The Devil Knows You're Dead Page 2

 When I first met Elaine she was a call girl, and she was still in the game when we got back together again. She went on turning tricks while we set about establishing a relation-ship, and I pretended that it didn’t bother me, and she did the same. We didn’t talk about it, and it became the thing we didn’t talk about, the elephant in the parlor that we tiptoed around but never mentioned.

 Then one morning we had a mutual moment of truth. I admitted that it bothered me, and she admitted that she had secretly gotten out of the business several months previ-ously. There was a curious “Gift of the Magi” quality to the whole affair, and there were adjustments to be made, and new routes to be drawn on what was essentially uncharted terrain.

 One of the things she had to figure out was what to do with herself. She didn’t need to work. She had never been one to give her money to pimps or coke dealers, but had in-vested wisely and well, sinking the bulk of it into apartment houses in Queens. A management company handled every-thing and sent her a monthly check, and she netted more than enough to sustain her life-style. She liked to work out at the health club and go to concerts and take college courses, and she lived in comfort in the middle of a city where you could always find something to do.

 But she had worked all her life, and retirement took some getting used to. Sometimes she read the want ads, frowning, and once she’d spent a week trying to put together a résumé, then sighed and tore up her notes. “It’s hopeless,” she an-nounced. “I can’t even fill in the blanks with interesting lies. I spent twenty years diddling for dollars. I could say I spent the time as a housewife, but so what? Either way I’m essen-tially unemployable.”

 One day she said, “Let me ask you a question. How do you feel about phone sex?”

 “Well, maybe as a stopgap,” I said, “if we couldn’t be together for some reason. But I think I’d feel too self-conscious to get into the spirit of it.”

 “Idiot,” she said affectionately. “Not for us. To make money. A woman I know claims it’s very lucrative. You’re in a room with ten or a dozen other girls. There are partitions for privacy, and you sit at a desk and talk on a telephone. No hassles about getting paid. No worries about AIDS or her-pes. No physical danger, no physical contact even, you never see the clients and they never see you. They don’t even know your name.”

 “What do they call you?”

 “You make up a street name, except you wouldn’t call it that because you’d never get anywhere near the street. A phone name, but I’ll bet the French have a word for it.” She found a dictionary, paged through it. “Nom de téléphone. I think I like it better in English.”

 “And who would you be? Trixie? Vanessa?”

 “Maybe Audrey.”

 “You didn’t have to stop and think, did you?”

 “I talked to Pauline hours ago. How long does it take to think up a name?” She drew a breath. “She says she can get me on where she works. But how would you feel about it?”

 “I don’t know,” I said. “It’s hard to predict. Maybe you should try it and we’ll both see how we feel. That’s what you want to do, isn’t it?”

 “I think so.”

 “Well, what is it they used to say about masturbation? Do it until you need glasses.”

 “Or a hearing aid,” she said.

 She started the following Monday and lasted all of four hours of a six-hour shift. “Impossible,” she said. “Out of the question. It turns out I’d rather fuck strangers than talk dirty to them. Do you want to explain that to me?”

 “What happened?”

 “I couldn’t do it. I was hopeless at it. This one dimwit wanted to hear how big his cock was. ‘Oh, it’s huge,’ I said. ‘It’s the biggest one I ever saw. God, I don’t see how I can possibly get the whole thing inside me. Are you positive it’s your dick? I’d swear it was your arm.’ He got very upset. ‘You’re not doing it right,’ he said. Nobody ever told me that before. ‘You’re exaggerating. You’re making the whole thing ridiculous.’Well, I fucking lost it. I said, ‘Ridiculous? You’re sitting there with the phone in one hand and your dick in the other, paying a total stranger to tell you you’re hung like Secretariat, and I’m the one’s making it ridiculous?’ And I told him he was an asshole and I hung up on him, which is the one absolute no-no because they reach you by calling a 900 number so the meter’s running as long as they’re on the line. The one thing you don’t do is hang up before they do, but I didn’t care.

 “Another genius wanted me to tell him stories. ‘Tell me about the time you did a threesome with a man and a woman.’ Well, I’ve got real stories I could have told, but am I supposed to take something that actually happened and share it with this jerkoff? The hell with that. So I made something up, and of course all three people were hot and gorgeous and perfectly synchronized sexually, and every-body came like the Fourth of July. As opposed to real life where people have bad breath and skin blemishes, and the women are faking it and the man can’t get a hard-on.” She shook her head, disgusted. “Forget it,” she said. “It’s good I saved my money, because it turns out I’m unemployable. I can’t even make it as a telephone whore.”

 “Well?” she said. “What did you think?”

 “Of Glenn and Lisa? They’re fine. I wish them well.”

 “And you don’t care if we never see them again.”

 “That’s a little harsh, but I’ll admit I don’t see us spending all our free time with them. There wasn’t a whole lot of chemistry operating this evening.”

 “I wonder why. The age difference? We’re not that much older.”

 “She’s pretty young,” I said, “but I don’t think that’s it. I think it’s a lack of anything much in common. You go to class with her and I live a block from them, but aside from that—”

 “I know,” she said. “Not much common ground, and I probably could have predicted that going in. But I found her very likable, so I thought it was worth a try.”

 “Well, you were right,” I said, “and I can see why you liked her. I liked her myself.”

 “But not him.”

 “Not especially, no.”

 “Any idea why?”

 I thought about it. “No,” I said. “Not really. I could point to things about him that I found irritating, but the fact of the matter is that I’d already made up my mind to dislike him. I took one look at him and knew he was somebody I wasn’t going to like.”

 “He’s not a bad-looking man.”

 “Hardly,” I said. “He’s handsome. Maybe that’s it, maybe I sensed that you’d find him attractive and that’s what put my back up.”

 “Oh, I didn’t think he was attractive.”

 “You didn’t?”

 “I thought he was good-looking,” she said, “the way male models are good-looking, except not as pouty as they all seem to be these days. But I’m not attracted to pretty boys. I like grumpy old bears.”

 “Thank God for that.”

 “Maybe you didn’t like him because you were hot for her.”

 “I already knew I didn’t like him before I even looked at her.”


 “And why would I be hot for her?”

 “She’s pretty.”

 “In a fragile, china-doll way. A fragile, pregnant, china-doll way.”

 “I thought men went crazy for pregnant women.”

 “Well, think again.”

 “What did you do when Anita was pregnant?”

 “Worked a lot of overtime,” I said. “Put a lot of bad guys in jail.”

 “Same as when she wasn’t pregnant.”

 “Pretty much, yeah.”

 “Maybe it was cop instinct,” she said. “Maybe that’s why you didn’t like him.”

 “You know,” I said, “I think you just hit it. But it doesn’t make sense.”

 “Why not?”

 “Because he’s a promising young attorney with a preg-nant wife and an upscale condo. He’s got a firm handshake and a winning smile. Why would I peg him as a wrong guy?”

 “You tell me.”

 “I don’t know. I sensed something, but I couldn’t tell you what it was. Except that I had the sense he was listening aw-fully hard, as though he wanted to hear more than I wanted to tell him. The conversation dragged tonight, but it would have sailed along just fine if I’d told some detective stories.”

 “Why didn’t you?”

 “Maybe because he was so hot to hear them.”

 “Like phone sex,” she suggested. “He had the phone in one hand and his dick in the other.”

 “Something like that.”

 “No wonder you wanted to hang up. God, do you remem-ber what a disaster that turned out to be? For a week after-ward I wouldn’t say a word in bed.”

 “I know. You wouldn’t even moan.”

 “Well, I tried not to,” she said, “but sometimes I had no choice.”

 In a Nazi accent I said, “Ve haff vays of making you come.”

 “Is that a fact?”

 “I suppose ze Fräulein demands proof.”

 “I suppose I do.”

 And a while later she said, “Well, I wouldn’t call it the best evening we ever spent, but it certainly had a nice finish, didn’t it? I think you’re probably right, I think there’s some-thing sly about him, but so what? We’ll never have to see them again.”

 But of course I did have to see them again.

 A week or ten days after our first meeting I walked out of my hotel one evening and got halfway to Ninth Avenue when I heard my name called. I looked around and saw Glenn Holtzmann. He was wearing a suit and tie and carry-ing a briefcase.

 “They kept me working late today,” he said. “I called Lisa and told her to go ahead and eat without me. You had dinner yet? Want to grab a bite somewhere?” I had already eaten, and told him so. “Then do you want to have a cup of coffee and keep me company? I’m not up for anything fancy, just the Flame or the Morning Star. Have you got the time?”

 “As a matter of fact,” I said, “I don’t.” I pointed up Ninth Avenue. “I’m on my way to meet somebody,” I said.

 “Well, I’ll walk a block with you. I’ll be a good boy and have a Greek salad at the Flame.” He patted his midsection. “Keep the weight down,” he said, although he looked trim enough to me. We walked to Fifty-eighth and crossed the av-enue together, and in front of the Flame he said, “Here’s where I get off. Hope your meeting goes well. Interesting case?”

 “At this stage,” I said, “it’s hard to tell.”

 It wasn’t a case at all, of course. It was an AA meeting in the basement of St. Paul’s. For an hour and a half I sat on a folding metal chair and drank coffee out of a Styrofoam cup. At ten o’clock we mumbled our way through the Lord’s Prayer and stacked the chairs, and a few of us stopped in at the Flame to take nourishment and other people’s invento-ries. I thought I might run into Holtzmann there, lingering over the dregs of his Greek salad, but by then he’d gone on home to his little cabin in the sky. I ordered some coffee and a toasted English and forgot about him.

 Sometime in the next week or two I saw him waiting for a Ninth Avenue bus, but he didn’t see me. Another time Elaine and I had a late bite at Armstrong’s and left just as the Holtz-manns were getting out of a cab in front of their building across the intersection. And one afternoon I was at my own window when a man who might have been Glenn Holtz-mann emerged from the camera shop across the street and walked west. I’m on a high floor, so the person I saw might as easily have been someone else, but something in his walk or stance brought Holtzmann to mind.

 It was the middle of June, though, before we spoke again. It was a weekday night, and it was late. Past midnight, any-way. I’d been to a meeting and out for coffee. Back in my room, I picked up a book and couldn’t read it, turned on the TV and couldn’t watch it.

 I get that way sometimes. I fought the restlessness for a while, until around midnight I said the hell with it and grabbed my jacket off a hook and went out. I walked south and west, and when I got to Grogan’s I took a seat at the bar.

 Grogan’s Open House is at Fiftieth and Tenth, an old-fashioned Irish ginmill of the sort that used to dot Hell’s Kitchen years ago. There are fewer of them these days, al-though Grogan’s has yet to earn a bronze plaque from the Landmarks Commission, or a spot on the Endangered Species List. There’s a long bar on the left, booths and tables on the right, a dart board on the back wall, an old tile floor strewn with sawdust, an old stamped-tin ceiling in need of repair.

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