When a woman loses feelings for a man, she turns callous. I learned that after my sugar mama, Shirley, wrote me a check for eighty thousand dollars to go away. It was money from her ex-husband. He’d cheated on her with another man and paid me to leave her without knowing it. I’d fallen in love with Shirley, only for her to break my heart. But I got to visit Dubai: a beautiful place.
I also learned money comes from strange places. It lasted from July to July, up until that point, the heaviest check I’d ever held.
Seven years went by. I took LSD every day. It fried my brain. When I quit trying to become an actor, I lost my identity. When I lost my identity, I lost my job. When I lost my job, I lost the money to pay rent. When I lost my apartment, I became a male escort.
In Tropic of Capricorn, it says that a man succeeds in his forties. And Bukowski wrote that time is meant to be wasted. My grandmother—or my father’s mother—stayed in a hospice for her last days. She said life begins at forty. She could’ve meant my body would begin to crumble.
I needed to fill out a tax form on an overcast Monday. I needed to attend a job seminar. I needed to cut my hair. I should’ve bought groceries. I wished to keep from doing those things. I worked for eight hours on one page of a memoir about my father’s suicide. I called it The Long Drop To The Hudson River.
I entered Musso and Frank’s on a Monday night. The moon was full. A Moscow Mule cost me twenty dollars at happy hour. I was on the clock. Monday nights at Musso and Frank’s were gold. The restaurant crawled with divorcees. But when it was copper, the restaurant was filled with online dates. Since it was copper that night, I punched out after the third Mule.
A brick of cologne sat beside me in a suit. The top button of his dress shirt was undone. He wore sunglasses to show everyone his importance. He began to chew ice from his glass of Hennessey to get me to notice.
“How you doing? The name’s Carmine Alonso. Film producer. And you are…?”
“Paul Talisman. Actor.”
“I already got actors,” he said. “I need someone to write the friggin’ thing.”
“I also write screenplays.”
That was a lie. But I needed money.
He scooted in. “Hey, I’m not here to tickle your balls. I’m also a writer, a writer of poetry. But I need someone to write me a draft of a screenplay.”
Come to think of it, my balls began to itch.
“What’s it called?”
He arched his hands in the air like he was hoisting a marquee:
“Carmine,” he said. “Or Alonso. I haven’t decided. When you finish that drink, come to my house. I want to talk about the project.”
He lived in Shadow Hills. He made me drink to seduce me into writing his script.
I sat on his leather couch, facing a hundred-inch TV screen on the wall. A fireplace burned beneath it. He stood there, explaining the story:
“It’s about my time with the mob, see. And I got ties with bookies in the Bahamas. That should be included, too.”
I would’ve done anything for money. But involvement with the mob was dicey. “Am I right for this?” I asked.
“We met an hour ago, pal. But think about who you’re working with.”
“Yeah, but I need time to figure out the story.”
“Of course.” He sat on the couch and wrapped his massive arm around me. His hand was a metal claw. He squeezed my shoulder. “Pal, I’m not expecting this to be overnight. Let it gel. When it’s time, it’s time. I told you things that’s classified. You know how important it is? How important I am?“
Something about him seemed fraudulent.
“I got to think about it.”
“Is it fear? You’re scared, aren’t you?”
“You’ve been drinking,” I said. “I want to make sure you mean it.”
“Look here. It was Confucius who said: ‘do what you love and get paid for it.'”
Those were not his words. But I pretended Carmine knew what he was saying.
A week passed before he chose the title: Carmine Alonso. And a month passed before I finished the draft. The month felt like a lifetime. Carmine believed I was a screenwriter, but I was nothing. Henry Miller had written that a man suffered when he loved a woman. But did I love Shirley, or was I infatuated with her?
“Haven’t heard from you in a month,” Carmine said. “We good or what?”
“You have a script for me?”
He flipped the pages in his living room, looking for keywords. He laughed and shook his head.
“Did you really read it?” I asked.
He sat on the couch with me again. But that time, he squeezed me. He kissed my cheek. “It needs a rewrite, darling, but you’re great.”
“It needs more blood and death. Why slit his throat? Give him a Colombian necktie. You following me?”
“Now let’s get out of this robe. I’m taking you to celebrate.”
We watched his wife dance at Cheetah’s in Hollywood. Brody was the prettiest of all the girls in there. She was a twenty-five-year-old suicide girl. I kept my eyes on her until she looked at me. Carmine could’ve gotten jealous. He was thirty years older than her. It was obvious she’d married him only for his money. Her beauty overwhelmed me before she started talking. Brody was a racist.
“I’m from Wisconsin,” she said. “The people are nice and polite and everything. So where’s the respect here? They take forever to cross the street, and they do it on purpose and in spite. Have you ever had one of them give up a cigarette? Always bumming off you. No fucking shame.”
I nodded at her but took offense at what she said about other races.
“Do me a favor,” Carmine said. “I got an emergency call and gotta go. Get her out of here safe and sound, would you?”
I had to wait for her shift to end at four in the morning.
Brody said she liked older men as her clients. Older men paid their way to the front. It was no coincidence I liked rich older women, so we were perfect for each other.
“I went out with a CEO last night,” she said. “He bought me dinner, but I didn’t give him nothing. When he called me today, I skipped the callback.”
She’d said it with gaiety, too. It disgusted me.
“What do you look for in a man besides his age and wealth?” I asked.
“Men are utilitarian.”
“What do you mean?”
“They’re all dick and money, nothing else. Just get the baby and leave,” she said.
“So you want a baby with Carmine?”
“Did I say that? I meant theoretically.”
I hated her. It made me want her more. We kissed against my motorcycle. Her lips tasted like licorice.
“You’re different than most guys,’ she said.
Her tattooed beauty made up for her racist mentality. She lived by herself in a duplex in Mid City. She invited me in when I dropped her off, but I would’ve rather gone home and worked on the screenplay.
She had chickens on her bed.
“Why are there chickens on your bed?”
“Just push them away. They’ll leave.”
I stayed away from those dirty birds, so she pushed them away with her hands. They left through a doggie door.
Her bed smelled like bark and livestock. Her bedroom was stuck in Wisconsin. Her chest and drawers had a bumper sticker with a slogan from the Bush era—”These colors don’t run.” And yet, I still had sex with her.
Carmine was fine with Brody as an escort. But her cheating on him was where he drew the line. She chose whom to sleep with: caucasian men only. As a professional, I had to settle with what I could get.
Not only was Brody racist, but she was kinky. She snuck into my apartment one night with a ski mask, thinking I was sleeping. She tried to smother me with a pillow. When she hovered over me, I grabbed her throat. She liked that over anything else. She started moaning.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” I asked.
She tried to speak with my thumbs pressed against her larynx. I knew it was her by her smell. Brody smelled like an egg sandwich. Besides, the ski mask couldn’t hide her neck tattoos. They were darker than shadows.
When I let go, she had sex with me with the mask on. The ski mask made her look hotter, more desirable.
Brody would roleplay scenes of sex crimes. We would creep on each other and act out a murder. It excited her. But when she went on racist rants during pillow talk, I told her to fix that.
One night, she texted me to come over. The door was unlocked, and the ski mask was behind a flower pot on the porch. It was the night of the Academy Awards. But that didn’t matter. We were acting out scenes of our own. I found the ski mask with a chef’s knife under it and picked them up. I pulled the mask on. Her neighbor passed with her dog and rolled her eyes.
Brody had planned it. I would show up at the time when she was taking a shower. She wanted me to creep from behind with the knife to her throat.
Our fling was copacetic until she stopped taking Seroquel. Brody was bored by the scenes we were acting out, so she thought of a new one.
“Set my bedroom on fire,” she said.
“Set your what?”
I smelled butane in the room.
“Go ahead. I poured the butane around my bed already. We can do it while it’s on fire.”
As an escort, I’d done things I wasn’t proud of. I’d used toys on myself. I’d done orgies with friends and neighbors. I’d dressed as a bear (she had the right costume). But pyromania was outside of my comfort zone.
“I think you’ve gone too far,” I told her.
“Are you calling me a freak?“
“What is it? You hate me? You think I’m a piece of shit?”
“Why would you think that?”
“You hate women, I can tell.”
“OK, now you’re trying to piss me off.”
She double-downed on her bipolar and threw a nail file at my head, a softball, a hair dryer. I dodged everything except for a bottle of nail polish. The bottle stung my right eye. I needed to run away before she would kill me.
The bruise lasted a week, going from red to blue to black to green to yellow. She called me every day and left threatening voicemails. That wasn’t roleplaying. She was going to tell Carmine.
I was getting phone calls at midnight, not from Brody but from Carmine’s goons. They said in my voicemail:
“You’re a dead motherfucker. If it’s tonight, tomorrow, a year, you won’t know.….”
I had to turn my phone off. Noises outside made me paranoid, so I slept in cheap motels, which were just as dangerous. Carmine scared me out of Los Angeles. Someone else would have to write Carmine Alonso.
I drove to Las Vegas and searched Craigslist for roommates—back when Craigslist was still around. I moved in with two female escorts. They lived in a two-story house in Henderson. Anyone in Vegas could’ve worked for Carmine, like chauffeurs—or ridesharers as they now called themselves. They wore Bluetooth in their ears. They drove black Escalades. They stood in black suits in one-hundred-degree weather, smoking cigarettes. They would stand outside my house.
I quit the escort trade and found luck at roulette. It wasn’t Russian Roulette. That would come later. My luck came at the same table.
I won five hundred thousand dollars on the night before Christmas. The casino tried to figure me out, but there was nothing to figure out except luck. The owner invited me to his office. He looked at the check before handing it to me.
“Consider this a check to keep you away,” he said. Another rich man had paid me off.
The five-hundred grand lasted me through another year. The money trimmed the days. That was the shortest year of my life. My roommates moved in with Vegas moguls, so I moved into the Luxor. I would order room service every night: ribeye steaks, lobster, and blue-label Johnnie Walker. The women must’ve smelled the lobster outside because they would knock on my door. I forgot their names a few hours after sex. Some things had never changed since being an escort.
Sooner or later, the fortune would run out. I used the rest of it to move back to California. At forty-four, I was worse off than I was at forty-two. Broker. More desperate. Looking for a real job. Looking for a haven. Looking for someone to stay with me. I was at my most impulsive.
I lived in a motel in Hawaiian Gardens. It was far from Hawaii and far from a garden. All those towns outside of Los Angeles were better off without names. When I was looking for roommates online, I read about a secret club:
ARE YOU DESPERATE AND WANT TO END IT ALL? COME TO THIS MEETING IN THE INLAND EMPIRE. CALL ME FOR DIRECTIONS AND MORE DETAILS.
Nick was a party clown from Riverside. The group met in a basement below a California Pizza Kitchen. Middle-aged men had come to play the other kind of roulette (as I’d said before). The password was AVOCADO.
Nick brought the revolver.
“You have to fully commit for this to work,” he said to us.
I believed I was. Eight others had shown up. A light bulb hung from the ceiling. Nick did kids’ parties and was also a licensed marriage family therapist. He said he sometimes wore the clown suit in front of his clients, depending on his schedule. He wore it that night.
Each man had to tell his story as they used the revolver as a talking stick.
“Please respect your neighbor and stick it in your mouth,” Nick said, “not at your temple.”
The stories they told sounded more dire than mine. The first guy said he smoked too much crack and ate his left hand. He squeezed his eyes tighter than his finger on the trigger. The click of the gun let the air back into the room.
Nick may have led the group, but he participated in roulette. He was fair. A long time ago, Nick held up a register. He shot a cashier’s leg at a Baskin-Robbins. The cashier stayed alive. The guilt over that night compelled him to become a therapist. But his wife was sick of his drinking problem, so she and his children left him. Now he was willing to end it. Someone would have to replace him if he lost, which he did. There was one bullet in the revolver. Everyone else got to live that night.
Russian Roulette was a good measuring stick of how bad we wanted death. We didn’t want to toss Nick in the river, but we had to.
Afterward, I spoke with Lenny. He was the guy who’d eaten his hand.
“Where do we go now?” he asked.
“Good question. I have to get a job.”
“What’s your background besides that escort thing?”
“Well, I act pretty damn well, and I wrote the draft of a screenplay, but what does that matter today or tomorrow?”
“Got any retail experience?”
He said he worked at a pet store in Monrovia. The gig paid closer to nothing: less than three thousand a month. But I could afford rent, utilities, and food with Lenny as a roommate.
We lived in Cerritos, the human landfill outside of Los Angeles. Lenny liked to watch TV. I liked to read books about writers.
One night there was a preview for Carmine Alonso. The film would premiere in a week. I asked Lenny to rewind it.
“Pause it at the credits,” I said.
The letters on the screen were too small. I had to get up close. The writer happened to be Carmine Alonso. Son of a bitch.
“Hey, Lenny, you ever think about playing roulette again?”
“Has it gotten worse?”
“Yes, it has. We’re here because of broken hearts,” I said.
“You never told me your story,” he said.
“I’ll make it brief. Henry Miller said a man hasn’t suffered until he’s been in love.”
“I was in love,” he said.
I could only imagine. Lenny said he used to throw frisbees at his dog at football games before he smoked crack. He fell in love with a woman who lived in the Philippines. He’d met her on a dating website and sent her money every month to support her family. She disappeared from the internet and changed her phone number. Gone. What did he do to upset her?
Some people have it worse than I do. But how could I compare?
I told him about Brody, Shirley, Carmine, and my father. Lenny was the first person to know about them.
Someday I’ll make honest money and find the right woman. That‘s all that matters.