Mike Golden never anticipated the day he would thank a process server. But there he was, yelling out “Hey man, you saved my life!” as he ran over the muscle-bound guy’s feet in his haste to get out the door. If not for the process server’s off-hour knock on his bachelor apartment door, Mike never would have seen the tow truck wending its way toward him just as the sun was rising, a good hour before the mariachi music from the apartment next door usually drummed him out of bed. The driver’s head hung out the window, straining to find his target address in the foggy fall morning light.
Mike dashed back inside, grabbed his still damp pants from the bars of the ancient gas heater on the wall, swiping at the flakes of paint that came off the grate in his hands and dotted his clothes like large dandruff. “Sure, living in Tinseltown is cheap, but still should be safe. Ought to outlaw these goddam mothers,” he sputtered, shoving his skinny body into his sticky clothes, goosebumps rising on his arms and legs. “Whole families wiped out on account of some bum gas valve. ESCAPING GAS POISONS FIVE was the headline just a few days ago. Anybody do anything about another disaster waiting to happen? Not enough votes in escaping gas to raise a sweat. Some politicians are so corrupt, I’ll bet they actually cheer when a few more Welfare losers in their district kick the bucket so their books will look better and they’ll come up smelling like roses. How the hell those lucky sons of bitches get so lucky?”
The process server at the door tapped his pencil hard enough to break it. “I’m serving you, Mr. Golden…”
Mike shoved the man’s clipboard out of his way as he slammed shut his apartment door, trampled over the man’s feet, and ran down the landing. Mike took on the peeling wrought iron railed stairway three steps at a time, nearly breaking his wrist on the post he was so intent on keeping the repo guy in sight.
Mike Golden’s cobalt blue Camaro was not merely a set of wheels to him. In the man’s Hurricane Katrina of a life, that cherry classic was his one and only prized possession. So he bellowed, “You’re not going to get it! Not today!” at the stuck-shut passenger door with the repo guy only seconds away. Tug, push, jiggle, spit on the key, tear at the door, will the damned thing “Open sesame!” until, finally, the frozen lock shifted open. But “Magic!” rapidly switched to “Motherfucker!” when he banged his knee on the gear shift. He stabbed the ignition with a shaky hand and yelled to his beloved Camaro, “They’re after you! Move it, Baby! Whatever you do, don’t flood on me! Jesus, looks like there’s two repo turds in that truck, and the server is coming, too. Turn over, goddammit.”
As if it listening to his urgent expletives, the car lurched into traffic, the screech increasing a thud-ush, thud-ush-up pulse in his temples and throat, churning up the hangover he had only begun to identify when the process server knocked. Eh, eh, eh, eh-choom, the Camaro backfired. Mike held his breath as he peeked at the gas gauge. Relief. He had at least a quarter of a tank. It was starting to look to Mike as if it might turn out to be a lucky day.
“Jesus Christ on a crutch!” his tone was conversational so the guy in the car next to him wouldn’t think he had gone postal and start shooting in self defense. “Goddam car payment. I can’t be all that far behind. Knew I shouldn’t have bought it from that high and mighty fag dealer. I could tell right away he wasn’t car people. Only out for the money, that pansy. No real heart for an aficionado like me. Think I’ll take the car over to Sal’s. Crash there for a few days. Speaking of luck, Sal sure has it, don’t he?”
Carol Ann, Mike’s ex, said it was either the Camaro or slashing his wrists. Sure, he was depressed. Who wouldn’t be with his luck? But Carol Ann didn’t get it. The car was meant to inspire him, not keep him alive. Mike bought the Camaro as a reminder of the days when he still had a glimmer of a hope of making it, when he still got called in for a second, even a third reading.
There hadn’t been any casting calls for years, but back then, when his time was spent either preparing for one or coming down from another, he went on at least two a week. Those days he could sit on a bench, smoking leisurely in Rancho Park or Beverly Hills Park, reading the trades and watching a parade of second stringers walk their dogs. Once Mike caught sight of Troy Donahue picking blackberries (they used to grow wild in Beverly Hills then, but the quaint looking berry trees were taken out long ago to expand the tennis courts. Nothing grows wild in Beverly Hills now). Mike thought he’d waltz over, maybe get Troy to rap, engage him in comparing the silver screen to the boards, reminesce when Mike had actually landed a walk-on part in an off-, off-Broadway review. Mike called out, “Troy Baby, what’s happinin,’ man?” But Troy was leaving even before Mike had a chance to shake his hand, although Troy did wave before he pulled his Silver Streak away from the curb.
“Hey, Babes! What’s happinin,’ man?”
Sal opened the heavy front door to his squat, Spanish stucco house, his steel wool hair lopsided, his tan chinos half zipped. “Hey, if it isn’t my man? Where you been hiding, man? You o.k.?”
“I’m cool, man. Everything’s cool. Say, man, I need a place to crash for the next few days.” They were heading for the round dinette set in the kitchen where everyone who came to Sal’s ended up. Children’s noises started coming from a back bedroom.
“Say, man, if I could, you know I’d say yes in a New York minute, but my Lady’s mother is coming in tonight. Mi casa, su casa, and all that crap, bro, but you know Jenny’s mom. Bad timing, bro.”
“Not dissing my mother again, are you, Sal?” Jenny was one of those women who actually looks good in hair rollers before seven in the morning. She transferred a steel wool haired baby from her hip to a high chair. Her soap scent and toothpaste residue gave Mike a sharp pang as she bent down for an affectionate greeting. And he couldn’t even tell his best friend, Sal, about that pang.
“Just saying to Mike that Maria, the Italian Wonder Woman, the Super-Mother-in-Law, your Mommie Dearest, is descending on us tonight.” In response to his wife’s puzzled frown, Sal explained, “Mike was hoping to crash here a few days.”
“Say, that’s alright. Hey, you’ve got lives to live. Everything’s cool.”
Jenny shrugged. “I really wish we could help you out…”
“Listen,” Mike lowered his voice, “if you could see your way to lending me a little bread to see me through the next few days—maybe a Grant. Just ‘til next week, I swear…”
“Shit. You know we’d help you out if we could, man, but it’s been a little slow for me lately, too. I’ve had to scratch, man, to put food on the table. And clients haven’t been coming up with what they owe me half the time. Rough. We’ve kicked ourselves all over the place that we went and had that pool put in last summer. Ironic. Now we’re barely able to rub two nickels together.”
“Christ, Sal, you, too? You’re telling the right guy. Just look at me, man. But I didn’t know you’d been caught in the squeeze.”
“Who hasn’t? Sure, me, too. I hear Ph.D.’s are sweeping floors, man.”
Mike looked down at his white fingers wrapping around the coffee mug. “Yeah, Ph.D.’s can have it. I sure as hell wouldn’t be caught dead with a broom in my hands.”
"You sound so down, man. Didn’t you tell me last time we talked something real big was just about to break?”
Mike pictured the brilliant idea that was supposed to have made him a fortune: instant 3-D photography. After the first camera at the first mall made him his first million, he planned to install Mike Golden 3-D photo booths in every mall everywhere in the U.S., maybe even everywhere in Europe, and become so filthy rich, he wouldn’t be able to count all his money even if he lived to be a hundred. The vision of it all had him wide-eyed many three a.m.’s. But when he didn’t even clear enough to pay for the rental on one mall kiosk, Mike cracked. He got so sick, his ex-wife considered taking him back.
Then he recovered. “It’s been quite a while since we talked. Lot of water under the bridge since then, Sal. The Big Idea should have worked. It was a great idea. But it didn’t.” He thought it best not to mention the dope.
“Gee, man. That’s a bitch. You have no idea how much I’d like to help you out, babes. Shit, man, what are old friends like us for? But I’m down to the bone, man.” Sal drew on a fat cigar. “Say, man, how about taking a swim? No! Really. I’ll lend you a pair of Speedos, and you’ll feel like a million bucks when you’re done. Jenny and the kid and me try to take a swim every day. Pool’s heated so the weather shouldn’t bother you. We’ll take a swim together, have a couple of Coors, rap a bit…Might as well get good use out of for what we paid for it.” Mike found himself staring at Sal’s handstitched Italian shoes which looked so strange because Sal wasn’t wearing socks. “…hang out with a buddy. Get stuff off your chest without paying a shrink. Whattya say, man?”
“Thanks, Sal, but what I’d need to feel like a million right now would be a real million in cash. Got to go, Sal. Seeing my kid today. Be talkin’ at ya.’ So long, Jenny.”
Jenny came away from the sink, surreptitiously slipping something into one of his pockets as they brushed cheeks goodbye. “Things are bound to get better.”
In the Camaro, Mike pulled out two twenties from his pocket and nearly laughed. “Now what the fuck am I supposed to do with this? After all Mike Golden has done for them, both of them, this is all…? Wait a minute. What’s the matter with me? I forgot my day is coming. Sal is too blind to see it, but it’s a clear as day to me. As soon as Mike Golden’s train comes in, who will Jenny be with? Can’t Sal see the way she looks at me, how she makes up all sorts of excuses just to touch me? Need to come up with some sort of secret clues only she and I will get.” Mike knew with absolute certainty that he and Jenny had married the wrong people and that he would find a way to fix it.
Before he could do anything about their predicament, though, he had to handle the dilemma at hand. He had to find a place to stash the Camaro. Another brainstorm—he’d let it get lost in the all-night pharmacy parking lot. “The repo guys may know where the ex is at. But they’ll never look in a parking lot. Am I sharp today! Pick up some energy bars before walking the few blocks to Carol Ann’s, something chocolate. Will need energy for the kid. Hey! Why don’t I bring one for the kid, too? That should make a few points for her old man. Just not sure what she likes. I’ll get something with peanuts. Shit, all kids love peanuts.”
Mike had mixed emotions when he thought about his daughter. Even though their noses, chins and eyes were identical, even though the love for her made him ache inside sometimes, he never felt 100% sure. Carol Ann had been Mike’s girl for a couple of (maybe even three) years and they were married over five before she walked out—so he thought he could swear for her. She was a hit with all his friends—they called her one of the guys, always joshing around. She remembered everyone’s birthday, made enormous sandwiches for the Super Bowl, smoked dope with them on New Year’s Eve. Someone would have reported anything if there had been anything. But there was absolutely nothing; at least Mike saw nothing. Still, Mike couldn’t shake his indefinite uneasiness about the child’s paternity.
“Tight, throbbing little twat, throwing her body at me from the beginning. All that dirty talk. Teasing the shit out of me day and night. Driving me crazy. Literally, crazy. On me, at me, hanging, touching, but I couldn’t touch her unless it was covered up. Sucked me in with all that virginity shit, sucked me in but wouldn’t suck me. Everything had to wait. ‘OOO, Mike,’ she sez, those dark eyes of hers on fire, ‘I can’t take it any more,’ she sez, panting and rubbing until I went nearly out of my mind. ‘I can’t sleep at all any more. You’re the only thing on my mind. I can’t do any work. All I can think of is what it will feel like when you’re inside me. Do you ever think what it’ll be like inside me?’ And I nearly shot my wad when she talked that way. And then when she finally did give in—put out I mean—I couldn’t enjoy even one minute because I felt like I had committed a goddam crime. Think I fucking exploded before she even knew I was in. Sure there was blood, but does that mean she really was a virgin?”
The National Enquirer had a picture of a thousand pound woman who was transformed into the most beautiful woman in the world after stomach surgery. With Carol Ann, like most petite women after giving birth, the opposite was the case. Mike could envision his formerly petite, size four bride overinflating like a Macy’s Parade balloon right before his eyes, a dozen hands necessary to hold her with their tethers to keep her from floating off into the stratosphere. “That goldbricking little whore took me for everything. Who the fuck gets pregnant the first time? What a stupid jerk I was! Such a big-hearted guy, I actually fought with her, wouldn’t let her go through with an abortion. ‘OOO, Mike,’ she sez, ‘this time I’m crying for joy. OOOO, Mike won’t it be fun when you have a little son of your own?’ and then she goes ahead and gives me a girl. Not that a girl isn’t o.k. She’s damned terrific, my little girl. Admit it, Golden, she has you wrapped around her little finger...You really dig her—you’re crazy about her.”
When Mike arrived, Carol Ann answered the door stuffed into an itchy looking tweed outfit, ready to step out. “You look nice,” Mike lied. The woman had no taste in clothes, although her hair was in a perky shag cut that helped her cheeks seem less full. But the dark circles under her eyes seemed green in the reflection off the wall paper.
“You’re on time for once! No need to come in, unless you want to talk about something. Have anything to discuss? Gina’s been ready since dawn. Gina, Sweetie! Your father is here. You can just take off together, if you like, Mike. Just one thing—she went to the beauty salon with me. Her first professional cut. Notice it, won’t you?”
Mike slid past her, then sank into the new leather sofa. His mind rang up the totals from her redecoration project. Her job with the stock broker was paying off. He was cautious not to wonder out loud exactly what Carol Ann might be doing to earn such perks. “No need for the sarcasm. What the hell you mean ‘notice it?’ What do you have to go and say that for? I’m Gina’s father, aren’t I? Don’t start something, Carol Ann!”
Carol Ann moved into the open doorway. “Where’s the car?”
“I don’t dig a hassle every time I come over here,” Mike went on, “cause if you don’t stop giving me aggravation, I just may not come back at all.”
“Can’t you quit punishing me, Mike? I can’t say a thing to you without an attack. It’s been at least three years since we broke up...”
“...three good years, and don’t you forget it!”
“For Gina’s sake, isn’t it time to put the past behind us and become friends?”
“I am your friend, Carol Ann. You’re the one who starts something every single time. Mike’s always the same guy, Babes. Always cool, always easy going. Until I get here—and wham-o! It’s hunting season.”
“Ridiculous! You know you’re not worth this aggravation? I finally got it. You’re not going to be saved. You’re utterly hopeless. Mother Teresa has just turned in her resignation.
Gina, a kiddie version of her mother, her almost black hair not yet oily and her olive skin not yet sallow, coyly sauntered up to her father. “Come here, you!” Mike lifted his little girl above his head. “Put on a few pounds, kid?”
Carol Ann gasped.
“But it looks good on you,” he nuzzled his little girl’s neck until she kicked him against being tickled. His elbows locked rigidly as he dangled Gina at arm’s length. “Hey! What you want to go and do that for? Your Daddy is just playing with you.”
Carol Ann physically pushed them both toward the door. “Say,” Mike turned back, “I have a special situation. I’m booked to photograph a wedding, but I’m not going to get paid until the proofs are in. You know the routine. Anyways, could you just front me enough until, say, Wednesday?”
Gina tore away and ran to her room, nasally calling behind her, “I’m tired of waiting. I’m going to play.”
“Let her go for a minute, Mike. Tell me the truth. I don’t think I’ve seen you this thin. Why have you lost so much weight? Is this to show me you’ve really quit smoking dope for good?”
“You’re not supposed to rescue me, remember? Didn’t you just tell me Mother Teresa quit her nagging?”
Carol Ann stared up at him for a few seconds, then looked as though she was fighting back tears as she rummaged through her purse for her wallet. He took the bills she extended without taking his eyes off hers. He could tell she still dug him. “Economy’s so bad, Ph.D.’s are sweeping floors. Shit, you know how lucky you are to have a good job? I knew you’d make it, too. I had faith in you. I’m really glad for your success, Carol Ann.”
“Gina! We haven’t got all day. Get over here! You’ll be able to let yourself in if you get back before I do,” Carol Ann explained, dropping a key in his hand. “Mike, where’s your car? How did you get here without a car?”
“There you go again, leaping to conclusions. Car’s in the shop. Just hopped on a bus and it left me off at the corner. Thought Gina would like the adventure of a bus ride for once. Y’know—like the old days. Show the kid ‘All the world’s a stage...’”
When Mike and Gina got on the bus, he thought he caught the repo man’s tow truck parked at the end of the block, but Mike forgot about it after they boarded the bus.
He tried giving Gina a good time, but he hadn’t slept much, so by three o’clock, he brought her back to Carol Ann’s compact but nicely appointed little house. He was hoping he could catch a few winks, but the child dragged out toy after toy, game after game, getting all the more agitated the more he burned down.
Finally, they wore each other out. When Carol Ann returned, there she found the two of them, spread out on the rug, both fighting to keep their eyelids from drooping, surrounded by a sea of potato chip and cookie crumbs, playing Chutes and Ladders. For nickels, dimes, and quarters.
“Get out of my house you degenerate shmuck!” Carol Ann swatted Mike with a rolled up newspaper, kicking the game, the crumbs, and the money every which way.
“Watch what you’re saying in front of the kid,” Mike admonished her, tearing the paper out of her pudgy fingers. “Besides, I’m turning her on to the value of money. Isn’t that right, Gina?”
“What the hell do you mean, turning her on to the value of money? You warped, no-good junkie...”
“Friend, watch your temper...” Mike caught something she threw at him. “Is that what you want your daughter to hear?”
Carol Ann had Gina’s piggy bank over her head. “So help me God, you s.o.b., I...”
“Now that’s the kind of blasphemy that might even confuse God. It’s o.k. I’m leaving. Give Daddy a kiss, Gina.”
“The bloody thing is empty. You stole the pennies out of your own daughter’s piggy bank? What’s wrong with you?”
“Bye, sweeties,” Mike called after he was out the door, “next week.”
He stopped by Barney’s for a few, and to catch a little action at the pool tables. All in all, it had been a good day. Between the pool money and Gina’s little stash, he had raised enough to keep the Camaro out of the clutches of the vampires—at least for a little while.
With that peace of mind, he trundled off to his own bed, treating himself to the warmth of the heater on a cold winter night. Mike Golden slept so soundly, he was unaware that days were passing.
Mike awoke in a strange room. Right away he could tell he was in a hospital, even before he realized an oxygen mask covered his face.
Carol Ann saw him move. She jumped up, squealing and crying, frantically pushing the nurse’s call button. “He’s awake! My husband’s awake,” she shouted into the intercom, although anyone in the hall could have heard her. “Mike, trying to kill yourself is never an answer. Don’t you know how much Gina and I need you? How could you be so stupid?”
“Gee, thanks,” he coughed. He wanted to ask her, “And where the hell you get the idea I tried to kill myself? Call me stupid some more—that’ll keep me happy! Do you see any razor marks, any bullet holes, any signs of poison?” but no sound came out. All he managed to croak was “What the fuck am I doing here?”
“No point in denying it, Mike. Everyone knew that gas heater was dangerous. You knew. There is even a sign on it not to use it. Now your landlord has had all of them disconnected in your building. A little late now. But you knew, and you turned it on anyway. No more denial, o.k.? Everyone knew you’ve been depressed but we didn’t realize things had gone this far. You’ll get the help you need now, Mike. The doctors here are very good. You’re going to get better now. And I’ll support you all the way.”
Right you are, my darling ex-wife! Damn right I’ll get better! This is it! Mike Golden’s train has come into the station, his mind rejoiced. “You got a good lawyer at that stock broker firm?” Mike was able to grind out of his raw throat.
Through her tears, Carol Ann marveled over her ex-husband’s spirit.
His mind may have been going a million miles an hour, yet he felt a restfulness he hadn’t experienced his entire adult life. “So this is how it feels,” a grin stretched his gaunt face, “when Lady Luck comes to call. So this is how it feels to be born again.”