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Ladies' Man

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Kenny Becker just dumped his girlfriend—the reasons are a little complex. Young and newly unemployed, his main assets at the moment are six-pack abs and a healthy libido—he’s ready to get out, find a little action, and maybe find himself too. But New York is no place for the lonely, and with one meaningless sexual encounter after another, Kenny begins to wonder if the singles scene is not itself a complete con job, with his heart and his future at stake. Raunchy, funny, and surprisingly heartfelt, ...

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Ladies' Man: A Novel

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Overview

Kenny Becker just dumped his girlfriend—the reasons are a little complex. Young and newly unemployed, his main assets at the moment are six-pack abs and a healthy libido—he’s ready to get out, find a little action, and maybe find himself too. But New York is no place for the lonely, and with one meaningless sexual encounter after another, Kenny begins to wonder if the singles scene is not itself a complete con job, with his heart and his future at stake. Raunchy, funny, and surprisingly heartfelt, this 1978 clubland slice-of-life displays Richard Price in gritty good form.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A novel of passion and depth, written with great precision and control.”The Washington Post Book World

“Price knows the language, mores, herding instincts, and hunting habits of the bottom-class urban young just about as well as Margaret Mead got to know those who come of age in Samoa.”—Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, The New York Times

Ladies’ Man brilliantly portrays the dark side of youthful passion seeking release in a big-city environment.”—St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780395977729
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 4/15/1999
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 264
  • Product dimensions: 5.44 (w) x 8.13 (h) x 0.58 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Price

Richard Price is the author of seven novels, including Lush Life, Clockers, Freedomland, and Samaritan. He wrote the screenplays for the films Sea of Love, Ransom, and The Color of Money, for which he received an Academy Award nomination. He won the 2007 Edgar Award for Best TV writing as a co-writer for the HBO series The Wire. Price was also awarded a Literature Award from The American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in New York City.

Biography

In a 1981 essay he wrote for The New York Times entitled "The Fonzie of Literature," Bronx-born Richard Price sums up the origin of his rep as a streetwise scribe:

"I doubt that if I had written about the suburbs I would have attracted nearly as much attention. I found most interviewers and reviewers more than willing to romanticize my background, to make it sound like I had come out of Hell's Kitchen or an Odyssey House. I spent three hours being interviewed by People magazine, insisting that I was not Piri Thomas or Claude Brown, I was a middle-class Jewish kid who went to three colleges. But when the issue hit the stands, the leadoff of the one-paragraph squib was, 'Richard Price comes from the slum-stricken streets and paved playgrounds of the Bronx.'"

So while he may not be the hardened thug that critics seem to want to believe he is, his string of bestselling novels and hit screenplays are filled with enough urban wit and grit to garner him commercial and critical—if not street—cred.

After graduating from Cornell in 1971, Price broke out of the Bronx with The Wanderers in 1974, when he was 24 and in the process of earning an M.F.A. from Columbia. A series of hard-boiled vignettes about a teenage gang coming up in the 1960s that Price scribbled in his spare time, the collection was whisked off to a literary agent by the head of Columbia's writing program, and Price's debut found a publisher. In 1979, Orion released a major motion picture based on the book. A sort of "anti-Grease," The Wanderers noticeably lacked the nostalgic bubblegum bounce of other coming-of-age novels and flicks of its day, and touched off Price's reputation for being unafraid to expose the dark side of Americana.

Two more acclaimed novels would follow—I>Bloodbrothers (1976) and Ladies' Man (1978)—but soon an out-of-control cocaine habit plunged Price into a creative and personal abyss. "I wasn't even that big of a doper," he recalled to Salon.com. "I was definitely bush league. But enough that it sort of preoccupied me for three years."

Hollywood proved to be the sunny savior Price needed to help him climb out of the funk. By the mid-'80s, he had become a top screenwriter with a roster of hits to his credit, including the The Color of Money (for which he was nominated for an Academy Award), Sea of Love, Ransom, and Mad Dog and Glory. "[Screenwriting] kept me in the writing game, and it also showed me I was able to write about things that were not connected to my autobiography," he told Salon.

In 1994, Price returned to fiction with the novel Clockers—a gritty depiction of crack trafficking in the fictional city of Dempsy, New Jersey, a Dantean hell of crime and urban blight. (Adapted into a film by Spike Lee, Clockers would earn Price another Academy Award nomination for screenwriting.) Since then, he has revisited Dempsy in blockbusters like Freedomland and Samaritan, garnering praise for his unblinkered view of inner-city life and his pitch-perfect ear for street talk. A writer's writer, Price counts among his many admirers such distinguished novelists as Russell Banks, Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Elmore Leonard, and Stephen King. But in a 2003 interview, he confessed that the greatest validation he ever received came from his teenage daughter who read Samaritan and told him he was "really good!" Says Price, "Of course I want The New York Times to sing my praises, but she's my kid."

Good To Know

Price lives in New York City with his wife, downtown artist Judy Hudson, and their two daughters.

The inspiration for his novel Freedomland came from the infamous case of Susan Smith—a woman who admitted to murdering her own children after initially reporting a fictional carjacking.

A former cocaine addict, Price occasionally volunteers his time to speak about the dangers of drugs to high school students.

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 12, 1949
    2. Place of Birth:
      Bronx, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A., Cornell University, 1971; M.F.A., Columbia University

Read an Excerpt

 

Ladies' Man

MONDAY

SO THERE WE WERE. Me, I was doing my usual hundred and fifty sit-ups. My feet were jammed under the couch for leverage and I was holding a five-pound barbell behind my head like an iron halo. La Donna was in her black Danskins sitting by the wall doing dancercizes. I had a stomach that looked like six miniature cobblestones. La Donna was so limber that standing and without bending her knees, she could work her head down between her legs and kiss her own ass. How very nice for the both of us. She was a twenty-eight-year-old bank clerk would-be singer; I was a thirty-year-old door-to-door salesman and we both walked around all day like Back to Bataan.

When I was doing my sit-ups I liked to watch TV — Lucy or Fonzie, whatever reruns I could get a hold of. That was not allowed when La Donna was around. She needed silence to stand there, pull one foot backward, up over her shoulder, and tap the base of her skull with her heel. I could have worked out when she wasn’t around, but six weeks before, on a Sunday morning after she finished her dancercizes, she came over to where I was doing sit-ups and just sat on it. There are aborigines in New Guinea who have been squatting by an air strip since 1943 because a plane once landed and dropped off food. Six weeks ain’t that long. Meanwhile, if I needed extra money I could do exhibitions, have two-ton semis drive over my stomach at state fairs.

La Donna walked past me on the way to the bathroom, a thumb-pinch of tush peeking out over each thigh. My stomach queered and I couldn’t do another sit-up. I lay flat on my back and stared upside-down at the wall unit across the room. I followed her into the bathroom. She was hunched over the sink spitting out toothpaste. I stood behind her, dropped my gym shorts and got into the shower.

“Comin’ in, babe?”

She looked up at me with a werewolf froth of toothpaste and spat into the sink again. “I’m gonna work awhile.”

The shower curtain had a box design with alternating white and clear plastic squares and I watched her wash her face. When she finished she started to work her dusty black leotard down her shoulders and thumb-hook it below her hips to her knees so she could pee. She had tits the size of fists, hard and muscular with long, rubbery, dark brown nipples. That was unusual because her skin was as pale as dough. She sat on the pot and wiggled her toes which still had weird bumps and corns from when she had been trying to make it as a dancer. I leaned against the wall in my soap overcoat and pulled on myself.

Love. We fought like the U.S. Marines, and the only pleasure we ever got with each other was the hour between the end of a fight and sleep. That was the only time we really talked or fucked. The rest of the time we walked around afraid of each other, not really understanding or appreciating each other; what I found funny she thought pathetic or mean and what she found funny I usually considered a major yawn. I loved good balling and good movies. She was into modern dance and nightclub-type singing.

On the other hand, she had this cute big head with matching big ears. She never smiled and always had an incredible serious look on this outrageous baby face — round, with round gray eyes and a Danish nose, broad but upturned like Hitler intended. But I knew how to get her laughing, and when she did, that serious baby face broke up, went east and west, and she would cover her mouth and touch the tip of her nose with her index finger like a high-class Japanese hooker and she was a kid and she was human and I loved her. She needed me. I knew she needed me. And I wasn’t stupid or shallow. I knew all about sexism, and productive relationships and growth, but I’m talking about love. I’m talking about irrational, illogical passion. And you can go to all the forums on meaningful concepts, you can have all the shared interests you want, but the bottom line with what I’m talking about here was how her arms felt wrapped around my neck when she was coming, how she looked at me when I made her laugh. And how I knew she needed me, how I felt in my heart she needed me. The rest was all good and well, but it wasn’t from the gut and it wasn’t love.

“Kenny? When you come outa there I wanna run down ‘Feelings’ a few times, okay?”

“Sure, babe.”

She got up, flushed, pulled her leotard back up to her hips and left the room. I waited until I was sure she was dressed before I came out of the shower.

 

 

“Anytime you’re ready, babe.” I didn’t feel like listening to her sing again, but she had the showcase that night and it was important. She sat cross-legged on the living room floor back against the wall frowning and staring at her nails.

“I wanna wait awhile, Kenny, okay?”

“Sure, you mean like a few minutes?”

“Awhile.”

“You want some coffee?”

“No thank you.”

It was a small apartment and the living room was off limits now. I went into the bedroom and turned on the TV low, but the room was blasted with sunlight and it made me feel like an invalid to have the box on. I turned it off and scanned the titles of books on the shelves. I had a million books. I loved books. My father loved books. I rebrushed my hair in the closet mirror. I could hear La Donna breathing through her nose in the living room. I felt like a big cat in a cage at the zoo. I had taken the goddamn day off to be with her, to be supportive. It was high noon. I couldn’t take her goddamn depression, her goddamn isolation. I paced, fists on hips, then walked into the living room ignoring her, snagged a book from the wall unit and returned to the bedroom. She never looked up from her nails. She was frowning so hard her eyebrows were touching. I threw the book on the bed and changed my shirt. She never even thanked me for taking the day off. I didn’t make money when I took off. I didn’t make money, she didn’t take singing lessons. She got paid in peanuts at that bank. After taxes she didn’t even have enough money for a 45 let alone singing lessons. And she wasn’t very good either. That fucking music teacher Madame Bossanova or whatever the hell her name was told her she was the next Liza Minnelli, but if I stopped forking over for lessons all of a sudden she’d hear the truth from that old Russian cunt, and the truth was that she couldn’t goddamn sing. I put on my coat and headed for the door.

“See ya later,” I mumbled.

“Okay.”

Now she was biting her nails.

I stood by the elevator feeling like a class A pud. Where the hell was I supposed to go? She didn’t even ask me when I was coming back, where I was going, nothing.

We lived between Broadway and West End Avenue on Seventy-seventh Street. I walked to the deli on Broadway, sat at a window table and ordered coffee so I could have a few cigarettes. It was a windy sunny nothing of a February Monday. There was nobody out on Broadway except bag ladies and street whacks. In a way it was just as well I took the day off. Door-to-door really bit on a cold day. Fuck the job. That job sucked in any kind of weather. If I had any balls I’d quit, go back to school and get a teaching degree. I’d teach English. Books. Books were bitches. I always had this fantasy of teaching English in some little ivy-covered brick schoolhouse in New England — running down Jack London to all these blond little plumpling dumpling kids. Or it’s Halloween and the leaves are turning and I’m sitting up there on my desk reading them The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, or The Monkey’s Paw, and maybe some of them have nice, blond, thirtyish divorced mothers and fourposter beds and heavy patchwork quilts and dream on. Maybe next lifetime. I would have been a bitch of a teacher though. I could talk about books like nobody’s business. Hemingway, Baldwin, Stephen Crane, Poe, Richard Wright — you name it, I read it, and I could talk your ass off about it too. Talk. Talk, talk, talk. Cold days with nothing to do always brought me down. I liked the night better. It was too dark to notice the weather. I liked night life. I thought of the evening to come and I swallowed a lick of panic. She was going to get butchered. Every Monday night this joint over on the East Side, Fantasia, had an amateur night. First twenty people off the street got ten minutes onstage. If you had talent they invited you back the next week. About one in ten thousand went on to become famous entertainers, but the management milked the legends of those people for all they’re worth and every week twenty clowns with dreams of Johnny Carson shows, Vegas and all went onstage and got massacred by audiences who made the Roman Colosseum fans look like humanitarians. And that night one of those clowns was going to be La Donna.

And didn’t she know it. She had to know it. I didn’t care what her goddamn singing teacher told her, she had ears, she was intelligent. I thought of her sitting in the apartment staring at her nails. She knew it. And I knew me. I wasn’t going to say dick. I couldn’t. In the beginning we could say anything to each other, but now it was too dangerous; if we started cracking on each other with truths at this point we would inevitably get to the bottom truth, which was that we had no damn right being together anymore, and I for one was scared to death of the alternatives. So I settled for the bullshit low-key rage of two people going through the motions of a relationship, a life; and I would let her humiliate herself at Fantasia in the name of not rocking the boat even though the boat was capsizing fast, and I would even have the stones to call it being supportive.

 

 

“Kenny? When I finish I want you to tell me if I look better if I bow my head” — she slowly dropped her chin to her chest — “or if I should just close my eyes and keep my head up. Please don’t smoke.”

I ditched my cigarette and spread my arms across the top of the couch. La Donna stood five feet in front of me.

“Feee-lings, no-thing more than … fee-lings, try-ing to forget … my fee-lings of loove …”

She was bad. Not real bad; she could carry a tune, but every note bordered on clinking. And she was standing in front of me as if she were singing in the front row of an Episcopalian choir. No movement from the neck down. She wouldn’t look at me. She was singing to some point three feet over my head.

“Fee-lings, Wo wo wo feee-lings, Wo wo wo fee-lings …” She ended with her chin slightly upturned and eyes closed as if waiting for a kiss on the forehead.

“That’s nice, baby. I like that better with the eyes closed. Just relax a little more and you’ll be outa sight.” I reached for another cigarette, then stopped myself. La Donna stood there, hands on hips, nervously chewing off shreds of dead skin on her lower lip. She was staring in my direction but her eyes were glassy with thought.

“Okay.” Her eyes were still unfocused. “I wanna run it through once with the Spanish lyrics.”

“Fire away, kid.”

 

 

“La Di?” She was in the shower and I poked my head into the bathroom and stared at the floor. “What time that guy say to get there?”

“Five, but I wanna get there at four. What time’s it now?”

“It’s three now,” I warned.

“Oh Christ,” she said through clenched teeth.

I went into the living room and started flipping through the records. I pulled out Cabaret and put on “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” When I saw the movie all those cute little Nazis singing in the beer garden had made me cry. I wasn’t into Nazis or anything, there was just something beautiful about that scene that got to me. I always felt a mixture of pity and envy for kids. Childhood was hell, but I swear I’d give anything to start all over again.

Pleeze don’t play music.” La Donna was dripping nude at the far end of the living room. “You … know … what … other … music … does … to … my … concentration.” She sounded like she was trying not to lose her patience with a retard, her eyes wide with anger, her hair plastered with water over her left tit. I didn’t move. If I told her she was beautiful, that I wanted to ball, make love, whatever, it would be my death by radiation. I didn’t move for a few seconds until she realized I was defying her. It was like Russian roulette. Maybe I wasn’t horny after all, just thrill crazy.

 

 

We arrived at Fantasia just about four o’clock. The sun had begun to go down about three and it was as cold as a snowball’s ass. Even though they didn’t take sign-ups until five there were already about ten of us yo-yos in what looked like a bread line. Everybody was hunched down into winter coats, hands in pockets, faces pinched in pain. We got on the end and watched everybody on Third Avenue watch us. La Donna was wearing a big fur coat and too much make-up. She held a manila folder between her elbow and ribs containing a 8-by-10-inch studio picture of her dressed in a Suzie Wong side-slit number with LA DONNA printed below the photograph in bamboo letters. She also had a letter of recommendation from Tony Randall, the story behind which kept changing every time I heard it.

“Well, you know, if you don’t believe in yourself, if you don’t have confidence in yourself, nobody else will.”

“Oh, I have confidence in myself.”

Some black kid standing in front of us in aviator glasses and a long coat with a fake fur collar was lecturing to a blond chubby teen-ager carrying sheet music for “September Song.”

“I believe in myself. I really do.” The blond kid sounded like he was trying to convince the jury. The black kid seemed skeptical, arching his eyebrows with self-importance like He Really had self-confidence. I slipped my hand under La Donna’s collar, grabbing the nape of her neck. “You got self-confidence?”

She hissed and turned her head away. No sense of humor.

“I’m gonna smoke, okay?”

“I’m not your mother,” she said, still looking away.

I dropped my hand from her neck.

“Why don’t you get fuckin’ Tony Randall to stand on line with you?” That I muttered to myself.

In front of the two kids, an older guy in a gravy-colored raincoat was leaning against the building. He was short, fiftyish, blubberized and toupeed. His nervous darting walleyes made Peter Lorre look like a squinter. Every time a cab honked he started blinking in spasms. In front of him, two other guys were talking. One guy was tall, dressed in baggy chinos and a lightweight dungaree jacket. He had the longest, pointiest head I’d ever seen; it was shaped like a slip-on pencil eraser. His hairline began a good two inches above his temple as if his hair had been glopped on like whipped cream on Jell-O. He wore bottle-bottom glasses, the heavy black frames held together with rubber bands at the joints, and his elevator forehead was sprinkled with pimples. The guy he was talking to looked like Rasputin’s dwarf — a Mad Russian. About five feet even, scrawny, dressed in a pea coat, he was balding but combed his hair forward in sparse bangs over his eyes like Moe of the Three Stooges. He held one arm across his gut supporting the elbow of the other arm, which was slowly stroking a goatee that looked more like a collection of long chin hairs than a beard. As the guy with the glasses talked, the Mad Russian kept massaging his chin and staring up at him with hungry gleaming eyes as if trying to figure out how to knock out that big turkey so he could cook him in a pot.

“I — I feel kinda good today.” He had a meek voice. “I wrote a new joke. My cousin is so dumb” — he pushed his glasses up his nose — “my cousin’s so dumb he had to take a color-by-number course in graffiti.”

The Mad Russian didn’t laugh, only smiled wolfishly licking his lips and rhythmically tugging his chin hairs.

The comic shrugged, embarrassed. “I don’t know, I kinda like it, and I also picked up this.” He took a switchblade out of his back pocket, shook it in front of his face and out snapped a comb. The fat popeyed guy jumped, but nobody noticed. He started combing his bird’s nest as if to illustrate further that it really wasn’t a knife.

La Donna stared at all of them, horrified and ashamed. She looked like she was ready to walk. I felt sorry for her and put my hand on the back of her neck again, but she shook if off. A heftylooking Jewish chick emerged from a taxi, shouted at the taxi driver, “Remember, twelve noon New Year’s Eve nineteen seventy-nine behind the soccer stadium in Istanbul. Be there!” and ran across the sidewalk to the end of the line, which was us. She briskly rubbed her hands and made a loud brrr sound. “This train go straight out to Montauk, or do I have to change at Babylon?”

La Donna looked away like don’t fuckin’ bother me. I smiled, jammed for a comeback line. La Donna’s rudeness pissed me off to no end. I could never stand people who couldn’t even transcend their own shit, just for the sake of politeness if nothing else.

“You a singer or a comedian?” She pointed a nose as big as a shark fin at me.

“Neither.” I shrugged. “I’m a lion tamer. I used to gig with Terrytoon Circus.”

“A lion tamer,” she whispered behind her hand to an invisible third party on her left. She raised her eyebrows and gave a short uh-oh whistle. “Well, how you doin’, Lion Tamer, what’s your name?”

I felt embarrassed telling her my name, as if it didn’t count.

“Kenny Becker.” I extended my hand.

“Mona Nucleosis.”

Even though La Donna was making a big point of being disinterested she choked a snort over that one.

“You a comedienne, Mona?”

In response she whipped out a Plasticene tear sheet from her shoulder bag. It was the front page of the second section of a six-month-old New York Times. “The Big Apple’s Ladies of Laughter — Top 15 Comediennes.” She was number thirteen.

“Hey, La Donna, look at this!”

She turned, glared at me and glanced at the page without focusing her eyes. A big solid blond dude came up behind Mona. He was built like a fullback and wore a black vinyl, lightweight, wetlook jacket over a floral body shirt open to the sternum. He had enough chest hair for a national park and six strands of gold chains were crisscrossing under his collarbone. He stood there with a permanently arched eyebrow rolling his shoulders and absently highstepping in place like a boxer waiting for ring intros. He was dressed for the wrong time of year, but snow or no, the look on his face was, hey, fuck weather. His dark brown chest fur clashed with his metallic blond hairdo. The guy was heavy into Streaks ’n’ Tips.

He caught my eye as I was checking him out and thrust his arm toward me. By reflex I raised my shoulder to block a punch but he only extended a paw.

“Jackie di Paris.” He said it like he was answering the question “Who the fuck are you?”

“Kenny Becker.” The handshake was of course a bone-popper. Mona was gawking at him, her tongue hanging out like a club tie.

“Jackie, this is Mona.”

“Hey, Mona!” He winked. “You a real moaner or what?” He laughed, squeezing her shoulders. She made a strangle face and popeyes for my benefit.

“Awright, Mona the moaner!” He laughed. “Yeah.” Letting her go and breathing into his fist.

La Donna turned slightly, gave him the once-over and turned back. My stomach slipped a few inches. I didn’t want him to notice her. “Hey, I saw that.” He pointed at her, grinning in triumph. He rocked side to side, rubbing his hands and blowing into his fists as if he was waiting for the 6:00 A.M. shape-up down at the longshoremen’s hiring hall.

“Jackie di Paris, huh?” I figured him for a bouncer trying to be a singer. “That your real name?”

“John di Marco, di Paris is my stage name.” He squinted at me. “You’re from the Bronx, right?”

“Yeah.”

“You Jewish?” like a polite accusation.

“Yeah.” What about it, douchebag.

“Oh.” He shrugged like it wasn’t serious. “Where you from?”

“Burke Avenue.”

“I’m from Belmont Avenue. You know Belmont Avenue?”

“Sure, I know Belmont. You don’t live there no more, do you?”

“Now? Nah, I’m over here now. Up on Eighty-sixth Street, Germantown.” He nodded uptown.

“You sing?”

He shrugged and pouted, “I’m tryin’, you know? I got nice pipes. I got stage presence. I used to be a bodyguard for Peter Lemongello … it’s all fucking bullshit. What kinda work you do?” He squinted.

“Me?” Brain surgeon. “I’m in sales.”

He laughed. “What the fuck does that mean?”

“Whata you mean, what the fuck does that mean?” I snapped, pissed and embarrassed.

“Sales could be anything, right?” He shrugged. “You a VP or a clerk?”

“Neither.” I turned away.

“Myself” — he poked my arm — “I’m now in communications.” He waited for me to turn back to him, his head cocked, chin pointing to his shoulder, a smirk plastered on his lips. “I sort mail for the post office.”

All the difference in the world. I lightened up, dipped my head in acknowledgment. “Door-to-door.”

Mona started talking to the guy who came on line behind Jackie.

“You know, I’ll tell you something, you never know who’s going to make it doing what in this world.” He put his hands inside his rib-high jacket pockets and scanned the street. “And the God’s honest truth, I don’t know about you, you know, door-to-door, but I put in forty fuckin’ hours a week in that goddamn PO. That’s forty hours working with every low-life bastard that can pass a multiplechoice exam to get a federal job. Punching out a time card to take a crap, vending machine coffee with every meal.” He dropped his voice, still staring out at the street. “Getting chewed out by some bullshit nigger with two years’ seniority on me. And I swear to God, if I didn’t believe I was destined from some fuckin’ greatness for something a hell of a lot better …” He rubbed his mouth. “I dunno, so we’ll see. I’m feelin’ pretty good tonight, so we’ll see. You a singer, too?” He raised his chin in my direction.

“Me? Nah, I’m down here with my girlfriend, she’s a singer.”

“Who, her?” He tilted his head back and to the right where Mona was yakking away. He looked like he was in pain.

I jerked back and squinted too, like gimme a break.

“La Di.” I turned La Donna around. “La Donna, this is Jackie di Paris.”

“Hey, now you’re makin’ sense.” He held out both hands palms up. “How you doin’, baby.” He leaned forward and kissed her under her ear, holding the other side of her face in the flat of his palm. Then he straightened up holding both of her hands in his. “I’m sure you’re a very fine singer, and I’m sure you’ll do very well tonight.” He winked at me.

La Donna frowned and nodded awkwardly.

“Wha, you nervous?” He jerked back and looked outraged.

She mumbled “A little” and tried to extract her hands.

“What are you nervous about?” he sneered. “Don’t fuckin’ worry, they’re all fuckin’ jibones out there.”

“Thank you.” She pulled one hand free. He let go of the other one and drew me and La Donna into a huddle. “Also” — he had his arms around our shoulders — “there’s no fuckin’ competition,” he whispered, raised his head, peered at the line and ducked back into the huddle. “You ever see such a line-up of freaks?”

At that moment a ripple of energy pulsed up the line. We turned around; a tall, thin guy in a sealskin coat and a lamb’s-wool Cossack hat was working his way up to us, cradling a clipboard and handing out yellow Community Chest Monopoly cards.

“Name?”

“La Donna.” She straightened up, gave him all her attention, like this joker had the power. She tilted her head and read her name as he wrote it on the clipboard.

“La Donna what?”

“Just La Donna.” She held her manila folder with her fingertips.

“Singer?”

“Yes.”

“Okay.” He handed her a yellow card. The number thirteen was written on the back in red Magic Marker. “You’re number thirteen. Be here no later than nine. Any drinks you have at the bar you pay for. You got ten minutes up there, one song. If you want piano accompaniment you have to supply the music. If you’re late you’re out. Name please?”

“Nah, I’m with her.” I took her by the elbow, waved goodbye to Jackie, who was getting his number, and ushered her across the street.

“What time is it now?” she asked.

“Ten after five. We got almost four hours. You wanna go to a movie? They got Heart of Glass playing at the Coronet.”

She didn’t answer.

“You wanna rent a hotel room and screw around?” Hah. “No, seriously, if you want we got time to go back to the house and fall out for a few hours.”

“Please, I can’t stand that house sometimes.”

“So move out, bitch” — that too under my breath. Sometimes she would hurt me in such a way I always felt like a schmuck if I tried to bring it to her attention.

“You hungry?” We stood in front of an East Side deli; all I had had all day was wheat germ cereal and coffee.

“I’m cold,” she winced.

“Well, let’s get some soup or hot chocolate or something.”

It was one of those Renaissance delis with chandeliers hanging from heavily spackled red ceilings, the walls plastered with goldveined mirrors and oil paintings of clowns and sunsets with little price tags in the corners. The menus were quilted, plush and big as baby books. All that so they could jack up the price of a hot dog.

“Look at this joint.” We sat across from each other at a booth the sides of which were shaped like curlicued sea waves. “The Borgias used to come in here for their pastrami.” Across from us was the floor-length meat and appetizer counter. “Meanwhile they still got the slobs with the T-shirts and flabby chests slicing the whitefish, right?” I winked at her. Her hands were clasped in front of her face, elbows on the table, both thumbs pressed against the bottoms of her front teeth. On the bottom shelf of the meat display case sat three huge hors d’oeuvre trays of tightly rolled cold cuts and cheese laid out in a sunburst pattern under yellow-tinted cellophane like a food version of the June Taylor dancers. Each platter had a name and an East Side address pinned on the cellophane. I wanted to make some clever comment about the trays to La Donna, but she looked like she was waiting out a biopsy report. An old-time waiter, short, bald with salt and pepper sideburns and mustache, came by, order pad in hand. He wore a foodstained chest-high apron under a red monkey jacket.

“Whata you want, babe?”

“Just tea.”

I didn’t think we were allowed to order just tea.

“Look, I just want coffee now, we’ll order in a few minutes, okay?”

He closed the order pad without writing anything down and, staring over our heads, slowly walked toward the coffee and hot water service station.

“You talk to your sister today?”

“No.” La Donna slid her thumbs up to her forehead.

“La Di …” I cupped her elbows in my hands. “Listen, Mommy, you’re gonna be fine tonight.”

“I wish to God you would stop reassuring me, okay?” She didn’t raise her head or move her elbows.

The waiter reappeared, a full cup in each hand, waiting for me to take my arms off the table. He was staring back toward the kitchen.

“Sorry.” I leaned back against the booth. He walked away without asking us for our orders.

“Whata you want, La Donna, you want me to split? I’ll split.” I spit that out as offhand and abrupt as I could.

“No,” she mumbled. I couldn’t see her face behind her thumbs, which had climbed up to her hairline. She started to cry. “No.” She pulled wetly on her nose, then flattened her hands across her face, shuddering silently. For what it’s worth, at that moment I felt better than I had all day. I leaned over the table and kissed her knuckles, which were directly over her eyes.

“Everything is gonna be okay.”

“Sit over here.” She pouted and patted the Naugahyde next to her, hiding her eyes with the other hand.

I slid under the table and popped up next to her. She still wouldn’t uncover her eyes. “Hold me. You haven’t held me all day, you know,” she said half-sulking.

“Oh, Mommy.” I hugged her as hard as I could. I loved her badly. Madly. She laid her head on my chest and I was in heaven.

The waiter came back, and I opened one of the mammoth menus, rubbing my hands together as if to kindle my appetite. “God, now I’m starving! Whata you want, baby, you want a Vic Damone or a Joe Namath?”

“I’ll have a tuna salad on rye.” She wiped her eyes with her napkin.

“Yeah, and ah, I’ll tell you, I’m torn between a Duke Ellington and an Albert De Salvo myself.”

When the waiter split again, I moved my hand along her thigh under the table, and I could feel her body downshift, relax against my arm. Closing her eyes, she rubbed her cheek against my shoulder. Slowly she moved the flat of her palm in a U-curve from the inside of my thigh over the bulge of my crotch to the other thigh. I was so surprised I almost pushed her away. If there had been a power failure, I would have taken her right there, under the table.

“It’s been a long time, Kenny,” she whispered, running her hand back along the same route.

“Eight days and six hours,” I said.

She snorted softly. “Well, you’re in trouble tonight.”

“Is that a threat or a promise?”

“It’s what it is.”

We straightened up when the waiter returned with the food. I couldn’t eat. My insides were one big sexknot.

After the deli, I talked her into going to see a movie which wound up being about depression in Los Angeles, a move which didn’t win me any awards for cleverness. By the time the movie was over it was eight o’clock and La Donna was into her black dog funk again. We had a couple of drinks at a fancy Greek diner and returned to Fantasia. I had a nice buzz going, but La Donna just got more tense, if that was possible.

Fantasia was laid out in two rooms. The front room was an ordinary bar that led through a sliding plastic curtain into a cabaret.

The bar was packed, primarily with the people from the line clutching their Monopoly cards and waiting to be called onstage by the T-shirted maître d’, who was guarding the plastic curtain. Besides the entertainers, the only other people in the bar were outof-towners making their way toward the maître d’ and their reserved tables inside. Loud, suburban contractors and their wives, drunk Texans, Jap businessmen, medical students; assholes, all assholes. They all seemed to be giggling, too.

We grabbed two stools along the bar and ordered drinks. The bar area looked like the day room at Bellevue. Twenty people aching for a break, comedians ranking everyone in sight, the singers doing nasal warm-ups or posing in their minds for album covers, high-pitched laughter, forced laughter, barking, fast talking, mumbling to walls, praying and pacing, everybody pacing. Any second I expected a nurse to come in wheeling a stainless steel tray with rows of Dixie cups containing pills. Every time the curtain parted people tensed, craned their necks to peer into the next room to catch a glimpse of the floodlit foggy stage. We couldn’t hear the acts — the sound didn’t carry — but we could see faces at tables, see if people were laughing, smiling or just talking to each other, ignoring whoever was dying from diarrhea up by the mike. Whenever everybody else would wheel toward the parting curtain, La Donna would wheel in the opposite direction toward the street.

“What number they up to?” She grabbed her elbow across her chest and hunched her shoulders.

“Four, five, like that. You got time, you wanna take a walk?”

“No.” She shook her head at her boots, then suddenly looked up at me with them baby grays. “You really think I’m gonna be good?”

I fell apart with love again. “The best, La Di.” It didn’t seem to take much for me to fall apart. All she had to do was act like she needed me. “And you look fuckin’ wild, kid.” That was true. She was wearing a silvery gray embroidered peasant blouse tucked into a heavy, black wool, shin-length maxiskirt over brand-new, round-toed black Fryes. Her hair was swirled up in a bun and she had big half-moon mother-of-pearl earrings dangling almost to her jawline. “Just fuckin’ wild.”

“I’m bein’ a bitch today, Kenny, I know.” She winced.

“No! No!” I shook my head and frowned.

“Just bear with me till this is over, okay?” She touched my bicep and kissed me softly on the lips. “I love you, Kenny.” If she had asked me at that moment to please go into the cabaret and shoot the person onstage so her turn would come faster my only question would have been if she minded if I used a telescopic so I wouldn’t have to stand up in front of all those assholes.

“Hey!” A short, sweating, shiny, pink rollerball wearing glasses grabbed the lapel of my jacket. “They sell new clothes where you got this?”

His eyes were desperate and his breath smelled like cologne. I laughed because I didn’t want this guy to kill himself. When I laughed he jerked back smiling, like he had just drawn to an inside straight. He was bald but he grew his fringe hair long and plastered it across the dome. He whipped out a calling card that read: MY CARD. I laughed. Then he handed me another: CHUCK STEAK. PRIME COMEDIAN. I laughed. Every time I laughed he shook his head and laughed along encouragingly. The maître d’ called out, “Six! Number six!” and Chuck Steak swung his head toward the voice so fast his rooster gullet was quivering from inertia.

“I’m number eight.” He stared at La Donna. “Hey! It’s Joni Mitchell! Don’t start the peasant blouse revolution without me!”

Wrong target. I put my arm around his shoulder and turned him around.

A big black dude in a cowboy hat drifted past us like a killer whale in a bad mood.

“That guy’s an actor.” Chuck nudged me and waved at the guy. “Loved your movie!”

The guy didn’t hear him and continued to move through the room.

“What movie?”

Planet of the Apes. They saved so much money on make-up with him they financed a sequel.”

I snapped my head back in disbelief. “Hey, Chuck.” I laughed weakly. “Why don’t you save ’em for the stage, okay? I mean, you know, like, you don’t know who you’re goofin’ on over here. You pick the wrong person, they might tear your heart out and stuff it in your shirt pocket, you know? You know what I mean, Chuck? This is like a dynamite room right now.”

He raised his eyebrows and peered at my arm across his shoulder.

“Thay, fellah, you’re not my type.”

He spied Mona Nucleosis and stared with malicious mischief at her beak. He walked out from under my arm and went back to work.

“Jesus! Durante lives!”

Mona didn’t even blink but got right into it. “Actually, I was born with an Irish pug. It looked too much like a nose job so I had the rest added on last year.”

They talked in spurts and their eyes never met. They weren’t hearing each other, just running their riffs like so much testing testing testing into a mike. I couldn’t listen to them. Part of me wanted to jump right in and riff them to death and part of me wanted to grab them by the chins and beg them to lighten up.

I turned to La Donna. She was glancing furtively at a moonfaced girl sitting by herself clutching a guitar case. The girl looked so tense she made La Donna seem like Marlene Dietrich.

The Mad Russian stood alone behind Chuck Steak fingering his Mandarin chin, scanning the competition and slightly smiling, like he knew the answer. Even though it was February, he was shirtless, wearing only a dirty rib-high suede hippie vest with footlong fringes. That and a necklace made of chicken bones.

Chuck noticed him out of the corner of his eye, did a double take, a triple take, then nudged Mona: “Hey! It’s Moscow’s answer to Charlie Manson! Ivan Cutchapeckeroff!”

The Russian did a slow head turn to Chuck, grinned, raised his hands palms up and out, then flipped them knuckle side up. Without saying a word he reached behind Chuck Steak’s shiny scrubbed pink earlobe and withdrew a razor blade held delicately between thumb and forefinger. Chuck patted down the back of his head. Mona gave one of her eyebrow-raising uh-oh whistles. La Donna was now standing by the nervous chick with the guitar case, but she was looking away like a guy edging toward a pickup at a singles’ bar. I didn’t know if they had talked or not.

“Number seven? Seven!” Thirteen guts sank. I noticed when customers made their way through the psycho ward to the curtain the amateurs were staring at them with this expression like the customers were somehow superior people, like the tryout comedians and singers were animals and these sporty schmucks were visitors at the zoo. That made me berserk. I felt like jumping up on the bar and announcing that the travesty was canceled. That everybody in that goddamn room should put down their cross. That there was a charter bus arriving in twenty minutes and everybody was going on a pleasure trip, lunch included, so let’s blow this joint.

I made my way over to La Donna. I thought it would be good for her to talk to the guitar girl. I passed the black kid from the line. He wore a loud three-piece plaid suit with sleeves that were too long. They came down almost to his knuckles. He had an expensive stitched leather bag over his shoulder and constantly adjusted his gold-rimmed aviators. He was still talking to the chubby teen-ager.

“You know, in all honesty, I can’t really call myself an amateur per se.”

“Number eight!”

Chuck Steak plowed through the bar crowd to the curtain, holding his card high in the air.

“You know, in all honesty, I can’t really call myself an amateur per se,” the black kid repeated; he lit a cigarette and smoked it clumsily, holding it down by the webbing between his fingers and bringing his whole hand to his mouth when he took a puff.

“Who’s your friend?” I nudged La Donna. She glanced down at the girl as if noticing her for the first time. With the guitar case between her knees and the blood drained from her face she looked like she was waiting for the cattle car.

“Now” — the black kid punctuated his bullshit with a cigarette — “if you’ve ever studied Mathis’ style, he just gets up onstage and runs his repertoire. He’s not very comfortable with trying to personally relate to his audience.”

The fat kid shook his head automatically, but his brains were all over the floor.

“Now me on the other hand” — he touched all ten fingertips to his vest — “I like to rap to my audience, you know, set up a rapport.

“Shit,” La Donna hissed.

“Hey, relax!”

“I hate fuckin’ triteness, fuckin’ phonies.”

The black kid overheard her. His face collapsed for a second but instantaneously recovered as if he had decided she was referring to somebody else.

“C’mon.” I moved La Donna back to our barstools.

The big, tall, knuckle-headed spade stood in front of us, about six-five in a sky blue three-piece suit, black shirt, black cowboy hat, red tie and a red cocktail napkin stuffed into his breast pocket like a handkerchief. He wore the thickest glasses I’ve ever seen and he looked as dumb and mean as a dinosaur. He had spent the last hour drifting from cluster to cluster saying stupid warlike things, totally misunderstanding whatever people said to him in response and in general making the whole room squirm. He faced both of us, looking like he couldn’t decide whether to kill me and rape her or rape me and kill her.

“Wha’s yo name?” He squinted at La Donna, mouth open a good inch and a half. La Donna refused to look at him.

“Her name’s Linda,” I said. It took this big dumb bastard a good five seconds to turn his head to me. “Ah dint as’ you.”

“Well, she got to save her voice now.” I smiled. He chewed that one over awhile, then returned his gaze to her.

“You a singer?” He examined her like King Kong checking out Fay Wray.

“Yeah, she’s a singer. I’m a singer too. Are you a singer?”

He just stared at me. I must have supplied too much information too fast. If he touched her I would have smashed my drink in his glasses.

“How come you won’t talk to me? You afraid a black mayn?”

La Donna threw her eyes and shook her head sadly while still looking away.

“She’s afraid of everything. Her mother got scared by an encyclopedia when she was pregnant.” I grabbed his hand and shook it heartily. “Listen, I just wanna wish you the best of luck tonight. I’m sure you’re gonna kill ’em out there.” He stared down at the handshake like he couldn’t understand how his hand got between mine. I have big motherfucking strong hands, bigger than his, and I gave an extra firm squeeze. When I let go he moved in slow motion toward La Donna.

“I wanna wish huh luck too.” He extended his hand to her, and I quickly stepped between them and grabbed his hand again. “I want to thank you for both of us.” I grabbed La Donna away and tried to find a neutral corner in that loony bin.

“That big yom start something with you?” Jackie di Paris stood over us now, his jaw cemented with rage. “I’m gonna kick his fuckin’ ass before midnight. He’s been breakin’ people’s balls all night.” Jackie glared across the room.

“How you doin’, doll?” He kissed La Donna on the cheek. La Donna patted his shoulder like “Downboy.”

“What’s your number?” he said, holding his own at arm’s length as if he were nearsighted.

“Thirteen.”

“Yeah? I’m twelve. Hey, tonight’s only the beginning. Maybe me ’n’ you’ll become a famous duet like Tony Orlando and Dawn.” He blew into his fist and rubbed his hands as if he was still outside, winked at me, gave me a sidearm shot in the shoulder and walked off.

I started to move La Donna around the room again when she shook my hand away. “Kenny, cut it. I’m not furniture.”

“Hey, will you relax?”

You relax! You go up there in twenny minutes and you relax.”

“Hey, relax, La Di.” I didn’t know what else to say.

“Kenny.” She held my hand and took a deep breath. “You wanna help me, right? Please don’t be offended.” She kept patting my hand for accentuation. “Go inside, get a table and watch me from in there, okay?”

“Nah, I’ll stay with you.”

“Kenny, please.” She looked more weary than tense. “Please, Kenny.”

I had to do what she asked. I felt so hurt I wanted to cry. I didn’t understand what I’d done wrong. I felt like I had blown everything. “What about that big nigger?”

She smiled. “I’ll scream for Jackie di Paris.”

“I can handle that bozo. Why don’t you scream for me?”

“’Cause you’ll be inside.”

I gave her a tasteless kiss, told her chin up and eyes closed and walked toward the curtain. As I went in I saw she was standing over the girl with the guitar again, but still looking away like she had no idea she was there.

 

 

“Thank you, Chuck Steak, Charles Steak.”

He stepped off the stage sweating like a steam room attendant. I was seated during the last thirty seconds of his act, a cheap-shot homo joke, but from the high buzz of table conversation and the almost nonexistent applause I assumed that the funniest thing Chuck had in his head was his name. I sat at a table against the back wall with two drunks and a nondescript guy about my age with a tape cassette and ordered a Chivas from the waitress.

“I wanna remind you people that five of tonight’s performers will be invited back on Sunday evening at six for a special showcase, the, ah, cream of the crap as it were.” That got some laughter, some awws. The emcee shrugged and raised his hands in submission.

He was a fast-talking prep school Jew, thin, also wearing aviator glasses, shag haircut, Bloomingdale’s pullover, very obnoxious. Life would go on without him. “Okay.” He read from the clipboard. “Number nine, Leonard Wooley, a comedian.”

It was the big spade with the cowboy hat. He sleepwalked up to the stage.

“Than’ you.” He tried to adjust the mike, couldn’t and wound up lifting the whole thing to his mouth. He stared out over the audience frowning.

“Wow, man, you Jews are wild, man.”

Grumbles. Immediately the emcee came back onstage, grim and mechanically applauding, to grab the mike. “Thank you. Thank you,” and he ushered Leonard Wooley off before he realized what was happening. “Leonard Wooley, Leonard Wooley. Leonard had to leave early, his Hitler Youth bus threatened to split for Hamburg without him. Number ten! Number ten!”

Ten was a bad comedian. He got slaughtered. When the kid’s time was up he looked like he needed a transfusion. He did not get one laugh in ten minutes. It was brutal. The joint was a killing floor. If they had given me a week to get ready I could have torn down the house. I would have them all laughing, on their knees, then, as a finale, sprayed the joint with mustard gas.

“For those of you who just walked in, I’d like to welcome you to Fantasia. I’m your emcee, Danny Rifkin. Is anybody here from New Jersey?” About one fourth of the crowd cheered and yelled. “I’ll try to make you feel at home.” Danny boy started crooning a few bars of The Godfather theme and broke off into a call for number eleven.

“Cathy Wilbur, Cathy Wilbur, a singer, guitarist and composer from … West Virginia!”

It was the deep-freeze chick with the guitar. I saw La Donna standing by the curtain watching her. Cathy pulled up a stool, hoisted her guitar up to her chest and got right into it. She had a voice like an Irish saint, beautiful and clear, the guitar sounded nice, but the whole thing was a big yawn.

I’m searching for clar-i-ty

A crys-tal clear re-al-i-ty

uh huh huh, uh huh huh

She was putting everybody to sleep, but nobody heckled because she was so goddamn sober and sincere. Just as it seemed she was finished with the lyrics she broke into a hum. She started humming and dai-da-dai-ing the whole goddamn song over again. By the time she was finished, people were exhausted. She received a nice round of respectful applause, half appreciation, half relief. She smiled for the first time that night, revealing totally rotten hillbilly teeth.

 

 

I started worrying about La Donna: (a) in general and (b) her doing “Feelings.” I couldn’t tell what kind of songs the crowd would dig. Maybe “Feelings” wasn’t “up” enough. Maybe they only liked dirty songs.

“And now, number twelve, twelve. Mr. Jackie di Paris. Jackie di Paris, a crooner.”

Jackie swaggered upstage like Gorgeous George, his chest bursting out of the floral shirt, half-moons under the arms, his nuts bulging against his thigh. His pants were so tight, the seam of his crotch looked like it was halfway up his ass. He handed the house piano player some sheet music and began adjusting the mike. A Texas dude yelled out something about Lady Clairol. Jackie stopped fucking around with the pole, found the guy in the semidarkness and gave him a look like if the guy was anything more than pigshit it would have been worth his while to break his face. Jackie kept up the evil eye a good thirty seconds. Long enough to quiet the whole place. He removed the mike from its stand and, holding it like a weapon, stepped to the edge of the stage. He was wearing three-inch white-heeled platforms.

“I would like to sing a tune written by one of the great, great songwriters of today.” The joint stayed quiet. Everybody was intimidated. He sounded like he was reproaching the place, like he was telling us off. “Mister Piano Man, if you please.” The guy at the piano rolled his eyes, then hit some very familiar notes.

“Hey!” Jackie snapped. “Dim those lights, hah?” The lights were dimmed, people glanced at each other across tables and shrugged. “Again, please.”

“Fee-lings, nut-tin more dan fee-lings.” My gut dropped out my ass. La Donna was screwed. Also, he was fucking horrible. His phrasing made Leo Gorcey sound like Rex Harrison. The mood he conveyed was about as romantic as somebody poking a finger in your chest. He wasn’t singing, he wasn’t even talking, he was arguing. People started yakking immediately. He lost everybody from word one.

“Feelings like I nev … Hey! A little quiet, hah? I’m singin’, okay with you? Like I nev-ver lost … Yeah! I’m talking a you! yah cracker bastad!” Jackie stepped to one end of the stage and pointed his mike at the drunk Texan who had made the Lady Clairol crack. The Texan, a six-foot-plus potbellied gray-haired dude in a string tie, tried to get to his feet, but his friends, red-faced from laughing, pulled him down. He collapsed in his chair and started laughing too. The whole joint was laughing. Jackie looked as if he could kill the world. He slapped the mike against his thigh, nodding his head in small up-and-down motions as though he had just made a decision and seconded it. “Fuck you,” he spat into the mike. “You’re all fuckin’ slobs. Consideration, you ever hear that word?” That doubled the laughter. He couldn’t think of anything else to say and finally dropped the mike like it was infected, snatched his music off the piano — the player had to duck — and stormed off the stage, pushing people in the aisle out of his way and vanishing behind the plastic curtain.

Danny Rifkin came jogging upstage, swinging the clipboard. He picked up the mike and made wild eyes at the house. “Thank you, thank you. That was the charming and talented Jackie di Paris. Jackie di Paris. Jackie had to leave us a little early, he just heard they finished cleaning his cage. Okay, number thir-teen, thir-teen. La Donna, a sin-ger.”

It was pretty cold in the room, but I was sweating. My hands were shaking so bad my ring was clinking like castanets against my glass. La Donna came trancing down the aisle from the parted curtain like there should’ve been a chaplain behind her droning the Twenty-third Psalm. She knew. When she gave her sheet music to the piano player, she was wincing. Danny Rifkin helped her adjust the mike, wound up giving her an exaggerated once-over and jacking off the mike stand. The place broke up. La Donna wasn’t hip to what he did, and I wanted to tear that smartass sheeny bastard from Bloomie limb to Bloomie limb. I wanted to hug her, protect her, save her, take her a thousand miles away.

“Excuse me one second.” Rifkin scanned the back of the room, shivering and squinting. “Is the thermostat guy here? Why don’t you lower the heat a little more, Larry, I wanna hang some fuckin’ meat from the ceiling, okay?” Big laugh from the Texans. He almost knocked her over getting offstage. She had to backstep to give him room. Cocksucking pig.

The piano player began and La Donna closed her eyes. “Feelings …” It was all over. The place broke out in hysterics. People were on the floor. She could have sung like Streisand, been the ghost of Judy Garland, it wouldn’t have made a goddamn difference.

“Bring back Jackie!”

“Duet! Duet!”

By the time she walked offstage she was crying. She had skipped two verses, forgot the Spanish part, and three quarters of what she did sing was drowned out by competing hecklers. But she did remember to lift her chin and close her eyes at the end, and she did plow through it like a real trouper — she might even have been good.

 

 

She wouldn’t talk to me. We sat at the tail end of the bar. She stared at her drink like she was using X-ray vision. I wouldn’t have touched her arm on a dare. Even though it was pushing 2 A.M., the barroom was still packed. All the amateurs were sitting around waiting to hear if they made the five-person Sunday showcase. The place was considerably quieter because most of the entertainers had made assholes of themselves and they knew it. Everybody was stewing in their own self-shit image. Jackie di Paris sat a few stools down from us, hunched over, glaring at his drink, tilting his glass back and forth. The guitar girl had resumed her pose, nervously fingering her guitar case as if it were a cello. Chuck Steak was riffing but nobody was listening; the more nobody listened the more urgently he riffed. Mona sat at the bar doing needlepoint and frowning. Nobody was even drinking. The last act of the night was on — the black kid with the Johnny Mathis shtick. Because of the relative quiet we could hear him. He had a pretty good voice. He sang “Nature Boy” to a nice round of applause. Ten seconds later he emerged through the curtains sweating and beaming. The maître d’ appeared with the clipboard.

“Okay, people, here are the five we want back on Sunday. You ready?” Chuck Steak suddenly grabbed his coat and left. “If any of you can’t make it, tell me now because we want to announce the finalists to the audience, okay? Here we go. Roger Rector!”

“Yo.” A squat kid with bulging cheeks and bushy eyebrows raised one finger and tilted it forward. He did Shakespearean monologues in Donald Duck talk. Got a lot of laughs.

“Chandu the Bizarre!” That was Rasputin. He nodded to the maître d’, arms folded across his chest, still smiling his evil grin. He did ten minutes of razor magic out there and scared the daylights out of everybody.

“Annie Akins!”

Annie Akins collapsed against the wall in disbelief. A six-foot, two-hundred-pound hulk of a broad dressed like Daisy Mae Yokum. Barefoot, wearing a polka-dot blouse and cutoffs, she had sung “Jubilation T. Cornpone” in a voice you would have paid to stifle. She was so bad that the meaner members of the audience were screaming for an encore. I didn’t understand what was going on here.

“Jackie di Paris!”

Jackie just sat there hunched over, examining his drink. When he heard his name, he snickered, shook his head grimly, slapped the drink down on the bar and got up. “Fuck you,” he muttered halfheartedly and left. All of a sudden I understood what was going on and I prayed to God number five wasn’t going to be who I thought it would be.

“La Donna!”

Shit on rye. La Donna didn’t look up. She raised a slightly trembling hand to her face and slowly rubbed it across the bone ridge of her eyebrows. She exhaled noisily and briefly glanced at me. I couldn’t tell if she knew what was going down. They wanted a freak show. They wanted back all the people who were either so out to lunch or so atrocious that they had to be seen again to be believed. If Jackie di Paris hadn’t sung “Feelings” first, La Donna wouldn’t have gotten her laughs, wouldn’t have been picked. They were screaming for a duet, and they would get it. Heartless bastards. La Donna caught the maître d’s eye and nodded okay. My jaw dropped, and I stared at her incredulously. She returned her gaze to her drink. Was she that stupid?

“What happened to di Paris?” The maître d’ fretted. The kid who’d sung “Nature Boy” was holding his gut like he just took two slugs. Mona gave an uh-oh whistle, packed up her needlepoint and left. The guitar girl gingerly fingered her cheeks and stared straight ahead like she was Helen Keller.

“If di Paris don’t show, we’ll go with Ronnie Landau.”

“Oh, thank God!” the chubby singer blurted, crumpling his “September Song” score to his chest. The black kid stared at Ronnie Landau with bulging eyes, as if not only was he gutshot but he had just gotten a ticket for jaywalking as he staggered to the hospital.

“C’mon, let’s go. I got work tomorrow.” I headed for the street. La Donna followed, silent. The street was dead and heavy with windless cold. The amateurs filed out behind us, walking slowly north and south. I flagged down a Checker. I sat in the far corner hoping she would, on her own, choose to sit right up next to me. Instead she sat in the opposite corner, staring expressionlessly out the window.

“Seventy-seventh between West End and Broadway.” All the way home I watched her alternately chew her fingernails and bunch her hands into fists. Her eyes never came within 180 degrees of me. While we were zipping through Central Park she said, “I’m not doing ‘Feelings’ Sunday,” and that was it. She had left her picture and letter from Tony Randall in the club, but I was afraid to remind her.

All I could think about was her hand on my crank in the deli, her promise that I was in trouble tonight. Forget it. Sometimes when I was a kid I would be promised a toy that was never bought. And I knew that no matter how badly I wanted that toy, if I badgered or whined, or even hinted, I’d get cracked in the face. And all that I could do was sit there and go over the conversation of the promise in my head, feeling tragic and wretched.

That was about the level of desperation I would get into about sex with her. I wasn’t insensitive. I knew all about appropriate and inappropriate. I knew what La Donna was going through but what I would get into transcended logic, intelligence, compassion. I would get swallowed up in that childhood intensity, that self-centered ocean-sized feeling of life and death around sex. And it would happen anytime I was scared or felt hungry or needy around people. Anytime my brain would slip into a survival head the order from Central was STICK IT IN. When in fear, fuck.

Out of all the artichoke layers of bullshit that made up my life, the only thing that never switched up on me was my dick.

The house was cold. The spic bastard super didn’t think people were awake after eleven at night, so he shut down the heat.

“Coffee, babe?”

“No.” She went into the bathroom and closed the door. I made myself instant coffee and brought it to the dining table in the living room. I sat there fingering a vein of tiny splits in the fake butcherblock surface. Through the wall, I could hear her washing off her make-up. It was so cold I put my coat back on. I still wasn’t sure if she was hip to what had happened. She came out of the bathroom, disappeared into the bedroom, finally re-emerging into the living room wearing only a tight tank top and panties. Her hair was down and her nipples stood out like little pointy noses. She stared at my coffee, oblivious to the cold. I took off my coat.

“I made a lot of stupid mistakes tonight,” she said to no one in particular. “Never should have done that song. It’s not right for my voice. I was very lucky tonight.”

Lucky. I felt like a shit. I couldn’t bring myself to give her the lowdown because I couldn’t handle the chain reaction that would follow. I was afraid if I confronted her with the real story we would never fuck again. Her soft fuzzy bush bulged slightly against the white nylon. Over the summer, one hot night we trimmed her pubic hair into a heart shape. It was either that summer night or the night before we fucked on the fire escape. She sat forward on my lap and cupped my balls in her palms in front of her.

“Right now I think it’s a mistake to wander off too far from Dionne Warwick.” She paced the living room, arms folded across her chest. I stared at her toes.

In the beginning she would love to take it in the ass. We wouldn’t even need Vaseline. She would even reach behind her and grab the backs of my thighs to force me in deeper. When I went down on her she would sigh so deep and soft I would shoot my wad with her cunt in my mouth.

La Donna padded into the bedroom. I heard the sheets rustling. “I’ll be in in a few minutes.” I raised my voice. She didn’t even kiss me goodnight, even say goodnight. She used to jerk me off and kiss the tip of my dick as I was coming — loud wet smacks — her face covered with jizz as she turned her head from side to side, eyes closed, running the head across her lips. There would even be come in her eyelashes. I sat staring at my coffee, took pleasure from my cigarette — long slow drags, a real nightcap.

 

 

When I turned back the covers I was horrified to see that before passing out La Donna had taken off her panties. She was dead asleep on her side wearing only that tank top.

Whereas most people who sleep on their sides would sleep curled in, she curled out — her head and feet curved back toward each other and her hips and belly thrust forward like a cross between a drawn bowframe and a Pontiac hood ornament.

I slipped in bed as noisily as I could, but she didn’t budge, wake up, nothing. Laying on my side I tried to conform to her spine, pressing my crotch into the crack of her ass, thrusting my belly into the small of her back, arching my head to avoid getting her hair in my mouth. I ground my cock a little into her buns and stared red-eyed at the digital on her night table: 2:47. My back was killing me. I draped my hand over her ribs and touched her nipples. She clucked in annoyance and, still asleep, flopped over on her belly. I rolled on my back and stared at the ceiling.

Sighing deeply enough for six generations of damned souls, I bounced a few times and got out of bed. Her breathing was evensteven. I went back into the living room, had half a cigarette, returned to the bedroom and stood over the bed, my guts grinding and aching so badly I felt like whimpering. I started to crawl back under the covers, stopped, walked over to the window and went through the motions of adjusting the venetian blinds. I rattled the blinds for thirty seconds. She began to snore.

I lay in bed staring at the ceiling again.

“Feed me” — more to myself than out loud. I could hear the grinding of the kitchen wall clock. The bed pulsed slightly with breathing.

“Feed me” — louder, a harsh whisper. A neck vein twitched hotly under my jaw. My eyes itched.

“Feed me, bitch.” In a normal speaking voice. She slowly raised her face from the pillow and stared at me in the darkness. I thought I would die.

LADIES’ MAN. Copyright © 1978 by Richard Price. All rights reserved. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 24, 2000

    gritty unheralded masterpiece

    This novel is a masterpiece. Nothing less. Any tale where the narrator describes the wind as 'kicking ...' without sounding in the least lazy, is worth checking out. It's this slang, for want of a better word, this rich Brooklyn vernacular, that gives the book it's immediacy and flavour. The voice of Kenny Becker is so very of it's time, so authentic. In fact it's hard to know where to begin in 'reviewing' a work so thoroughly well imagined. Price is one of those rare birds able to put powerful emotions in simple scenes and sentences. 'I was a grown man. A lonely man.' And it's the names I fell in love with here: La Donna, Donny, Jacki Di Paris. And Kenny. Always, at the centre of everything, there is Kenny. Kenny and his 'door to door'. Kenny massaging hand cream into through the webbing of an attractive prospect. Kenny dashing back to the bar in a haze of vanity and lust at 3 a.m. to score again. Kenny cajoling two teenagers into a game of basketball on a dead Saturday afternoon. Kenny doing his '150' situps to show an old pal what sort of shape he's kept himself in all these years. 'Kenny, Kenny, Kenny.' 'Donny, Donny, Donny.' 'B......t, b......t, b......t.' Strangely, this isn't a well known book: not to my knowledge. Maybe this is because parts of it are unpalatable. Try the scene where Kenny visits a brothel for 'a slice of moon pie'. Revolting, even the hardiest will agree. One of the braver scenes you'll stumble on in your reading life. I'll keep this short. The true measure of a writer is how well he or she does the really difficult things. Most writers fall flat relaying their character's dreams. The dream sequences in this book, sharp and potent, are the best I have read. Anywhere. And I've read a lot. And I recommend this tale. To anyone who loves to be taken strange places. Anyone at all. jh sydney australia

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 13, 2012

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