolvers.

         The entrance to Darling Dolls is beyond this hall. The front décor is dark, vaguely Oriental, meant to suggest an ‘out of the way’ spot for gentlemen with ‘important business’ to discuss. The gal out front is a shapely beauty in a long, floral, geisha dress, but her face is not Japanese. Instead, it is made up to look like the cheeky, smiling face of one of those Cabbage Patch Kids for which girls just about everywhere went bonkers in the mid-1980s.

         The dining room is dark, woodsy, and quiet. There is faint sitar music in the background. Waitresses walk about in long, floral dresses, some geisha like, others more Victorian. All of them have faces made up to look like dolls of one sort of another. The creepiest doll waitress looks like Chucky from Child’s Play.

         We are seated. Our waitress looks like Pippi Longstocking. She even tries to emulate Pippi’s silly girl voice, though she sounds instead like a ‘Valley Girl’ in a third rate porn. I have to hold back my guffaws. Dicky takes it all in stride.

         Something you learn early on in this business is that people all too often are not as they first seem, Dicky reflects. They hide behind a mask of one sort or another, because they think they can get some sort of advantage from hiding their intentions or their strategy until the last minute. The problem is that, like these waitresses here, their faces are not particularly convincing to the careful and shrewd observer. Take, for example, the Woos. Have I ever mentioned the Woos in any of our past discussions?

         Not that I recall, I mutter, while I think about what drinks I should order.

         Wanda and Wilma Woo are a team of realtors based out of Miami, Dicky continues. They focus primarily on high-end properties down the Keys and even into the Caribbean. The gals fly their clients to properties in their personalized hydroplane, the ‘Woo Wonder,’ which no doubt you can imagine is a far better marketing tool than a forgettable billboard along I-95…

         Are they sisters? I interrupt.

         Not unless they’ve changed the law down there to allow sisters to tie the knot, Dicky responds. After all, Florida isn’t West Virginia.

         I don’t know, I comment. Have you ever been to Florabama? I spent two years in Pensacola during my Navy days. I saw critters there that could’ve been stock characters in James Dickey’s Deliverance.

         Well, Miami is a lifetime and a half from Pensacola, Dicky remarks.

         So you are saying that the Woos are, um, well, um; I stutter drunkenly in my head for just the proper word, as my tongue continues to spit out nonsense.

         Actually, they tied the knot in Massachusetts; Dicky goes on without any acknowledgment of my silly stutter. But they held their reception in Key Largo. Bryan told me it was the greatest party down that way in years. They hired two bands, one Cuban, the other Reggae; circus performers; a transvestite comic; a clown for the kids. They took turns flying their guests in the ‘Woo Wonder.’ For the cake, they substituted instead a female stripper wearing nothing, but white frosting. But here’s the best part: They passed out their latest listings, so they could designate the entire night as a tax deductible marketing expense.

         Wow, I exclaim in genuine astonishment.

         That’s the problem, though, Dicky says with a smile. The Woos are a lot of ‘wow,’ but not a lot of ‘wood’ underneath the ‘wow.’

         The wood is under the wow? I mutter in confusion.

         Think of it this way, Dicky explains. The Woos are like the white frosting but without the stripper underneath.

         I nod my head in agreement. I still do not have a clue what he is stating, but I do not want him to unleash yet another metaphor on me. Right now, with a dull hangover creeping into the nether regions of my mind, I am not sure how I shall reply if Dicky slingshots yet another metaphor straight into my forehead.

         Somewhere along the line, Sir Jeffrey hired the Woos to list his home on Key Largo, Dicky continues.

         The same home you now own, I comment.

         Will own, Dicky corrects me. Once I get the deed, and pay the recording fee. It will cost me $32.00 to record the deed. Can you imagine that?

         Highway robbery, if you ask me, I say. Perhaps, you can ask the Recorder for a waiver of the fee. There must be some sort of a hardship exception…

         Dicky looks at me like I am out of my mind. I drop my thought altogether midsentence, and I look around to see if Pippi Longstocking is going to return to us with our drink orders sometime before the Second Coming.

         The Woos listed the property for a year, Dicky continues. No doubt, they spent a pretty penny marketing the place; but notwithstanding their reputation as ‘the best in the business,’ in all that time they managed to find only a single would be buyer. The bloke only offered $7 million, and never put his name to a formal, written offer even of that paltry amount. Now, in defense of the Woos, the real estate market has been in the doldrums since the old Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae bubble burst and deflated into something that looks like road kill in the middle of a desert highway. Still, did it ever occur to them to try to find an international purchaser? How about conducting silent auctions to drum up some offers beyond what they were likely to find in the dismal South Florida market? They think outside of the proverbial box in terms of marketing themselves; but how about doing the same, when attempting to sell a home that is about as far underwater as the Titanic?

         What a sappy movie, I say irrelevantly.

         Once Sir Jeffrey hired me as his consultant on this deal, I told him that I would do my utmost to sell the property at a price that would satisfy everyone, Dicky says proudly. Nevertheless, the Woos had to get out of the picture, since I knew that they would never cooperate with me. I urged him not to renew the listing agreement with them. Instead, hand the listing agreement to my friend, Bryan, and let me do my magic behind the scenes.

         The Woos must have gone ‘boo-hoo’ when that happened; I interject in a rather lame attempt at humor that falls like priceless china to a concrete floor.

         Dicky cannot believe what he just heard. He looks at me like I am an ant crawling onto his plate of spaghetti.

         Dicky turns away. He continues to tell his story, while staring through all that faux Oriental décor decorating the far wall. God only knows what he views in his mind’s eye, when he is caught up in one of his reminiscences.

         Indeed, the Woos did not leave the table happily, Dicky says. They tried to suggest that the listing agreement had not expired, because of those several weeks that the listing had been on hold to consider the $7 million offer. But, of course, that was easy enough to dispel. There never had been a formal offer on the table, since the would be purchaser never gave anyone his ‘John Hancock.’

         Pippi Longstocking returns finally with our drinks. I practically snatch my drink from her hand like a thirsty desert boy might grab at a cup of water. That Scotch and soda burns my throat, but I sense that dull hangover receding into a dark corner. I am not going to tailspin after all. I am going to glide my damaged airplane into a field somewhere. Yes, it will be a crash landing, when all is said and done; but it will be much less dramatic than if I had quit the booze tonight cold turkey. Oh, sure, this is not a problem for Dicky. Remember, he is always a couple of paces beyond his alcohol; but for a regular shmuck like myself, that same alcohol grasps a hold of my shirttail and holds me back from the very first sip to the last. I wonder dimly if success in life has something to do with how a man can hold his liquor, but I am far too drunk now to pursue that idea further.

         So what are you going to do once you record the deed? I inquire with just a bit more clarity in mind now that that dull hangover has retreated along with the rest of General Lee’s troops from the blood baptized Gettysburg battlefield lodged inside my war weary cranium.

         Inform the creditors, Dicky says matter-of-factly. Find out where all that money went. Given the size of the loan, and his lack of experience, Sir Jeffrey, poor fellow, must have been overcharged considerably by the subcontractors. I bet you that once I observe the invoices, I’ll conclude that he never could have made a profit, if he had finished his project. He had been doomed all along, for he could not see the devil’s many faces beneath the pretty masks. In that way, notwithstanding his great success in his professional and personal life, he is all too common. Show me the man who can see through those masks, and I’ll show you a man destined for greatness in this sordid, little world of ours.

         Dicky turns toward me. His face beams confidence; but there is also that twinkle in his eye that suggests that he knows not to take himself too seriously, even if the rest of us look up to him as a kind of real estate guru or shaman. His expression demands a response, and so I lower my Scotch and soda to the table and give him my undivided attention.

         I can see through those masks, Dicky says.

         I have no doubt, I whisper, as the sitar quivers in the heavens above me.

         Dicky breaks the tension with a hearty laugh. I laugh with him, but I am not so sure that he had been joking with me a moment ago. Indeed, deep down somewhere in my bowels, I am certain that he had been dead serious; and that level of confidence in any man turns out to be rather unsettling. I am not sure, if I should feel lucky to learn what I can from him, or if I should run away from this mad house of a restaurant and catch the next flight back to mediocrity and boredom. There is something to be said about hanging ones hat with individuals like myself who cannot see through masks and do not presume to break through all those Gordian Knots that exist out there.

         As it turns out, I do not run away. I cannot claim any fine act of courage and resolve on my part. Most likely, I do not run away, because I am too drunk at this very moment to stand up without tumbling over.

         And so Dicky and I share a pleasant supper together. Dicky informs Pippi Longstocking that he can discern her real face beneath the elaborate make-up. He describes the shape of her face; the real color of her eyes beneath the fake color of her contact lenses; the way her lips smile when unrestrained by all the gloss and the goo. He is like Sherlock Holmes wrapping up the case before going back to his apartment for another sniff of cocaine. It is all quite impressive, to be sure; but judging by Pippi Longstocking’s strained smile, it is also altogether unnerving. I actually feel for Pippi Longstocking then, though I keep my silence.

         Pippi Longstocking must not have been too scared in the end, for I notice in my peripheral vision that she slips Dicky her phone number as we are leaving the restaurant. I have no idea if Dicky will call her. He may be bored with Pippi already, since he has figured out what is hidden beneath the veil. On the other hand, even a real estate shaman has his needs, whenever the night is too quiet or lasts too long. For all his legendary genius in real estate, Dicky is still a man.

*   *   *

         Several months pass, and I am faced down and dead on my bed. It is just a minute or so before sunrise on a cold and billowy San Francisco morning. Last night, I had been too shitfaced to close the bedroom window; and so a howling, summer fog slaps my curtains silly and subdues my second floor bedroom into a black and blue place more akin to a meat locker. San Francisco fog so early on a summer morning is like a wife beater. It is deranged, cold, inebriated with its own power, and ultimately violent to whichever sad sack happens to have kept his window open from the night before. I am that sad sack right now. My naked back is shivering. My ears are throbbing. My head is dead to this cold world, but it remains very much alive and well in a silly dream playing itself out still inside my mind. The dream has something to do with a voice calling to me from under miles of ice and snow. I pursue that voice, as everything else is dead and grey…

         The voice sounds like the shrill scream of a woman. Perhaps, the howling fog, that wife beater clothed in billowy, white clouds, has gotten a hold of her down there under all that ice and snow…

         But, then again, the voice really does not sound like the shrill scream of a woman, now does it? It really sounds more like the shrill ring of a telephone…

         I awaken from the dead. It feels like a board has been slammed straight into my forehead. It occurs to me that maybe when the corpses are raised from the dead on the ‘Last Day’ they too will feel the same board slamming viciously across their dead foreheads. Maybe, eternal life starts off as a kick to the face.

         I grab the telephone on the fourth or fifth ring.

         I’ve got the electrician by the short hairs, Dicky says with devilish glee.

         I have not thought of Dicky Cohen since leaving Las Vegas in a daze. My life has been pretty listless since then. If the months just prior to a divorce are hot, wretched, like bathing in a witch’s cauldron, then the months just after a divorce are cold, exhausted, like floating in limbo. Nevertheless, in spite of my overall laziness and indecision, I had made up my mind on one point: I was not going to tag along with Dicky’s latest charge into a real estate ‘no man’s land,’ no matter what I had thought before about wanting a new demolition derby to replace to old one. I just do not have the heart for battle, even if I am going to be little more than a cheerleader. I simply want to stay home all day, watching old episodes of ‘The Ricky Lake Show,’ and pretending to type out a new novel.

         And yet part of Dicky’s charisma is that he can draw you into his world if he so chooses. He can make you see what he sees. Heck, truth be told, he can almost make you believe that his interests are also yours. Speaking with Dicky, even on a telephone just before dawn, is like being on the receiving end of the Jedi Mind Trick. I imagine him wearing Obi Wan Kenobi’s robe and wielding the Jedi Master’s lightsaber, while with his other hand he sips his fine morning tea.

         How does he hold his telephone, if he has a lightsaber in one hand and a cup of tea in the other? I wonder groggily while still crawling up from my sleep.

         Remember how I told you the subcontractors were overcharging good old Sir Jeffrey? Dicky asks.

         What are you talking about? I ask.

         Well, sure enough, as soon as I got my hands on the invoices, I could see how they were gouging him, Dicky continues without acknowledging my inquiry just then. Three times over market! The poor guy was taken, like a damsel in a Moroccan bazaar. He has not paid most of them. The unpaid bills crammed into his mailbox have turned into debt collection calls filling up his voicemail. A few of the buggers even tried to burglarize the place to reclaim what is theirs. One of them succeeded just last night.

         I am taken aback. Dicky is awfully cheerful for a man who had been just last night the victim of a burglary. I wonder if he has fallen off his old carriage.

         I am sorry, I mutter, as I sit up in bed, and wrap the blankets around my uncomfortably cold shoulders.

         No reason to whine like a puppy dog, Dicky teases. I had ordered Bryan, my realtor on the scene, to install video cameras, trip wires, motion detection lights, even a life sized cardboard cutout of Clint Eastwood dressed up as ‘Dirty Harry’ and staring out the window by the front door. Sure, I wanted to keep all those buggers out; but I also wanted to make sure that if one of them breached my perimeter, I’d have so many photographs, video clips, fingerprints, and DNA samples of that SOB that even an incompetent DA just out of law school would be able to send his arse to the electric chair.

         The electric chair? I ask. Isn’t that a bit much?

         You want to play with the devil, you got to sizzle and burn, Dicky replies with a laugh that is just a bit unsettling precisely as it is not loony or overdone.

         So you know who it is? I ask.

         The electrician, Dicky says. The police have seen the footage. They have assured Bryan that the SOB will be in custody later today. I told Bryan to inform the police that I’ll drop all charges, if he restores the power panels and installs a new lighting system for the pool. I want that pool to glow like it had been the epicenter of a neutron bomb blast.

         That’ll impress the chicks, I say with my first grin of the morning.

         Forget the chicks, Dicky laughs. I’m talking about sheiks…

         Sheik chicks? I mutter.

         I envision a robed sheik with pretty, long eyelashes, ruby red lips, triple d breasts, and high heels that strike oil every time he takes a lazy stroll across his own desert oasis. The sheik chick excites himself down there just by flailing his fingers through his own dark mustache and beard. Kinda kinky thought, is it not? Or then again, maybe it is just deranged.

         No, not sheik chicks, just sheiks, Dicky answers. Actually, just one sheik, a potentate from Kuwait with twenty last names and a harem of Swedish flight attendants…

         Stewardesses, I interrupt.

         And stewards, Dicky says. Switch-hitting is a popular pastime when most of the gals have been relegated to a tent hundreds of miles away. It is a better option than the camels.

         That’s true, I remark matter-of-factly.

         So here is how it happened, Dicky continues. I am awakened an hour ago by my ringing telephone. Damn thing snatched me out of a dream featuring two female Mossad agents and a pair of handcuffs. ‘Hello,’ I say pissy like into that phone. ‘This had better be good.’ ‘Morning Pumpkin,’ Bryan says happily on the other end. By the way, you know that he is gay, do you not?

         I gathered, I respond. A straight man might say ‘morning apple,’ or even ‘morning grapefruit,’ but never ‘morning pumpkin.’ We have our lines after all.

         Anyway, Bryan proceeds to tell me that there is a serious offer from that aforementioned Kuwaiti potentate, Dicky continues. It is only $5 million, but it is serious. I’ll have to drive up the price over the next few days, but I’m pretty sure that one is going to be the money shot. You know what this means.

         Time to work, I respond.

         Yes, Dicky answers. Your plane ticket to San Diego is in your email inbox right now. I recommend you put on your trousers and brush your teeth, because the United flight leaves SFO in two hours.

         What? I ask, now fully awake and a bit startled. What are you telling me?

         I’ll meet you when you land at Lindbergh Field, Dicky continues without acknowledging my question. We’ll have to wait another two hours for our flight to Miami, but there is a halfway decent English pub nearby. You’d never guess a bloke would open an old fashioned Anglo-Saxon watering hole in San Diego of all places, but somebody did…

         Wait a minute; I interrupt. I can’t just fly off to Miami. I’ve got things to do here. I just renewed my public library card. Denny’s is offering their ‘Fourth of July, Red, White, and Blue Pancake Special.’ Oh, and of course, I’ve got that novel that I need to finish someday…

         There’s a Denny’s in Miami, Dicky offers helpfully.

         Okay, well, that’s a point for Miami, I stammer. But still…

         I’ve got to make another call, Dicky comments. Get up and get out. The new morning is young, and there are dragons to slay and damsels to bed before noon. Just remember to bring your toothbrush, so your breath doesn’t stink too much. Oh, and a change of underwear will do you fine.

         And on that note, Dicky hangs up. I lean back on my headboard and look at the fog blowing into my bedroom. I am soon bored with the fog, and so I get up and get out in time to catch my United flight to the Miami demolition derby.

*   *   *

         My skin is blistering from the intense heat, and I have a throbbing, boozy headache. To add insult to injury, there is a rather heavy dose of reggae music and marijuana smoke (high end, but still foul in scent) dancing up the shoreline from further down the cove. Even the stars above me, stretched outward in all directions as far as my eyes can see at any rate, seem to laugh at me. I observe how they twinkle, and I am reminded of how the top of a goofy man’s nose will crinkle when he is about to laugh like a hyena at my expense. I am supposed to take it, like it is all good fun; just supposed to stand there and to smile stupidly as he calls me a douchebag or something.

         In my mind, I punch his lights out; and that goofy man with the crinkling nose is sprawled on the carpet with his bloody mouth one place and his dented dentures someplace else. The problem here is that I cannot very well punch out the night sky, now can I? I can give it the back of my hand, maybe even kick up some sand in its general direction. The night sky will snicker in return; perhaps, blow some sand into my face, or splash some ocean foam against my bare feet; nothing more than is necessary to remind me who is boss out here on this cove.

         Actually, all day I have been reminded that someone or something else is the boss when it comes to my own life.

         Dicky is his own boss. We hardly exchanged words, when I found him lost in conversation on his cellular phone at Lindbergh Field; and yet, even then, as he cajoled the person on the other end, Dicky did not seem rude so much as on his own higher plane. I noticed that even when he is walking on the same worn carpet as the rest of us, he seems to be strolling a foot or so higher. People will say that he seems ‘taller’ than his physical stature. In fact, he is walking on the plane set aside for those persons who write out the terms and the conditions of their own lives. He does not rule over other people, for he does not need to do so. Rather, he rules over his own life, surpassing expectations the rest of us see as unapproachable, tying up all the loose ends, and imagining where exactly on his mental, mahogany trophy wall he will be positioning his next pair of antlers.

         The rest of the day’s grumpy bosses had to put me down in order to prop themselves up. I am referring to the TSA steer queer, who insisted that he had ‘to squeeze the Charmin’ down there about two dozen times because he was so sure I had a metal plate under my tidy whities. I am referring to the angry, old, ‘dyke on bike’ flight attendant (long gone are the pretty, slim stewardesses of yesteryear, some of whom must have been eaten by the new ‘flight attendants’ so as to cut down on the amount paid out in retirement pensions), who had the nerve to stop serving me after my sixth Vodka. Sure, I had passed that ‘tipping point’ by then; but how else is a white-knuckle flyer supposed to forget that he is being bounced around in an oversized toothpaste tube almost 40,000 feet up?

         I hardly spoke with Dicky on the flight to Miami. He focused his attention on his laptop; while I focused mine of every bit of air turbulence we endured in the course of the five-hour flight across our fruited plain. He may have told me once or twice to stop whining, but I cannot recall much beyond how that ‘dyke on bike’ flight attendant stared at me like I had a long prisoner number hanging from my neck. I think I tried to point her out to my companion once; but Dicky, no doubt compiling mentally his next fifteen plays, much as San Francisco 49ers Coach Bill Walsh used to do back when pretty much every American woman had a crush on Joe Montana, made it clear he did not have time for my foolishness. Dicky can have fun. Do not misunderstand me. Nevertheless, it is usually on his terms, and always his timetable.

         I lost Dicky while waiting for my luggage. He mentioned something about seeing me at ‘the hacienda.’ I had not yet recovered completely from my sixth Vodka (the first five had passed through me like cheap beer, but that sixth one did a number, I must admit), and so I am not certain what he said.

         Regardless, he left me with his ear in his phone and a sexy brunette in a leather mini-skirt carrying his bags two paces behind him. The brunette did not have a name, so far as I knew; but the way her knee-high boots clicked on that hard floor by the baggage carousels suggested that her name should be ‘Boots.’

         I thought of the children’s book, Puss ‘n Boots. I had never regarded that title as ‘X rated’ until that very moment.

         I had managed finally to turn my eyes away from her clicking boots when I beheld my next ‘boss’ for the day. In fact, this particular ‘boss’ turned out to be much kinder than the others, if only since he did not try to grope me and to deny me a drink. He introduced himself to me as Bryan Bordeaux, Dicky’s local realtor; and I remembered vaguely just then that he sometimes referred to our mutual friend as ‘Cantaloupe,’ or ‘Pumpkin,’ or something along those lines.

         Bryan explained that we would be going out to ‘the hacienda’ at once to set up security. Apparently, he had heard through the Key Largo grapevine that other stiffed subcontractors were going to follow the electrician’s example and to try to take back what they had installed.

         I could not believe my ears. The electrician had been forced to return all that he had taken and to install even more. Why should these others expect to succeed then where he had so miserably failed?

         Because, Bryan explained patiently, as if speaking to his irate preschool student about the supreme virtue of using a toilet, the Florida Keys occupy the geographical and cultural midpoint between the Old Confederacy to the North and Havana to the South. This means that everything is kind of dimwitted slow, like a lazy eternity spent at the beach with a mint julep in one hand and a big, phallic, Cuban cigar in the other, until the beach girls start to serve a blend of Mojitos and beer after sunset. The concoction does not seem like much at first. Then, the untamed bronco in the stomach kicks back; and the drinker feels like he could take on the whole damned world. In these parts, especially when that reggae music strikes a nerve, and the pirates of old can be heard howling in the wind, this intoxicating feeling of invincibility is known as ‘beach bum courage.’

         Those afflicted by ‘beach bum courage’ at night very often end up in the local jail before sunrise. Nonetheless, they can do some harm before then. Now that Dicky is on the scene, we may presume that the deal will be put upon the forefront of everyone’s mind; for Dicky excels at keeping it right there until all the troublemakers and halfwits are forced out of the way between himself and a successful close of escrow. If that is the case, then the last thing Dicky needs is a burglary, or an act of vandalism, or anything that might give a creditor any reason to think that ‘the hacienda’ is worth less than that for which Dicky now is willing to sell this oasis by the sea.

         Bryan acted like a ‘boss’ to the extent that, after I retrieved my luggage from the carousel (the last bag off, of course, probably because that angry, old flight attendant put the hex on me before I left the airplane), he drove me out to Key Largo, put away my things in the guest house, and gave me my marching orders. My ‘marching orders’ consisted of walking the perimeter of the grounds repeatedly, while wearing dark, menacing sunglasses, and reaching periodically into my coat like I had a concealed firearm in there. Bonus points, if I had it in me to scowl at anyone (especially children) who might happen to stroll by ‘the hacienda’ on the way down to the public beach area. Rumors spread like Indian firewater down Key Largo way, and it would be helpful if people believed some sort of ‘maniac mainlander’ had been hired to secure ‘the hacienda.’

         And so that is what I did most of the day. For the most part, I wandered the grounds alone, for Bryan had clients to meet elsewhere. I spent those hours remembering my ex-wife, lamenting my aimless life since she left me suddenly for that Salvadoran pool boy half her age, wondering what in the hell I actually hoped to find out here in this adventure. Dicky’s motivation made sense. All of the other players in this deal presumably had the same motivation. But what on earth did I hope to accomplish, except getting my face sunburnt in this strange, boozy, rich man’s paradise? What is there for me at the end of the old rainbow?

         There is no rainbow, not for the likes of me anyway, I mutter, while I am staring up at those twinkling stars. You’re all laughing at me, ‘cause I am a real pussy to think that I have anything to gain by following Dicky around on one of his real estate deals. I should be back home now pretending to write my novel…

         So you’re a writer as well, a sultry woman’s voice says.

         I turn to my left, just as another wave crashes foam up to my knees. My trousers are going to be wrecked, if I continue to stand out here so close to the ocean. Nevertheless, that woman’s voice touches me so. Actually, ‘gropes’ is a more accurate word than ‘touches,’ but this is supposed to be a romantic scene more or less, and ‘gropes’ does not have the right connotation, now does it? As would be the case with most men of my generation, my mind instantly wanders back to Kathleen Turner in Body Heat: Young, beautiful, but also mature in the ways of men, like she had been born a temptress alongside all the other Sirens.

         Needless to say, I no longer give a rat’s furry derriere about my trousers.

         She is no more than a shadow sifting in and out of the moonlight; all my romantic dreams encompassed in the playful tilt of her head, the shapeliness of her hips, the way she loosely holds her sandals by her side. I can make out that she is a brunette, perhaps a Cuban girl, that her bosom undulates like the dark ocean snapping against my legs, that her strong legs could pin me into the sand at any moment. In other words, I make out that she is dangerous, which a man reading these words no doubt will agree is the best kind of woman to meet on a lonely beach in Key Largo in the middle of the night.

         Are you coming up from that party down there? I ask her, while gesturing toward the source of the reggae and the marijuana further down the long cove.

         They’re amateurs, she states derisively. I think I’m coming to the party…

         Well, it only takes two to have a party, I comment hopefully.

         She steps close enough now that I can see her face. Indeed, she is Latin, charmed by her beautifully subtle features, her pouty lips, and yet captured by her eyes. Hers are the eyes of a vixen. I could love her for a night, but I would need to be a masochist to the tenth degree truly to want her still after sunrise.

         As I can see her face, now she can see mine.

         There is a startled expression on her face. Then, she breaks into a laugh.

         I thought you were Dicky, the woman says.

         My hope deflates like a pricked balloon, but I keep a lame smile upon my face nonetheless. There is no point in letting this Siren know just how close my emotions are to the edge of the ocean.

         Dicky’s not here, I say.

         That can’t be, she says. Dicky always shows up when it is his play night…

         You make it sound like he’s Hugh Hefner, I comment.

         Hugh Hefner, Sherlock Holmes, 007 all rolled into one magnificent man, the woman remarks adoringly.

         Have you ever met him? I inquire, while already anticipating her answer.

         Only in my dreams, she gushes.

         Sure enough, Dicky is a kind of Jay Gatsby figure around these parts. His charisma can be attributed not just to his considerable skills in real estate, but to his enigmatic persona. Women find him irresistible, to be certain, not just in virtue of his handsome features, his gift of gab, his humor, and his charm (even though he outdoes most men in these traits), but more so because he remains a defiantly inscrutable personality. He is the nut that cannot be cracked, even by the most manipulative of ladies. For that reason, he stands alone in their minds forever like an unreachable star, even when he happens to be just inches away.

         Enough with this peculiar hero-worship; I think. He is a man, not a Greek god come down from Mt. Olympus.

         Do not the gods roam the earth as men? I ask myself…

         What did you say? The woman asks.

         I hear the sound of helicopter blades slicing through the night sky. It is a very distant sound at first, but it approaches rapidly. Within seconds, it drowns out that annoying reggae music down the cove.

         The gods may roam the earth as men, I remark strangely. But, first, they must descend from on high…

         The woman now thinks that I am a bit creepy, but no matter. She is not going to remember our conversation much at all, when what I think is about to happen actually happens. She will catch a glimpse of her ‘Jay Gatsby,’ wet her pants, and make her way towards wherever Dicky is going at that moment. Like all the others, she will just glob onto his entourage, hoping for a bit of his clear eyed attention, and preparing herself mentally for the possibility that, when all has been said and done, she will be the one chosen for an interlude behind shut doors. Ah, the hopes and the dreams of a groupie when the rock star comes out from the shadows to play. I am not sure if I am envious or awe struck just then.

*   *   *

         The mysterious beach woman runs towards ‘the hacienda.’ She kicks up sand with her bare feet, and giggles like a little girl. The ‘sultry siren’ has been replaced by the anxious schoolgirl. Does Dicky have such an extraordinary draw on women that he can melt the heart even of the hardest of the femme fatales out there? Or is there an immature schoolgirl in laces and bows always lurking a few inches behind the strong veneer of sexually liberated womanhood? I prefer the latter, because that means that I too might coax the ‘giggling girl’ out from behind the mysterious femme fatale someday, notwithstanding my meager skill when it comes to women. Deep down, though, I sense that her childish giggling now has everything to do with Dicky’s imminent descent from on high, and very little, if anything, to do with some sort of inherent weakness in womanhood. As this dismal thought settles in, I decide I am a bit more envious than awe struck.

         Still, even if I am getting sick to my stomach with envy, I figure that it is better to join the party than to remain out in the dark. Who knows? There may be a ‘party favor’ up there with my name on it.

         Hey, wait up, I say to the mysterious beach woman; even while knowing she will not be slowing down for me.

         There is an old, wooden staircase that ascends from the very back of the beach to the property line. The staircase presumably is a part of the easement that allows people to skirt the edge of the property line, to descend the creaky staircase, and to continue on toward the public beach. The staircase looks like it may have been built back in the 1920s; and since it is now an easement, it is not going to be renovated any time soon by ‘the hacienda’ owner, until such is a condition for getting a planning commission variance or a new building permit out from the tight clutches of the government.

         That is just as well. The weathered down staircase actually has a kind of character to it. The creaky, wood boards and the mildewed railing call to mind a more bohemian, lackadaisical, que pasa past. Back then, Key Largo had been a remote place, a skip and a hop from nowhere, where gentlemen could smoke weed, drink moonshine, and frolic with their whores beyond the gaze of proper society. Today, ‘proper society’ boogies to Bob Marley and passes the joint just as much as the kids living out of their backpacks. The only difference is degree: the rich can afford caviar level girls, booze, pot, and entertainment, while the college kids and the bums party with the scraps left behind.

         This is fine on the surface. As always, the problem is beneath the glitz.

         For if ‘proper society’ is out in the open, then that means that the party boys and girls are bringing their real life issues into the scene as well. As such, reggae and pot may be in abundance, but so are lawyers, bankers, and realtors looking to scam a deal out from a man with ‘too much money on his hands.’ Sir Jeffrey had been one of those men. No doubt, there are many others living and dying along this same boozy shoreline tonight.

         What this means is that even here and now, so near to paradise, I cannot escape the demolition derby. Everywhere I turn there is going to be a seedy old man trying to sell me something, or a beautiful girl trying to get me to buy her something, or just a man with a line. This is a kind of Garden of Eden for Dicky Cohen, a man most at home where the snakes and the girls are tempting him in this or that direction. He excels in that kind of environment. For me, I am once more confronted by the fact that I made a mistake coming out here with Dicky.

         And yet, for all that, I continue to follow that beautiful girl up the steps.

         The perimeter is a concrete wall that is lit up every twenty feet or so by an antique, Oriental lantern. The lanterns sway in the ocean breeze and call to mind the lights on the side of a ship anchored in a sea of humid mist. It is quite hard not to believe in ghosts after observing how the lights sift melancholically in and out of the weather and cast strange old faces upon the concrete surface.

         Bryan is walking upon the perimeter. He is swaying his flashlight in such a way as to direct the incoming helicopter into the compound.

         I follow the beach girl up to the front door. So much for security, for the door is wide open and brightly lit by moving searchlights. There is a long line of islanders stepping into the compound like they own the place. Most of the guys are young, preppy, handsome, trust fund bachelors with disheveled, blond hair and wimpy goatees on clueless faces. Most of their dates are topless brunettes, light skinned beauties from Cuba or Brazil with the kind of long, flawless legs a benevolent God no doubt had predestined for a fashion show runway. There are no drugs, because it is well known among the fashionable jetsetters down here that Dicky frowns on the stuff. Nevertheless, the booze flows abundantly, even before the party has started; and already ‘the beautiful people’ need to steady themselves, while they walk through the doorway and meander about the halls.

         I join in with the rest of the crowd. ‘The Hacienda’ is an elaborate maze of halls and rooms that Sir Jeffrey had built in emulation of midcentury modern design. The roof is vaguely Spanish (hence, ‘the hacienda’ name), but the high ceilings and the glass walls suggest Bauhaus more than anything else. There is a strange blend of design elements that is beautiful in the eyes of a few and odd, if not downright unsettling, in the eyes of the many. Sophisticates will love the place. A sheik hoping to prove to the rest of the world that he is more than just a rich hick on a camel will love the place, precisely since it is so different from anything he may find in the Middle East. On the other hand, most of the ‘white bread’ Americans will regard ‘the hacienda’ as too peculiar to be beautiful. For them, it is a compound ideally meant for an eccentric Howard Hughes type or a homicidal drug lord queer. I am no expert in real estate, but I can recognize at once how hard it must have been for Bryan to find a legitimate buyer. Yes, it is a high-end location; but while many people may enjoy touring the inner bowels of this unique house along the cove, most people cannot see themselves owning it. The same is true of a mountaintop castle in Europe: So many people want to see where the lord used to decapitate his vassals and mistresses, but in the end who among those happy tourists would buy it even if they could afford to do so?

         I walk out to the courtyard, which is surrounded on three sides by large, rectangular, Bauhaus structures. The fourth side is the concrete perimeter wall with the Oriental lanterns. The central feature of the courtyard is the Olympic sized, saltwater, swimming pool so brightly lit from beneath as to appear like a radiated lake from a 1950s, A-bomb, science fiction movie. I half expect one of Roger Corman’s movie monsters to arise from beneath the surface of the water sometime before the last call. The monster will be a topless woman, of course; but she will have ugly fish scales on her back and stand roughly ninety feet tall.

         Yes, I am allowing my imagination to wander; but most everything about this party scene is so surreal as to demand that I observe it through the eyes of an awestruck child. Besides the big pool, there are the enormous concert lights beaming into the courtyard and illuminating everything with a disorienting, but festive, disco luminescence. There is the dance floor that snakes alongside the pool and, at one point, crosses over the pool. One can imagine easily enough an inebriated dancer or two falling into the warm water, and I suspect that that is intended. Then, off to the side, there are the endless tables of food, the grand bar with the naked, porn star bartender (a banner that reads ‘Bottoms Up’ now flutters over the bottles of bourbon and wine like the martial flag of a nation of frat boys), the flat screens that show an endless loop of surfers wiping out, and the super amped, retro, rock band that resembles (and, hopefully, truly sounds like) Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine. All of this beautiful mayhem has been packed into the courtyard as gift offerings to the throng of uninvited, but welcomed, guests. I cannot fathom the reason, except that Dicky loves the energy of a good show, especially when he is the star attraction. Also, no doubt a glamor show like this cannot but remind the bankers that he means business; and I wonder if maybe one or more of those bankers can be found in the crowd.

         The helicopter hovers about fifty feet above the pool. The guests crowd around the pool. The caterers hold down the food, and the rockers do the same with their instruments and amplifiers. Everyone looks up at once with the same dumb expressions on their faces as the cave men had had when first witnessing the descent of a flying saucer. It is as if they have no idea what to make of any of this, even though it is quite clear to any rational man what is going to occur within the next few seconds. Perhaps, they are not dumbfounded then so much as surprised that any man would go to such lengths to commence a party. Dicky is an impresario of impresarios, but he is also the star attraction in front of the lights. He is at once shadowy, and yet known; and it is that strange dichotomy, even more so than the stunt about to happen, which so excites the crowd then.

         From unseen speakers there is the distinct sound of a roaring tiger. Most everyone screams or steps back, like they are about to be pounced by an actual beast. The roaring tiger transitions into Survivor’s rock song, ‘Eye of the Tiger.’

         Everyone roars in approval. The rock song is surely an oldie, but a goody.

         The helicopter door slides open. A searchlight focuses upon the doorway.

         There is a beautiful, brunette, Persian woman at the edge of the opened doorway. She is dressed in a tight, sequined, bathing suit that announces every one of her curves. Her grin in fact is a smirk that says: ‘Do me now, and do me hard, or I’ll be doing you!’ Perhaps, she has plastered that look on her face, so as to shield her fear at the prospect of jumping from a hovering helicopter; but I doubt it. I think that damn smirk is for real. I think she is another one of those dangerous women; the kind that remain chained for years on end inside the old and sordid dreams of men, but then emerge all of a sudden as if from nowhere on hot and sultry nights like tonight. The men love to see her; but they are also ashamed, for they recall what they had done with her in their creepier dreams.

         The woman dives into the deep end of the pool. Everyone applauds with wild abandon when she returns to the water surface, snaps off her bathing suit, and tosses it to a lucky guy. She skinny dips to the other end of the pool like an illuminated mermaid. Her long hair flows back like the train of a black wedding dress; a perversion of wedded bliss that reminds every man assembled why it is he so secretly longs for a woman like her.

         Another Persian Goddess appears at the edge of the helicopter. She is as beautiful as the first one. Indeed, she is so similar in appearance and demeanor that I am reminded of The Stepford Wives. I do not literally think that they are robots; but nevertheless, a cold chill runs down my spine and hisses out my ass.

         She repeats the performance. So do the third and the fourth woman who appear from inside the hovering helicopter.

         The song ends. The helicopter continues to hover in place, but for a long minute or so nothing happens.

         Needless to say, the tension builds like a pressure cooker. The guests all roar as if one enormous beast: Dicky! Dicky! Dicky! Dicky! Dicky! Dicky! Dicky!

         Dicky Cohen appears at the edge of the helicopter. He is wearing a blue, tight T-shirt. The Union Jack is emblazoned on the chest in vibrant colors. He is also wearing blue swimming shorts. The following words have been printed in a bold red font along the waistline of the blue swimming shorts: Mad English Jew.

         Dicky grins cavalierly. He brings a bullhorn to his lips.

         What’s it all about, my friends? Dicky screams out jauntily.

         The crowd erupts in unison: You! You! You! You! You! You!

         That’s right, Dicky screams back through the bullhorn. It’s all about me!

         The crowd erupts in unison: Yes! Yes! Yes!

         It’s all about me! Dicky repeats with glee.

         The crowd erupts on unison: Yes! Yes! Yes!

         It’s all about me! Dicky repeats once more.

         Everyone cheers. The goddesses in the swimming pool urge their man to join them. The loud tiger roar can be heard again through the unseen speakers.

         Dicky hands the bullhorn to someone in the helicopter.

         He turns back to his audience, salutes them all, and jumps into the pool.

         The helicopter flies away, but no one notices. All eyes are on the pool as the people wait very anxiously for their star attraction to return to the surface.

         Dicky takes his time in so doing, probably so as to increase the tension a bit more; but finally, he returns with a devilish grin upon his face. He does not take off his swimsuit. He nevertheless seems naked, as the goddesses almost at once surround him in the center of the pool. In a way, their nakedness just now seems as if an extension of his own flesh. No doubt, it is impossible at any rate to imagine a closer entourage, though I figure many of the girls huddled around the swimming pool just now think that they can get even nearer to him tonight.

         Maybe, one or two of them will. After all, in Dicky’s world (and all of us are in Dicky’s world, let us make no mistake about that point), it all boils down to survival of the fittest, and surely, that must be as true in love as it is in war.

*   *   *

         How did this all happen? I ask Bryan incredulously, while eyeing the fruit punch bowl resting on the edge of the ‘Bottoms Up’ bar.

         What do you mean, Sugar Plum? Bryan asks me with a grin that could be a sign of advanced inebriation, but which I feel coming from him is his genuine, sober (or sobered up) Southern charm.

         I walked the perimeter all afternoon, I explain, while observing just how much Vodka the porn star pours into the fruit punch concoction. I did not sleep a wink. I didn’t even stop for a potty break. Nevertheless, all that time, I never once saw a caterer show up, or advanced roadies for the band, or even a Merry Maid or two to tidy up the place before the ‘big occasion.’

         Bryan laughs. He puts his arm around my shoulders, and walks me away from the fruit punch concoction, before I can scoop some of that sugary poison into a plastic cup. He speaks to me confidentially, like I am an old friend of his.

         You want to know why Dicky succeeds every time, when the rest of us in one way or another are still trying to tie our shoes? Bryan asks me in such a way as to suggest that the answer will change my life forever.

         I am taken aback. I admit to myself that I have been putting Dicky up on a pedestal; but for Christ’s sake, is he the next L. Ron Hubbard? Are we friends of his, or are we cultic followers slavishly waiting for whatever tidbits of advice he may be willing to toss onto the floor for our edification? Are we so devoid of wicked smart strategic thinking, of creativity, and of originality in our times we set out to deify any guy who comes along who has a spark of charisma? Or is our host, the man of the hour, actually special in a way the rest of us cannot easily ignore? I cannot answer any of these questions, at least not yet, and that alone makes me want to wander back to the bar regardless of what Bryan says to me.

         Then, one more question pops into my mind: Is it possible that we regard Dicky so highly, and he is so successful, because he is one of the few persons in this world who really lives by the motto, ‘It’s all about me?’ Maybe, we only go so far, and he goes so much farther, because we are not self-centered enough. The Prince of this world is said to be a narcissist. Actually, that handsome devil is the Narcissist of Narcissists. If he is ultimately calling the shots down here in this world, then perhaps the key to success is emulation. Now, I am not stating we need to sell our souls to the devil; but what is so wrong really about lending it to him for a year or two, at least until finally we learn how to weave a bit of gold out of all that straw at our feet?

         I look at Bryan. His happy face still exudes plenty of Southern charm.

         Yes, I want to know, I answer. Tell me.

         Dicky looks where the rest of us do not even think to do so, Bryan says.

         Ah, Sherlock Holmes, I mutter.

         Think of it this way, Bryan continues. I had asked you to spend the long, hot afternoon walking the perimeter. Obviously, that meant guarding the house from intruders from the outside; so you spent the whole day looking out, trying to see them before they see you, defying all those silly bastards out there who might want to spray some graffiti on the outer wall or to break in to get a hold of their stuff. Being conscientious about your task, you would not look into the compound, lest you failed to see something important outside the compound. I may be exaggerating, but I am not too far off the mark, right?

         Not too far off, I mutter. But would I not have noticed the caterers, the roadies, and the maids coming into the compound from the outside?

         Who is to say that they weren’t already here when you arrived from the airport? Bryan asks me with a sly twinkle in his eyes. Now, you know Dicky well enough to know he seldom forms and executes his plan the last minute? He had insisted that the workmen show up before the two of you left San Diego. Repair all the loose ends early enough and, lo and behold, there will be no loose ends.

         So you’re saying that I was way too conscientious at my task, I comment.

         Most of us are, Bryan says. We want to please the teacher, so we sit still at our desks and do the assignment that has been handed down to us. Have you ever noticed that life’s winners almost always are the folks who had repeated, and sometimes serious, disciplinary problems in primary school? Ever wondered why so many of them dropped out of college, or put so much more of their real time and effort into fucking than into studying that they barely graduated with a C average? Sure, they knew what they were supposed to do, but they wanted to see what was inside the compound even if that meant they missed what was happening outside the compound from time to time. They learned how to see it all. They learned how to make their own rules, or their own ‘marching orders,’ if you will; and, more importantly, they learned how to convince everyone else that it is in their interests to abide by the ‘marching orders’ that these winners had devised in the first place. Detractors call them bohemians, robber barons, scoundrels; and since they keep disobeying the teacher, those are all, perhaps, accurate descriptions. But I would say that it is precisely for these reasons that they are innovators, risk takers, leaders. Watch the man they burn at the stake today. Tomorrow, his disciples will be the masters of the universe…

         So Dicky is a heretic, I remark.

         I’d call him a handsome devil myself; Bryan smiles. But ‘heretic’ will do.

         There is wild commotion from across the way. I turn in time to view that naked porn star bartender bending down to give Dicky a drink. I am seeing her from the backend. Her butt can move mountains, if only there is a small kernel of faith. I am not sure that that is exactly Biblical, but it is near enough for me.

         The porn star steps away, and I see Dicky lounging on a low couch. He is relaxed, happy, obviously in his element. There is a beach towel hanging about his shoulders. His T-shirt and swimming shorts are still wet, but he appears not to mind. Two nude Persian Goddesses flank him on one side. Another two nude Persian Goddesses flank him on the other. The girls are so flawlessly identical I am beginning to wonder again if indeed they are Stepford Wives built for him in an underground lair somewhere. I cannot put that passed by genius friend.

         I decide to wander over there to get a closer look. Who knows? Perhaps, I shall bump into that mysterious beach girl I saw earlier. I cannot imagine she is too far from the charming man about whom she dreams her silly nights away.

         As I get closer to Dicky, I observe that there is a tall, obese, out of place man sitting across from him on another low couch. No girls are flanking this fat man’s sides. Perhaps, the gargantuan sweat stains on his blue cowboy shirt turn them off. Or perhaps, his good ol’ boy bolo tie and cowboy hat suggest that he is a bit too homespun to unwind in this party. More likely, they are put off now by his jowly face and creepy, narrow eyes, which suggest the quixotic blend of a Baptist Deacon on the hunt for sinners and Larry Flynt on the prowl for pussy.

         The fat man obviously is trying to engage Dicky, but Dicky appears much more interested in his female posse. He whispers jokes to his girls, which sends them all a twitter now and then, as this fat man stews in his own awkwardness.

         Dicky sees me, and waves me over. There is a devil-may-care expression upon Dicky’s face that once more calls to mind that ‘handsome devil’ naturally in his element. Dicky could sell an electric dildo to an Amish spinster just then; and for a brief moment, I actually feel sorry for the cowboy. That silly cowpoke may fill the room in most places. He is certainly big enough. But out here, and with Dicky opposite him, he is in over his head, even though Dicky ignores him.

         Meet Wayne Sugarbaker, Dicky remarks. He’s with Keys West…

         There is an awkward pause as I wait for Dicky to introduce me to Wayne.

         Finally, Wayne reaches up with his pudgy hand, and we shake. For all his size, Wayne has a feeble handshake. Indeed, except for the hot sweatiness, his handshake is almost feminine. I have learned never to trust a man with a weak, womanly handshake. I manage to smile back at him then, but privately I recoil.

         Formerly Memphis West, before she merged with Keys Bank, Wayne tells me in his bourbon scarred Southern accent. But make no mistake about it, boy. I honeymooned with Texas Team back before you were a spasm in your mama’s pussy. Laid her down and did her raw when the Savings and Loan scandal sent a shiver down the spine of every other Houston banker…

         You did my mama raw? I mutter more confused than indignant.

         No, Wayne responds with a sly grin. Texas Team. A woman lasts a night, maybe two if she’s got some Cajun blood in her; but offshore oil loans can last a lifetime, if you know what you’re doing. Just before the feds knocked down a couple dozen careers at Texas Team, I’d pocketed my clients and made my way to Tennessee…

         So all your exes like in Texas, I interrupt.

         Huh? Wayne says indignantly. What’s that supposed to mean?

         I’m referring to the George Strait song, I explain. You know it, right? ‘All my exes live in Texas. That’s why I reside in Tennessee.’

         Wayne looks at me like I am an old mutt he is about to kick. Somehow, I think he has kicked a lot of old mutts in his lifetime. I wish I could be anywhere else. Nevertheless, I hold my ground, for I know Dicky well enough to recognize that he would never have waved me over here, unless he had a reason to do so.

         Wayne gets tired of me. He turns back to Dicky, and opens his mouth, no doubt to say something rather profound.

         Dicky holds up his hand to silence the cowboy creditor. The four Persian Goddesses giggle, for there is no greater excitement than to observe their man acting in such a strong and manly manner. All Dicky did then was to hold up his hand; but he may as well have pulled out a .44, cocked the trigger, glared long and hard at that red faced cowpoke, and whispered: ‘Go ahead. Make my day.’

         Wayne here wants to mix business with pleasure, Dicky remarks.

         I watch the silly cowboy squirm in his seat. I no longer feel sorry for him.

         What do we call a person who mixes business with pleasure? Dicky asks.

         A whore; I answer with a naughty grin on my face.

         Wayne’s eyes practically bulge out of his sockets. He looks like he is just on the verge of hyperventilating.

         My, My, Apple Pie, Wayne mutters.

         There is a strained pause. Wayne darts his eyes between the two of us. I see the desperation etched on his face as he finally realizes he has been snared in Dicky’s web all along. I have a feeling that Wayne will not remember tonight as fondly as he does the sordid day he ‘laid down Texas Team and did her raw.’

         Dicky breaks out into maniacal laughter. I join in with him, though I am not so sure why he is laughing just now.

         Don’t wet you pants, Wayne, Dicky says. We’re just having a little fun at your expense. We don’t think you’re a whore. We think you’re a banker…

         And there’s definitely a difference between a whore and a banker, I say.

         Absolutely, Dicky agrees.

         Wayne clears his throat. He seems satisfied with the explanation, though he is still not sure that he has escaped Dicky’s web.

         Just as long as we are on the same page, Wayne comments. No one, and I mean no one, is going to Jew Key West on this real estate sale.

         I flinch from the anti-Semitic remark. I imagine our resident good ol’ boy trading in his blue cowboy shirt and doublewide pants for a white KKK robe. His work uniform changes, but his sinister eyes always remain the same regardless.

         Dicky does not flinch. He just stares blankly at his opponent.

         I reckon I ought to mosey on back to the homestead, Wayne says with an inauthentic grin plastered on his red face. The old hen calls the hospitals if I’m more than ten minutes late.

         Wayne struggles to get back to his feet.

         I’ll stop by your office at nine sharp, Dicky says in the cool and collected manner that means that he is all business now.

         You’re bringing your toady along? Wayne asks.

         No, Dicky answers without skipping a beat. You’ll already be there.

         Wayne chuckles. He wags his right index finger at ‘the man of the hour.’

         I knew you were going to say that, Wayne comments. Okay, we’ll do the numbers, while your bartender over there pours the bourbon.

         Obviously, Wayne is referring to the porn star. I imagine that nude, little tartlet wandering up and down the carpeted halls in the Key West building. She squishes the carpet with her bare feet, since the carpet remains damp from the industrial strength cleaning the night before. Otherwise, she does not make any sound, which in a way makes her even more sexy than usual as she searches the heights and depths of the bank for more ice.

         My friend will do the honors, Dicky says, while gesturing toward me.

         Wayne snickers, but does not say another word.

         He’ll overplay his cards tomorrow, Dicky remarks, when Wayne has left. He’s rattled now, which means he’ll be a pissed viper by sunrise. That is to our benefit. The cooler hand wins, when the other asshole has something to prove.

         The Persian Goddesses giggle. Dicky is talking like Mr. Macho again. In a way, the girls wish they were not already naked, for they are so damned horny they each want to remove an article of clothing for Dicky’s enjoyment. Instead of stripping, all they can do is to stretch and to purr like a quad of cats in heat.

         The girls snuggle in close to their man. I suddenly feel like a boy who has stepped in upon his parents making afternoon whoopee in the master bedroom.

         It’s getting late, I comment. And we’re supposed to be downtown when?

         Dicky does not respond. Perhaps, he hears a crybaby whine in my voice.

         Instead, Dicky whispers Shakespeare verses, or dirty jokes, or God knows what with his four goddesses. The five of them seem totally delicious together, but it is clear enough that no one from the outside has been invited to partake.

         I wonder if the mysterious beach girl is somewhere close. I truly hope for her sake that she has left the party, or has passed out. Sometimes (in fact most of the time), it is best not to be aware of what passes for ‘entertainment’ as a boozy pool party grows long in the tooth. After all, when was the last time any one of us saw our dreams torn asunder because we continued to be ignorant? In the end is it not knowledge that obscures and then erases the prettiest dreams?

*   *   *

         I’m not being irrational, Dicky yells into his cellular phone.

         He needs to yell. We are flying back to Miami now in the same helicopter from which Dicky and the Persian Goddesses had jumped into the big saltwater pool the previous night. The ‘whomp, whomp, whomp’ of the helicopter blades a few feet above our heads is loud enough. Now, add into the equation how the doors and the windows rattle, and how the hot, moist air from outside screams through an overhead vent, and the noise approximates an oncoming train or an enormous tornado. We may as well be sitting smack dab in the middle of a war zone, and I am reminded of the scene in Full Metal Jacket where a gunner fires off his rounds from the side of a helicopter. When the noise is loud enough, it is all but impossible to know which are the good guys and which are the bad in all that intoxicating confusion.   

         I have never been in a helicopter before. If I am a white-knuckle flyer in a passenger jet 40,000 feet in the air, then I am an absolute lunatic in this odd shaped, screaming machine. I stare at the floor in between my knees. I may be saying the Rosary, though I cannot say that anything coming out of my mouth is coherent just then. Mostly, I am just hoping that this prolonged scare comes to an end soon. It is a shame I am too scared to take in the fine view of the Miami shoreline up ahead, for the beauty may have made up for the intense noise and discomfort, if only I had given it a chance to do so. Somewhere in the far back of my mind, even while I am consumed with my fear, I know that I am going to regret how I have squandered this first trip on a helicopter. That regret is going to hang heavily on my neck long after my present time fear has been forgotten.

         What can I say? Dicky continues into his cellular phone. I am in love with my new beachfront home. I want to live ‘the dream;’ and everything about the house and the surrounding property practically screams out to me: ‘This is your dream.’ Yes, I understand, but my Yogi tells me every morning to kiss my bliss, and then to listen to what she has to say. And my bliss is telling me to take my new beachfront home off the market. Oh, sure, I know; but I have no doubt the sheik will understand. And so let me say with a heartfelt tear in my eye: Peace, Love, Groovy, and Salaam Alaykum!

         Notwithstanding my fear, I start to listen around the time Dicky refers to ‘kissing his bliss,’ or something along those lines. All this ‘Yogi’ stuff is about as far removed from the real Dicky Cohen as may be imagined. I wonder if I am in the grip of some sort of demented hallucination.

         I lift my head, and stare at my friend to my side. I must have had a most incredulous look on my face, for Dicky just laughs when he clicks off his phone.

         You sounded like you were from Northern California, I comment.

         So you think I convinced him? Dicky asks.

         If you wanted to convince the buyer’s broker that you are a light in your loafers vegan from Berkeley, who thinks you can end all wars by going down on your Yogi from Nepal every Friday night, then, yes, you did a helluva job, I say.

         For my plan to work, the sheik really needs to think that I am taking the house off the market, Dicky explains. The conventional wisdom is that any man with half a mind for business will take the first realistic offer to protect himself from the sinking market. That means, logically, that if that man with even half a mind for business claims that he is taking his house off the market, then he is bluffing. Ah, but what if the buyer is convinced that the seller has lost his mind or never had one in the first place? What if he is convinced that the seller truly intends to go down with his sinking ship, because the seller is a damn fruitcake, and that’s what damn fruitcakes do? Come now, what do you think the sheik is thinking this very moment?

         That you are not bluffing, I answer with the barest hint of a smile.

         And if I am not bluffing, then what is he thinking? Dicky continues.

         That he’d better up the ante immediately, or look elsewhere, I respond.

         Dicky studies me a moment. There is a serene look in his eyes just now that is either confidence on the edge of cockiness, or sheer madness. I fear the latter. After all, for all his sound logic, Dicky is making a very risky move while on his way to the Key West office downtown. What if the sheik walks? No doubt his broker has shown him several other high-end properties that could work for him. What if Dicky is left with no other offer, while those bankers and lawyers, ham-fisted, but conceited, assholes every last one of them, go ahead with their plan to foreclose? Dicky can bluff better than anyone; but sometime soon, even he will need to show a real, viable, written offer, in order to squeeze a tiny bit of blood out of this turnip of a deal.

         Stop whining, Dicky says after a while. Enjoy the view.

         True, I had been whining earlier; but I had composed myself pretty well during our brief exchange, or so I had thought. I almost tell him to knock it off, that I am not whining, that he is acting like a schoolyard bully. Then, I restrain myself. After all, maybe I had had a whiny expression on my face. Maybe, when he studied my face, he saw weakness in my eyes. Surely, that would not be the first time; and truth be told, every time before his verbal slap has proven to be more spot on than my denial.

         Dicky moves up to the front of the helicopter to enjoy the view of Miami Beach in the morning. He shares a laugh with the pilot.

         I manage to sneak a peek out the side window. I see nothing but the vast ocean beneath us. The foamy waves look to me anyway like a witch’s cauldron. I close my eyes, drop my head to the area between my knees, and say a prayer.

*   *   *

         There is a Rolls Royce limousine waiting for us at the airfield. The driver is a Cuban with a Babaloo smirk permanently plastered on his handsome face, a soft swagger to his hips, and a bubbly affectation to his voice that calls to mind Desi Arnaz during the I Love Lucy years. I almost expect him to retrieve a set of Conga drums from the trunk and launch into a song and dance routine. Instead, he reaches into his chest pocket, and hands each of us a Cuban cigar. We each accept good-naturedly his sincere hospitality even if it is too early for a smoke.

         Once again, as I have come to learn over the years, when Dicky goes, he goes first class. I cannot imagine how much all of this is going to cost him when the invoices are due. I have never known him to sweat about money, though. It is one of his more peculiar traits. No doubt, this trait is part of what makes him so irresistible to women and feared by men.

         Dicky does not speak with me most of the time we are in that limousine. Instead, he catches up on gossip with the driver. Because I am so worried about what may happen when we meet with Wayne Sugarbaker, I hear only small bits and pieces of their banter. The gist of it is that the nightclub owners truly miss Dicky and want to know when he will be making the rounds again. Dicky means girls and money in their view. No doubt, Dicky is so important to these business owners that they each have a separate category labeled ‘Dicky’ in their various ledger sheets. I can imagine their accountants searching the lengths and depths for deductions to make up for all that ‘Dicky’ income they must declare yearly.

         Dicky’s cellular phone rings (traditional James Bond theme song, as you would expect). He waits until just before it goes to voicemail before answering the call. He does not want to appear too anxious; and, indeed, from what I am able to see on his face he is as calm and confident as ever at this very moment.

         Dicky does not offer a greeting. He just listens.

         I shall accept your counteroffer of 5.5, Dicky says after a while. This is a very spiritual number. It feels profound in my solar plexus. Just fax the written counteroffer to Bryan’s office by noon today, before my heart chakra speaks up again. Goddess forbid, I may be once more too enamored with my home to sign her over to a new lover, even one as kind as your client. So, please, act quickly to secure in writing our new understanding. Oh, yes, of course, I agree. We are all rainbow brothers. So give the sheik my regards. Namaste.

         Now, I have a real offer on the table, Dicky says to me after he hangs up on the buyer’s broker. I’ve had to pay some of the unsecured creditors to keep them from filing their lawsuits. Even if baseless, those suits could have held us up for months. Anyway, the extra half million permits me to throw some money around and still end up with a few bars of gold at the end of the rainbow.

         Dicky returns to his conversation with the limousine driver. I look out at the beautiful women in bikinis walking along the street on their way to the hot, white beach. They seem not to have a care in the world. Perhaps, they are just in denial; or perhaps, they really have no reasons to fret. As long as there are a handful of Dicky Cohens in the world to set things right, even the pathetic real estate market will rebound. Men will make enough to buy their wives roses and their mistresses bikinis, and the world will go on as always.

         I just wish that I could believe that happy story. Life is good for the guys and the gals, who decide that life indeed is only a sleepy morning at the beach.

*   *   *

         There is an enormous stuffed alligator on the wall opposite the door that leads into Wayne Sugarbaker’s office. If it had been just an alligator head, like a moose head in a hunter’s lodge, then it might not have been so startling; but it is the entire corpse, including a tail that extends six feet from the hind legs. I imagine a living beast taking a rest on the wall; and if I had not been standing beside Dicky just then, and recalling his admonition against whining, very likely I would have screamed out like a girl who has had her ponytails pulled. I realize that that is the intention. The trophy is meant to undermine the resolve of the man coming into Wayne’s office to plead his case.

         Dicky sees the alligator, and smiles. No doubt, he regards it as a kindred spirit; the only difference being that the alligator has attacked its last rabbit in the marsh already, while he has more prey to devour.

         Wayne does not bother to stand. He remains behind his oversized desk as if a desert potentate. The tall cowboy hat on his head seems to extend his huge forward upward, so that at first glance he seems to be about nine feet tall and God only knows how heavy.

         Wayne does not extend his hand either. Boy, he really must be pissed, as Dicky had anticipated. His lips smile, but his eyes tell the true story. They look at the two of us with absolute contempt. We may as well be bugs that Wayne is going to press into his olive green carpet.

         Dicky sits before the desk. I sit next to him.

         The silence is deafening. I know that old adage that the first man to talk in a negotiation will lose in the end. Nonetheless, holding back now from a run of the mill greeting (Hello. How are you? How is the rash? Still beating the ‘old hen’ at home?) seems pointless. I am about to say something, when Wayne just beats me to the punch.

         Ever been part of a clean up crew in a Houston office? Wayne asks us out of the blue.

         No, Dicky says with a grin. I can’t say that I’ve had the pleasure.

         Well, Wayne continues, I wasn’t always a top rated bank officer moving tens of millions of dollars from one account to another. I have enough Bayou in me that I had to work with my hands a while, before they’d let me into the old boys’ club. So once I cleaned a Houston office after hours. Emptied crap out of wastebaskets, scrubbed shit off of restroom floors, the usual smoke and mirrors to convince the college boys that they’re spending their daytime hours inside a spotlessly clean place. Never that nasty, really, until we had to kill off the bugs that came out from behind the walls all of a sudden…

         Cockroaches? I inquired.

         Wayne snickers. He points his right thumb back towards that big alligator on the wall behind and above his cowboy hat.

         Gators, Wayne says. Oh, sure, they’re not that big when they first come out of the cracks. They’d be small enough to fit in my hand; but left alone, and given freedom to roam up and down the halls after dark, soon enough the little gators would be as big as this one here. They’re smart, too. Once they got big, they’d learn how to walk on their hind legs, put on a tie and a jacket, and grin at the front desk receptionist. They’d eat the bankers or lawyers inhabiting the office space, one by one, until the gators had taken over. Damn me to hell, if I had not seen this happen with my own eyes.

         His story is too outlandish to be credible. I presume that it is allegorical, and yet the strange look in Wayne’s eyes tells me that he is dead serious. I am wondering if the fruit loops outnumber the squares in the real estate business. I hate to think so, even though I feel that sanity is not all it is cracked up to be.

         Gentleman, I’ll make my point so clear even a Negro boy with a cleft lip could understand me, Wayne snarls.

         I recoil at the racist image. I again envision the good ol’ boy banker in a white KKK hood. I just make out the old burning cross reflecting off of his eyes.

         My point is that small problems have a way of turning into big problems, if not squished in the hand, Wayne concludes.

         Very profound, Dicky says.

         Is Dicky serious? I think that Wayne is a kook, and yet here is Dicky now calling his bullshit story ‘profound.’ I hope that Dicky simply is playing up to his Texas sized ego. I glance at Dicky’s face, but it is impossible to read.

         Wayne leans forward, which is not a particularly easy task for him due to his unhealthy girth. He huffs and puffs. A single bead of sweat slithers down his left cheek, rests a minute on his chin, and then drops to his considerable belly.

         You’d think that ‘big problem’ here is the amount of debt on that house, Wayne continues in a low and sinister voice. But I reckon that’s never truly the problem. We bankers overcharge on the front end; and then when that fat lady sings, we take it all gooey and smelly in the pants. Like the great philosophers, the wise men, all say: ‘Shit Happens.’ But even then, like the casinos, we bank boys are still ahead of the game. We deduct our losses come tax time, pass the worst of it onto Uncle Sam’s plate, and publish record profits. Good gig, if you can get into it. So, no, the debt’s not the problem here. Rather, the problem is you, Mr. Cohen. You say it’s all about you, and you’re right. You’re damn right.

         I don’t understand, I interject.

         But no one seems to hear me. Wayne just continues to stare into Dicky’s eyes, like he has come face to face with the devil. Dicky returns the gaze with the barest hint of a smile. No doubt, Dicky intends for his smile to crawl under Wayne’s skin and to push him even further towards the loony bin. Dicky is two or three steps ahead of Wayne already; and sure enough, for all his bluster and bullying, Wayne does not have a clue how far behind he actually is. It is like an old Jacobin threatening King Louis, just as he is being dragged to the guillotine.

         You see, Mr. Cohen, you’re not the kind we want to see doing business in these parts, Wayne continues. We like the slow heads, the get along, go along types, even better if you’re coked up on rum all the time, and can’t quite read what the heck you’re signing. As for the investors, we prefer that they dream a lot more than they think. You put on a good show, what with all those girls and that ‘jumping out of the helicopter’ bit, but behind all that glitz you’re a real, serious thinker. You know your business, and you play to win. That about makes you the devil around these parts.

         Or a Mad English Jew, Dicky says.

         Is there a difference? Wayne asks.

         So you’re willing to deal then, Dicky says.

         Fairer than I’d normally treat a man in your position, Wayne continues. I don’t want to dick around with you, because the longer we dick, the longer you stick around Key Largo.

         Ah, now I get the strategy, I think. Wayne wants Dicky to think that he is ‘motivated’ to go as low as he can go from the start. In turn, Dicky should be a grateful, little Jew for whatever deal Wayne is willing to offer to him. Wayne is in for a rude awakening, for Dicky has yet to be taken by another man’s bluff. Indeed, it is in verbal fisticuffs just like this one in which Dicky’s genius shines.

         Sure enough, over the next couple of hours, Dicky drags Wayne from his $10 million demand (‘the lowest I can go, ‘cause I want this deal done, and you gone, as soon as possible’) to a $4.2 million demand. Dicky is a brilliant, subtle negotiator. He can be bombastic when needed (and will be a week later), but I have known him on the whole to be calm and collected, sticking to the facts he thinks best help his case, and refusing to budge until the other guy comes down to a number that Dicky privately has determined already that he will accept. In this scenario, the other guy does ninety percent of the talking (often blathering himself into a defensive position, even though he purports to be on the offense in this negotiation), while Dicky is prepared to leave if things are not going his way. This last point is most critical. For besides knowing your facts, and letting the other guy talk himself closer to your position, you negotiate from a position of strength only if you are able and willing to leave the table with no deal.

         Wayne is all smiles when we stand up to leave. The poor guy really does not seem to know what has hit him. He is a bit loopy, punch drunk, babbling on about how much he is a ‘Southern Gentleman’ intent on cleaning out the gators from his little corner of paradise.

         Dicky agrees with him. Why not? Dicky is walking away with a deal that is going to net over a million dollars in profit, assuming of course that the sheik follows through on his counteroffer of $5.5 million…

         And Wayne is left with his enormous stuffed alligator upon his back wall.

*   *   *

         Our next stop is the office of Bryan Bordeaux.

         Apparently, rather than just fax over a signed counteroffer, the buyer’s broker wants to meet in person the Northern Californian with the Yogi. Perhaps she wants to see for herself if this seller is as much a hippie as he acts upon the cellular phone. I can think of no other reason why she would drive out to there.

         Bryan’s office is about as far removed from Wayne’s as one can imagine. It is practically a shack on Miami Beach. There is a popular beach bar very near his front door, and so beautiful twenty-somethings in bikinis routinely stroll by his bulletin board with the latest listings. The older folks who have enough life experience and financial means to care about his listings (especially the middle aged husbands) seem quite happy to see the scantily clad girls frolicking nearby with their beers and their boyfriends in tow. Sex is not going to close escrow on a home, but it will give a ‘looky-loo’ a reason to pick one broker over another. All this reminds me of the business savvy behind The Bikini Car Wash Company.

         Hello Pumpkins! Bryan calls out to us when we enter into his little shack.

         Oh, great, I think derisively. Now, I too am a ‘Pumpkin.’ Before I know it he will be surmising if I have cantaloupes or grape seeds inside my tidy whities.

         The buyer’s broker is a short, rotund, bosomy sixty-something with a few too many facelifts. Her stretched, tanned face, and especially her opened eyes and pulled cheeks, make her look as if she is always surprised. The other image that comes to mind is a clown mask about to explode, but I shun that idea as a bit too scary for this time of the day.

         The buyer’s broker goes by the name of ‘Starburst.’ Certainly, her outfit suggests a supernova about to explode. I cannot recall any person since the mid 1970s wearing so much Day-Glo pink and orange. The layers of fabric appear to swim over her big belly and thighs. It is not so much clothing as a life form that has attached itself over her nudity, no doubt to save the rest of us from having to see her flesh in all its glory. This life form does its best, but it hangs too low about her bosom; and as a result, we are forced to see her breasts down to just above her enormous nipples. ‘Starburst’ might be a turn on to someone with an ugly gypsy fetish, but for the rest of us she is an argument for lifelong celibacy.

         I glance at Dicky. I see how he naturally steps into character. He slumps his shoulders forward, so as to appear almost too relaxed. He adds just a slight swagger to his hips, not enough to be effeminate, but rather to imply that he is perpetually in his own little groove. He finally adds a slow, confused look upon his face. He is either stoned or about to be stoned, because of course each and every Northern Californian with a Yogi understands that ‘flying high’ is the key to tantric bliss and universal peace.

         Whoa, Starburst, that’s a groovy name, Dicky says to Starburst while the two shake hands.

         Starburst does not pay any attention to me, so I just fade into the corner and watch the goings on as if some sort of Peeping Tom slouching in a raincoat.

         Oh, I just knew you were one of us, Starburst gushes. Hitchhiking out to Woodstock in ’69, demanding the ‘nuclear freeze’ in ’84, investigating the UFO sightings in the Sierra Madres in ’96, and finally surrendering all of your ‘chakra possessiveness’ to your tantric guide in ’08, is that about right? I knew you had been born in Santa Cruz. You just had to be. I could feel all that Santa Cruz life coming through the phone. I could swim in it. It was like you were holding me…

         Dicky looks straight into her eyes. He permits a deep moment of silence.

         May the bliss be with you, Dicky whispers.

         Dicky glances up at his broker, while Starburst there continues to swoon.

         Dicky silently mouths the words: ‘Did the sheik sign?’

         Bryan holds up a piece of paper. He nods, and smiles, in the affirmative.

         Immediately, Dicky drops his Northern Californian shtick. He steps away from Starburst to read the counteroffer. There are no new conditions. It is just a clean counteroffer for $5.5 million for his beachfront home.

         Dicky returns to Starburst to discuss business. She is still lost somewhere between here and the Himalayas. Dicky snaps his fingers a few times in front of her face, and she reluctantly returns to us from the heavens.

         Who is the buyer’s attorney? Dicky inquires.

         Mark Mooch, Starburst replies in such a halfhearted manner as to suggest she has not yet reconciled herself to the fact that she must perform now as if a professional adult broker in this spiritual wasteland that we call ‘Planet Earth.’

         Can you give me his contact information? Dicky asks.

         Oh, yes, of course, Starburst responds.

         Okay, Dicky says emphatically. Here is how this is going to work. Mooch, of course, orders title; but neither he nor anyone else is permitted to talk with Key West. I have my own arrangement with Key West that will be presented to everyone in writing before the close of escrow. Capiche?

         Yes, Starburst responds, while fluttering her eyelashes.

         Okay, then, Dicky says while turning to Bryan. Time to celebrate a dead deal brought back to life. We’ll call this our ‘Lazarus Lunch.’ I’ll pick a five star restaurant along the beach, and you’ll take care of the bill.

         Whatever you say, my pumpkin eater, Bryan responds with a big smile.

         I step forward. I am not sure if I have been included in the lunch; but as I am starving, I am going to act as if I am until told otherwise. Yes, that may be a bit forward for me. It is more like something Dicky would do if the tables had been reversed. Still, when a stomach growls loud enough, we do what we must.

*   *   *

         For the most part, the week that follows is uneventful. Dicky asks me to walk the perimeter for several hours every day, even though he has made quiet arrangements with each of the subcontractors. I wonder if perhaps he wants his neighbors to think that this is some sort of armed compound. No doubt, if they start to speak of the compound in this manner, then the home will take on that air of mystery, or that implication of danger, with which Dicky so much likes to be identified. Fast cars, fast women, edgy real estate, Dicky wants to be loved by the locals to some extent; and he intuits that just the right degree of danger and showiness will generate the gifts and the party invitations. Even more than being loved, he wants to be mysterious, unable to be figured out, perhaps even downright strange. This will keep them on their toes. Dicky really likes it when people are on their toes, as that usually means he will be able to drive the deal along his terms and get what he wants in the end.

         That is all fine and good, and so I am happy to walk the perimeter. Also, truth be told, I like the worried looks on people’s faces when they believe that I am reaching for a pistol in my jacket. I have been so down on myself it is a bit of a relief to be a terror for someone else, even if only for a moment. Yes, I am earning my points in hell by thinking this way; but until I get all that emotional, and perhaps also psychological, dreck out of my system, briefly scaring children and grannies who venture too close to the perimeter wall is a better tonic than diving into a bottle of gin.

         I imagine Johnny Cash’s Walk the Line, while I stroll about the perimeter in search of phantom invaders. It helps me to pretend the property is a prison, that I am on the outside looking down at the prisoners inside (actually workmen setting up furniture for an interior design layout that will be photographed and featured in Architectural Digest before Dicky hands over the home), and that I am digging myself out of the spiritual hole into which I had fallen when my wife (actually, ex-wife, remember?) ran off with the pool boy. There is something to be said about maintaining a grandiose self-image, and being a guest in the best home on Key Largo surely helps to foster and to sustain that kind of self-image.

         When I am not on duty, I am either catching up on my sleep in the grand guesthouse, or I am lounging by the swimming pool. I shoot the breeze with the interior designer, Monica Mayflower, with whom I had become acquainted with some of Dicky’s previous deals. She is an expert stager and one of Dicky’s most reliable lieutenants. She is also pretty foxy when she dips into the sherry, while those workmen are setting up furniture and art in accord with her instructions. I have never managed more than a few flirtatious lines with her, though I have circled the bases, and then some, with Miss Mayflower in several of my dreams.

         Most nights, there is a party, though not as extravagant as that first one. As I had fancied, the Cuban limousine driver is also a musician; and when I see him arriving in the early evening with his Conga drums, I know then that indeed a party is in the works. The caterers always arrive after him. The first round of guests arrive about an hour after them, and Dicky in turn arrives about an hour after them. Unlike that first party, he makes his entrance as inconspicuously as he can. It is not that the shy bug has bitten him. Rather, I sense that he desires for now to remain in the greyer shadows, cultivating his reputation as a modern day ‘Jay Gatsby,’ and thus biding his time for his next great act down the road.

         With the exception of these parties, I seldom see Dicky. He has taken up with an old flame. She lives about a hundred miles north of Miami; and because of the distance, she tries to get him to meet her halfway. He will not do so. He will wine and dine her in Miami, but that is as far as he will roam. As such, she drives every time the hundred miles to see him and the hundred miles to return to her home; and though most would consider this to be a cruel imposition, this is actually one of the reasons she is so enamored with him. Nice guys finish last in love and war. That is not politically correct to say, but it is true. Look at any self-interested chauvinist (especially if he is handsome and loaded), and he will have more than his share of gorgeous women. Look at any nice guy (including a handsome and loaded one), and he will have a wife taking advantage of his big heart and his bigger wallet.

         Anyway, I never meet this old flame. Dicky never brings her to the night parties. Maybe, she is an ‘afternoon romance’ only.

         Today is the only day this past week that Dicky has stayed around his big and beautiful compound by the sea. He observes me walking the perimeter wall above him, while he lounges beside the saltwater pool. Somebody serves him a mint julep, and I almost hear Dixie floating in and out of the sultry ocean wind.

         I finish my chore, and join him by the pool.

         His cellular phone rings. He puts it on the speaker.

         Hello, may I please speak with Mr. Cohen? A pompous man’s voice asks.

         Speaking Mooch, Dicky says with evident disdain.

         I am not sure if Dicky has a specific reason to dislike the buyer’s lawyer, or if he just has a general distaste for those men Dick the Butcher had wanted to kill in Henry VI, Part II. If I had to wager a guess, then I would say the latter, since there is a bit of Dick the Butcher residing deep in Dicky’s heart. For all of his profit in the system, there is a part of Dicky’s psyche that wants to tear the system to shreds and to make it anew. Call that Dicky’s revolutionary spirit, or the ‘naughty boy’ that still finds a home in his heart; but however described, it is there, and it wreaks real havoc on those who would happen to get in his way.

         Well, good news, Mark Mooch continues. I have arranged a mortgage for my client with Key West.

         Good, good, good, Dicky says impatiently.

         Oh, and I spoke with the bank, Mark Mooch says as if an afterthought. A man by the name of Wayne Sugarbaker? Anyway, the bank wants all the money from the closing…

         What did you say? Dicky barks, while sitting up in his chaise lounge.

         Oh, are we having a bad connection? Mark Mooch asks.

         Did you say that you spoke with the bank? Dicky seethes.

         Well, yes, of course, Mark Mooch responds.

         And against my instructions? Dicky barks while rising to his feet.

         Wait a minute, Mark Mooch snaps back. I am a lawyer, a member of the State Bar of Florida in good standing. I know what I am doing; and anyway, this is good news. Like I said, my client has his mortgage…

         Fuck your client’s mortgage, Dicky barks.

         Whoa, what the hell? Mark Mooch responds with as much rage as fear in his own voice. I don’t think you understand. This is good news. Do you hear me? My client has his mortgage. That means escrow will close on time. That means, my friend, you owe me a debt of gratitude…

         Do you know that you are an eighteen carat fucking idiot? Dicky inquires.

         Hey, wait a minute, Mark Mooch stammers.

         And that I’m coming over to your office to throw you from your window? Dicky continues at full steam. Did you hear me? Enjoy the view, ‘cause when I get over there what remains of you will be staring up at me from the sidewalk…

         Oh, God, Mark Mooch whimpers.

         You just destroyed the perfect deal, Dicky explains. I had the bank down to a demand of $4.2 million. That meant I had enough afterward to pay off the subcontractors, to satisfy a delinquent tax lien…

         And also to make a nice profit for yourself, I think.

         Now, if the bank gets all the money, then how do I satisfy the rest of the blokes at the supper table, huh? Dicky barks. Have any suggestions?

         Well, um, did I mention that this is good news? Mark Mooch whimpers as if a boy being dragged out to that proverbial wood shed. Oh, um, and that I am a lawyer in good, um, good standing…

         Remember what I said, Dicky whispers. Enjoy the fucking view…

         Oh, God, Mark Mooch screams.

         And on that pleasant note, Dicky hangs up. He tosses his cellular phone, kicks aside his chaise lounge, and storms away from the swimming pool. I keep a safe distance, for in my mind anyway I have fallen into the demolition derby I had wanted and then had feared. Everything seems to be crashing and burning. Heck, even the sky seems to be falling. Goddamn Chicken Little had been right.

         I return to the guesthouse, and I mix myself the strongest drink I am able to find among the various spirits hidden in the cupboards there. It tastes to me like what I imagine diesel fuel tastes like. Nevertheless, it does the job, as I am out cold until I am awakened the next morning for a breakfast of eggs and ham.

*   *   *

         I am standing over the seawall at the farthest edge of the property. The waves pummel the wall at a rate of one every thirty seconds or so. This is a lot of ocean activity for what is normally a sleepy cove, and I wonder if there is an actual storm brewing from beyond the horizon.

         I have no doubt that there is a storm already well underway at home. In the past few days, I have seen Dicky only in passing. He is always angry, always on his cellular phone, and always in a rush from wherever he had been prior to that portion of the compound that allows for a better cellular phone reception. Dicky is on a rampage, so much so that he does not bother to dress while doing whatever he does in the compound. Instead, he roams about the halls in a long, burgundy red robe. He would be Hugh Hefner, if he had a few girls following his scent. Since there are no girls here, except for Miss Mayflower and the stooped maid from Jamaica, who remains an employee here regardless of who may own the compound at any given time, Dicky looks more like Julius Caesar wandering the halls of his palace in search of a plan with which to defeat Antony.

         And yet for all his anger, he never seems to be out of control. Indeed, in the steeliness of his eyes, which I observe only in passing, but which seem able to burn themselves into my consciousness, I can sense that he is very much now in his element. It is when everything is falling to a shambles that the man truly is able to separate himself from the boys. Dicky is kinetic, not because he is in the process of losing it, but because he is his own genius and instinct unleashed without restraints into the machinations of the deal.

         I should find comfort in this fact, but I do not. Standing a bit too near to Dicky when the fullness of his mind is on display is like standing a bit too near a tornado. Deep down, I am pretty sure that this force of nature will never turn on me; but pretty sure is not good enough for me to be comfortable.

         Therefore, I go about my business, walking the perimeter wall, flirting as circumstances permit with Miss Mayflower (never when the workmen are within hearing distance, and never before she opens a bottle of sherry), and sneaking (okay, I admit it, stealing is the better word) booze from the main house. Even though I sense that Dicky is in his element, I just want this demolition period to come to an end.

         And so I sigh in relief, when I hear Dicky casually walking up to me. Just the fact that he is casual about anything is a good sign. Even if what he says to me is not particularly good news, I am calmed by the fact that he is calm. Does that make me overly dependent upon Dicky’s state of mind for my own? Yes, it does; and I know deep down that this is not a healthy dependency. Still, being a dependent hanger-on is better than being lost at sea, which I had been when I had signed on for this mission.

         Or is it really any better? Before, I had been dependent on booze. Now, I am dependent on Dicky and booze. Maybe, as I fall further into Dicky’s shadow in the course of this deal, I am the same sad sack I had been when my wife (no, my ex-wife) told me to take a hike and to get lost permanently on the old trail.

         Dicky stands by my side. He also looks down at the seawall.

         I had to spend $250,000 to reinforce that wall the other day, Dicky says.

         Oh, it looks the same, I comment.

         Yes, and the waves keep beating into it, Dicky continues. Time does not stand still, does it?

         I look at my friend. I am not used to hearing him speak so philosophically and have no idea how to respond. Fortunately, I do not need to do so, for Dicky continues before I have a chance to put my foot in my mouth.

         Wayne avoided my calls until this morning, Dicky says. I determined that he and Mooch were trying to set up some sort of deal without me. Of course, I have the deed; and unless and until a judge strips that deed away from me, the two little devils could do no more than to masturbate one another. My guess is that today Wayne at least finally came to terms with that unavoidable fact.

         So what does he want? I ask.

         He still insists on all the money, Dicky replies. A $5 million demand, can you believe that? I had him down to 4.2 before the Mooch interfered. At 5, I am not even able to pay the back taxes after the realtors get their commissions. I exit this deal with nothing to show for it finally but a tax liability that I need to take care of out of my own personal funds.

         Ouch, I say.

         Wayne told me that, in all candor, that’s not his problem, Dicky remarks with a shrug. Of course, he is right. I would have said the same thing if I’d been in his big, old, alligator boots. Needless to say, I told him there’s still no deal. I am not closing escrow under these conditions.

         I look again at my friend. I notice a sly grin on his face.

         What makes you so damned happy? I say.

         Just the fact that Wayne called me back this morning, Dicky explains. It means that he knows damn well that I am the man here with the best hand. He can bluff. Mooch can bluff. Heck, even the sheik can bluff. But in the end, I am the man with the deed; and that means I have the Royal Flush in this deal; and Wayne understands that fact.

*   *   *

         The next day, I am falling asleep on one of the chaise lounges, when out of the blue Dicky shakes me awake. I look up and see his devilish grin. He looks like a boy who just got away with stealing a chocolate chip cookie from the old jar. It is not so much that he did something wrong. It is that he did something a comparable boy would never have been able to do.

         The sheik called me, Dicky gloats. He apologized personally for the ‘silly antics’ of his lawyer. He said he still wants to buy the home at 5.5. After Mooch got on the line, assured me he would not interfere, and pleaded with me not to throw him from his window, I promised to restrain myself this time. Mooch just wants me to stay the hell away from his office building. I told him that I would.

         Dicky chuckles. No doubt, he imagines Mooch wetting his tight pants and screaming out like a little girl every time Mooch sees ‘Dicky’ jumping out from one of his corners. One wonders what ‘Dicky’ looks like in Mooch’s imagination.

         Wayne called me, too, Dicky continues. He brought his demand down to 4.5. I would get enough to pay the back taxes and the commissions, but I’d exit stage left without a profit. Needless to say, I told him where he could stuff his counteroffer. Punch, counterpunch, like drivers in a demolition derby, is it not?

         Of course, this all has to end when the sheik delivers his 5.5 at escrow, I comment. If you cannot get Wayne to budge on his demand by then…

         Nonsense, Dicky interrupts with a sly grin. ‘Desperate times’ just call for ‘desperate measures;’ and just now, you rightly can call me a ‘desperate man.’

         Dicky laughs uproariously. I do not see the humor in having to resort to a ‘desperate measure;’ but then again, I am always several steps behind him. For me, it is good enough that he is happy.

*   *   *

         Punch, counterpunch, like drivers in a demolition derby…

         That is what I am muttering as I awaken from a deep sleep the next day. I had been dreaming about a huge wrecking ball repeatedly slamming into a tall statue of myself. Marble chunks fall to the ground with every impact, but since I am no more than a statue my inane, drunken grin is still plastered on my hard marble face. They will need to raise the wrecking ball considerably higher so as to get my face. Until then, my torso and my limbs crackle apart and fall to the ground as if they are no more substantial than strands of Paper Mache in a wind storm. The gawkers below laugh at how I am being torn asunder by an iron ball.

         Then, just before I awaken, I see that Dicky is riding that wrecking ball. He is holding onto the cable like a boy on a carousel pony. He is laughing all of the time. It is the wild, unhinged laugh of a loon, or a hyena, or something that is altogether divorced from responsible, adult life. Nevertheless, for all of that madness, Dicky is able to remember the words to a silly jingle:

Punch, Counterpunch

Punch, Counterpunch

Like Riders in the Sky

And Drivers in the Derby

Punch, Counterpunch

Punch, Counterpunch

Watch me when I fly

In my little brown derby

         Punch, counterpunch, like drivers in a demolition derby, I repeat while I sit up in my bed and wipe the sleep out of my eyes.

         I hear the persistent roar of high powered vehicles outside. I imagine the FBI is just outside the perimeter wall getting ready to take us down for Dicky’s super confidence and wily tactics. They are going to book him for being unfair, since he is so far ahead of his opponents. They are going to book the rest of us as accessories. I just hope they put me in the same jail as flirty Miss Mayflower.

         But they never put a guy and a gal in the same jail together, I remark. It is my luck I’ll have to share a cot with Bryan Bordeaux.

         I get up from the bed, and wander into the small kitchen. I am focusing on which cereal to eat this morning. This is a big decision for me apparently, as I spend an inordinate amount of my time and mental prowess in doing just this.

         It occurs to me that the high powered roar has not gone away. I just had presumed that it would disappear along with the last few traces of that dream.

         It is not going away, because it is not part of my imagination.

         I hurry outside the guesthouse. There are workmen everywhere carrying away marble and wood flooring, furniture, art pieces, fixtures, in essence, any and all items that may be of some value on eBay. Monica Mayflower is watching over them, though the strained look on her face suggests that she is as much an overworked pawn in this strange chess game as one of the rooks or the bishops.

         I run into the courtyard. I am so excited I nearly fall into the pool.

         From the courtyard, I can see Dicky standing tall and proud on the wall. He is speaking into his cellular phone, but I hardly notice that detail. What I do notice is the enormous wrecking ball hanging from a cable behind him. It is now just swinging in the breeze, but it will not take much to rev up the huge engine below and to swing this monster at full speed into the concrete perimeter wall.

         I run up to the wall to take a closer look. There are several bulldozers on the property, an army truck full of cases of dynamite, and that aforementioned wrecking ball swinging in the air high above us.

         I look up at Dicky. I am so incredulous as to be speechless.

         He winks at me, but then continues with his spirited conversation.

         So you really think I’m bluffing, huh? Dicky says. Let me put you then on the speaker phone, so you can hear the mayhem on you end.

         Dicky clicks on the speaker phone, and holds up his phone over the edge of the wall. Even Helen Keller would be able to hear all that machinery getting ready to do serious damage on the compound.

         Yes, I hear it, Wayne says through the speaker. So you’ve gone all out to make your bluff as convincing as possible. But I still don’t think you’re going to do a damn thing.

         You don’t get it, Dicky screams back in order to be heard over all of the engines. I did some research. I can make a fortune selling the scraps. If I sell it to you, then I don’t make a damned penny.

         This is illegal, then, Wayne snaps back. That’s our investment. You can’t just level it into the ground.

         I can, Dicky screams back. I’ve got all the permits right here.

         Dicky rattles a handful of papers by his phone, so that Wayne cannot but hear the signed and sealed documents that give Dicky the legal right to do now what he damn well pleases to his own home.

         This is insane, Wayne yells back.

         I suggest you immediately meet with me at the property, Dicky remarks.

         I still think you’re bluffing, Wayne retorts without conviction.

         You’ve got an hour, Dicky remarks nonchalantly. Tick-Tock, Tick-Tock…

         Dicky hangs up. He turns to the crew below him. He raises his left index finger, and he then gives them a thumbs up with his right hand. Presumably the left index finger connotes ‘1 hour,’ and the thumbs up connotes ‘all goes well.’

         What are you doing? I finally manage to blurt out.

         Finishing this deal, Dicky says with a shrug. The other lienholders are on their way already. I knew Wayne would hold out longer than the others.

         But you can’t be serious, I comment.

         Just as you should always be willing to walk away from a deal, so should you willing to bulldoze it, if necessary, Dicky reflects with a chuckle.

         And you really have permits to go ahead with this insanity? I inquire.

         These papers are not props, Dicky states. I had to pay some bribes so as to hurry up the review process, but the authorization is for real. The men down there are bonded. They would not be here, if I did not have real, legal permits.

         I cannot believe it, I mutter.

         But, of course, I can. Dicky is as fearless as he is a genius. He will go to the edge, and then some, if that is what it takes to pull victory out from defeat and to walk away with some extra change in his pocket.

         All the lienholders arrive within the hour. Wayne is the last to show up, for he has the longest to travel. He stumbles out of his pink Cadillac (a big pair of Texas bullhorns on the hood), and slaps himself in the face. He is all eyes at that moment, for he cannot believe what is actually happening before his face.

         Dicky casually walks up to him. I remain next to the wrecking ball crane operator, because I am genuinely amazed at the intricate levers at his disposal.

         Impressive, isn’t it? Dicky says to Wayne.

         I’m going to put a stop to this…this…madness, Wayne screams red faced.

         Wayne gets on his cellular phone and dials the top Key West attorney. It takes only a minute or so for the attorney to explain that Dicky is completely in his rights to do as he pleases with his property. Of course, Dicky is not privy to what the attorney says, but he can make a calculated guess based on the horrid expression on Wayne’s fat face.

         Wayne hangs up. He throws his cellular phone to the ground. His face is all puckered up, like he has swallowed a bucket full of lemons; but the color is not at all lemony. It is as red as a hot chili sauce. It is not hard to imagine fiery hot steam blowing out of both his ears.

         You’re the Anti-Christ, Wayne screams. Do you hear me? The Anti-Christ!

         Well, in five minutes the Anti-Christ is giving the go-ahead to tear down this compound, if you don’t accept my final offer, Dicky says. $3.5 million, and not one bloody pence more. So take it, or leave it!

         Anti-Christ! Wayne screams.

         Tick-Tock, Dicky responds, while looking at his watch.

         Wayne picks up the phone, and dials frantically for his boss, his company attorney, even his masseuse; anyone who might be able to tell him what to do. The responses are all the same: Give the Mad English Jew what he wants today, and close the deal. There is plenty of money to be made on the fools out there.

         And so with only a minute to spare, Wayne acquiesces. All of the others, who also had been calling their attorneys to see what could be done to prevent this demolition from going forward, follow Wayne’s lead. $3.5 million at escrow simply will have to be good enough.

         Dicky gives his crew the order to stand down.

         I am a bit disappointed, as I had wanted to observe up close what a real wrecking ball can do. On the other hand, I know that this is a win; and a win is a win, even among the fools, the pirates, and the occasional geniuses who play their hands in high stakes real estate transactions. Ask any of these buccaneers when they are sober, and they will admit any win beats out a kick to the teeth.

*   *   *

         I cannot believe it, I remark incredulously. Even the Woos love Dicky.

         I am standing on the edge of the cove. The ocean foam slaps my loafers, and sprays up as far as my knees. My trousers and shoes will be wrecked by the time this party is done, but I do not care. Dicky has paid me enough for my tiny part in this deal that I can purchase dozens of trousers and shoes just like these when I get back tomorrow to my humble abode on Telegraph Hill.

         What interests me is how the Woos came around. When Dicky persuaded Sir Jeffrey to replace the Woos with Bryan Bordeaux, I practically could feel all the way out in California the hex that the two ladies had put on Dicky. And yet here they are flying their ‘Woo Wonder’ hydroplane over the ocean. There is a long banner trailing the hydroplane that states, ‘Happy Birthday, Dicky Cohen.’

         It’s in their interest to do so, Bryan explains, while walking up to me. At the end of the day, it’s all about business for them, heck, for all of us. Think of all the goodwill marketing they get just from flying their little plane over all of the movers and the shakers out here celebrating Dicky’s birthday.

         Smart, I mutter. Very smart…

         Even the Key West folks sent out a rep, Bryan continues. Though not that Sugarbaker fellow. I hear he’s on his way now to the loony bin.

         Sad, I mutter. Very sad…

         Come on, Bryan urges me. The party’s nothing without you.

         I’ll follow in a moment, I say to Bryan without looking back.

         Bryan turns toward the beach party. He is in his jacket and trousers, but somewhere along the line he lost his loafers. His bare feet kick up white clouds of sand. His playfulness calls to mind a boy playing ‘broker’ at a birthday party.

         I keep following the ‘Woo Wonder,’ until I suddenly lose the hydroplane in the big, bold sun. Is Dicky like that sun? Are we the folks who are invisible as soon as we get too close to him? Dicky says, ‘It’s all about me.’ If that is true, I shudder to think what that says about the rest of us.

         Then, there is the fact of my derivative emotions. I am happy today, but only because he is happy. If Dicky were anxious about something, then I’d be in my hotel room (moved out of the guesthouse to make room for the new owner) drowning my own tears in a poison cocktail. About the only thing not derivative is Dicky’s success with the girls. He has several in his birthday entourage today, including that mysterious woman I had met on this very same beach just before the first party began. On the other hand, apart from flirting a bit with good old Miss Mayflower, I have been a no-show on this trip. Probably the girls smell the ‘loser drunk’ scent that I am just not able to mask entirely with my cologne. As long as my first love is the bottle, and my passions point backward to the wife I lost, I cannot blame them. I would not want to pass the time with a woman still fixated on her last relationship and her booze.

         My stream of consciousness turns back toward Dicky. He is the sun. He is the moon, the stars, whatever godlike attributes we may want to toss upon his flesh like new fabric thrown over old clothes. We humans do that to the people we choose to admire, either because they are geniuses, or charismatic, or just plain filthy rich. We imagine them to be gods and then castigate them for being too remote, too iconoclastic, or too narcissistic. But what is a god, but a totally self-centered, narcissistic force of nature? And what is a god-man, but a person we choose to admire precisely to the extent we forget that he is also a fallible, and sometimes silly, human being like the rest of us? Do we really honor Dicky, when we pretend he is the sun? Or do we dehumanize him?

         Too many questions, I think. I should go back and drink the Kool-Aid like all the others. Put a smile on my face, and then die someday…

         You’re thinking about Dicky, aren’t you? A woman’s voice says to me.

         I look over and see Rachel, Dicky’s beautiful, brunette, smart as a whip, ex-wife. I am not surprised to see her. Even though the Cohens are divorced, I cannot imagine Rachel remaining totally separated from Dicky’s life. He needs her, and I think that she needs him, too, even if only to remind each other just how far they have travelled in their respective lives since they first met. Dicky and Rachel remind each other of their past lives, back when Dicky had been an altogether normal, if scrappy, young man just trying to hustle some cash out of a world that did not want his type to succeed, and back when Rachel had been no more than one pretty face among so many others vying for a modeling gig. It is a long road we call ‘life,’ and Dicky and Rachel remind each other that it has been a lot longer than they remember. Besides, Rachel knocks Dicky down one or two sizes whenever she sees him, which is likely a good thing for Dicky, and for the rest of us, given how tall his ego has grown the past few years. A good, hearty knock down helps us to put matters into perspective.

         Oh, Rachel, I’m just wondering where I fit in all this, I answer her with a sheepish grin.

         Start at the beginning, Rachel comments.

         What do you mean? I ask.

         You know what I mean, Rachel responds. Think about the time you met Dicky. Think about what has happened since. Rewind the tape, and you’ll put a lot of what is happening now into the right perspective. The alternative is hard booze. I think you know where that will take you.

         I am at a loss for words. I smile back at her appreciably, though. It is not much, but it is all I can do at that sublime moment.

         I rejoin the beach party. I never see Rachel again, except at a distance. I do not speak with Dicky, either, for that matter, until just before he drives off into the proverbial sunset. It is impossible to get close to him what with the big and ever expanding entourage of topless, giggling girls and shoeless real estate developers. He is the brain at the eye of an uproarious, but sentient, tornado; a force of nature that sweeps over the sand, and leaves party trash in its wake.

         At the end, we all assemble on the beach parking lot around a beautiful, shiny, new Aston Martin Vantage. Dicky stands beside the hood. He has had an amazing costume change, since we last saw him minutes ago, for now he has on racecar driving gear and is holding a helmet.

         I was born across the pond, you know, Dicky says while gesturing toward the ocean. They used to say that ‘the sun never sets on British soil.’ Well, that is no longer the case with British soil, but it is definitely the case with my life. I believe that as long as I continue to earn success in this world, then a bit of the Old Empire lives on in my bones, don’t you think?

         Everyone cheers, and applauds. Dicky grins, and sweeps his right, gloved hand over the shiny hood.

         Anyway, after I was born, and the doctors gave me a clean bill of health, my parents drove me home from the hospital in an earlier model Aston Martin, Dicky continues. Life comes full circle sometimes.

         Again, everyone cheers, and applauds. It is so good to be in the presence of a great man.

         Well, I have earned this, Dicky remarks, while looking into his helmet. It is time to drive off into the sunset.

         Dicky is about to put on his helmet when he sees me. I think that I am in good spirits then, but he must observe otherwise in my eyes.

         Stop whining, Dicky says to me with a devilish grin. Life’s too short for a permanent case of the blues.

         He winks at me. I wink back, and I give him the thumbs up. He deserves this moment of glory. It is due to his genius and tenacity, his clear commitment to himself, that he has been able to reap victory from certain defeat. When all has been said and done, how many of us will be able to conclude honestly that we did the same? Not that many of us, truth be told; because the sun shines on us all, but only a few of us dare to open our thin and fragile pedals to the light.           

Success! You're on the list.

Published by Michael Sean Erickson

I write, act, and produce films in Los Angeles. Everything else is conjecture.

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