Sometime around the year 2002 or 2003 I wrote a novella called THE BAD CZECH. The narrative of that novella is a proper Möbius strip in which the narrator dies about two-thirds of the way through. Then I wrote two more novellas, THE BOMB COLLECTOR and JESUS IN VEGAS. They form a postmodern (I’m not ashamed of the word) trilogy that I’ve collected in one book called
I painted the Phalli, illustrating this post, in Southern California, during a time the THE BAD CZECH references (the narrator had been living with the female lead of that book, Lola, then, too). The paintings are about the various changes my first capitalism-unhinged wife was putting me through (as I always say: the real battle of the sexes is not between women and men but between bullies and manipulators, of all genders, on the battleground of status). Otherwise, the narrator is, very intentionally, my opposite. The painting of hapless dicks you see above are the only real overlap… (pun intended)…
EXCERPT from THE BAD CZECH (novella one in the collection):
Too bad it was always the men who were strong enough to leave her who always left her! Too bad it was always the men who were wise enough to resist her who always resisted her! Why did it always have to be the type who fell in love with her who…fell in love with her? She wanted for once to be wanted by a man who didn’t want her. Left by a man who would stay…
Lola was smiling. It still hurt to.
On the way to the airport, waiting for the taxi in front of the apartment building I would never see again (fuck you, and goodbye forever, 3e, with your salsa music… 3b, with your phony orgasms), I had seen a dead bird on the sidewalk. A sparrow. A breeze ruffled the frizz of its breast.
I pointed it out to her but she rolled her eyes and looked away. But my point… or the point I was going to make… was that this dead bird was maybe the third I’d seen, inert on the sidewalk, since moving to California a few years before. And yet the trees and the sky are full of birds, millions of them, and they aren’t immortal. What’s the average life span of a sparrow, anyway? A few years? Shouldn’t the streets and sidewalks be thick with dead birdies? It doesn’t add up.
Just a thought. An airport thought, apropos of nothing. What does your mind get up to when faced with the higher-than-usual probability of Death? Imagine making a reservation, a month in advance, to play fifteen hours of Russian roulette. I was scared.
“What do you call these?”
Lola offered me half of a bear claw with a quizzical pout. She held it out at arm’s length and shook it at me, but I shook my head as well, and she retracted it. But then I reached for it and tore it in half and stuffed it in my mouth.
She’s only offering what she doesn’t want, I was thinking. Food she was really interested in she usually started on quickly, insurance against sharing more than half of it, a habit I diagnosed as stemming from her foreign childhood. A childhood of the rationed and the ersatz. Self-sacrifice, even in a mild snack-related form, was not one of her moves. Her food in ‘our’ refrigerator had always been protected by red Ls of nail polish. Especially the chunky peanut butter; that was off limits. That was her lieblings snack. If you’ve never ejaculated in a jar of chunky peanut butter…
She said, “You said…”
“I said what?”
“How can I forget what I haven’t heard yet?”
Sigh. “Let’s not fight, baby, okay? Let’s just try to be nice…” she looked at the wall clock, “…for twenty minutes.”
“If you say so,” I said, but I was thinking two things. First: you can’t wait, can you? Second: when did you start calling me ‘baby’? Was that one of Harry’s words? Was she going to be running back to Harry as soon as I left the country? Harry the video game pornographer with racial dysmorphia. At least he’s rich. At least he isn’t a loser like me.
In any case I expected the worst. I didn’t expect Lola to be satisfied until she’d utterly ruined both of us. That’s how bad things had gotten with my Lola and me, but I was jumpy anyway, jumpy and fearful and therefore not very hungry at all, though I put away that bear claw quickly enough, holding my sugar-cursed hands at face-level afterwards. Loath to touch anything.
Not long ago, Lola would have tended to them briskly, with a kleenex. Without us needing to exchange a word. Now, as I sat there, sticky-fingered and mildly wretched, there was nothing, no response, her once-taut sensors had gone slack. She was reading something of great interest and just… kept reading… as I sat there like a post-scrub neurosurgeon. She licked a thumb and turned a page and I finally wiped my hands on my thighs. The machine of our love, as we both already knew, was broken.
I turned my mind to other thoughts. I had fifteen hours of flight to get through, involving two connections and the monstrous underlying threat of the North Atlantic. The bottom of the North Atlantic is littered with travelers, both ancient and new. Lola was checking her lips in a little mirror.
There’s something so dispassionately technical about the way a woman looks at her own mouth, I was thinking. If only I could learn to look at a woman’s mouth that way. I licked a still-sticky finger pleasurelessly. Lola patted my arm. A plane took off.
“It’s only fifteen hours,” she said. “The first part is nothing.”
She gave me a thumbs-up and a wink: another Americanism she’d only recently added to her collection, like ‘baby.’ I watched a mustached businessman in a seat at the far end of the lounge staring at her, and his eyes went back to his Financial Times when he saw me see him see her do it to me.
Be my guest, sucker, I wanted to shout across the lounge at him.
I looked at her as a stranger would. I looked at her as if I were graying in a distinguished fashion, paunching a little, unlovably (but reliably) mustached, peeking at a woman over the tremulous hedge of a Financial Times. A tall blonde with a fabulous body, a strikingly pretty face… yes of course. I’ll call my accountant. She would be easily worth the added expense.
“Only fifteen hours?” I said, after a very long pause during which Lola put down and picked up again our copy of Vogue magazine, the one we’d just gotten in the mail that morning. A potent symbol of life. I intended to use it to ward off any existential panics that were sure to bedevil me in flight. She wiped her hands of her own bear claw gunk and folded the Vogue open and held up a page to me, frowning.
“Do you think she’s pretty?”
The first part of my journey was the thirty minute flight from Lindberg Field to LAX, in a propeller-driven airplane that looked like a good vehicle for a cheap cinematic death when I first saw it waiting for me on the landing field. There were dings in the shiny fuselage from decades of rolling staircases being shoved by careless members of the ground crew against it. It was a sunny, windy day. Black gusts of jet exhaust blew across the airfield like windblown widows’ veils.
My fellow passengers that day were of two types: the ones who make the quick hop to L.A. routinely, with Wall Street Journals rolled in the nooks of their blazered arms, and the ones like me who were disconcerted to find themselves about to take a sweaty hike across a dusty landing field towards a thirty-year old propeller airplane with a hole in it. A hole.
There was a little round portal under the cockpit window, about the size of the hole in the ticket-seller’s window at a cinema, and the pilot was handing something to, or receiving something from, a member of the ground crew through it. It looked like a Magritte painting, the sight of that uniformed arm, with its gold-trimmed cuff, sticking out of that hole under the cockpit window of the little plane. Or like a plane with an arm in a kid’s book. I didn’t see it until I walked across the tarmac. But it was a comfort, too, because what kind of kid’s book would tell the story of a plane with an arm and then let it crash?
Lola had her back to me, staring out the dusty glass wall of the terminal. With the same mysterious part of her brain that she used in order to finish most of my sentences, or to retract her mouth and jam her eyes shut the instant before a gusher, she managed to turn the exact moment that I stood up, coat slung over arm, ready to leave.
I said “Lola…” and she backed away with a detached smile. I took a step towards her and she backed away again. I sang, softly, “Lola,” and she shook her head, a finger over her lips to shush me, and waved me away, as though with the force of the breeze from her hand to push me through the terminal door and out across the patches of raw sunlight and oily shadows of the tarmac towards the plane.
The more I thought on it, blasted with grit and exhaust as I followed my fellow passengers up the rolling staircase into the fuselage, the more I realized that Lola’s goodbye had been perfect. And so the more I wondered why I was leaving her.
But there was no time to dwell on that, because my mind was busy shutting itself down with mortal fear. Before I knew it, I was jamming my eyes shut with terror, sailing out over the Pacific Ocean in an exotic curve that I was sure would end with a sputter of the engines, a magical spate of silence and weightlessness and then death. Instead, we slammed softly through a few boulders of cold dense air before leveling off over the little white waves that scalloped the coastline. Seagulls glittered over the Pacific like confetti.
I had the Vogue on my lap, my hands palm-down on it. The cover was already puckered and warped with sweat, just fifteen minutes into the flight. The guy in the seat next to me, who bore an uncanny resemblance to George Harrison, was casually flipping his way through Screen Writer’s Monthly. A very tall, white-haired, George Harrison… with heavy black eyebrows.
“I see you don’t agree with flying,” he said in a voice that wasn’t George Harrison’s at all. It was absurdly deep, and he ornamented the end of the heavily-accented sentence with a hacking cough that I correctly placed as Eastern-European in origin. He was dressed in a modish suit with thin lapels, and a dark shirt with a strange collar, which added to his Beatly aura.
I’m tall but he was taller. I’m a bit wider but he was bony and taller. He was obviously too tall to sit comfortably on the airplane… his knees were not far from his chin… but he didn’t seem to be inclined to complain about it. My immediate thought was: He’s so glad to be in America, there could be a spike up his ass and he’d be saying ‘Please! Thank You! Make it a rustier spike, if you prefer!’’
He stuck out a hand and identified himself. His hand was hairy and raw-wristed and huge…I was hesitant to put my fingers in it. But he smiled when he said his name, and his too-white teeth were traced in black (a cheap or very old cap job) which for whatever reason made him seem less likely to crush my fingers. It’s funny how some forms of ugliness are seen as nice, and some as sinister and likewise it goes with beauty.
“Miro Pahnik. I’m in the Luck Business.”
I told him my name, shaking his hand, and added, “I’m a Starving Artist.” I gave him a look of what I considered to be hip resignation. “What do you mean by ‘the Luck Business’?”
He winked. “Movies. All of my filthy rich comrades…the directors and screenwriters and working actors… they all say, when explaining their fantastic success, ‘It was luck!’ Which is supposed to be taken as pure modesty,” said Miro Pahnik, leaning in towards me to make his point, “But really it’s the height of arrogance. Because what they’re saying by saying that all of their success comes from luck is that they are favored by God!” His eyes widened.
“Can you imagine? Favored by God! Likewise, when Oscar time comes and they get that statuette in their sweaty little well-manicured hands, who’s the first person they invariably thank? God! The same God who wouldn’t lift a finger to save an innocent Jew from being peeled like a banana in a Nazi experiment has bothered to help this movie star win an Oscar!”
I had never thought of it in that way before and told him so. He looked deeply satisfied to hear this. He touched a cigarette-yellowed fingertip to his temple. “How can one avoid eating shit if one doesn’t know exactly what it tastes like?”
I smiled and stared out of the window, slightly sick at the extreme plausibility of the sudden fantasy I was having of Lola watching the news of my plane crash and hugging the television with demented grief, sobbing in German, looking sexy as hell with puffy red eyes and banshee hair and lips all glossy with tear-snot.
I was still rigid in my seat when the plane began lowering its belly like a dimwitted gull over Los Angeles, which looked like an entire country from the air, and I took the first deep breath that I’d taken in forty five minutes.
The journey across LAX, from one terminal to another, and then to the plane itself, was ordeal number two. I spent more time in a line for the check-in for my flight to Frankfurt, where I’d make the connection to Berlin, than I’d spent already in the air. It was an immense comfort to find myself strapped into my window seat in the Lufthansa jet, which was so full of people speaking German that I felt that I was already outside of the U.S. Both of the seats beside me remained empty as the plane taxied out on the runway, and I couldn’t believe my luck.
Which is why I was mildly surprised, and deeply disappointed, to feel someone lower himself into the seat beside me nearly an hour into the flight, as I lay my head against the chilly porthole with my eyes closed, trying to make time fly by ignoring it. The pilot had just announced, in three languages, that we were over the Grand Canyon. I opened my eyes and glanced to the right without moving my head, or uncrossing my arms from over my chest. It was George Harrison again.
“I had to get away from my first-class seat mates. I hope you don’t mind.”
I let a theatrically drowsy smile play across my face, hoping to discourage conversation by establishing, immediately, the ground rules for my version of the flight: reading; movie watching; sleep. “Not at all,” I said quietly. I yawned.
He peered at the Vogue, which was still in my lap and heavy as a Bible. “May I?”
I handed it over and he took it in his hands with relish. He was full of energy. He licked his thumb, the tic of inveterate readers of a certain age, and plowed into it.
“This is contraband stuff in my circle of friends, you see. Nothing is more puritanical than a repentant hedonist, and all of my friends are repentant hedonists. This includes my good friend the feminist with the breast implants. In her eyes, a man who reads a fashion magazine is just a tiny step above a pedophile.”
He paged through the issue, the decadently voluminous fall issue, with real pleasure, stopping to linger, now and then, on certain splayed-limbed poses, certain slack-jawed or pouty close-ups. He cocked an eyebrow at me, looking up from the magazine, though he was still rifling through it. “You subscribe?”
“Yes and no. It’s in my girlfriend’s name, but it’s for me.” I sat upright. The sleep-ruse was obviously pointless. I was blinking, looking around the cabin, orienting myself to the conversation.
“She must be quite secure in her looks.”
I held up a finger, meaning “hold that thought” and unbuckled my seat belt. I then went through the foolish contortion required to dig my wallet out of my back left pocket. There was no money in it, but it was full of pictures of Lola. A telling metaphor. I handed him the wallet and he slipped a picture (the picture of Lola at the nude beach in La Jolla) out of its hiding place behind a tamer photograph of the two of us together on a horse. As if he’d known it was there. I almost reached for it, the naked one, to save it from his fingers, but held my breath instead.
Her hair is boy-short and bright and sharp as metal in this picture. She’s squinting into the sun which is setting behind me as I aim the camera and my shadow is rippling over her like the diaphanous gray fabric of the most expensive dress in creation. Her unshadowed left breast seems to burst from the photo in contrast. It made me feel kind of provincial to feel so queer about letting him see that private image, private for reasons beyond the nudity of it, from back in the sweet days when Lola and I first enjoyed California together. The Czech studied the picture and nodded slowly, his mouth turned down at its corners.
“I can see you have problems with her,” he pronounced, like a Doctor thinking his way through a tricky prognosis. “She’s pretty, and you’re such a nice young fellow, so you can’t resist the unfortunate impulse to treat her like a princess,” he handed me back the photo and wallet separately, looking me directly in the eye as he finished his thought, “Which bores her to tears.”
I had a ridiculous smile on my face. “What?”
“She’s crying out for a little rough treatment, man… that’s obvious.” He went back to the Vogue, and turned the pages carefully, as though looking for an example in support of his argument. “Ha” he said. “Look.”
He held up a picture of a doe-eyed blonde with a fat lower lip, posed between two po-faced Masai warriors, and she was as sleek and cool as a utensil in her vinyl dress and thigh-high white vinyl boots. “The first man who is man enough to fuck this girl in the ass will own her forever. He could be a cop or a garbage man, it wouldn’t matter. In fact, one of these big black gentlemen beside her in the picture would do nicely.” He chuckled deeply, blowing a raspy coalmine breeze on me from those dark lungs. He patted my knee. “I’ve offended you.”
“Not at all,” I said, clearing my throat, but I was thinking: you rude fucking refugee from a third world communist bloc country. “But you’re wrong. First off,” I began counting on my fingers, “She isn’t bored with me at all… in fact it’s quite the opposite, since I’m leaving her. Second, I’m not young… I’m thirty six. And third…” I lowered my voice, “I’ve already fucked her in the ass,” I lied, “and it really wasn’t a big deal at all. For either of us.”
He bowed a bit… a subtle inclination of the head that Dukes and Barons were always doing in screwball Hollywood comedies of the ‘Thirties… conceding my point. He closed the Vogue and set it carefully on his lap, studying the cover during the awkward silence that followed. Awkward for me, at least, but clearly not for him. His follow-up question was:
“And so you’re leaving her?”
“Yes. Flying to Berlin.”
“May I ask why?”
“No, you may not.” I tried to make it sound playfully sarcastic, but it came out sounding… terse. He chuckled deeply. His leather-lunged chuckle.
“Look,” I said, “I’m not trying to be rude. I mean, I don’t want to seem…”
Pahnik opened the Vogue again. “No need to apologize! You were only being frank. If only Americans, in general, would be so frank! As we say in Prague, ‘you can’t make a good soup with luke-warm water,’ and that’s all I get in L.A., day in and day out, on the beach, in the sauna, or at the sushi bar. Warm water! I miss burning my tongue a little, from time to time, in Europe. You Americans call it rudeness. ”
I yawned. I couldn’t help myself. “Pretty lucrative business, screen-writing?” The stupidity of the question was neutralized by the good will behind the gesture of asking, I felt.
“Oh, obscenely so, my friend.” He winked. “Obscenely so.” He patted the imaginary mound of a wallet in his jacket pocket.
“Do you have a writing credit on anything I’d know, like, er… ‘Heaven’s Gate’ or something?”
He shook his head. “Not at all, and that’s the trick. That’s the trick. I’m the author of well over one hundred paid-for scripts… I first arrived in Paradise in the early ‘80s, clinging desperately to the edge of Milos Forman’s flying carpet. He had done ‘Cuckoo’s Nest,’ and ‘Hair’, and was soon to have a major success with ‘Amadeus’. Anyway, as I was saying, I have written over one hundred paid-for scripts, and twice as many ‘treatments’, and the least I ever got for a script, counting the advance for the ‘treatment’, was $50,000.00, adjusting for inflation, which is peanuts, as you say. And not a one of those scripts became a movie! Not a one! And for that I thank my lucky stars and also a little skill on my part…but mostly it’s luck. As I told you earlier, I’m in the Luck Business.”
“But,” I said, “I don’t get it. You’ve written a hundred scripts in twenty years and not one became a movie. Isn’t that… I mean… wouldn’t some call that a kind of… how can I put this…”
“No worries! Don’t be afraid of the word! You’re showing your stars and stripes again! But, no. A failure it’s not. For two reasons… for at least two reasons. First reason: in Follywood, what you want, even more than to have a so-called ‘hit’, is to not have a so-called ‘bomb’… not having a bomb is even better than having a hit. Because a ‘hit’ is something to live up to… and while two or three hits in a row may be reasonably called a success, one hit alone… followed by a resounding silence…”
He drew a jagged-nailed finger across his ropey red neck, figuratively decapitating himself, with a disturbingly skull-like grin. Those big white teeth traced in grout.
“As long as you’re not having a bomb, it is possible for everyone to believe that you will have a hit one day, and the safest way to not have a bomb is to not even have the script made into a picture! Not to mention the fact that the rights to a script that isn’t made into a movie at some point revert to me… that’s in my contract… and so I can feasibly then sell that very same script again… for more, usually, than I did the first time! In fact, yes, there’s one script of mine…‘The Bad Czech’… that I have rewritten and sold more than three times already, in intervals of five years, doubling the price every time that I’ve re-sold it.”
He settled back into his seat, stroking a page in the Vogue (a Vaselined black model with a shaved head and H-bomb tits was modeling for a line of clothing started by an aging rapper with a taste for rhinestoned panties) and looked quite deep in thought. He might have been Thomas Merton discussing an Augustinian paradox with me, or Enrico Fermi eulogizing the atom.
“I’m considered a hot-property as a screen-writer, because I’ve been on the scene for twenty years, longer than the Ice Age, and yet I’ve never had a bomb! That’s quite a track record! My asking price nowadays is quite phenomenal. Because I’ve never written an actual film that could do bad box office, and I’ve never had a so-called ‘hit’ to live up to, that means my perceived potential for writing blockbusters is… astronomical.”
“Still, of course, I’m not even in the top sixty percent. I’m little potatoes, as far as lunch in Tinsletown goes. But I might as well be Louis the bloody Sixteenth compared to some poor schlub of a college professor in Missouri, or some serf of a trauma specialist getting splashed with A.I.D.S.-infected blood on a daily basis in some roach-infested E.R. in the barrio.”
“Or some wretch of an artist living in a one bedroom apartment with a girlfriend he can’t afford in San Diego,” I offered, with a curled lip.
He waved my self-pity away jovially.
“And the beauty of this all is,” he concluded, in a lower tone, as if he really wanted me to understand the seriousness of his point, “is that I’ve been circulating the same scripts over and over again now for five years… I haven’t done a lick of work in all that time. And still, the money rolls in… these monstrous, sun-blotting waves… tidal waves of cash that I couldn’t stop if I wanted to.”
He raised an instructive finger. I couldn’t avoid staring at that yellow, thick, and hacked-at nail on the end of it. It looked like something from an Egyptian tomb. The faded carapace of a scarab. “Though not, and you may well resent me for saying this… not as idyllic as you, having no money, might assume.”
“Oh really?” If there was one thing I was sick of, it was hearing rich people say that. Money can’t buy happiness? Fuck you. Try being poor. Resent him I did.
As it turned out, the finger he lifted was not instructive at all. He was signaling for the stewardess’ attention. While he was waiting for the tight-lipped girl to bring him a drink, he began to tell me a story that he swore was true.