The Invitational

12576

Janine came down the mountain a breezy vision of the California Dream. Charlie was a writer disintegrating in the valley low. The Golden State had welcomed home a native son. In her arms he found passion, deceit and betrayal.

By Mark Cromer

She never looked back.

Janine had told him that on their first date and the words always stayed with him, a small warning that would reverberate inside his skull like a shotgun blast on nights when the madness would come and he thought he was falling in love.

At least she told him right up front. Fair warning. He should have known better.

That virgin night out they settled on a small pub nestled on the edge of town amid the orange groves, dying strip malls and the zoned-into-oblivion titty bars. The pub was filled with old locals by day and college turks at night.

It was a risky first move for Janine, she knew a lot of people around town and even on the rotting fringes of suburbia word spreads fast. But they had just met a few days before and were still feeling each other out, still dancing that sweet mental mambo that follows an introduction of awkward glances and curious smiles. They could still pretend a beer was just a beer.

The pub was slow that night and quiet as they nursed a few rounds and talked leisurely of life and people and good music and of Europe in the summer. It was the sort of conversation that Charlie relished, it reminded him of making love on a Saturday afternoon. Slow and easy with no particular place to go but deeper.

Their talk eventually drifted into old lovers and broken relationships, a place that never made Charlie feel real secure. Like an old con talking about past gigs gone bad, Charlie had too long of a record. Not a lot of women exactly, but certainly a few big crimes.

That’s when Janine dropped it on him. He could still hear her say it, flashing that Madison Avenue smile and leveling her eyes straight into his.

“When it’s time to go, I just go. I don’t look back,” she said, her smile shrinking slightly into a deliciously cold grin, her eyes still locked on his. “What would the point be? Do you think anything really lasts forever? I don’t. I just go and I don’t look back.”

Boom. Cards on the fucking table.

Charlie retreated to his beer, taking a long hit that felt good as it went down. A light buzz always kept him anchored, which is what he relied upon when a woman started playing her hand that fast. He didn’t take his eyes off hers, but he didn’t take the bait. He asked her if she preferred Bali to North Africa.

As they left the pub that night, Charlie knew there wasn’t much he could have said about it anyway. Women like Janine don’t have to look back, so why should they? What’s in it for them? Charlie figured that women probably stopped throwing glances over their shoulders ever since Lot’s wife made that mistake as they fled that burning city of sin. It was a lesson men never learned. Once something is over, they can never stop looking back.

Charlie laughed out loud as he thought about it now, sprawled across the mattress in Room 7 at the Vogue Motel. If he had to dwell on it, this was the kind of place he’d rather do it in. He hadn’t fled the burning carcass of the city, he ran straight back into the heart of it. The sheets were stained, but not too disgusting to lay on. No fresh slicks of body fluid on these sheets. The room didn’t stink as bad as some of the others he’d had before at the Vogue either. Not bad for eighteen bucks a night.

Traffic on Mission Boulevard was still heavy with motorists too afraid to slow down in this part of town. Screeching tires and angry horns competed with the radio Charlie had propped into the windowsill.

Rising above the music and rush hour was the crank whore in Room 6, who was either giving a john his money’s worth or getting the shit beat out of her. It was hard to tell. His grunts and her yelps filtered through the wall behind Charlie’s head, offering an odd punctuation to the World Party tune that blared from the cracked speakers of the boom box.

“I’d give you all my money, abandon that beautiful girl

 take my books, my choicest looks

 and burn them all today”

Charlie had to take a mean piss but stayed where he was, closing his eyes and trying to block out the whore’s moans to soak up Karl Wallinger’s lyrics. The words seemed so perfect. So pitifully fucking perfect. Charlie started to sing along.

“I got rare `61 Beatles, I got a film of my dreams

but I’d lose them all, burn’em all

go along without all of it

give up the chances I see

if you’d take me up, raise me up

let me know the heart of it…

and give me your sweet soul dream.”

He belted it out as the john in Room 6 landed each punch or thrust hard and deep. When the song ended Charlie lay staring at the ceiling. He wanted to cry but felt like laughing. Next door there was only moaning. He thought about calling the front desk but he knew it would go nowhere. The last time he reported a disturbance in a whore’s room the night manager didn’t seem too concerned.

“Are you sure she’s not getting banged, instead of beat,” the old man growled. “I mean, you know, some of these street girls are pretty crazy. These girls really give it up now and then, if you know what I’m saying.”

Charlie told him it sounded more like a beating, but he couldn’t be sure and he wasn’t about to go ask.

“Well, don’t worry about it buddy,” the old man assured him. “Just turn your TV up a notch or two and it’ll probably be over soon. You gotta figure that what ever it is, she probably had coming, either way.”

Charlie didn’t argue the point.

The night wore on and he stayed in bed, fighting off that trip to the toilet for as long as possible. Bathrooms in the Vogue were never an experience you couldn’t do without, which is why a lot of the tenants ended up pissing in the parking lot or shitting in the bushes behind the place.

Coming out of the head he saw the clock read eight. The night was still early. He wouldn’t have to meet Slim for a couple of hours.

He fell back in bed. Traffic on Mission was thinning out, the horns were more sporadic now. Room 6 was deathly silent.

Charlie closed his eyes and saw the foothills and the groves and the trails that weave through the sprawling botanical gardens. He started to drift. The fetid scent of the room gave way to night-blooming jasmine and the sweet aroma of citrus. He could hear the crisp pop as the top of a green bottled beer sprang open behind the bar. He could feel sand between his toes. There was distant laughter. Candles. The taste of Italian take-out. Sparklers. The surf.

He tried to think of anything but her as his mind slowly uncoiled, but he knew what was ahead as he slipped away. He knew she was coming.

Janine walked several steps ahead of him and Charlie enjoyed the way the moonlight fell across her back. She was built like a distance runner. Tall and a little too thin in some places, her peach of an ass planted firmly above long legs that carried only a hint of the power they possessed. Charlie knew what she could do with those legs. With that ass.

The college was dark. Deserted. Summer break had arrived and the students of the small private school had fled back home to their east coast nests of privilege. Charlie relished the fact that the monied liberals who sent their kids to school here were always nice enough to move them out every summer, leaving the campus to him and a few other locals who spent evenings and nights exploring the maze of courtyards and fountains and the rolling lawns still warm from the sun.

Janine spun around and put her hand out like a traffic cop ordering a car to stop. Charlie walked into her outstretched hand and her fingers dug into his shirt. She pulled him closer. He could smell the strawberry margarita mix on her breath. Happy hour had turned into happy night.

“What do you think it means to be in love?” she asked, still holding on to his shirt.

Coming from another woman, Charlie would have taken it as one of those pointless trick questions that women spring on men at any given moment for no particular reason, except maybe to keep them in the middle of some weird emotional balancing act. He’d heard these questions a thousand times before and would just shrug them off with some flip remark. But with Janine, it took on a different meaning. Charlie had the feeling she really was searching for answers about who he was and what he wanted. The idea that any of it mattered to her delighted and terrified him all at once.

“I think when you’re in love, it’s like that first line of uncut cocaine. The rush of pure discovery. A warm consuming madness. It’s wanting it all,” he said, reaching out and running his hand through her hair, caressing her head. “It’s about getting in here.”

He slid his hand down her body and cupped the small mound between her legs. She caught her breath and arched up on her toes, leaning into him. “And it’s about getting in here.”

She was soaked when entered her. He stood behind her, a hand on each of her hips, pulling her onto him hard with each thrust. Charlie felt high. He kept looking at the tattoo that decorated the small of her back. A celestial Ying and Yang. The night air was warm and full of crickets chirping. The campus grounds spread out below them.

Janine put her arms out in front of her, holding on to the spanish tile of the roof and pushing herself back to meet the rapid fire of his hips. Charlie knew he’d entered the gates of paradise and was about to meet his maker. He was ready.

“Not inside me,” she said.

Charlie caught himself, slowed and then stopped, but he didn’t want to leave the womb.

She stood up and leaned back against him. He ran his hands from her hips up to her breasts. Firm and sweet, a tit man’s pink nipple bliss.

“Show me. I want to watch you do it,” she said. With one quick turn of her hips Charlie was outdoors again, exposed to the elements. She grabbed his right hand and lowered it. “Show me, Charlie. Show me how you do it.”

Janine was still leaning up against him as he worked it, leaning her head back and running her tongue over the nape of his neck. Everything seemed out of focus, but her whispers were clear. Her commands had turned to pleading requests. “Show me, baby. Please let me see it. I want to feel it. Will you give it to me? Will you let me taste it, just a little? Please.”

He could feel her start to slide down his body and he lost it. It seemed like forever wrapped up in seven seconds. An execution. A birth. A life fully lived.

Janine giggled as she wiped her hands and mouth. Charlie lifted her up to his face and gave her a deep kiss. It tasted salty but he didn’t care. She had consumed him and he wanted more of her. All of her.

They were mostly quiet as they walked back across the campus together. Charlie felt alert, but drained. On the street, they paused in front of her car. A bicycle cop on lover patrol watched them from across the street. Too bad he missed the roof, Charlie thought.

“I think being in love means nights like this all the time,” Janine said, looking at him for a moment, then glancing over at the cop. Charlie wanted to say it, wanted to surrender to it right then and there, but he decided to hedge.

“I want to have nights like this all the time,” he said, waiting for her to look back at him. “All the time, with you.”

“Good,” she smiled. “You will.”

Hank had tried to warn him.

Over long and glorious bullshit sessions down at Rick’s Family Place, Charlie and the boys would huddle together at the bar, talking in the low tones that men reach when their women have left them and their boss is a fuck and they find themselves standing on the edge with nowhere to go but down.

But Charlie found himself the odd man out in this circle. It was summer. California’s sweet embrace still left Charlie warm and thinking of a life that was possible. The Dream, as he liked to call it, still flitted about his mind in flashing visions that left him feeling like he did the first time a girl gave him a wet kiss. He found it hard to explain the Dream, it came out all truncated and confused. Rapid bursts of imagery, like a commercial. The coast highway. A warm rain. The foothills. The Grateful Dead playing Ventura. Ganja. Cold beer. Sunset. Blonde girls. A blonde girl. Janine.

She had found him and layed down. Charlie still had hope.

Hank would have none of it. The burly electrician uncurled himself from his pitcher and ran his calloused hands trough his beard, rolling his eyes upwards as if searching for some gritty pearl of wisdom that remained elusive. He wanted the words to be just right for Charlie.

“My boy,” he finally said, clamping a big hand hard on Charlie’s shoulder. “You fucked up.”

Charlie remained silent, waiting for the rest.

“She’s a piece of ass and you should see her as such. You were doomed from the moment you started to see her as anything more than a hot blonde on a Saturday night and let me tell you why.”

Charlie shifted his weight from his right leg to his left and settled in. He knew it was going to be a long one.

“I know you’re young yet, what, 29 or something like that? Never been married. Lived the good life, I guess, doin’ all that writer journalist shit you get to do. Going places and seein’ things. Getting paid to do it. And that’s cool man. Very cool. But the one lesson you evidently never learned is, no matter how you slice it, no matter what you wanna call it, pussy, my friend, is still pussy.”

Scattered “amens” could be heard along the bar. Charlie remained still, waiting.

Hank started pacing back and forth behind him, like a father who’s finally getting comfortable as he has a man-to-man talk with his kid. Charlie nursed his beer, staring straight ahead at the Budweiser mirror in front of him to keep an eye on Hank.

“See Charlie, what’s happened with you and Janine is an affair. That’s all it is. Pure and simple. She met you, figured you fit the bill and decided to go ahead and fuck you,” Hank said, wheeling around on his heels and jabbing a finger in the air. “But! Women never take such things for what they are, see, they’re not like us Charlie. Now a guy, when he decides he’s going to screw around, he understands it’s just about laying down with a girl he’s chosen. That’s all it is and it’s all he needs. He doesn’t want more, he doesn’t plan for more. And that’s where she really   messed you up boy. She’s got you thinking like she thinks. My god son, the way I hear you talk, you fuckin’ sound like a chick.”

Charlie felt his stomach tighten.

“See Charlie, when a woman like Janine decides she’s going to sleep with a guy like you, she’s got to deal with it emotionally in the way that women do,” Hank said. The bar had fallen silent now, eight drinkers and a bartender frozen in the moment as Hank’s voice grew louder.

“The hard truth of the matter seems too cheap to women, so they dress it up, gift wrap a sweaty fuck in the idea that it’s really something else. Something more important.”

“Something deeper,” Charlie muttered.

“Exactly!” Hank shouted.

“She told me I was deep, like the ocean. She said she wanted to swim in me,” Charlie said. Hank stopped directly behind Charlie.

“Holy Christ. She told you that? You, Charlie? Deep? Sweet Jesus, now do you see what I mean? Is it coming through to you now?” Hank’s eyes were on fire, as if he had stumbled on to an even greater truth in this sermon.

“See, the problem is Charlie, despite Janine’s best efforts at convincing you and even herself that this is all about something more, the truth eventually becomes apparent.” Hank paused, staring into the back of Charlie’s head for a moment, then shuffled back to his pitcher.

“The idea that you two share something special, something different, is garbage,” Hank said, sliding up on his stool again, his preachy tone sliding off into a bitter edge. “You share a bed. It’s what she wants and it’s what you want. You’ll only fuck it up if you start looking for something more out it. Mark my words.”

“You’ve got a point Hank,” Charlie said. “But I can’t say it’s all I want. Look, maybe I sound like the bitch here, but this is about something more. It is about something deeper. I don’t expect you to understand, but I don’t just want to lay down with her.”

There was an awkward pause, most of the guys were staring at their beers, then Manny Jones slipped his arm around Charlie. “You know Charlie, you’re an OK kid, you just got some learnin’ to do is all,” he said. “I want you to remember something my pops told me the first time I was going to get married. He says to me ‘Manny, when it comes to women, you gotta keep it simple. All you oughta be looking for is a girl with a wheelbarrel full of titties and just enough ass to keep your balls off the sheets.’”

The bar exploded into laughter.

Charlie bought the next round.

A couple of months after their first night out, Charlie found himself sitting on the hood of his old Ford in the middle of the decaying orange grove. He was humming ‘April, Come She Will’ as he watched the clouds drift across the mountains to the north like a dress sliding up a girl’s knees.

Tucked into the foothills of Claremont, where Alamosa Drive meets Grand Avenue, the dead grove was a place he’d been retreating to for years. A sanctuary he could get lost in for awhile, the grove was a fading relic from a more innocent time and place, the stark skeletons of its dying orange trees offering him an odd reassurance about life as a native going down in the Pomona Valley. Even the towering mansions that had spread like a pastel-colored virus across the foothills, devouring the rolling slopes that had once been lush with citrus, couldn’t completely steal the majesty of this grove’s slow demise.

And here he was again. Another late afternoon, a warm breeze snapping off the mountain as the candy orange sun headed for its rendezvous with the horizon. He couldn’t stop thinking about Janine.

The days with her were getting crazier, each one more intoxicating than the day before. It had started out in slow motion and now seemed to be speeding out of control, like a train screaming down the Cajon with the engineer too busy swigging a bottle of rum to notice the landscape has blurred beyond recognition. Charlie wasn’t sure if he should throw the emergency brake or enjoy the ride.

He knew he was in trouble the first moment he layed eyes on her. It was a spring afternoon that found him stretched out on a grassy hill overlooking the Malibu coast. He was sucking on a Corona and lime and watching the Pepperdine crowd drift by in all their casual glory. But even a perfect buzz didn’t keep him from noticing her instantly. She was all legs and wearing a smile that he could find religion in. A blonde sunflower wrapped nicely in a sundress. Mama Miss America.

She hovered over him for a moment, the sun perched above her head like a halo. “Fear not,” Charlie muttered to himself as she stared at him with a strange look fixed on her face.

“You look like a writer,” she said.

“I used to think I was,” he replied.

“I knew a guy like that once,” she said, dropping to the ground next to him. They slipped into a conversation so smooth it seemed as if they were old lovers playing a game of catch up. Charlie kept looking deep into her wide eyes and she never blinked. He embraced her invitation and rode the vibe. It took him back to that time in his life when everything seemed better, back when the Dream seemed within grasp.

Those were the days of Charlie’s three year summer vacation, when he spent his time driving the Ford up and down the coast highway from Laguna to Zuma, toking on cloves and unraveling to an endless stream of Beach Boys tunes. He was 22 and didn’t give a fuck about anything beyond roadstops with cold beer, barefoot blonde girls and how wonderful the pavement smelled after a good rain.

His days of wine and roses. The days he could still go home, slouch in front of the keyboards and let his hands run wild, hammering out lines that swept across the pages like waves crashing down from his mind. Ride the wave, he’d tell himself. Let your hands go and just ride it all the way to shore. The good days.

But then the sickness set in, eventually knocking the wind out of him like Brandon DeComb’s sucker punch did that morning on the playground back at Allison Elementary. A seven-year-old Charlie slammed into the gravel for passing a love letter to the wrong girl back then, and now he was falling down again. The long drives and necking with hippie girls on the beach faded into a slow death of sterile newsrooms and failed romances and a thirst that seemed to be getting the better of him with every bottle he emptied. The waves didn’t break as often. The hands sat dead on the keyboards for days, then weeks. The Dream wilted like a flower in a microwave. Charlie’s meltdown came from the inside out.

He quit his job at the paper and went to work for a skin mag in Van Nuys.

Covering crime scenes on the gritty streets was suddenly replaced by drifting around porno sets in the Hollywood Hills. He went from inspecting gang members who’d been blown into so many pieces they looked like Rosary beads scattered in an alley to getting hypnotized by the silicone-inflated tits of brunettes who used names like Raveness or Rocki Rhodes.

Charlie could still hang out with some of the guys he’d cut his teeth with, smart writers like Peter Erikson over at Spin or Martin Roselli at the Voice or even Alston Braddock, that ink-slinging genius who could tell Details to fuck off on Friday and be writing for Esquire come Monday, but he knew he was just cashing in his frequent flyer miles. These guys never forgot a drinking buddy, even if he couldn’t keep up with the pen anymore.

So he just staggered along, taking his slow descent step by step.

Charlie had cruised out to Malibu that day to soak up the sun and burn off some of the numbness that covered his body most of the time. During the really bad days he would remember the magic of dancing around at the Dead shows up in Ventura, smoking the good shit, flashing the peace sign to all the freaks and drinking Bud with a couple of Hells Angels from Berdoo. He never went wrong at the beach.

And there she was. A teasing image of his dying Dream. Janine came strolling across that grass like a vanilla-scented angel to let Charlie know all was not lost. It was too good to be true.

Just before she left that day, she told him she was married. She paused long enough to watch the lines deepen around his eyes, then she handed him a slip of paper. “Here’s my number,” she whispered. “Call if you feel like it.”

Charlie rolled into the California Grove trailer park sometime after eleven. He’d left the Vogue Motel an hour before, but took the long way up to the stretch of Route 66 where the trailer park was tucked between a furniture outlet store and an auto parts warehouse. He wasn’t exactly in a hurry. Hooking up with Slim meant one thing: he was screaming back down to the bottom. If Charlie had seen the Dream come to life in Janine, in Slim lived the Nightmare. The anti-life.

The Ford’s headlights swung across the broken old trailer that sat like a beached and dying whale in Space 13. Charlie could see Slim waiting for him on the sagging porch that was jerry-rigged to the trailer. He parked the Ford and walked slowly up the stairs. Slim finished a final drag on a GPC and then offered Charlie a weak smile. He looked pretty ill. In the dull glow of a bug light, Charlie could make out Slim’s decomposing features. The small, bent frame. The matted hair. Watering eyes. Scabby face. And the lobe. That god awful hunk of swollen flesh which hung like a skin-covered marble from the bottom of his ear. “The ear lobe that ate Philadelphia” as one doctor who had examined it remarked.

“For a minute there Chuck, I didn’t think you were gonna make it,” Slim said, flicking the dead GPC over the rail. “I’m glad you did though. I been telling Marvin for awhile now that I think we can really get something going up there in them smut-filled hills where you been hanging out and writing about them crazy skeezers. I gotta tell you Chuck, that is some wild ass stuff you get to watch up there.”

“Yeah, well, I guess somebody’s got to do it,” Charlie replied.

Slim lowered his voice to a near whisper and took a step forward. He looked like he wanted to tell a secret, or be let in on one.

“Tell me Charlie, you ever get any   from those chicks, you know, when the cameras aren’t rollin’? Have you ever tagged any of that shit up there?”

Charlie could feel a dull ache stirring in his stomach.

“No, not exactly. I mean it’s not really like that anymore,” he said. “That was the 1970s. It’s all about money now.”

“Really?” Slim said, his brow twisting up in disbelief. “Well that’s a damn shame.”

So this is what it has all come down to, Charlie thought to himself. Meeting with Slim and his petty crime boss Marvin in a broken down old trailer court to hear some screwball plan they had cooked up. He should have been writing for Buzz by now. Should have been living in a Claremont bungalow and sailing out of Newport on the weekends. Like the old days. Charlie figured he should have been wallowing in the majesty of the billboard perfect picture of the California Dream. A native son, it was his birth right

Instead he was standing here with Slim, in meth freak heaven, wondering whether what they had planned was a felony with special circumstances or not.

Charlie swore he could smell ash in the air, just like those nights so long ago when he and the neighborhood kids would climb up on the roof tops to watch the distant fires burn across Mt. Baldy, the orange glowing steaks appearing like lava flows coming down the hill. As he stepped into the trailer behind Slim, Charlie had no doubt in his mind. He had crash landed in hell.

The small entry room was cluttered with discarded furniture so badly damaged they were probably thrift store rejects salvaged from some junk yard. A badly chipped mirror hung on a side wall, underneath it was a brass lamp that had no shade, its bulb casting a harsh light across the room. The floor was strewn with a myriad of fast food wrappers and half-eaten food. Pieces of a burger here. Remnants of a taco there. The only constant was cat hair. Everywhere. Conflicting aromas coalesced into a hybrid scent of shit. Junkie central.

Slim slipped into the what was supposed to be the living room. Charlie followed. A coffee table with two legs sat at an awkward angle in the middle of the room, behind it was a large white, deep-shag sofa. The kind Joe Namath used to lounge on during his heyday. The sofa stood out like an island amid the chaos of filth in the trailer. It appeared as if it could have been new.

Curled up on one side of the sofa was fat black guy with a Mike Brady terry cloth bathrobe stretched over his mass. Long gerry curls spilled down his head in oily strings. He looked stoned. Try as he might, he couldn’t fit the robe all the way around his belly and a shiny black runway of skin creeped out the front of it. He was holding a bottle of Cobra malt liquor, sipping it with a straw.

“Charlie, this is Marvin,” Slim said. “Marv, this is my friend Charlie, the cat I been telling you about.”

Marvin’s half-lidded eyes didn’t move.

“They call me ‘Starvin’ Marvin,” he finally said in a gravely voice, moving his free hand to the top of his belly and rubbing it as if he were asking Buddha for good luck. “It’s a name my friends gave me on account my girth. As a kid, I kind thought it was fucked up for them to tease me about my fits of hunger, but now I know they was just playing with me. The Lord just made me a hungry boy.”

Slim motioned Charlie to sit down on the floor, but Charlie hesitated. It looked like a jetliner crash down there. He slowly lowered himself on to his haunches, positioning himself in an uneasy balance behind the coffee table. It wasn’t very comfortable, but it would be easier to bolt out of the trailer from that position than if he was sitting on his ass on that god-forsaken floor.

Marvin’s heavy eyes gave Charlie a slow once over, then he nodded to Slim as if to say “Okay, let’s get on with it.”

Slim plopped down on the floor, oblivious to the debris, and pulled another GPC from his shirt pocket.

“So Charlie, I been telling Marvin here about them crazy porno gigs you been getting in the hills out there in Tinsel Town. How you get to drift around the movie sets like a little Casper the Friendly Fuckin’ Ghost, taking notes on all this shit,” Slim said. “And see, we been thinking, you know, like you was saying right outside tonight, how much money is going into fuck flicks these days. Big time green, man. These bone movies are cash cows. So we see some opportunity here.”

Charlie was trying to read between the lines, but didn’t like what he thought he saw coming. “So what are you guys thinking? Starting your own production company? Going into retail? Slim & Marvin’s Porno Palace? What opportunity are you talking about?”

Slim started to laugh, coughing up a plume of smoke out of his mouth and nose.

“Sheeeeet,” Starvin’ Marvin grumbled. “Production company? Mother fucker do I look like a camera man to you? What? Slim gonna be my gaffer? You my grip?”

“Well, all I meant was,” Charlie started.

“What we’re talking about here is jacking them fuckers,” Marvin said, still staring Charlie down. “Roll in like gang busters. Terrorize them sluts and pistol whip them sugarcoated, camera-toting pimps until they hand over the dough rey me.”

The room was silent. Charlie dropped his eyes to the floor, letting it sink in.

“Chuck,” he heard Slim say in a very smooth voice. “This is robbery. Quick. Easy. No one really gets hurt. Walk in, wave some guns around, pretend to be thugs, take the money and run. Hell, we’ll even blow’em some kisses on the way out the door.”

“What they gonna do? Call the cops? They better wipe that coke off their nose first,” Marvin said.

“Where do I fit in?” Charlie asked, already knowing the answer.

“You’re our inside man, Charlie,” Slim said, as if it were a privilege they were bestowing upon him. “You provide the all the info, scope the joint out. Peg the money man. Details, man. That’s what journalists do best, right?”

“What makes you guys think you’re going to net any real money from robbing a porno set,” Charlie asked. “A lot of these videos are shot in one day on a budget of four or five grand, tops.”

“Precisely,” Marvin said. “And that’s where you come in. Some of them videos are made with real money. I seen a few like that. You know, where they actually try and make a movie. That’s the kind of set we want to hit. If Ron Jeremy is on the set, then fuck it, we bail. But if some of them Howard Stern girls are there, then there must be bank.”

Slim jumped in, “See Charlie, we figure even though there’s a lot of bread in the industry now, it’s still very fly by night. Very sketchy, you know, due to the people who run it and all. So we figure there’s got to be at least a few grand in cash, minimum, laying around somewhere on these sets. We just got show up and convince them to be nice and hand it over.”

“You guys want to risk 20 years for a few grand?” Charlie asked.

“I’ve seen 7-11 clerks get blown away for a lot less Charlie,” Slim said.

“Even a few grand is more than we’d probably get from a bank,” Marvin said. “And they ain’t gonna have no dye packs fucking up the money on a porno set.”

“Look, all you gotta do is play reporter for us. Make like a weather vane, point us in the right direction. Sweet and easy. I know you could use the money,” Slim said.

“What’s my cut?” Charlie asked.

“One-fifth,” Marvin said.

“One-fifth? How many guys are in on this?”

“Three, counting you. But you get one-fifth.”

Charlie stood up and turned toward the door.

“Hey Chuck, no rush here,” Slim said. “Think about it. I know you got plenty of time on your hands these days. Take your time. Drink on it. And take my advice, stay away from the pussy unless it’s on a professional basis. That shit’ll mess your head up but good.”

They sat across from each other on the deck at Woody’s Wharf.

Summer had turned to autumn and a pleasant September afternoon was fading into the kind of evening Newport Beach was made for. They had been here before. And they were here again, looking at each other over a plate of smoked albacore and a few bottles of beer.

Janine was telling him about her husband Jimmy. Charlie watched the sailboats drift into the slips behind Woody’s, docking to spill out the yuppies who’d just returned from a corporate write-off in Catalina. Tanned happy white people with money in their pockets and boat drinks in their hands. Polaroid’s of our future, Charlie thought, looking back over at Janine.

“Some days I don’t even know why we’re still together. We don’t do anything together any more, besides dinner and maybe a movie,” she said, pondering it. “He wants to golf and hang out with his buddies at the club. I work out and plan trips to places I haven’t been yet. It’s just not happening any more. He doesn’t move me.”

“Well, there’s always me,” Charlie said.

He felt Janine’s foot brush across his leg and move up his thigh, stopping just short of the goal line. “Funny, I was just thinking that myself,” she said.

Charlie tried to imagine the day when Janine would actually leave Jimmy. Sometimes it seemed like it could happen at any moment, at least the way she talked about it. Charlie tried to be cool as he listened to her talk and cry about the collapse of her relationship. He tried not to encourage her to walk, but he was itching for it to happen. He was seeing her almost everyday now, Jimmy seemed like the last hurdle on the track. Could she jump it?

But he didn’t like to think about it too much. Probably because the more he really considered Jimmy, the more he realized Janine might not be up for the task of cutting herself loose. Janine said she didn’t want to stay, but Charlie could tell she still considered Jimmy a catch. Looking like a square-jawed hybrid of G.I. Joe and Tom Cruise, Jimmy was the mantle piece Janine had always wanted, even if the conversations seemed empty these days. Life was full of tradeoffs. She had to decide carefully.

They walked down to Mutt Lynches to watch the sunset over more beers. Janine talked of Mexico and Charlie let his imagination run wild with thoughts of what a week or two in Baja would be like with her. They did that often. Planning trips all over the place. One happy hour they were on their way to New York. The next day at lunch they planned to run away to Vermont. She’d teach and he’d write. At dinner the next night they changed their minds and decided on being expatriates in Paris. Do the Henry and June thing. Or maybe just split to Africa. “We’d do it together Charlie, everyday would be different. Even better than it is now. Can you imagine?” she’d ask.

He could.

Slipping deeper into his buzz at Mutt Lynches, Charlie knew entertaining those thoughts were the most dangerous game of all. They showed him just how crazy he could get with her as he indulged in all of those one-on-one fantasies that serious lovers share.

After dark they walked up the street and checked in at the Sail Inn Motel. Skipper behind the desk recognized them and smiled as he forked over the key to Room 15. The usual.

Inside that prison cell of a room they did things with each other that came a lot easier than running off to New York or Paris. Charlie poured his Rolling Rock over her breasts and sucked the golden foam off her achingly hard nipples. Her drank it out of her navel. Then he thanked the gods and lowered his mouth into her. He loved the way his tongue could make her arch her back and pull his hair. Her face would twitch into frantic expressions and then she’d shiver hard and Charlie would just bathe in it.

That night she made him stop and pulled him up to lay across her. She wasn’t laughing or smiling, just staring at him silently. For a moment he thought he had done something wrong.

“I’m falling in love with you Charlie,” she said.

“Glad to hear you’re catching up,” was all he could think to say. He froze on top of her, looking down into her face. He could feel the skin starting to tighten around his mouth as her juices dried on his face. She’d finally said it. At last, he thought. He’d arrived at last.

They spent the rest of the night laying in bed. Charlie rested his head in the small of her back, staring at the ceiling as they whispered to each other about the tiny secrets of life and what was happening between them. It seemed so natural, just as he’d envisioned it for all those years. In bed at the beach with the woman he’d been waiting his whole life for. He could have stayed in that bed forever.

They showered and got dressed. As Charlie slipped his boots on, he was gripped by the odd sensation that when he walked out that door his life would never quite be the same again.

Skipper flashed a big grin as Charlie returned the room key.

“Hey kid, was it as good as it looks?”

“Even better.”

The grin got bigger. “I remember those days well. Enjoy’em while they’re yours.”

Charlie wanted to let him in on the little secret that his days and nights with Janine were just getting started. Life had just begun. But Skipper looked a bit wiser for it and Charlie didn’t want to argue.

“Life’s short,” Charlie said, turning toward the office door. “I’m just having a good time.”

“Hey kid,” Skipper said as Charlie swung the door open, looking across the parking lot to see Janine leaning against the car. Charlie looked back at the old man behind the desk. “Yeah?”

“Nothing lasts forever.” The smile was gone from Skipper’s face. “You try and hold on to something like that, it’ll eat you up.”

“See you soon, Skip.”

Charlie walked out into the Newport night.

It was five o’clock and Rick’s was nearly empty, as usual. Hank and Manny were watching Charlie mumble and mutter into his pitcher a few barstools down. He opened the place that morning and the bartender never cut him off. As a matter of customer service, regulars were never cut off at Rick’s.

Charlie kept drawing a figure of eight with his finger on the bar top. They could make out like every fifth word he’d spit out.

“That boy is in the soup,” Manny said.

“It’s not like we didn’t try and tell him,” Hank said.

“He keeps drawing circles and talkin’ to himself about waves and beer and Skipper and California and that chick.”

“I dunno about the first four, but the chick, we all know about that, now don’t we Manny?”

Just then Charlie cocked his head up and leveled his bloodshot eyes at Manny and Hank.

“You losers just don’t get it, do you?”

The bartender stopped drying his glasses.

“I was the bastard who believed in the great lie and she was the manufactured cunt who believed in nothing,” Charlie shouted. “Don’t you see! We were the PERFECT CALIFORNIA COUPLE!”

He didn’t feel himself slip off the barstool, or even hit the ground. Hank and Manny watched him roll around in the sawdust for awhile before they finally picked him up and drove him home.

It ended just the way it had begun. Casually and out of nowhere.

For a couple of weeks after their last trip to Newport she didn’t call. Charlie stayed busy writing and tried to enjoy the break, figuring a stretch of detox couldn’t hurt. Then he started to get a bad feeling. He tried to call her at the usual spots but she was never around. Her friends seemed wary that he was asking about her. He had a bad vibe about it all. Maybe she tried to make the break with Jimmy and it went badly. Or maybe GQ boy finally opened his eyes and figured out that while he was golfing his woman’s daily workout had evolved to include a personal trainer. Maybe it got ugly and she flew back to mama’s for awhile.

When she finally called him she was out at Pepperdine, just a stone’s throw from where they first met. She sounded distant. Different.

“Can you come out? We need to talk.”

Charlie tried not to panic. All the way out to Malibu he played the past six months back in his mind. Rolling it over scene by scene, day by day. Every move they made. Everything they told each other. It was her invitation, he just showed up.

He knew it was over the minute he saw her. Just like the day he met her. She was wearing the same dress. Another strange expression locked on her face. But this one had a cold tint to it. She looked tired.

They walked along the grass overlooking the coast highway and talked for awhile about all sorts of inane stalling shit that drove him crazier with every passing minute. He wanted to cut to the chase.

“Look Janine, what’s up?”

She looked away from him and when she looked back her eyelids were fluttering rapidly. She couldn’t hold his gaze. It was the first time and Charlie knew. His heart sank.

“Two weeks ago I spent one of the best nights of my life with you Janine,” Charlie said. “One of the best nights out of a half a fuckin’ year we’ve spent together, and you tell me that you’re falling in love with me and now I’m standing on this hill with a really sick feeling coming over me like something bad is about to happen here.”

Janine’s eyes danced all around Charlie.

“Hey, just look at me, tell me I’m on drunk, that you’re still falling in love with me and let’s go get some dinner and a room.”

Her head dropped.

“Charlie, I’m not sure what to say, I’ve been thinking about everything that’s happened between us. It’s gone so far so fast. Things are getting so complicated. I think Jimmy knows. Is that fair to him? I’ve got to think about what I want, you know, think about what’s important to me.”

Charlie felt numb. He wanted to laugh. Hank’s voice echoed in his head. Now she had to think about what’s important to her? What had she been doing the past six months? He was getting dizzy. He remembered writing a story at the paper one day about an airline crash. Seconds before the plane slammed into the ground the pilot had screamed “How could this be?” Charlie could hear his own voice on the flight recorder, howling into the little black box. How could this be?

“I just want to take some time off. Put this on hold for awhile,” she said. Her voice took on a detached edge and her eyes narrowed, as if she’d just then suddenly realized something. She finally looked at him.

“That’s all this is Charlie. I’m not saying goodbye. I’m not saying it’s over. I just want time to think.”

Charlie looked down at the beach. He could see the students down there, in blue jeans and V-necks walking barefoot along the surf. He looked back at her. He had the curious desire to kiss her. Instead he started walking back to his car.

She followed him up and they sat down for awhile and talked like nothing had just happened. There was a hollow emptiness about it, as if they’d be too embarrassed to just leave. He wondered if this is how the condemned felt, as they sat in the holding tank watching the last few minutes tick off the clock.

Their talk died down and they became silent. He looked at her a long time.

The sun came down across the hood of his car and she pressed her fingertips across her mouth, kissed them gently, then with a smile reached out and ran them softly over his lips.

She didn’t say goodbye. He watched her walk back to her car, open the door and get in. She fired up the engine, paused for a moment behind the wheel, then drove away.

He sat there, watching her car fade over the dusty hill. The sky turned a brilliant purple and then slipped into darkness. Charlie was still in the parking lot, realizing that she hadn’t even glanced back. True to her word.

She didn’t say goodbye.

And she never looked back.

This story was first published in Low Magazine.