Authors: Robert Rodi
Tags: #FICTION / Urban Life, #FIC052000, #FIC000000, #FICTION / Gay, #FIC011000, #FICTION / General, #FIC048000, #FICTION / Satire
A Novel by
Originally Published 1993 by Dutton
Kindle Edition Published 2/15/2011 by Robert Rodi
Copyright ©1993 Robert Rodi
It was coming.
it was coming.
The floodlights had just gone out with a sharp, electric snap and a brief, otherworldly echo. The set’s high-contrast, construction-paper garishness receded at once into the more muted tones of everyday life. The air, too, rushed in cool and sweet the moment the floods stopped their blistering barrage. It was like a return to reality from a gaudy, one-dimensional fantasyland.
The actor, his duties completed, donned his black leather jacket, shook Hackett Perlman’s hand, and headed for the door.
And everyone knew it was coming. It was definitely, positively coming.
They’d known it as soon as the actor had displayed his complete ignorance of how to operate an electric chainsaw, which was his sole responsibility in the commercial they were shooting. He didn’t even have any lines; he was merely obliged to stride manfully onto the set, fire up that state-of-the-art hunk of hardware, and attack a cord of firewood like a pit bull mauling a ferret.
So when he’d had to be taught how to switch on the saw — and then appeared actually
of it once it was up and running — virtually every man on the set experienced a little thrill of superiority, a reinforcing jolt of his own unassailable maleness. Every one of them took a figurative step away from the actor, and where their manner toward him had previously been informed by camaraderie, now it was colored by the condescending, anti-male taint of courtesy. Every one of them was thinking the same thing. But who would be the first to come out and
When the slab of metal door fell into place behind the actor, shutting him out physically just as the crew had just him out socially, Hackett Perlman got a wicked glint in his eye and glided over to the spot where his client and two colleagues were waiting. He lowered his excessively suntanned head and grinned. And it was he who finally said it — that potent little word, that
-so-hilarious slur, that instant excommunication from the realm of the worthy:
Then Perlman, who was the creative director at Deming, Stark & Williams Advertising, rolled back on his heels and laughed, as though that single damning syllable had been a witticism worthy of the Algonquin Round Table on one of its most memorably epigrammatic days. And sure enough, a little eruption of laughter filled the studio and lightened its mood, and the director and crew felt suddenly free to go about clearing away the debris from the shoot. The tension had been released; the air had been cleared.
But Lionel Frank, who was an account executive at the same advertising agency, seemed to have more to say on the subject. He nodded his head in the direction of the discarded chainsaw and said, “Should’ve told him we wanted him to
on the thing. He’d have found a way to turn it on, all right.”
Lionel’s three companions offered up only token chuckles. After all, Lionel was the junior member of the foursome; the other three men here — Perlman, Julius Deming, the agency president, and Babcock Magellan, their client — were all officially his superiors. He might have to laugh at their jokes, but they weren’t required to laugh at his. Still, this was a brotherhood, wasn’t it? A fellowship. They were gathered for the manly purpose of producing a television commercial, and now stood together, awash in commingled testosterone, exchanging profanities and merry insults —
as the vernacular would have it. If Lionel’s high spirits led him to try to claim executive joke privileges … well, they’d give him a little rope.
Babcock Magellan even went so far as to encourage him, by slapping him on the back and saying, “Saw him checking you out, boy. Could be waiting for you out in the parking lot. My advice is, when you go to your car, for God’s sake don’t drop your keys!”
Lionel laughed far too loudly and too long, and Magellan rang in with his own basso profundo roar, obviously enjoying having his wit flattered so outrageously. As the founder, president, and towering embodiment of All-Pro Power Tools — as well as a millionaire, philanthropist, yachting enthusiast, and somebody or other’s Businessman of the Year every year for the last seven — he was accustomed to being surrounded by sycophants and yes-men; but few debased themselves before him as enthusiastically and good-naturedly as these three he’d hired to produce his company’s advertising. He liked them for it; and they
done a good job with the chainsaw spot. Even the lanky, skittish, perfectly coiffed actor they’d hired hadn’t been a disaster, once he’d gotten a little direction.
Julius Deming, his face white as a billiard ball and nearly as shiny, pushed his glasses up his nose and said, “I don’t know, Babcock. Lionel’s been dressing awful
lately.” He reached over and fingered his employee’s expensive silk tie. “Could be he’s
to find Mr. Right.” And at the sight of Lionel’s face, which now fell into a silent-movie spasm of horror, he and the others laughed all the harder.
Deming thumped Lionel on the shoulder to show him he hadn’t meant it, and then Perlman gave him a thwack as well, and Babcock Magellan punched his arm and winked at him — an almost unprecedented sign of favor. And then all four men looked at their watches, congratulated themselves on a job well done, and filed out of the studio and into the parking lot, where they paused to congratulate themselves one last time before getting into their cars.
“Well done, assholes,” said Magellan as he depressed the button on his keychain that deactivated the auto-theft alarm in his Jaguar. “Didn’t think you cocksuckers could pull it off.”
“Well, now you know what a couple of real men can do with one of your cheap-shit production budgets,” said Deming with a cocky smile as he unlocked the door of his Saab.
“Kiss my ass,” said Magellan as he slipped into the Jaguar’s driver’s seat.
that,” said Lionel from out the window of his Celica.
“You oughtta know,” countered Perlman from his BMW, prompting a last spate of laughter.
They all agreed to meet again in the edit suite the next day, then started their engines, backed up one by one, and rolled out of the fenced-in parking lot in single file (Magellan first, of course, and Lionel last).
And Deming drove home to his wife Peg, and Perlman drove home to his wife Becca, and Magellan drove home to his wife Dolores (but not before stopping to see his mistress Wilma).
And Lionel didn’t drive home at all. He started out in that direction, but after fifteen minutes a storm of recrimination and self-loathing and anxiety overwhelmed him, and he knew he needed immediate release or he’d do something desperate, like swing his car into the path of oncoming traffic.
From the highway he could see a shopping mall, its parking lot empty at this late hour. He headed down the next exit ramp and made his way there.
He drove to the farthest side of the lot, where the trees were most concealing and the light from the overhead lamps most indirect.
He rested his head on the steering wheel and tried to get a grip on himself, but every time he closed his eyes, one image conjured itself up: that of the actor leaving the set, of those splendid buttocks tucked so beautifully into the faded workman’s jeans he’d worn for the filming. It had seemed to Lionel that, at alternating steps, each cheek had waved a sad little farewell to him, their ardent admirer for so many hours that day.
Finally, he could stand it no longer. He unzipped his fly, picked up his car phone, and spent forty-five budget-smashing minutes dialing the numbers he’d come to know by heart: 1-900-BOY-TOYZ, 1-900-HOT-GUYZ, 1-900-CUM-QUIK …
Hackett Perlman didn’t so much step into Lionel’s office as insinuate himself in; that was his way. He was a slippery man, reptilian, and whenever he sat in the chair that faced Lionel’s desk and crossed his legs, Lionel couldn’t help thinking of a snake coiling its body before striking.
“Got some news,” he said, staring Lionel in the face with a cold smile that said,
I know all your secrets and will not keep them.
It was the look he gave everybody, and one of the chief reasons for his success; it put all of his subordinates in a state of anticipatory terror of him, as though he were a vampire or a Kamikaze pilot or some other inscrutable, alien-brained villain. But Lionel was accustomed to his air of B-movie menace, and knew it was no more than a strategically adopted pose.
He closed his radio rate book and pushed it aside, then sat back in his chair and put his hands behind his head. He thought this attitude made him look very heterosexual. For added points, he rocked the chair back and forth. “Good news or bad?” he asked.
The creative director arched an eyebrow and said “Good” in a way that sounded like he really meant “Awful.” Another of his quirks, and another reason for his success; no matter how highly he praised his staff for their work, they always nervously decided they’d better do better next time.
He lifted his hands and studiously pushed back one of his cuticles. “Remember the chainsaw spot?” he said, his dark, wet eyes fixed on his fingernails. His sunned-to-leather face wore a secretive smirk.
“Sure,” said Lionel, still rocking gently. “One with the fag in it, right?” It slipped out of his mouth before he could stop himself.
Perlman paused in mid-cuticle and looked up; then he said, “Right. That’s the one,” and resumed his mini-manicure.
Lionel cautioned himself to be more careful; he’d made a blunder with that remark. It hadn’t impressed Perlman as a butch witticism, which, he supposed, had been its intent. To Perlman, all fags were nonentities; he was sure to have long forgotten the chainsaw-shy actor who’d afforded him such mirth during the filming five months before. That Lionel not only remembered him, but associated the entire project with him, was potentially revealing; it had certainly struck Perlman as odd.
Fortunately, the creative director was so eager to deliver his news that he let the peculiarity of Lionel’s comment drop. “Been nominated for a Trippy,” he continued, referring to a fairly prestigious Chicago advertising award. He finished one final cuticle, then dropped his hands into his lap and looked at Lionel again. “Best Regional Spot, Budget Under Thirty-Thou.”
“No shit,” said Lionel, thinking that profanity was the best way to restore his masculine credentials. “That’s fucking
“Thanks. Anyway, thought you’d want to call Magellan and let him know.” He peered at Lionel as though accusing him of murder. “Already reserved a place for him and his wife at our table.”
“What table?” asked Lionel, suddenly on alert.
“At the awards banquet,” he replied, untwining his legs in preparation for his departure. “Figured on eight of us: me and Becca, Deming and Peg, you and your date, and Magellan and his wife. If Magellan can’t make it, we’ll take that new art director, Donna — you know, the dyke with the hearing aid. After all, she did the storyboards.” He chuckled. “Just won’t let her bring along another rug-muncher, is all.”
Lionel suppressed a little shudder. He was grateful to have a lesbian art director at the agency, because she diverted any suspicious attention from him, serving as a kind of lightning rod for antigay sentiments among the staff. But, paradoxically, every expression of those sentiments made him feel more fearful of exposure. (They were so
) And now the idea of the Trippy banquet rendered his fears suddenly and terrifyingly concrete.
His foot started tapping on the acrylic pad beneath his swivel chair. “Uh — when’s the banquet, anyway?”
“Two weeks,” said Perlman. His tone was perfectly conversational, but Lionel could see the light glinting off his incisors; they looked like fangs. “The sixteenth.” He rose from the chair and took a sliding step towards the door.
Lionel rolled up to his desk and said, “Hey, you know, I — I — I might be — I think I
— busy that night. I honestly don’t think I can make it.”
Perlman grimaced. “If Magellan’s there, you’d better be, too,” he said. “You know that. Whatever you have planned, cancel it.” He didn’t say, but didn’t have to, that Magellan brought the agency over a million in billings each year. The partners were in no mood to risk displeasing a million-dollar client, especially since they’d just lost the Romeo Springs sparkling water account, which had also, unfortunately, been Lionel’s. (The loss hadn’t been his fault — the company had gone under due to consumer panic following the discovery of traces of ammonia in some of their Light ‘n’ Lemon bottles — but Lionel had taken their departure badly, and was now terrified of losing his sole remaining account.)
He said. “Right. Right. Course I’ll be there.”
Perlman pursed his lips. “You okay?” His tone made it sound like he was asking if Lionel had any last requests before his lethal injection.
“Yeah, fine,” said Lionel, trying to sound butch and nodding his head like a speed-freak jack-in-the-box. “Totally.”
Perlman nodded at Lionel’s phone. “Don’t forget to call Magellan.”
“No, I won’t, of course I won’t.”
Perlman slithered out into the hallway and Lionel dropped his head into his hands. He had to come up with a female date for the Trippy Awards banquet! It was enough to make him sick with anxiety. The last time something like this had happened, at the ’91 City Awards, he’d invited an aerobics instructor from his health club, having heard she was a lesbian, only to discover after the banquet, when he drove her home, that she wasn’t a lesbian at all — just very masculine in her approach to things. Lionel had to pay the tuxedo rental store for the damage to his zipper and thigh seams, and the scratch marks on his car’s front seat and dashboard refused to come out no matter how much he buffed them with the twelve-dollars-a-pint vinyl restorer. Even worse, however, was having to go in to work the next day and answer all sorts of jocular questions about how he’d “made out” and what Lisa was “like.” Fortunately, he’d been able to fake some fairly satisfactory replies. The truth — that he’d screamed and flailed like Fay Wray when Lisa commenced her assault on his crotch, and tried a panicked escape through his sun roof — was of course not remotely hinted at. After all, it was inconceivable that Babcock Magellan would place All-Pro Power Tools’ multimillion-dollar advertising budget in the hands of a pansy. And it was out of the question that the scrotum-scratching, belching-contest atmosphere of the Deming, Stark & Williams offices could ever accommodate a queer.
That’s why it was so imperative that Lionel find a date for the awards banquet. To keep his job, it wasn’t only necessary to appear not-gay; he had to appear actively straight, which, since his job involved maintaining that appearance from ten to sometimes twelve hours each workday, was tantamount to actually having to
And yet he didn’t consider himself repressed; he would’ve told you — if you could ever have gotten him to discuss it with you, which you couldn’t — that he actually got a kind of charge out of being closeted, that it was an illicit thrill to be in what amounted to the enemy’s camp, making money off them and passing among them freely, unsuspected. He might also have told you he enjoyed the challenge — it kept him so nimble, so sharp, so
— and the opportunity to demonstrate (if only to himself) the vast powers of his wit and intellect, as they lifted him safely out of every perilous situation into which he strayed (such as the time he was discovered alone in an absent secretary’s office, staring at her Chippendale Dancers wall calendar; he’d immediately explained that he was checking the date to see if it was Rosh Hashanah, which would explain why Mindy wasn’t at her desk). It was, in short, a job to have so many opportunities to be so
But his cleverness was failing him now. In his head, he ran through the list of single women he knew. They were few, and very far between. In fact, he didn’t know many people, period. His life, being so bound up in his career, left him little time for friendships outside the office. With the exception of his hairdresser friend Toné, he didn’t even have any gay buddies. And he sometimes wondered how often he’d see Toné if he didn’t need his hair cut once a month.
No, almost everyone with whom Lionel shared even a passing acquaintance was right here in this office.
That’s when he thought of Tracy. She was Julius Deming’s secretary, and the object of lust for at least three members of the account staff. She was a petite woman, with bobbed blond hair and a precious pug nose — a woman, in short, with the kind of kid-sister beauty that is at first easily dismissed, but which after repeated exposure proves irresistible.
Best of all, she and Lionel had been openly flirting for more than a year. It had started out as banter, playful exchanges about the weather, the clothes they were wearing, the gossip around the office. Lionel liked the fact that he could make her laugh, and that she laughed so easily and unabashedly. Soon they’d developed a kind of shorthand language of their own. They would, for instance, pass each other in the hallway and sing a monotone “Lalalalala” at each other, which was their way of saluting each other affectionately when they were too busy to stop and talk.
Things accelerated when someone gave Tracy a battery-operated monkey that when switched on repeatedly clapped together a pair of tiny cymbals. One day Lionel, being silly, named the monkey Abner, and over subsequent weeks he would stop by Tracy’s office several times a day, gabbing at length with her about Abner, regaling her with tales of his upbringing and early life, how he’d left his native Nairobi wildlife preserve to pursue his dream of being a stunt double for the Prince of Wales, only to learn that the Prince of Wales’ duties didn’t require stunts. He ended up jailed for the attempted rape of a penny arcade fortune-telling machine, and learned to play cymbals in the prison band. Tracy invariably ended up helpless with laughter. But whenever anyone came in to see what all the mirth was about, she and Lionel would clam up; Abner was their secret reference, and they were unwilling to share him with anyone else. The erotic connotations of this were impossible to ignore.
Once, Lionel made the mistake of telling Toné about his weird office flirtation with this woman.
Toné had said, yanking three finger-widths of Lionel’s wet hair from his head and snipping off the ends with his scissors, “you are setting up that young girl for a disappointment
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said. “She’s got a boyfriend.”
“Whom she would drop
dans un instant
if you bade her come be with you.” (Toné always talked like this.)
“Look,” Lionel said testily — and as he said it a few of his clipped hairs fell onto his tongue, making him even more irritable — “you’re always saying straight people are screwing themselves up by not exploring their gay side. Well, I’m just exploring my
side, okay? If I don’t do this, maybe I’ll screw
Toné sprayed his head with an atomizer, silencing him. “Just don’t screw up that
while you’re bounding happily toward self-realization,” he cautioned. “No one’s mental health is worth the broken heart of a poor, innocent
Not even yours.”
Lionel didn’t give Toné’s words a second thought, until some of the women in the office began making subtle remarks — in his presence! — about his and Tracy’s possible future together. Then he panicked and, pleading busyness, dramatically curtailed his visits to Tracy’s office. When the agency lost Romeo Springs, his workload temporarily lessened, but he didn’t take the opportunity to renew his platonic courtship. He was too frightened to do so. It was a shame, really; he missed Tracy.
Well, this was the perfect chance to see more of her. She was still involved with her boyfriend, but he’d heard through the grapevine that they were feuding at present, so there was no barrier to her accepting Lionel’s invitation. And she
accept, he was sure of that. They
each other; they’d have fun, and she would know that.
Best of all, she was … well, not innocent, exactly; but kind of proper. A real
that rarest of beasts, almost extinct in the postwar prairie states — like the bison, only less intensely mourned. There would be no attempt at date-rape in his car if Tracy were his companion. And the day after the banquet, they could simply resume their friendship, just as it had been before. Tracy might be a little mystified, but … she still had a boyfriend, didn’t she? She wouldn’t complain.
Thrilled with this brainstorm, he wasted no time but marched through the maze of corridors to Tracy’s office. He poked his head around the doorframe and caught her typing out a letter, one key at a time, as she read aloud from a steno pad. “A…” Clack. “L…” Clack. “S, E…” Clack, clack.
“Show-off,” he said.
She looked up and blushed crimson. He liked that about her. No one blushed as deeply, or as easily, as she did — excepting characters in cartoons.
she said. “I can’t
you caught me doing that. It’s this guy’s name. It’s got about twenty-three letters and I can never spell it from memory.”
He strode in and sat before her desk. “Why don’t you just ask Abner? We all know he’s quite a bit smarter than you.”
She leaned over and flicked Abner’s switch; nothing happened. She looked at Lionel sadly and said, “Abner’s on the roof and I can’t get him down.”
He laughed. “Get some batteries from Elsa.”
“For an office toy? A
item? I can just see her deducting the cost of two triple-A’s from my paycheck.”