The leader of the fan club liked to scratch his balls in the seconds after he pronounced the word Condoleezza. His name was Timothy and he hadn't ever given black women the benefit of his doubts or certainties but Condoleezza had changed all that. Every time a new membership netted him another $79.95 non-refundable start up fee, he heard joyous Christmas music and opened his excel spreadsheet humming Elton John's "Amorena," while substituting Condoleezza for Amorena in the refrain—ball scratching merrily as his savings grew, even hemorrhaged from its original cell space.
Timothy drove his rusty Tercel to Akron from Cleveland where he lived with his mother. Thirty-three wasn't a bad age and after a few more months of rooking people he could buy his own house, leave his mother Laurel, and stop eating the starchy food she favored. Sometimes he went to a hotel in Akron just to get away and feel important. He told no one of his schemes and indeed had no friends, except a second cousin who teased him about his long horse face.
For this venture, he listened to a book on tape, a Warren Buffet inspirational. At times he repeated certain phrases out loud, happy he learned something, happy Warren was in his car and he wasn't alone. Living with Laurel, he often felt alone or lonely, he didn't know which—both, he decided, all the time. Lonely for life and alone, even with Laurel. Twice she called asking about Akron (What was there? What was he doing?) and twice he told her he was in an area of high fog and couldn't talk.
Soon enough Timothy tired of old, breathy, whiney Warren and snapped him off. The car he'd been driving behind for a while had a little white dog jumping around the back. The teensy foot-long lodged itself into the window space above the seat—space holding a big, pink sparkly butterfly sticker in its corner. The dog was a long-hair with what used to be a bouffant-like Mozart do, but somewhere down the line the bouffant had exploded and the dog's eyes were covered, even his muzzle. What a little dickens, Timothy thought. And look how the wild little Mozart doggie appeared to be trying to bite the windowpane and bat at that weird butterfly thing. Timothy tilted his head in mindless wonder. Should he get a pet? He never had one, though he remembered asking his father about the possibility. The old man didn't like things that cost money. Create one's own toys, he'd said. Sticks, stones, and dirt. You'd think that didn't leave a lot but you'd be surprised at what the imagination could do with them. Was this why Timothy had the compulsion to rob? Maybe, but why psychoanalyze while on vacation? Because he had no other way of handling himself.
The little white dog represented everything that could possibly be wrong with Timothy and if only he could hold the doggie right now it might give him the compassion needed to function correctly and then he would love people and not steal their money. He found himself accelerating his Tercel until he tapped the little doggie car with his bumper. This car honked its horn and this angered the man in the car in front of the little doggie car. And again Timothy rushed forward and he reached for the dog before a second harder impact sent his car sputtering back. Again the driver of the little doggie car honked and again the driver in front of them got steamed. Too shaken to continue, the driver of the little doggie car quickly pulled off at the next exit because fear equaled urination. This left Timothy behind the fuming driver, who, searching for his glove compartment gun just when the other car exited, screeched into the right lane and braked, letting Timothy pass before tailgating him the next twenty miles, thinking the tacky Tercel held the honking piece of shit. Timothy didn't mind the tailgating. He was used to crazies. They probably made up most of the members of the Condoleezza Rice Fan Club.
Janet was a thirty-eight-year-old woman with small ears, curly hair, and an obsession with basil. A Chicagoan, she traveled the country for work and, living in a sixth floor apartment, she couldn't grow the famed herb without hiring someone to water it. One night after a bottle of wine and a swearing match with her landlord over hot water, she did consider sub-letting on her travel days but then that male or female person could look in her closets, look at her underwear and judge her fashion sense closet-wide—a pained thought as she and her couture concerns kept changing and wouldn't a stealthy survey find her see-saw of colors and looks an absolute bi-polar blunder of style? She posted an ad anyway. In fifteen minutes there were six responses. One man wanted to marry her, one wanted to take her to a Halloween party with them both dressed as basil leaves and one wanted her to walk over him in heels while singing "Amazing Grace."
Janet was born in Niagara Falls, New York and still liked to wear a blush that some observers mistook as the shameful result of a bee sting. Her widow mother wanted her to marry a local cross-eyed car salesman, return to the small tourist city, and live in her neighborhood so she could play gin rummy with her. Janet hadn't wished her mother a Merry Christmas since the one after September 11th. She liked traveling the country, sitting in hotel bars reading the Wall Street Journal, and watching football with men who had no necks, just walls of chin that couldn't be called chin because the flesh stood sheer from the lips to the clavicle where their necks supposedly were. No, she did not like those men. She liked everything else—the game, the excitement, the articles about large profits—but not those cologne-scented mugs who stood bellysolid next to her five-foot-ten inch body, buying her Long Island iced teas and wheeze-laughing, telling her about these cool new wasabi snacks they had discovered at JFK airport.
Janet's last boyfriend was attractive but assholic. Paul Tiess. Remembering the night they met she almost vomited in her giant purse. They had fumbled around in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin and he kept rubbing his head between her breasts moaning, "My big mommy," until she hit him with the ice bucket and he slunk back to his hotel room. Paul lived in Seattle and they tried the long distance thing until Paul told her that if she moved in with him he wouldn't charge any rent. She could just buy groceries and vodka and take care of utilities to keep him happy.
What Janet did on her trips was give seminars to office managers on building strong teams. She had her pamphlets, her PowerPoint, her chocolate bunnies, her balloons and party favors and most importantly, her smile and sense of humor. Some nights in bed she worried her voice was too mannish and drank many glasses of lemon juice to curl her cords back to their feminine beginnings.
Her body was another matter. To her mind being eight pounds overweight for her height class made her grossly overweight, so she faithfully hauled her Pilates DVD and a portable player around the country, launching into the routine at untold hours of the night, incurring the wrath of guests below her as she did ab crunches at supersonic rates.
Janet liked wearing skirts and as a result had to love her calves and overexercised them, pumping the once doughy masses into a meganess she hoped would make men squirm and women envious, but not too pent up—she wanted women friends too and especially women friends with strong calves so she could go on double dates with guys who liked older women with strong calves. And really her calves were her best feature. Her ass was okay but she wouldn't let it get too big by eating fettuccini though guys usually liked asses a little big. The breasts were there but her nipples were small and faint and she wanted big areolas, around the size of sheriff's badges—she just thought it would make them look juicier. Her face was plain, but that's where the voice came in, harbinger of humor she deployed as jumpy/pushy/aggressive/hormonal,like slapping the backs of men she wanted as a villainous hectoring shook her throat. Why did these moments regularly surface like a whale breaching? Would she have a seizure if she didn't slap those sweaty but sturdy blades and backs? Maybe her mind didn't fully comprehend that the man she wanted was not in her life yet. If she continued to act so rambunctiously, the quiet, stoic Max Von Sydowesque men she desired wouldn't come after her, loudness being anathema to a woman's historically demure allure. Men used their deep voices, men told the jokes—if they didn't get to, they would feel belittled and sulk back into their reluctantness about vivacious women who were grandfathered monthly periods of such behavior, not bi-weekly snorting fests. Janet had to be aloof—Janet had to go up to 220 on the calf curls.
At seven-thirty in the evening the Holiday Inn bar was quiet. Ron, the only bartender, removed his nametag before serving and hoped his supervisor Teddy wouldn't come by and reprimand him. Ron didn't like his name and only wanted certain chosen people to know what it was. He self-described as a man o'war, though he was never in a war and believed the phrase meant exiled. Breathing into wine glasses and then rubbing the insides, he thought it didn't matter if he had just beat swine flu by consuming three dozen Emergen-C packets in an hour, people at this Holiday Inn by Interstate 77 hardly ever drank the Nectar of the Gods. He stopped and gazed perplexedly at his pale hands. If he were drinking in the late winter, he'd surely down some rich red wine instead of Sam Adams winter lager as he did when living in Paris and Berlin, though he seldom mentioned Deutschland given he usually dated Jewish women.
Though Ron might have further self-described himself as pseudo-cultivated, in more self-uncritical moments he thought his face and body superlative for his age and utilizing his pocket mirror, he plucked a graying hair from his earlobe and chanted the approbation: Male or female, I am the most attractive forty-nine-year-old employee in North America. Then he stared at his only customer, a fat young man clad in flannel who had asked if there was a wrestling channel and could he watch it. The presence with the puffy neck squirted some more unremarkable words while Ron quietly retched as he turned the TV to the tights network. For the rest of the night he decided between whether he wanted the tub to simply leave or to have a heart attack.
According to the printouts only three people had checked into the hotel since four o'clock. This was good, because Ron had a shitload on his mind. Of course he had the novel to finish but more pressingly, he had to decide by midnight if he was gay or not. For weeks, Morten Theilsen, a wealthy real estate mogul with a generous helping of white hair and a face rounded by red cheeks (Ron wasn't sure if they signaled an alcohol problem, a circulation problem, or both) had wanted him to come to his house for dinner. Morten was a regular at the bar and adored the fact of Ron's overseas experience, especially Germany because Morten had relatives in Dusseldorf.
Ron had a notebook next to the register with two columns written out:
- Money from Morten, I can write
- I will live in a big house, many different rooms, my own personal library
- Many trips to Europe and various beach resorts, including his winter condo in Big Sur (but I will have to be with Morten, so possibly this is a disadvantage)
- Don't have to work (again could be a disadvantage as I like studying the people I serve and sometimes meet women I can have sex with) NOTE: this particular one definitely belongs in the other column
- Sex with Morten (he has a beard and eats fish, I hate the taste of fish, even worse when smeared and steaming from another's lips)
- Being out in public with Morten (people will think I'm gay—I've dealt with that my whole life—but people will think I have mansex with Morten—they will think I'm in it for the money, people aren't stupid—so really I'll only look like a gold-digger, can I live with that? Well, I've lived in obscurity all my life, I like shaking it up)
- Risk of AIDS (of course Morten will be negative, but this doesn't quell my anxiety—if gay men are the ones who predominantly get AIDS and I become a gay man, the forces that be will brand me more predisposed)
Ron's novel was a self-described mildly autobiographical piece of sometimes spectacular, sometimes clunky (he didn't want to overwhelm the reader) Henry Jamesian prose, though the prose wasn't Jamesian, it was written in the style of Ron, that is to say, dreadful. And save for changing the number of women he slept with during his three years in Paris from ten to thirty-nine, the main character's trials in a strange land—the visit to a French dentist on Christmas for emergency bridge work and a stint as a waiter, where he worked with a pre-famous lip-moled actress—were verbatim, the way it was.
Ron swirled his ginger ale and made a bet with himself. He would ask the first woman who came to the bar if she thought he was gay. If she said yes, he was gay. If not, he would stick to the cheap apartment and try the University of Phoenix's online workshop to help him finish his novel. Mostly he couldn't decide where to put the chapter breaks, but he would leave that up to the professional he would be assigned to.
Janet did a few laps in the pool and showered before putting on the dress she'd bought at Marshall's though she told people it was from the Gap, it looked that snazzy—sheer, wattled with formations of flowers and shrubs. A cherub's mouth cried out just before the material ended at her knee.
She removed onions from a pre-made turkey foccacia, ate half and brushed her teeth. She'd have to get up early and fly out at six after the seminar tomorrow, so tonight would be the only chance for fate to work before returning to her Oak Park living room full of The Power of Now audio CD's and the entire run of Oprah Magazine.
Janet only debated rubbing on insta-tan for seven minutes (a record by two minutes) before lathering her arms and legs. If nothing else the definition gave her the look of a gym instructor, a sure source of conversation in case the usual spiel about her seminars failed to impress. The very good dress with Renaissance associations acted as a failsafe, though she refused to explain again what a cherub was, unless the guy was unconscionably rich.
It was Wednesday. No football. The airport had been out of the Wall Street Journal. She'd order a double whiskey.
The bartender looked Greek or Greco-American, but lonely-seeming. A kid at the end of the bar watched wrestling. I'm in mama's boy mcfuckland, she thought, and shuddered at the thought of no outgoing asswipe in the vicinity. The bartender was tall though, fit. She dropped her purse and flexed her calves.
As she sat, Ron tossed a coaster in her direction, but before she could order a double whiskey he asked if she thought he was gay. Instantly her calves tensed and though she wanted to cough or do something sympathy-building, she couldn't do anything, being so pissed off at Akron for having such wingnuts living in it.
She stared at him and fixed on his chin dimple. "No," she said, "but I could be wrong."
He smiled, darkly. "You'd only be wrong if you were wrong, but I'm in luck because you seem like a smart woman. What can I get you?"
Now she hated him. She hated him more than she hated men who called her 'baby' in the first minute, but probably less than men who complained about big vaginas. She couldn't explain her hatred, maybe she inherited it from her father who used to punch so many holes in walls they had to keep a bucket of spackle around. Her father was dead but his anger lived on in his only daughter, a daughter he'd wanted to see happily married and secured by another man's money. Yet just before his death he had to settle for her living with a retired tennis coach and his grown son, a twelve-year-old that picked his butt and called him Step-Grandpa. No wonder he was so mad. "Double whiskey," and she viciously swiped to check Chicago's weekly forecast.
Ron, happy because she wasn't his type, made her double a triple. Eyeing her as she came in he thought she might have tumors in her swollen calves and what if he had been attracted to her and went all the way and woke up one morning in her honey-scented boudoir finally desiring kids. He didn't want babies with monster legs.
"Thank you," she simpered.
Ron wiped the bar. "Maybe you wonder why I asked that question."
"No, I don't wonder."
"You don't wonder?"
"No, wonder not, do I."
"Are you an English teacher?"
She downed the whiskey. "Is that what 'smart' women are to you? You must have grown up poor."
Ron smiled at her. "I like your voice."
"I don't like your smile. It's shit-eating and prissy and I don't have sex with men who work in Holiday Inns, especially men over fifty who work in Holiday Inns."
"I'm not over fifty babycakes."
"Excuse me," she yelped and tried to clap shut her phone but it wasn't the sort to be folded and that was awkward. Even worse was his half referring to her as "baby," but by its placement in the annals of her hate she should now hate him less than she once did. If she had the Wall Street Journal she could hit him. "You don't want me to get you fired, do you?"
Ron chewed his tongue and then said, "I want you to get so drunk you'll sit there confessing what a waste your life has been and how you wish you could do it over again. Nevertheless, I still like your voice."
Janet pushed the empty glass at him. "You are one of the most disgusting less-than-fifty-year-olds I have ever met. Do I really look like an English teacher?"
After watching the bronco riding channel in his room, Timothy decided he would do something he never did—go to the hotel bar. He wanted some Coke for the throbbing migraine that started as soon as he looked at that little white goddamn dog. Plus, ripping people off actually took a toll on him. Deep down, he really didn't want to do it, but he didn't want to have a boss either. Plus there remained the minor physical attraction to Condoleezza. She was thin and had a jogger's body and those red dresses! Though they'd never met, he thought she might be an interesting person to have sex with. So powerful, and she'd been to brunch in many different countries and met other very powerful people with food stuck in their teeth. Meeting other powerful people no doubt made one already powerful kind of supra-powerful, like having sex with someone who's had a lot of sex made one more sexy and more experienced—holy shit wait—on a microbiotic level maybe, but having sex with that sexy someone meant you had now had had sex with all the people that ultra sexy person had had sex with, and seeing how Timothy only had sex with heterosexual women, that meant he had had a lot of sex with men. Couldn't one rather underused corner of his life remain safe and sacred? Now he needed a rum and Coke.
The bartender and the woman at the bar looked involved and he stood a few yards from them, intent on taking his drink to a little table in the back. The woman smacked her lips and turned to him, "Let's ask him," she said and Timothy almost puked. "Do you think he looks gay?" and she thumbed at the bartender.
Timothy's testicles sucked back, trying to hide by the prostate. Were they witchdoctors? How could they read his mind? "I'm sorry," he moaned.
"Don't be sorry," Ron snapped. "We actually have a strong dislike for each other," indicating the woman and himself. "Janet and I— I'm Ron. We were just sitting around wanting some fresh meat to screw with."
"Is there a way I can order a drink without you speaking to me? I'll just give you a twenty for a rum and Coke and you get my change. The customer is always right, right?"
Janet began gurgling like she was underwater. She shook her head and touched Timothy's arm, "Were you born this way?"
"I'm not gay!" he shouted and the youngster at the end of the bar applauded.
Janet swatted Timothy. "We know that silly willy. Gay men are never as morose and depressive as you."
"Oh-oh-oh. I've known some big time morose and depressive gay men in my days," Ron said.
"Really? Did you see them alone at bars?"
Janet reminded Timothy of what a train wreck his mother had been like in her late thirties, sans the calves. He was only ten but if he'd known the phrase then he would have told his ill-bred progenitor, "Finita la commedia, the ruse is up." This woman Janet—who touched strange, morose men—was so loud and unruly and asked questions of such a personal nature you'd think she was on her way to a mental hospital. And she was.
People did deserve to get ripped off if this was how they treated him and with these two both being male and female, he contested his data was based on a good cross-section of the population.
He watched the bartender write in a little notebook and something like cyanide boiled out from Timothy's groin in all directions. Why wasn't this elder, moderately gay-looking man getting his rum and Coke for him? Was he FBI? The elder, moderately gay look did correspond to the FBI look. This bartender (code name Ron) was no friend to Timothy and he swallowed hard, because that meant Janet was the nearest thing to an ally, though an ally with a tad too much eye shadow. Sallow and vitriol-bosomed, she swiveled on her barstool and Timothy tried to clear his throat because after their warmish greeting they were now ignoring him and it didn't feel right, or at least it didn't feel especially warm (more lukewarm) or ingratiating, it actually felt like fire, friendly fire. Here were the only two people in the world who gave a damn about him and he'd responded by questioning their sanity and sexuality and projecting grotesque attributes onto his slipshod ideas of them. But he'd only wanted to get relief from a headache, not debate the sexual preferences of Holiday Inn bartenders. If he could die now but live a little in the future to enjoy the mounds of money via Condi, he would. Yet he decided not to die, but to pat Janet on the back with his index and pinky, the same digits he used on his mother at home when her sciatica said, Fuck you, Laurel.
Alarms went off in Janet and her bones and shoulder blades tried to eat up her backskin so the nameless, disgusting piece of humanity could not touch her. She tried to roll her eyes at Ron but he uncorked a bottle of wine like it lived in his thong during a striptease. And the worst part was the noxious dolt rubbing her wasn't even cute. He looked like Fred MacMurray on his deathbed. Why didn't any hot guys come into hotel bars anymore? She was going to give this sleazy place a really bad rating on expedia.com.
Ron lifted his cheeks to smile. He would probably tell Morten he was not gay, but if the old codger still wanted to live with a non-gay person, he would be happy to oblige. Also, relief tickled his ass crack as the droopy man had taken a liking to Janet and Ron safely relaxed in his heteroness. The droopy, Superdog-looking guy could be nothing but a friend to him, so he waved his hand at Timothy as he poured the wine, "I'll get you your drink, but first I'm buying us all a bottle of Pinot Noir. It's from Oregon. Ever been to Oregon, friend?"
Janet reached behind her and removed Timothy's pathologic hand. "Why don't you sit down. You look a little peaked."
"I'm fine," and Timothy stood, mesmerized by the brief warmth Janet's hand had given him. "Have you ever been a mother?" he asked her.
"No, I've never been one."
"You'd be good at it."
Janet felt her face slide off her skull. "Do you think you are God? Who the hell are you, you weird non-hot person? You come in here and touch me with your two fingers and you talk that mommy shit to me? I've had it with men like you." Quickly she pointed at Ron, "And you. Don't think the Pinot will make up for treating me like a bad onion. I'm onto you—you're a defeatist. Possibly a still aspiring though aged Don Juan, but still a defeatist."
"I've thought much more evil things about you," Timothy said.
"Me too," Ron added. "One can't demand to be conceived a certain way."
"Did Heidegger say that?" Timothy asked.
"Stop ganging up on me! Keep your misery to yourself. It's not my fault you didn't get enough love growing up."
"Whose fault is it?" Timothy said.
"Have a drink," Ron said. "Everyone drink. Everyone needs a drink and everyone needs to drink. I'm toasting us and this knucklehead needs to stop being so honest. Didn't you learn in school how to hide your true feelings?"
"I don't want to talk about—"
"Don't talk at all fuckface." The plump, young, boyish person from the end of the bar was suddenly standing next to them, a gun pointed at Ron. "Everyone give me all your money."
Ron shook his head. "I don't think that sentence is grammatically correct."
"And the register—now."
"Is that a real gun?" Janet asked.
"Why would I use a not real one?"
Suddenly Timothy laughed very loudly and in doing so his body joyously lifted off the ground, his starving for such a laugh temporally quenched.
"If I don't get some money from you people, I start blowing heads apart. The bartender is first."
"Because I like you worst."
"You think I'm gay, don't you?"
"You probably are, but gay or not, your mouth sucks ass and it would be better if we didn't have to hear your whining."
Ron folded his arms and leaned back. "Janet, do you agree with this? Can we take him seriously?"
"I don't disagree with anything anymore because I don't want to get sued."
Timothy laughed some more and noticed the boy with the gun now had a face corresponding to a bizarre, psychedelic amalgamation of the little white dog and his father's graying, bent features. Dog, dad, gun. It was a slogan that scared the shit out of him and miraculously he opened his hands, leapt at the large man-boy, and wrestled for control of the firearm.
They twirled once and hit the bar. Janet tried to make a dent in the assailant with her giant purse but she timed it wrong and belted Timothy in the head, though eerily only the boy yelled out after the blow had been struck.
The boy was stronger than Timothy imagined and this was because the boy wasn't really a boy, but a young man who looked boyish, complete with acne. Muscles and fat and fingers and boom! The the gun went off and Janet screamed. Ron came up behind the manboy and hit his head with a full bottle of wine. It didn't break, so he hit him again, and again, and again, and then it broke and he slumped down.
Timothy was already on the floor. His stomach didn't seem to exist. Janet waved her hand in front of his face, "Hey, hey. Hey you."
He blinked rapidly and looked at her. "Yes, I know you are there, I'm just kind of dealing with something now."
"Oh Christ." She took a green pullover out of her purse and stuffed it against his belly. "Doctors are coming, don't worry."
Timothy closed his eyes. "I always worry when doctors are coming."
Ron was on the phone with the 911 operator, repeating the address for a fifth time. He noticed wine had soaked his gay disadvantages column. Was that a sign?
Even though he was dying, Janet wasn't completely sold on the droopy heroic guy. Maybe his karma had brought on the attempted robbery. Maybe it was Akron's karma. When she got home she'd have to slice open those sealed Buddhist brochures she'd ordered. If she didn't she might die of bad karma. In the near future or before her ovaries were fried, she also had to see if she'd be any good as a mother.
Another phone rang and Timothy instinctively reached to his pocket. "No," Janet yelled. "Don't move." She picked it out delicately. "It says it's Laurel."
Timothy squeezed his shut eyes tighter. "I'll take it."
"Are you kidding?"
"I've been meaning to talk to my mother anyway."
Hi mom, how are you?
What? It's raining there? Well Akron's not far off. It's probably headed our way.
Yeah, I'll be back soon. I'll change that light bulb, don't worry.
No, I don't think I'll be meeting with Condoleezza this time. She's a busy woman.
No, I never said I would get you an autograph.
Listen mom, I know we've been through a lot and the stuff with dad. And I know I've been very moody and sometimes not nice. I just want you to know that—
I sound sick? I don't feel sick.
Mom stop. Please let me speak. Thank you. Now, here's what I have to say—