UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
The Toledo Penis Reader
In adequate summary, the Dark Arts see the physical world as a joke gone too far, nigh unto cruelty, as cannot be taken back. This differs from Christianity in that It believes that the High Power shall return and take it back.
I had my drinks enough and made to leave. Eve, the bartender, looked up from her boys at the bar's far end and said "Where'd'ya think yer going?"
I said, "Home," and she said, "Ya better be here tomorrow, Badyna."
"Because we're having a penis reader."
She said it without missing a beat, but I knew better than to act as if I believed her, whether I did or not. I raised my hand, palm out, in farewell, and went out the door and home where I had an email from Geller which I begged off properly answering for another night, claiming I had had a drink too many. He wrote back immediately to chide me that as tomorrow was Halloween I'd be in the bar, all night, getting trashed and hooking up. I wrote back that I didn't do that, not like he thought, but didn't know that I could pass up the bar's Halloween as they were having the famous Toledo penis reader for the occasion.
He wrote that I was lying, and I wrote that I wasn't. Didn't New York have penis readers?
He said that I was still lying.
I said her name was Sophie, and she used to read palms, but found that penises paid better.
He wrote, Really?
I wrote, Yes, and he asked if I was going to have my penis read.
I said, Probably not, and he wrote that I'd better go early and get in line and give him a full report, all the details. He said he'd send me whatever it cost. He'd Western Union it, if necessary.
This is true.
Geller, I hadn't seen in ten years, but for a couple of years, the coming-of-age years, we were Heckle and Jeckle, and you get only one friendship like that. With a little attention, you keep it all your life, even if one goes on to a married life with children, a job climbing positions in newspapers reporter, columnist, ombudsman, managing editor all with a corresponding progression of domiciles, apartment, condo, townhouse, a brick Tudor in Riverdale with a swing set and the other one doesn't.
But I didn't stop in the bar after work. It was Halloween, and after a day stacking rock in the cold and wind, three thousand pounds a pallet, nine pallets a day, I liked my own stool, with some elbow room, and not so much of a crowd of yahoos forcing fun. I didn't know if Eve was lying or not, and didn't care and drove past the bar and around the corner home to my portion of a shithole triplex and, with a slow drink in one hand, all the lights out so as to keep away trick-or-treaters, pecked out on the keyboard a woman, Sophie. She'd studied in Paris, palm reading, but wasn't no good at it, not enough to be in her own mirror other than a charlatan, and she came home to Toledo where the second of her many fiancιs suggested, in an intimate moment and maybe as a joke, that she ought to read penises, as truth would not only be entirely beside the point, but borderline unethical. And though Sophie dismissed the idea, then began the dreams, gauzy instructional videos, as it were. These her fiancι wanted to know all about, and when he repeatedly tried to talk her into trying out her knew knowledge on his friends, she grew angry enough to do it and found that she was suddenly scary accurate.
I wrote that and, seven in the morning, leaving for work, I hit Send. Five o'clock, I stopped in the bar and told Eve that my friend in New York wanted to know all about the penis reader.
She said I should've been there. Her crowd of boys echoed her.
"You got your dick read, Linus?" I said.
"It took her an hour," he said.
"To what? Find it."
I said that and took my drink and went to the bar's far end and sat and looked down the galley way to the tragedy of Eve's big feet. She had on low-top Converse sneakers, black, with yellow laces. They were boats. Hard to exaggerate. Size thirteen would have been a reasonable guess, maybe a polite one. She had hands to match, but she was a tall girl and had long gangling arms with a tomboy's grace, and her fingers were long and slender and kinda sexy to contemplate as they wrapped lightly around glasses and bottles. Feet, though, no matter how slender, were another matter.
Eve, daughter of a Hungarian mother and something else and from East Toledo a side of town out of which nothing had ever come that anyone remembered but car thieves, crack heads and bricklayers was, at fifteen sent to Paris, by her mother, to be a model. This was never talked about, not in the bar, not otherwise either, what had happened with all that. She was twenty-seven, married to a friend of mine, a man fifteen years her senior. At their home, on an end table squeezed between an over-stuffed, blue couch -- which, anytime I had ever seen it, looked like someone had stayed up to dawn on it, watching TV, smoking dope, gauging the cultural moment -- there were a few framed photos from Eve's Paris go. Small, unadvertised. Cluttered up with ordinary pictures.
That's how it was in Toledo.
You put yourself out there, did something to separate yourself from the herd, and no one gave a fuck. Not unless you came back. And then they didn't give a fuck but that you came back. Proof that what's out there wasn't so special.
Art Tatum, maybe the greatest jazz pianist ever, certifiably the fastest anyway, came out of Toledo and went to New York and outplayed everyone in Harlem by his lonesome always and came back plenty, to Toledo, to visit family and wander out at night to what was left of the black, jazz dives where he'd started. He'd sit in on a few sets without announcement and leave without fanfare, and people'd say, "That brother can play," and someone'd go, "That was Art Tatum," and someone else'd say, "Well, he can shore play." And someone else'd add, "And he shore can drink, too."
That's how it was in Toledo.
Daws Butler, the voice of Yogi Bear, Wally Gator, Huckleberry Hound, Quick Draw McGraw and Elroy Jetson which, in aggregate, was a fair estimation of how the Toledo of his boyhood sounded went to California and never came back and no one wondered why. The voice of Yogi Bear wouldn't mean much in a town where half the population had an uncle who sounded the same.
Joe E. Brown, Danny Thomas, Petroleum V. Nasby, P. J. O'Rourke, Gloria Steinem, Toledoans all they never came back. Their shtick wouldn't stand out. Eugene Kranz, the flight-director hero of Apollo 13 as played by Ed Harris what would he have done back in Toledo? Jim Parker, second greatest offensive tackle in football history what? Jan Roberts, an actually memorable Playboy centerfold, August 1962? Tom Scholz, founder of rock band Boston, Lyman Spitzer Jr., theoretical physicist and driving genius behind the Hubble telescope gone, gone and gone, as was Marty Frankel, the great embezzler, though he had an excuse involuntary and ironclad, as did Ernie McSorley, captain of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Edith Church, famed organizer of nudist colonies in the 1930s and '40s, an intellectual, a gifted piano teacher and flamboyant pioneer of interracial love, she stayed. But only until Toledo burned down her house, June 1951. Incinerated its legendary living room with her twin, gleaming grand pianos at which had played Paul Robeson, Eugene Debs, Irving Howe, Sinclair Lewis, Artur Rubinstein and a thousand students, my dad included. It was as if New Yorkers had got it in their heads to torch the round table at the Algonquin.
It was a funny little city.
Mildred Benson, author of the Nancy Drew books she stayed and stayed and lived freaking forever, but no one gave a fuck.
Paul Timman, Hollywood's tattoo artist of choice, didn't like to admit to Toledo. Anita Baker tried to change her birth certificate to Detroit. Janet Cooke, the Washington Post journalist star who won a Pulitzer for reporting on an eight-year-old junkie she'd made up, had her threads unravel when she was caught fabricating autobiographical detail. She was surprised surprised that anyone in Toledo had bothered to call her out.
Katie Holmes, though, she returned. She showed up at the bar I'm talking about. Showed up for a band, as the bar, though small and cheap and mostly a righteous drinking establishment, had a rep for hip bands starting out. That was my friend's doing, Eve's husband. You make the turn for forty and look in the mirror, see a guy with a cigarette distributorship, a yacht-club wife, and clumsy ballerina daughters, and if you can see the truth and turn in the keys to it all, you buy a dump of a bar and make yourself an aficionado of unknown bands, give them a venue and keep it that way. Small, tawdry and hip. You get to marry the Eve's of the world, even with a name like Rupert. Lollipop Lust Kill had got their start at Rupert's Bar, and Katie Holmes showed up in a limousine, with some Hollywood friends. She was gonna show 'em her Toledo. Linus, working the door to pay his tab, carded them. One member of Katie Holmes' entourage hadn't I.D and Linus told her she wasn't getting in. Katie said, "She's with me." Linus said, "I don't give a fuck. She ain't getting in" "Then I'll leave," said Mrs. Tom Cruise. Linus said, "So go already."
And that's Toledo.
And Eve, like Sophie, had come back, but without a trade. Her feet were too big, a subject, at times, talked about with the rough humor of our class. Paris, though, never was. And neither were the looks she had, the kind that could make a two-year go of Paris while all the world but Toledo hoped her clown feet and oak tree ankles shrank.
I'd come back too, from New York, long before. A subtler tragedy.
I sat at my end of the bar and watched Eve and didn't like how she was with her fan club of little boys there every day for all the after-work hours. She had to be banging one, some, or all of them. I had my guesses. Linus, of course. They had something special, whatever it was, and whatever it was, I didn't want to figure it. Younger than she, Linus had the beard and blond dreadlocks and expertise a small, nowhere job, printing bumper stickers of one who attains indisputable rooster cool by being nothing, putting himself out not an inch, not about anything.
There was him, and then there was big, round-headed Charlie, a purebred mystery, the kind of guy whose own eyes knew he was the mope who died on Omaha beach, got senselessly head-onned by a sleepy semi, had a genetically programmed myocardial infarction at thirty-five He wasn't gonna let you in so as you didn't feel so bad when he bought it. If Eve was gonna fuck around on Rupert, you could see that she could excuse herself for doing it with Charlie. I could. Six drinks in and I half-wanted to fuck Charlie. He had that effect. He played his grandpa's ukulele in his spare time and had an N.B.A. sex life.
And then there was Schroeder, a five-foot-five squirrel boy. Hyper and half-schooled in computers, he played the role of being smarter than the rest, but since he wasn't, he had to feel bad and modest about being so, which both made his smarts seem more real and gave him this suppressed anger, as he would have been obviously seen, with any other skill, as the box of rocks he was. He was the unlikeliest of squeezes for Eve, but he made her laugh, his anger did, when it peeked out, so irrationally vituperative and ridiculous was it. I could see her, drunk enough, letting him have at it. No doubt, Schroeder would have been an industrious, busy fuck, probably a sick one, too. He claimed that when a girl was starting to come he liked to stick a thumb up her ass, cut off that orgasm shit, change the tone, get her mad and hungry and real. He claimed that and worse. You could see him finished, standing up his naked hundred and twenty flyweight pounds, ready to go again, and if Eve slurred a demurral, he might spit on her. You could see it. And that act, the spitting, so ridiculous, a Schroeder spitting on an Eve, might, a week or so down the line, get him another go. You could see it.
The fourth was Woodstock, hair in his eyes, beak nose, all his life in the fraternity of Delta Omega Loser and not minding it so much, not yet, and I sat at my end of the bar and watched Eve and didn't like how she was with her fan club and didn't know if she liked it that I always sat at the far end of the bar. I had my drinks enough for All Saints Day and went home to an email from Geller.
He wasn't interested in the proofreading work he had outsourced to me. He wanted to know if I had had my penis read. My email hadn't said. And he wanted to know. He wanted to know how she did it. "Details, man," he wrote, "details." Did she hold it in her hands? Did she look close? Did she read the veins and wrinkles? What happened if it started erecting? What did she forecast? Your sex life? Your whole life? What? "If you're going to be a writer, you need to get the details. The reader needs to know if Sophie made a prediction on the future of Tommy's pee-pee."
I could see Geller in his Riverdale study with its French doors closed against his family, slurping the cheap beers he favored as a matter of principle and picked out like one would a pair of distressed jeans. I could see his hundred and forty kosher pounds quivering against the genetic ambition that jailed him, unable to help his vicarious salivating.
I wanted to reply, "Fuck you," but, instead, wrote, "What's between a man and his penis reader is privileged," and hit Send and turned off the computer, and next morning read Geller's accusation that I had chickened out, hadn't had the brass to get my penis read. As a favor to my character, he wrote, Western Union had forty dollars for me. If I didn't go hand it over to Sophie, he'd lose all respect for me.
I pushed the forty across the bar and asked Eve for details, and she said that the penis reader didn't exist. "That's not exactly true," I said and told her about Geller and Sophie and Paris palm reading, and she got it, got it all, had her captivated and laughing with an acumen I had previously but suspected.
Her fanboys at the far end watched me hold her attention and mumbled about, mouths agape. Without Eve to hear, they didn't hardly have anything to say.
Eight o'clock came, and, her shift over, Eve moved 'round the bar to sit next to me, and the boys came down awkward, which was exactly why I had never stayed to eight o'clock so as not to see what happened at eight o' five. Eve, embarrassed, told the boys she wasn't going tonight, and we talked, Eve and I, first time in three years, really talked, heads hung together, shoulders now and again leaned into each other like warm volts of electricity we couldn't stand too long.
"You have to tell your friend the truth," she said.
"It's the most fun I've had in years," I said.
And nine o'clock, pudgier than the last time I'd seen him, Rupert came in, to be there for the band's first night ever, to make sure they showed, existed. Purportedly, they were a group from the sixty-mile-away University of Michigan, from its big-deal music school. They wanted the occasional break from Tchaikovsky, play a little cash-earning funk. Rupert was pretty excited about having them and moved about the bar, cash register, phone, stage, this customer and that. "One guy, from Toledo, is a genius, I think," we heard him say, and Eve and I, couldn't tell if he was first taking care of business so as to later give us proper attention, or was avoiding us. With her head angled down, Eve's eyes followed Rupert. She seemed sad. We didn't talk, and Rupert came over, and I said, "I got the greatest practical joke ever going," and he nodded, gave a half smile. "The Toledo Penis Reader," I said. "That's great," he said. His eyes darted to Eve. She shook her head.
"What're ya drinking, Rupe?" I said. He said nothing. He and Eve were looking at each other, and they were trying to half-smile. I went home and wrote Geller all about the famous Toledo Penis Reader, that there's no danger of an erection because as she's holding your cock, she's seeing truth, and it hurts.
And next day I didn't go to the bar, after work, and Geller had written in the middle of his work day that he had talked to a friend of his, the editor for Maxim Magazine, and got himself assigned to come to Toledo, expenses paid, to write a feature on Miss Sophie.
Nathan Geller couldn't just come write the story. He couldn't do it without the imprimatur of an official assignment and one only from a magazine as legit as Maxim. I wrote that he could pocket the expense money and stay with me.
And he wrote that he knew how I lived and might I recommend a hotel and then added, "Nevermind. He did so without deleting the bit about me recommending a hotel because it was funny not to delete it, to say "nevermind' instead. He would call me a week from Tuesday, when he got in. I might make an appointment for him for that Wednesday, with Miss Sohpie. And then he added, "Nevermind," to that. Just send him her phone number.
And I told Eve.
And she said I had to tell him.
And Linus, Charlie, Schroeder, Woodstock they came down to my end of the bar. "Let's do it, man," they said. "It'll be fucking great."
"And who's gonna be the fucking penis reader?" said Eve, and when everyone laughed, looked at her, she added, looking at Schroeder, "We'll dress up Squirrel Boy here."
"No, man. You gotta do it. You fucking got to."
Eve looked at me, and I wasn't so sure, but the boys were. They were like dogs on a short leash in a biscuit factory.
And in Eve's eyes were obligations.
She gave me her cell number, to give to Geller, but he could only call between eleven and noon. "You owe me, Badyna. Big time." She had kindness in her eyes and was sorry she did.
And Tuesday night, I waited for Geller's call. I'd dressed, done laundry, cleaned the joint up, organized my desk just in case so it might look like a writer's, had taken the afternoon off, had three nights in a row reacquainted myself with Toledo's two jazz clubs so I might be treated as a familiar face and be a proper tour guide. I'd gotten half the city in on the joke, it seemed, so that mention of the Toledo Penis Reader would be shrugged off, treated as old hat.
I called the airport. The day's last flight from New York had landed at 5:05. Forty-two years old and I was having the emotional experience of a teenage girl.
A quarter after eleven, Geller called and was sorry and tired and still working on his laptop and we'd go have a beer tomorrow night. He had a Thursday morning flight.
I said I'd taken Wednesday off.
"Can you afford doing shit like that?"
I said I'd pick him up. We'd have breakfast. I'd take him to Sophie's parlor.
He said that on the flight in he'd gotten a sick feeling about this, that it was a mistake, a waste of time. He couldn't write a story about flying to Toledo to have his penis read.
"You're using a pseudonym."
"There's just something wrong with it."
"Remember. You wanted to be Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, James Agee. This is like that. They would do it."
"I don't know."
"You're here, brother."
"You know what's on my screen? I'm three clicks from changing my flight to tomorrow. I lied to my fucking wife."
"What'd'ya tell her?"
"That I'm coming to see you."
Noon I went downtown and picked him up, and we went for burgers and beers. He interviewed me about having my penis read, and, as arranged, I had him call Squirrel Boy, who came down, and though I wasn't so sure that he wouldn't wreck the whole thing, Schroeder rose to the occasion rather brilliantly, talked how he liked to get his penis read at least once a month. You believed him, to see and hear him. I almost believed him.
"Does your penis change month to month?"
"The way I abuse it, it does."
Geller ate it up. He was like Woodward and Bernstein taking it all down. He was like the old Geller, life as an act of discovery, and I was very happy seeing him like this, laughing, curious, and I was very happy that it was me opening the doors to the strange world of Toledo, Ohio, the one nobody knew, not in the bigger world, because no one ever came back. Geller shot me looks now and again. This world was a revelation to him, and I lived in it. He was burning to write for the first time in years and years.
Charlie followed Squirrel Boy as interview subject, and he was perfectly dull and halting enough to be even more believable. "It's not a good future she told me."
"So how many times have you had your penis read?"
"No. That was enough."
And we left for East Toledo, where a fan of Eve's, a friend of Rupert's, had a vacant storefront the boys had transformed into a penis-reading parlor. That morning Linus had put up the signs he'd made at work, and when Geller and I arrived, Linus was out front telling a few passersby they needed an appointment. They pointed at the sign. "Walk-ins Welcome." "It's a fucking sign," Linus told them.
We hurried Geller in, and Woodstock stumbled out from behind the purple curtains like someone had told him his dog had died, which was how he commonly looked at four in the afternoon, and I went across the street to a lesbian biker bar, Rosebud's, and they didn't mind me, not much, not once I passed the test of no consequence. That's how it was in Toledo. Six o'clock Geller came got me. He had a beer.
"How was it?"
"She's freaking beautiful."
"Yeah, but she has big feet."
"She has what? Nevermind. I got a fucking great story. I mean it. If I can write it. I mean, I don't know. There's something here, something real, really real."
He said that and shook my hand and opened his laptop.
"Don't do that."
"Open your laptop."
He laughed and nodded and looked 'round the bar. "I love Toledo, man. This I mean, you're missing the boat. This is a writer's paradise."
"So what'd Sophie say? Does little Nathan got a good future."
"Man, it's private."
He said that and shook my hand again and talked earnest, about me, advice, earnest advice he gave me in his Geller way, like last wise words, and then we got drunk, old Geller and I, in a lesbian biker bar called Rosebud's in East Toledo, a part of town out of which nothing had ever come but car thieves, crackheads and bricklayers, and we were of no consequence, not enough so they'd mind and I didn't mind the advice this time. I wasn't gonna take it, but I didn't mind it then and there, where, boy-o-boy, was it good to drink with my old friend. Next day, after work, I was at Rupert's. I gave Eve the news and she said, "You can't let him publish it."
"If I tell him, our friendship's over."
"Your friendship's over anyway."
"I foretold it."
I looked at her.
"Look," she said. "You don't see him for ten years. He travels and never stops to see you. But to have a stranger look at his dick, for that he comes to Toledo."
"But we were, you know. He knows a side of me no one else does."
"You have to tell him," she said and put her cell phone on the bar.
"Eve, think about it. The Toledo Penis Reader. This is big. Maxim Magazine. I mean it'll go Letterman, Leno. This is the freaking greatest practical joke since the Plainfield Teachers College, back in the '30 "
Eve looked unknowing, unconcerned with knowing.
"This is turning the tables. It's justice. They're always looking down on us. It's so fucking classic, and we've done it. I'm not calling."
I said that and looked at Linus, whom I was sitting next to. "Call," he said.
And Squirrel Boy "Call," he said.
And Charlie nodded and said, "Call."
And Woodstock nodded like someone had told him his dog had died.
And I said, "He feels like a writer for the first time in forever. You guys have no idea what that means."
Eve shook her head and a few weeks later an editor at Maxim Magazine called her cell to verify the story.
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