“Can’t you make me a little smaller? Downsize me?”
Calvin looked from the computer screen to the one other employee of s.t.u.d., inc. “Are you crazy, man? You’re the stud; you’re the main attraction!” As if to spite his co-worker, he retyped the HTML code which, upon a “save” command and a clicking of the browser’s “refresh” button, created an even larger reproduction of Henry’s headshot positioned in the center of the s.t.u.d.com home page.
Henry didn’t argue further; he just leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. “I just worry what my mother would think.”
“Man, if we spent all our time worrying about what our madres would think, nothin’ would ever get done.” Calvin glanced at Henry once more. “Aren’t you supposed to be having dinner right now?”
Henry looked at the Rolex that had been given to him as part of his dinner attire. “You’re right.” He stood up in Calvin’s dim workroom and ran his hands over the jacket of his new tuxedo in a smoothing gesture. He headed for the door, then turned back and asked, “One other thing: have you talked to Larry about the URL? All those dots are a little awkward.”
Calvin shook his head slowly. “No can do, my friend. Stud-dot-com’s already taken.”
“Well, what does the s-t-u-d stand for then?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all. By the way, I left a mag behind the headboard. You know,” Calvin’s eyes made a rare departure from the screen, “in case you need a little lift.”
Henry burned in the darkness as his stomach knotted. “Thanks.”
Calvin’s eyes were back on the screen. “Don’t mention it. Just remember who your friends are. By the way, what alias did you come up with?”
A heretofore unheard baritone replied from the shadows of the doorway. “Widewood. Dick Widewood.”
Henry stepped into the dining room at six-thirty-three, as the shadows began to stretch across the surrounding hellish landscape. He laid eyes on his client sitting in a blue dress and on a couch in a corner of the room, a tall glass in her hand, and he forced himself to smile.
The fortyish blonde smiled herself, shyly, as she stood up from the couch. “You must be Dick.”
Henry took the not-unattractive woman’s hand and kissed it gently. “I am. And you must be Valerie. Welcome to Mirage Springs.”
“Yes, thank you.” Valerie pulled the hand away. “I only stepped off the plane an hour ago.”
“Very.” Valerie held her glass with both hands now. “My husband sent me over in the Leer.”
“Yes, I guess your own private jet would be nice.”
“Well, it’s actually the company jet, but let’s not talk about that,” Valerie replied in a quick string of words. “I didn’t fly all the way from Atlanta for small talk, did I?”
“No, I suppose you didn’t.” Henry shoved his clammy hands in his pockets. “I trust Larry laid everything out for you?” He blushed at his choice of words. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay.” Valerie looked past Henry’s shoulder at the candlelit table for two that had been set with two soups by a silent waiter. Then she looked down at the half-empty glass. “He told me I shouldn’t drink any alcohol the entire week. It’s not good for the process, but boy, could I use one right now.”
Henry gently placed a hand on each of her arms. “It’s okay. Eating something would help.”
Valerie managed another smile, a warm one. “Yes, I suppose it would.”
Henry was on top of his first client, who lay on the corner of satin sheets turned back by a departed servant, when she asked the question, “Dick, is this your first time?”
Henry rolled off his client and onto the comforter that covered the remainder of the enormous bed situated in the chamber just off the dining room. “What gave you that idea?” he asked with a tremor in his voice.
Valerie was sitting up in a slip with the strap nearest her partner dangling down onto her arm, and with her hands splayed out on the satin behind her. “It’s okay, Dick. Just please tell me if it’s your first time.”
Henry was staring at the two of them in the mirror on the ceiling. “That depends on your first definition of ‘first’.”
Valerie sighed in exasperation and stared at a wall. “Has your dick ever been in a woman’s vagina, Dick?”
“That’s not a very ladylike way to put it.”
Valerie was up and marching to the dress that had been thrown across the back of a chair. “You forced me to put it that way.” She lifted the dress off the chair. “I’m not going to sleep with a boy who’s going to play games with me, no matter how desperate I am to get pregnant.”
A tear was in one of the woman’s eyes, and then Henry’s hand was on one of her arms. “I’m sorry. I suppose the first definition of ‘first’ would apply here.”
Valerie turned around and wiped away her tear. “I’ll take that as a ‘yes’.”
Henry stared at the blank screen of the laptop he had borrowed from Calvin that morning, stared at the blank Word document as the late afternoon sun began to penetrate the Venetian blinds directly before him. He squinted his eyes against both the sun and his writer’s block and then, with the slowness of one who had sat motionless before a computer all afternoon, typed out the words
It was at the typing of the last letter that a pair of knuckles knocked out a set on the door. “Henry?”
“Yeah.” Henry was immediately out of his chair at the sound of Cohn’s voice, and walking across the disheveled bedroom he had slept in for the first time the night before. He opened the door. “I suppose it’s time.”
Cohn wasn’t smiling. “And then some. Get your tux on and get to dinner. I’m leaving for the day, but you can call me on the cell phone if there are any problems.” He turned to leave and started away.
Henry stuck his head and his bare torso into the empty courtyard to ask, “What’s she like?”
Cohn stopped to turn back and reply in a voice lower than Henry’s. “You’ll find out soon enough. Get dressed.” Then he turned and departed for his Mercedes parked out front.
“You can turn off the lights instead of closing your eyes so much.”
Henry opened his eyes long enough to judge the seriousness of Judy Yates’s proposal, then shut them once more against the sight of a two hundred pound middle-aged woman he had been given the honor of impregnating. He stumbled to the light switch beside the door, drowned the bedchamber in darkness, and proceeded to take off his clothes.
“You don’t say much, do you, Dick?” the wife of a Montana oil tycoon asked as she took off her slip.
“Not when I’m working,” Henry replied as he approached the bed.
Judy lay on her back in her substantial glory, staring at the outlines of herself in the mirror above. “You know, Dick, part of your job is to make the lady feel comfortable. And ladies feel comfortable when they’ve talked.”
Henry set his bare butt on the comforter. “Fine. What do you want to talk about?”
Judy rolled over onto her side and let her flaccid breasts droop enough to force Henry to look away. “Tell me what it’s like to be you! Tell me what it’s like to have a fourteen-ninety SAT. I’ve always wanted a child who’ll go to Harvard!”
Henry stared at a dark, blank wall. “Fourteen-ninety. You don’t really notice it at first, when you’re a kid. But eventually you do: you see that you’re different from everyone else, at least everyone else you can see. You look the same, but you don’t see the same. You see things in this world that make you mad, angry and crazy, things that other people don’t talk about. And then, when you try to tell someone, anyone, you only know for certain that you’re all alone with the things you see.”
Henry’s client was quiet in the darkness, and then she spoke. “When I asked for a talk, this wasn’t what I had in mind.”
“You asked, and I delivered.” Henry nudged his partner onto her back and rolled over on top of her. He assumed the proper position with eyes screwed shut, and then rolled off of her.
“It’s not okay. Be right back.” Henry circled the bed and retrieved the magazine from the headboard, where Calvin said it would be, before stepping into and locking himself in the bathroom.
Henry opened the page of the August Ninety-seven issue of Playboy marked by a post-it with “Hope this helps, Gringo” scrawled on it. The stud stared down at the Hot Springs, Arkansas glossy goddess with a twenty-four inch waist and a thirty-six inch bust for a long while, turned off the bathroom light, and advanced to the bedroom, where his client had crawled beneath the covers.
“Are you ready to try again?”
Henry ripped away the corner of coverings nearest the bathroom and slid beneath them. “Ready as I’ll ever be.” He screwed his eyes shut once more, this time maintaining a firm vision of Miss August.
“Ooohhh, Dick!” Judy Yates gushed from the darkness.
“I don’t know if I can do this again, Larry.”
Cohn looked up at his visitor, over his clasped hands, and then he grinned. “I don’t think the next one’s going to be a problem, Henry.”
“Yeah, that’s what you said about Mrs. Markum! I mean, not every woman who wants to spit out a rocket scientist is old and fat!”
Cohn reached for his pack. “Revolutions take time, Henry.” He kept his eyes on his cigarette and his silver lighter. “The first women to sign up for our service are only going to be the most desperate cases.”
“Nothing against you.” Cohn motioned with his fuming cigarette at the row of manila folders on a corner of his desk. “You’ve gotten nothing but rave reviews. Just the idea of a respectable woman paying good money to sleep with a stranger so she can have his baby is still revolutionary.”
“But I have a fourteen-ninety SAT!”
“Yes, you do, and that’s been critical to our success so far. Keep it up, no phallic allusions intended, and you’ll have your pick of young, beautiful wives sent here by their rich, elderly husbands. Like tonight’s guest. The specialists who are hired after you will have to pay their dues with the old and fat ones.”
Henry reached for the headshot Cohn had pulled from a folder and slid across the desk. The photo was of a beautiful blonde Henry’s age. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
Cohn sighed and exhaled. “I tried to. Get ready for dinner: Mrs. Robinson’s limo will be arriving any minute.”
Henry tossed the print back on the desk. “Mrs. Robinson: that’s a good one. One more thing, Larry.”
“How much did you pay Nancy Carter to leave me stranded in Vegas so that you could sink your claws into me?”
Cohn returned a cool stare. “Nothing. Let’s just say we worked together at an institution of higher learning a few years back, which also happens to be where I had access to certain test scores.”
Henry said nothing more, and just turned to walk out of the room.
“So you must be Dick.”
Henry smiled down at the beauty who had risen from the couch upon his arrival in the room. “Yes, and you must be Elaine.”
Elaine gave a cool smile. “I must be. First, I have to say this is a little awkward. My husband talked me into this, like he’s done a lot of things, and I didn’t really want to come down here, I mean no offense–”
“It’s okay. Everyone’s awkward their first time here. Will you have a glass of wine?”
“Yeah, well, Larry’s back home for the night.” Henry walked to the edge of the couch and reached behind it to retrieve a bottle of white he had placed there in an ice bucket that afternoon. “Perfectly chilled.” He reached down a second time, for two glasses.
Elaine waited until he had pulled the cork to ask, “How long have you been doing this?”
“How many women have I slept with, you mean.” Henry handed her a filled glass. “Not many: this operation only got started two months ago.”
“And how long do you plan to keep doing this?” Elaine asked as he replaced the bottle in the bucket.
Henry looked away. “I haven’t really thought of that.” Then he looked into his client’s eyes and smiled. “This is just the night job. I write fiction during the day.”
“Really? What do you write?”
Henry maintained his smile. “Still working on that part. A toast: to success in this endeavor.”
The two glasses clinked in the candlelight.
Standing high on a cool mountaintop all alone, looking down on all below. But no, can’t see a thing through the clouds between, the white cotton shimmering in the sunlight from above. But now it’s not cool, it’s cold, and the sunlight burns the eyes if you look too closely, no, if you look not at all…
“Dick, are you okay?”
Henry came to and felt the small form stretched out against his and separated from him by a thin layer of his perspiration. “Yeah, fine.” He nudged his partner away and pushed himself up to a seated position on the edge of the mattress.
“Must’ve been a terrible dream.”
“It was, but it’s over now.” Then, more gently and with a backward look, “Sorry to snap.”
Elaine was holding a sheet of satin close to her perfect bosom. “It’s okay. I was prying.”
“Let’s just get back under the covers.” The partners became prostrate once more beneath those covers, albeit now with a void between them.
The two heads sticking out from beneath the sheets looked first at their own reflections, then at each other’s. “Tell me about the women you’ve slept with, Dick. Were they beautiful?”
“It’s Henry. Call me Henry.”
“What about Dick?”
“Dick’s just a pseudonym.”
“I thought pseudonyms were for writers.”
“Yeah, for when you write too close to home.”
“What about the others?”
Henry stared into the reflection looking back. “They were beautiful,” he told her. He turned onto his side. “But not as beautiful as you.”
Henry stared at a nearly blank computer screen, as he had almost every afternoon during the previous five months. His fingers moved to the keyboard to add something below the byline of the untitled story, then they moved away in hesitation. His fingers approached the keys a second time, and then there was a knock on the door.
The door was pushed open to reveal Elaine Robinson. “If you want Larry instead, I can get him for you.”
Henry returned the smile sheepishly and closed the laptop as he rose from his chair. “No, I think I prefer you. You’re early.”
Elaine walked to the center of the room with her mink coat still wrapped tightly about her. “We caught the jet stream.” She looked down at the laptop. “I interrupted your writing.”
Henry glanced back at the closed computer. “No, I wasn’t writing. I thought you were coming from Chicago.”
Elaine looked around the room. “I had some things to do in L.A. You keep this room so tidy.” Her stare rested on the bed. “But then again, you probably don’t sleep much here, do you?”
“No, not much.” Henry headed for the door. “What do you say we go for a walk?”
“It’s freezing outside.”
“Then I’ll put on a coat.”