Stan Rizzo knew he wasn’t closing the deal. It was something about the way she fished her keys out of her purse as soon as they got to the top of her stoop, and she put them right into the upper lock of the door, turning her back toward him and protecting the door. He knew this move. He’d seen it before. He stood next to the door, leaning on the railing to look casual. If his date turned toward him to unbolt the door, there was about to be an invitation. If she turned her back toward him, it was a big, glaring red light. It was like a groundhog seeing its shadow, but instead of foretelling another six weeks of cold, this just meant one chilly evening.
“Thanks for dinner,” Arlene said, with a little rise in her voice that wafted of finality. She pushed a strand of her long, fine hair back behind her ear and looked down and then back up at Stan. She was letting him go but still seemed to be waiting to be dismissed.
Stan had met her at a party in the West Village, where they both lived, two weeks ago, as they drank whiskey-and-Cokes out of Styrofoam cups in a hot kitchen with a window that let in a slight breeze over the fire escape and a torrent of noise from the avenue below. He tried hard to listen to what she was saying, but he kept thinking about how Dow Chemical, for whom he had drawn so many pictures so they could sell their magical substances, probably made the cup that he was digging his thumbnail into right now, as he tried to look sympathetic, nodding while Arlene went on about her current roommate troubles.
“Hey, wanna grab dinner on Wednesday?” he sort of blurted out, almost as a way to get out of the kitchen and back into the party proper. She smiled, happy to be asked, and said yes. But he was similarly disengaged at dinner, probably not making the best impression. Maybe it was too soon after his recent breakup. Maybe the three drinks he had at the office didn’t help keep him a lively conversationalist. Maybe it was when he ordered them both the meat loaf and she had to remind him that she was a vegetarian, and he had to call back the waiter he already waved off. Whatever the reason, he did not seal the deal. If he couldn’t have sex with her tonight, he was unlikely to call her again. He was unlikely to call even if she did put out.
Stan ran his right hand down his face, feeling his beard in his palm and gathering the bottom of it between his thumb and forefinger, giving it a slight tug. He enjoyed that sensation, one less of pain than of grounding. “Yeah,” he replied to Arlene. “No problem. I guess —” he wasn’t sure what to say.
“I’ll catch you at Andy’s next party,” she said, finishing his thought and letting them both off the hook.
“Yeah. See ya,” Stan gave a little salute and bowed his head as he shuffled down the dozen stairs.
It had been a day of disappointments, really. He thought back to that morning, walking into the lobby of the Time-Life building with his portfolio tucked under his arm, taking the elevator up to the 23rd floor with such a sense of anticipation. Joyce, Peggy’s lesbian friend, met him at reception, where the Life logo loomed large over a woman interacting with a phone with many blinking buttons. They walked him back to her office through the alleyways of cubes, reporters attacking typewriters and layout designers walking around with huge boards and flimsy cutouts. She sat down behind her desk and he looked out into sun-filled Manhattan, only able to see the air and the light and the sides of buildings shooting up into the sky. This was much better than the view from the designer’s bullpen where he normally sat.
“So, Peggy told me that you’ve just been promoted?” Stan said in a way that was sort of like a question.
“Yes,” she replied. “I’m the lead photo editor now. And since the promotion, I now need to hire someone to replace, well, me. Show me what you brought.”
Stan handed over his portfolio and she started flipping through the pages, looking quickly but with an analytic eye.
“These are just some things I’ve been working on. The start is some personal photos —”
“Wow, there is some racy work in here.”
“Yeah, Pima Ryan, you know her?”
“I’ve been working with her lately as kind of a mentor and a lot more, really. She told me to try some things with more sensuality. To try to see the world a little bit differently.”
“They’re not bad. But the rest of this is just, well, ads.”
“As you know, I’ve been working at the agency for the past four years. They’re about to be absorbed by McCann, and I thought it might be time to see what else was out there. Maybe try something a bit more artistic.”
“To be honest, your personal work is great. But we’re not looking for photographers, and we don’t really do portraiture as much as we try to capture world events and American culture. We need someone who knows tons of photographers and who can spot good work quickly.”
“Of course I can do that. I have a huge number of contacts who have shot all sorts of things for the ad agency. And I know good work. I think my talents could really be used a lot better here, being more artistic rather than just trying to sell more peanut-butter cookies.”
“Stan, you would be a very unorthodox choice considering you have no experience at all in editorial. I just got this job, I don’t know if my superiors have enough faith in me yet for me to go out on this limb.”
“Okay. I get it.”
Joyce handed his portfolio back across the desk.
“Well, thanks for checking it out. And if you decide to get risky …”
“I’ll give you a call. Tell Peggy I said, ‘What’s up, buttercup?’”
Stan replayed that meeting in his head as he walked away from Arlene’s. Man, this Pima thing really messed him up. Not only the breakup with Elaine, when they both had to treat themselves for crabs and he had to confess his transgression, but the real trouble was thinking about his work. Could he keep on at the agency? Was he missing out on some great artistic future? Would he die happy knowing all he ever did was get more kids to convince their moms to buy shitty cereal?
It was one of those warm nights in Manhattan that is just slightly oppressive, mostly because it seems like it could go on forever, with people teeming along the street and teetering on with their lives. Stan didn’t want to go home yet. He was right near Washington Square Park, and thought he would go see if his pot dealer was there slinging dime bags of Thai Stick to the few NYU students who were willing to slog it out through the heat. Maybe this urban oven, as inhospitable as it could be, was still better than wherever they were from.
He walked the perimeter of the park, looking out for Noah among the bums and broken bottles, the hippies headed down to the music spots on Macdougal Street, a few guys with their briefcases making their way home through too many highballs, and the handful of people sitting there with nothing better to do and nowhere else to go. Like human litter, they collected here, waiting for someone to come and sweep them all away.
He didn’t see Noah anywhere and sat down on one of the benches not far from the arch looking downtown toward Houston Street. He was staring off into to some bushes, trying to figure out if the shifting shadows beneath them were leaves rustling in the wind or rats on some sort of nocturnal commute.
Things weren’t much better when he was at the office today. The representatives from Secor Laxatives came in for a presentation. Peggy set up the new campaign like she always did, speaking slowly in her sweet voice the way Don taught her to, drawing the client into the narrative, promising them that everything would be wonderful and the whole world would open up for them.
They had struggled for weeks trying to figure out the right way to sell their new line of fruit-flavored chewable laxatives, but they finally settled on what they thought was a winner. At the right moment, Peggy looked at Stan, nodding with nothing but her eyes, and he pulled a piece of fabric away from their drawing that sat on an easel.
“Life is a bowl of cherries,” Peggy said. They all looked at the board with the ad, a drawing of a toilet bowl filled with a bunch of cherries that looked like drops of blood oozing through gauze, slowly getting fatter as they just sat there on the page.
The three executives sat quietly across the boardroom table from them until the one on the right said, “Why would people want food in their toilet bowl?”
“We’re not selling them food,” Peggy said with a smile. “We’re selling them promise. The promise to go to the place they want to go more than anywhere else.”
“I don’t know,” the one on the left said. “The idea of eating out of the toilet isn’t what we were thinking of.”
“Dude, what more do you want?” Stan said suddenly, even though Peggy told him under no circumstances to talk. “We got the fruit in there, and the toilet. People know what they’re going to get. They’re not going to eat the fruit, they’re going to eat your laxatives, and it’s going to make them shit better than if they ate fruit.”
All three started to grumble as Peggy looked at him and mouthed, Stan. Don’t. Peggy always got the most authoritarian when she was vulnerable. It was like that time she stripped down in front of him, letting him see all of her skin but also taking control in a way that made him feel uncomfortable. But it wasn’t just that. He also felt not aroused but energized when she got like this.
By the time the day was over, she had forgiven him. When he was leaving work, he hustled into the elevator, and Peggy held the door. He smoothed his cravat, tousled from his little jog to the elevator.
“You got somewhere to be tonight? Some kinda hot date?” she asked.
“Yeah, actually. I do. How did you know?” he said.
“Well, you’re wearing your fancy little, I don’t know, scarf? What do you call that?”
“I call it pretty damn cool, that’s what I call it.”
“It might make you a hit with the ladies, but it didn’t help in the meeting earlier.”
“Listen, little lady, not all of us have to be about work all the time.”
“Don’t you ‘little lady’ me. And I’m not all about work.”
“Then what are you doing tonight?”
“I’m going to get dinner,” Peggy said bluntly, not giving up any more detail.
“Uh-huh, and …” Rizzo said, waiting for her to finish her sentence.
“And take it back to my desk to finish finding a new slogan for Secor Laxatives."
“That’s what I thought,” Stan said, his grin getting wider. And just then the elevator dinged, and the doors opened into the lobby. “Don’t have too much fun tonight, little lady."
He was trying to remember her final reply when he saw Noah walking over. The tall, skinny guy who no one told that the hippie days were over sat down on the bench so hard Stan could hear the wood grovel beneath him. “Here to see a man about a horse?” he asked and smiled at Stan, who rolled his eyes but couldn’t help smiling back. He reached into his pocket and fished out a 20, slipping it into Noah’s hand, who replaced the bill with a small baggie stuffed with grass.
“There’s more where that came from,” Noah said, brandishing a tightly rolled joint in Stan’s direction.
“Cool it, man. What if there are cops around?” Stan said.
“Nah. It’s all good. They never bother with this spot after dark. Too many things they don’t want to see and would rather not have to file paperwork about.”
“I sure could use it. Been thinking too much tonight.”
“About what? Your cushy job not paying enough? Your sweet girlfriend not putting out anymore?”
“No, she’s not. Elaine broke up with me a few weeks ago.”
“Damn, that’s cold, dude. Women are always coming on to you and then turning on you when you give them the chance.”
“Ain’t that right. I should be up at this chick’s place giving her the ride of her life right now, but she had other ideas.”
“Let me tell you something about women,” Noah said, lighting the joint, taking a sharp inhale and then speaking through his held breath as he passed it to Stan. “I’ve been slinging to this girl for months,” Noah exhaled the remainder of his smoke. “She looked like Joni Mitchell’s hot younger sister.”
“Joni Mitchell is hot, man,” Stan said before inhaling.
“Oh, yeah, she is hot, and this girl was even hotter. She was always flirting up on me, rubbing my arm, telling me how hot I looked, pretending like she wanted to get down. I thought she was totally looking to ride on the baloney pony. But, you know, it’s business. So I just flirted and went along with it, thinking she was trying to get a fatter bag or some discount or something. But no, she paid full price, never bothered me, but always getting this close to just grabbing my Johnson.”
“Okay. That doesn’t sound too crazy, other than her wanting your skinny ass.”
“Hey, watch it, brother. Anyway, one day I was feeling horny, and she comes by my place to score. She was trying her usual thing, and I decide I’m really going to flirt back and I say, ‘You’re always sweating me so hard, why don’t you finally put my money where your mouth is,’ right? Well, she does. She gets on her knees, undoes my pants, pushes me down on the couch, and she goes to town on my dick. She’s just giving me the time of my life, and I’m loving it, man. I never thought I would get this. So I finish, right, make a big mess —”
“You can spare me the details.”
“No, listen. I make a mess, so she tells me to go into the bathroom and clean up, wash it off in the sink because my pants are off. Don’t take more than two minutes, and I get back into the room and not only is she gone, but so are my pants, all the money in them, and most of my stash from the bookshelf. Just all gone.”
“What?” Stan exclaimed, starting to feel his head swell up and the heat of the evening slowing down in front of his face. He passed the last bit of a roach back to Noah.
“Yep, that bitch took it all. Everything. She was playing the long con, man. She was just waiting for that day to get me alone, and then bam, took me for everything.”
“That is awful.”
“Yeah, it was the best fucking head I ever got in my life, though.” Noah tossed the roach toward the bushes and Stan stared at the cherry still glowing, waiting to see if he could see rats in the redness.
“Not to depress you and then bolt,” Noah said, “But there are lots of men out here that need their horses.”
“Thanks for the extra high,” Stan said, fully feeling it now. The darkness was closing around him or the streetlights seemed like they were receding, one or the other. He didn’t want to stand, he just wanted it all to close in on him until he blinked away and woke up somewhere warm and familiar.
Stan hung his head forward, feeling the stretch in his muscles, the tendons and ligaments seeming like they were going to pop, his beard bristling against his shirt, his neck a ring of discomfort, the only thing keeping his head from floating away. The dark seemed everywhere, right on top of him and far away at the same time, the bushes shimmering in the distance that was only a yard from him. He thought of Arlene, probably telling the roommate she hated about the awful date with the loser guy she went on. He thought of Elaine, probably at the hospital, dealing with some patient near death but unwilling to deal with him anymore. He thought of Pima and Joyce, both unimpressed with his work, both so sexily mannish. Then he thought of Peggy, with her burnt-orange suit and her flipped-up hair. Peggy with her coffee cup and the long calls. Peggy with the couch that was too short for him to lie down on fully but he always ended up there, anyway. Peggy … Peggy …
He lurched himself forward and decided that he was way too stoned to be out in public all alone, especially in this park with the rats under the bushes, or whatever they were, some mystery concocted by the gloom. He walked home, the city but a shimmer around him, unable to focus on the periphery as he just stared at the sidewalk, his eyes providing a searchlight, all that he could see, each step like an impossibly heavy tread.
When his stoop showed up, he wasn’t quite sure how he’d made it all the way home. He was on some sort of autopilot, finding his way in innate survival mode. His keys seemed gigantic in his fumbling fingers, but for the first time all night, he started to relax. The high was suddenly a little less edgy, like the outside world wasn’t trying to wear him down, like all he had to do was sink into his bed, still wearing his clothes, and let the night fade into morning.
He opened the front door and walked the three flights to his apartment. Just as he was at his door, he could hear the phone ringing inside. He stood there, his head focused on his feet and his hands, still holding his keys, hanging beside him. He didn’t move, letting the phone ring and counting each burst of noise. Four, five, six. He kept counting, not able to open the door to answer it, afraid that he knew who was on the other end, but also afraid that he didn’t really know after all.