Thursday, September 20, 2007
Bourbon, Dogs, and Arlene Dahl: Part II, chapter 11 from The Edge of the World (a novel in progress)
At work I was doing the usual things—plugging in numbers, generating new numbers, then generating reports on the new numbers. It went on and on... I'd wake up at six in the morning, get dressed then tend to the dogs. After that I'd take the bus to the ferry—I never drove to work, as parking in town would have cost too much. Getting off the ferry I'd walk over to catch the uptown N train to 23d and Broadway, then walk through Madison Square Park to the vendor on 26th and Madison, where I'd buy a bagel or a donut for breakfast. Then it was up Madison to 28th Street where the company's offices were, into the lobby where I always greeted the doorman with a sneer instead of a "good morning." Up the elevator to the fourteenth floor and to my desk in the front room right next to the receptionist.
It would take me an hour and a half to get there, and most of the time I was late, tired and hungover from whatever I'd done the previous night. I'd been trying to spend less money, since the depletion of what I thought was the ample sum of money I'd taken with me from Florida was what led me to work here until I could get my guard dog business off the ground. Still, I seemed to get more and more in debt. Though in the month after Christmas I saved money by dining on Christmas gifts the company had received. Gifts like a huge basket of cheese from Arlene Dahl, the celebrity sponsor of one of the company's lines of jewelry.
She was a big actress in the fifties, considered to be something of a sex star. A hot redhead with firm tits, she was now a plump old matron, although plastic surgery had spared her some of the more ravaging lines of old age. Arlene came to the office once when I was there. The receptionist was out to lunch at the time—whenever she was out I covered for her. Arlene stepped out of the elevator and looked around. Seeing that there was no one else there, she finally spoke to me.
"I'm looking for Mr. Charles Rivers," she said, holding her head back as if some foul odor had just entered her nostrils. It was entirely possible, because I was hungover at the time and may have been sweating stale bourbon from my pores.
"Just a moment, I'll ring him up," I said, picking up the phone and dialing. "Charlie, Arlene Dahl is here for you."
"I'll be right out."
"He's on the way out," I said to Arlene.
"Thank you," she replied. It was the most insincere thanks I'd ever heard from anyone.
Charlie must have gotten held up for some reason, because it was taking him a while to come out to the front. Not wanting to leave Arlene standing there bored, I said, "Arlene, thanks for the cheese."
She gave me an evil look which seemed to say, "The cheese wasn't for you, you knave." Knowing that I was annoying her, I persisted in my attempts at conversation.
"I really enjoyed it," I added. "I've been eating it for lunch the past two weeks. Making cheese sandwiches or sometimes just slicing it up and eating it plain."
Choosing not to comment on the praise I was lavishing upon her Christmas gift to the company, she asked, "Perhaps you could ring up Mr. Rivers again."
"Oh, don't worry, he's on the way..." I said. I wasn't about to bother dialing his number again. "So, have you been doing any acting lately?"
This last question was apparently more than she could take. She rolled her eyes, then stomped off on her own to look for Charlie.
Our other celebrity sponsor was Jennifer O'Neill. Her Christmas gift to the company was a huge tub of popcorn.
"Thanks a bunch," the note on top of the tub of popcorn said. "It was a great year. Shine on... Love, Jennifer."
Jennifer's fame rested on a single hit movie from the early seventies, The Summer of '42. It was a movie which, like all of Arlene Dahl's movies, I had never seen—though from what I knew, it was about a teenage boy who has some kind of affair with a young war bride, played by her. I remembered seeing the newspaper ads for the movie when it first started showing in the theaters. They featured a shot of her face as she gazed off into the distance, towards the water, perhaps. It was one of those all American faces—apple pie, baseball, and all that other homegrown shit. But even though I was only about ten at the time, the only thing I could think about while looking at her was what that face would look like if she were sucking dick. Not that I found her the least bit alluring. Indeed, Lily was far more beautiful than Jennifer O'Neill was, and back then Lily was the only woman I was interested in. But to see that clean and earnest image of Jennifer O'Neill defiled somehow did interest me. I wanted to see this heavenly beauty brought down to earth, down to the real world where people walk through their own shit and piss and where beauty is nothing more than the most direct route to a hard-on.
With her being one of the company's sponsors, I thought it was my chance to make a childhood dream come true. She lived out in California somewhere, and from time to time Gustave would go out there to see her. Whenever he made the trip the girls in the office would talk, telling stories about him going horseback riding on her ranch and how his going out there was more like a vacation than a business trip. But all the time I was at the company, Jennifer O'Neill never came to the office. Gustave always went to California to see her, dropping any other business at hand whenever he needed to show her some product or get her signature—things which could have been accomplished much more easily through the mail.
Of course Jennifer O'Neill—despite her rather commonplace sort of beauty—was much better looking than Arlene Dahl, who to me was just a dried out has-been actress. On occasion Charlie would ask me for my opinion of the situation.
"Charlie," I'd say, "no one gives a fuck about Arlene Dahl anymore. Most people my age don't even know who the fuck she is."
Charlie was one of the vice presidents in the company. He'd only started there about six months before I had, having left some department store chain that had moved its headquarters out of the New York area. He was one of the few people in the company who had a family to support, including children he was putting through college. Nearly everyone else, including Gustave, was younger than he was, and, being single, they had a lot more money to go out and have a good time with. Like me, Charlie didn't have much money to throw around. But more important was that he was the only person there to whom I could speak my mind without receiving a bewildered stare in response. Since he was new, he felt that he had to prove himself, which meant that he'd take suggestions from anyone, including me.
"If you ask me," I told him, "the company should dump Arlene Dahl, 'cause the only kind of jewelry the people who remember her are wearing are medical alert bracelets, and all their money is spent paying doctor's bills and buying expensive heart medication."
"Well, you're right on target there," Charlie laughed. "And Christ, even I think she looks scary."
"Yeah, you want to get someone much younger. Younger than Jennifer O'Neill even. Hey, have you seen Playboy's Miss April? Now that's the sort of sponsor you need. Tits all the way out to Coney Island and a muff that smells as fresh as the morning dew."
"How can you tell what her muff smells like?" he asked, feigning exasperation.
"Hey, I got an eye for these things."
Charlie gave my advice a try and began to audition new models to use in the company's brochures. The ones he brought in were more to my liking—tall, leggy women with slim waists and big tits, including one I recognized as a Penthouse centerfold from a couple of years back. But Gustave, who had the final say in the matter, didn't like any of them. He wanted to stay with Arlene Dahl, to attract older customers, and Jennifer O'Neil, who'd bring in the middle aged housewives.
"I know our market," I heard Gustave say to Charlie once as I passed his office. Lingering in the hallway, I continued to listen in on the conversation.
"But that market's pretty much a given," Charlie countered. "I think we can expand and attract younger customers. And in fact we should, because it's single young women who are most likely to have a lot of disposable income. And even those who don't are prone to impulse buying, taking out their credit cards to buy something for the sole purpose of keeping up with the latest trends."
"But we're not selling anything trendy. That's not our market. And if we try to attract that market we'll end up alienating our long term customers."
"Well, to put my two cents in," I heard Mr. Gurnsey interrupt, "I didn't like those models you brought in. Frankly, Charlie, they all looked like prostitutes. Straight from Tenth Avenue. Or Eleventh Avenue. Whatever. I remember in my day you always went uptown for that. It was five dollars a pop. Or was it ten dollars? Whatever. It was cheap. And that was what those models looked like. Cheap."
So the company ended up staying with Arlene—the not so grand old lady—and with Jennifer—the middle aged one hit wonder girl. Business remained steady but never grew just as the numbers I plugged in changed but never increased. And although the money I made at the company was enough to survive on, it wasn't enough for me to get my own business going. Which meant that, for the moment, I belonged to them.
First posted, out of sequence, in Febuary 2006.
Disclaimer: This excerpt from The Edge of the World uses the names of public figures for the purposes of satire. Any other names are invented. The content of this work should in no way be construed as factual. It is a work of fiction.