There I go again, babysitting the rain. Or should I say, Doug Smith. Shit fucking name but I'll come up with a better one when I go over this later. So there's Doug in the rain, and fuck metaphors, because old Doug's just standing in it on the corner of Forty-fifth Street and First Avenue where he's waiting for this guy of a guy, this friend of a friend, this purchaser of purloined, make that pilfered, goods, who's supposed to pay him two hundred bucks for the VCR Doug's got in the Altman's shopping bag on the wet pavement between his legs.
Hey, how about Steve? Steve Fucking Drake. Not great, but better than Doug Smith any day. Okay, so now Steve Drake is standing on the corner of Forty-fifth and he sees the guy come out of the bar down the block.
"You Mikie?" Steve asks the guy.
"Got the merchandise right here."
"Lemme see whatcha got."
"Step inside my office," Steve Fucking Drake says and goes behind one of the beams holding up the roof of an arcade and takes the VCR out of the Altman's bag. "This is like brand new," Steve says.
"How I know it plays?" asks the guy.
"It plays, records, does everything but make coffee," Steve says. "You want it? Two hundred bucks."
"I'll give you a hundred fifty for it."
"Gimme a hundred eighty and it's yours."
Steve walks away with the hundred eighty bucks in his pocket as the guy of a guy heads south on First Avenue toward a destination unknown and unwantedtobeknown to Steve who heads up Forty-fifth Street, past the rows of parking garages that infest the side streets of Midtown Manhattan between Lexington Avenue and the East River and then goes into number 515, a mild-mannered office building housing an assortment of second-rate concerns.
For here, in the area known as Back of Grand Central, is to be found the business district that time forgot, its serried ranks of garages, homeless shelters and working class bars mute testament to its just standing as a mecca for failures, losers and has-beens. Whoa -- "serried ranks," "mute testament to its just standing" -- the kid's getting a little thick, there. But that can be fixed up too, no problem. Steve's good at that. Shit, he's a genius at that shit.
But anyway, the minute Steve went through the door with the sign made on the office stat machine that read Titanic Publications, the usual shit began hitting the fan. First off, Craig Barnum, the so-called publisher of Titanic's many fine publications, which had included two porno magazines, an occasional wrestling title, and even part ownership in a legitimate paperback house, called Steve Fucking Drake into his office.
Two years before, when Craig was on top, this office would have been a duplex affair reached by a spiral staircase plushly carpeted in fine Swedish brocade on 515's topmost floor. Today, after the demise of Craig's short-lived media empire, the declaration of bankruptcy, a messy divorce, a messier heart attack and the removal of one slightly cancerous lung, the office of Craig Barnum was a corner room overlooking an airshaft on one side and a pizzeria on the other.
"You look wet," said Barnum, a fat, bearded man who had a Macanudo cigar stuck in his mouth, a white yachtsman's cap on his grey head and a pair of aviators hooked to his ears, who sat behind a desk littered with junk in front of the window that overlooked the airshaft.
"That's because I am wet, Craig," Steve Fucking Drake told his employer.
"Guess it must be raining."
"Brilliant deduction, Craig," Steve answered. "Not that you could see it through these windows."
"They're pretty dirty, huh?" Craig replied. "Fuck the windows anyway. Who needs 'em?"
"I tried fucking the windows yesterday but I got splinters in my dick, Craig."
Craig gave a grudging laugh, which was the only laugh he generally gave, except for one or two times, such as the one where Steve had done a photospread titled "Aisha, Desert Bimbo" which had a nude girl posing as a Mideast guerilla. That rated a real laugh and a minor emergency, since Craig had been eating an egg salad sandwich at the time and his sudden jollity had precipated an attack of apnea which sent him falling to the floor, gasping for breath.
"Seriously, though," Barnum went on, "I want your opinion on this." He tapped the issue of Birdcage Magazine, which lay on his desk open to the centerfold, with his forefinger. "But first I wanna ask you about something else."
"Ask away," Steve said.
"You know anything about what happened to my VCR?"
"What VCR, Craig?" Steve asked.
"The brand new VCR that was on the TV stand right behind you," Craig elaborated, nodding his chin over Steve Fucking Drake's shoulder.
"What would I know about the VCR?" Steve replied, after briefly glancing behind him at the TV stand which, once having held a TV on top and a VCR on the bottom, now held nothing at all.
"The same thing you might know about the fucking Sony television that was there last week."
"I don't watch much television, Craig," Steve said. "Even fucking Sony televisions, Craig."
"That VCR cost me eight hundred bucks."
"I warned you about leaving that stuff around where any junkie boost artist can just come in and help themselves," Steve said. "You know security in this building ain't worth shit."
"Yeah, I know. You said the same thing about the copy machine and the typewriter too."
"Are you implying that I might have something to do with the disappearance of these pieces of office equipment, Craig?" Steve asked.
"Yes, I am."
"Well, all I can say, Craig, is that I am wounded to the quick that you would even for a moment suspect that I would stoop to the level of selling any office property."
"Meaning you took the VCR."
"I'm aghast at hearing those words, Craig," Steve said. "That's all I can say. I'm aghast."
"Just tell me you took it, I don't really give a shit."
"I'd love to humor you, Craig, but my innate sense of honesty and fair play prevents me from making such a statement into your hidden tape recorder."
"I don't have a tape recorder."
"You're getting red in the face, Craig," Steve told his boss. "You better take a blood pressure pill."
"Get outa my office, you prick!"
"At once, Mein Fuhrer," Steve said and quickly left only to hear his boss holler out his name five minutes later on the office intercom, which was the same type of intercom system they used in the Swiss Alps. I was using those five minutes to do some quick thinking about a piece of good luck that had just come my way, because in a box on the floor near Craig's desk I'd caught sight of a minor gold mine.
I had a guy of a guy, a friend of a friend, in Kowloon who would buy any girlie slide sets I could send him, no questions asked. The only condition was that they had to be big-tits sets. Now, I exercised extreme care in plucking only a choice fifty or sixty color slides from a full set of around five hundred shots.
This made the evidence of my theft hard to spot, let alone prove, since a few score missing shots were par for the course. They were as the gleanings of the field by which the Israelites of old found straw for their bricks, or some shit like that.
Just the same, Barnum's guard was up, and he'd tried to put me off the scent of a new shipment from one of the photographers dumb or desperate enough to still send us stuff on consignment. If he liked a set, he'd hand-pick the shots he wanted and send the rest back.
Craig had either read Poe's "The Purloined Letter" or seen the main hook in the story by watching a Karloff flick in his youth, because, like the hiding place of the letter in the Poe story, he kept the slides out in plain sight. Since the office was heaped to the ceiling with porn shots dating back to 1947, this was not such a bad trick, except for the fact that Craig always kept the boxes right by his chair.
So when he'd been laying his accusations on me, and my eyes had strayed to the box on the floor, I knew my ship had come in. Give me ten minutes alone with that box and my practiced eyes, nimble fingers, and need for money would extract at least five sets of big-boobs shots which, taking into consideration the current exchange rate and the fluctuation of the dollar, would easily be worth a thousand bucks to me, maybe more.
I knew I had to get that ten minutes alone with the box before I split for the night, otherwise it would be in the hands of UPS tomorrow, winging its way back to wherever bad little boxes full of dirty pictures go in the morning. For this, I had prospects, because I was planning on staying late tonight anyway to finish doing the mechanicals for this month's "stuffers," which were otherwise known as "shadow books." As implied by their nicknames, these were publications using already published materials which were stuffed into shrink-wrapping and available four to a pack on the top shelves of candy store magazine racks.
When stuffer time came around, I -- who was by now editor, writer, art director, layout man and photo-production staff of the fine magazines put out by Titanic -- would stay late in order to finish them by the time the printer's deadline came around, box the mechanicals and hand them to the guy from Federal Express who also knew to come late for the pickup at the end of each month. The only thing related to this that I didn't do -- aside from posing for the girlie shots -- was the covers. This honor Craig reserved for himself, and in so doing, shot his own dick off.
Five years before, on the day I met him, Craig had pointed with pride to the famous strawberry on the logo of Strawberries Magazine.
"You see this strawberry?" he asked rhetorically.
"I do in fact see the strawberry," I had replied, the strawberry being the dot over the "i" in the word "Strawberries."
"Well, I designed this strawberry," and he laid the magazine down and stared at me with pride on his face.
At that moment, I knew that my employer was a major weirdling, possibly insane, and that, had I not needed money in a hurry, I would do well to turn tail and run as far away from the dingy office at 515 as fast as possible. Craig had indeed designed the strawberry in the logo of Strawberries Magazine, just as surely as he had designed the cover of every other magazine, girlie or otherwise, that he had ever put out.
Since this was the equivalent of a brain surgeon practicing his profession on himself, it was no surprise that the magazines put out by Titanic were renowned far and wide as having the worst covers in the business. Which was the kiss of death for any magazine. Consequently, it was no surprise that their sales figures would slip to the point where only prisoners read them anymore, and this was because the magazines were judged by prison officials to be so tame that they alone passed through otherwise stringent censorship.
In the five years of my employ, what had originally been the still viable rump of a once mighty publishing empire slid down the slippery slope of knavery and mismanagement to its present sorry state. Like Ishmael before the great whale, I alone was left of Captain Craig's crew, just me and Moby Dick in his corner office, a not-so-great, not so white whale of a publisher who smoked his cigars and ate his egg salad sandwiches and dreamed of a comeback he might never be around long enough to make. One way or the other, Titanic Publications would probably not be kicking in another six months.
Why either of us hung around was a major enigma. I at least had a half-assed reason. Craig owed me a couple of paychecks and if I didn't hang in there, I would never see my money. Which is also one of the reasons why I could get away with copping anything I could lay my hands on and carry out of the office past the checkered vigilance of the sleepy Puerto Rican guard posted in the lobby.
There were plenty of other reasons besides this, such as the fact that I had enough on Craig to put his feet to the fire if circumstances ever deemed it necessary. In the five years of my employ, I had been a busy little bee. I knew where all the bodies were buried. I knew stuff about the White Whale that Craig didn't even know he knew about himself. That was why old Ishmael was still onboard the sinking ship of smut, and that was why Craig Barnum could not do shit but get a blood pressure attack when I copped whatever I could and sold it on the street.
When I got back in the office, Barnum was fumbling with a prescription bottle containing little pink Inderal tablets. But he wasn't Barnum anymore. He was Ahab Whale and I made him thinner than he really was and he didn't have the beard anymore either.
"Do me a favor, Tony, and get me some water from the cooler," Whale said. The name was Tony now, Tony Fucking Blake. I'd decided also that I liked that better than Steve Fucking Drake.
"The guy took the cooler away two weeks ago, Ahab," I said.
"I'll get you some water from the bathroom," I told the boss and grabbed the dirty coffee mug off his desk. It was a rare moment of empathy for me, but I confess that I did have such moments when it came to Ahab Whale.
It was Ahab after all, who had taken me in five years before, when I was looking for a job and when two publishers of magazines even scummier than his own hadn't hired me. And it was through Ahab that I learned about magazine publishing from the ground up.
Right now, having gone through every scam and trick in the book, I knew more about the business than any ten schmucks who sat in offices on Park Avenue. And after five years with the publishing equivalent of a samurai master who attacked his apprentice at every conceivable opportunity, I had learned to be on my guard even when I slept. By now I had outshone the master himself. You had to get up pretty early in the morning to outfox Tony Fucking Blake.
Tony brought Ahab his mug, now filled with rusty-tasting bathroom water, and watched Ahab down his blood pressure pills.
"How come you're standing here?" Ahab asked, looking up at Tony.
"You told me to come in your office," Tony said.
"What did I want?"
"You tell me," Tony replied.
Ahab stroked his bare chin, which I replaced with a beard again because I liked him better with a beard, and then slapped the table the way he did when he remembered something he'd forgotten, usually where he'd put my paycheck.
"Right, that's what I wanted," he said, and shoved a pile of junk to one side, exposing thereby the issue of Birdcage Magazine which was still open to the centerfold. "See this?"
"I see it," Tony said.
"What is it?"
"It's a picture of a chick with her legs spread and her pussy showing."
"Yeah, I know," he answered. "But who is the chick?"
"Let me take a wild-assed guess," I said. "It's Latisha Chains."
I already knew what Ahab had in mind, in fact I'd known the first second I'd walked in, because by now I knew what Ahab thought long before he even thought it. After losing the Galactic Gal Pageant because she'd posed for girlie pix years before, she decided to do a spread for Birdcage, which was probably making millions on it.
"You know what we're gonna do?" he asked.
"No, Ahab, what are we gonna do?"
"We're gonna take these pictures and put them in the next issue, that's what."
"You mean we're gonna just rip the shots off and publish them? Is that right, Ahab?"
"Yeah. That's exactly right."
"What about Graziano?" Tony asked. "Maybe he might do something wild and unpredictable -- like sue you."
"Graziano. Fuck Graziano."
"I tried fucking Graziano but I got splinters in my prick."
"Funny," Ahab said, this time not laughing. "But the truth is I don't really give a shit about Graziano. He can suck my ass. He's nobody. If I wanna use these shots, I'll use the fucking shots."
"Great, Ahab," Tony said. "Anything else?"
"Yeah, I wanna know what you think."
"About using the shots, you mean?"
"Yeah, about using the fuckin' shots."
"Don't use the shots, Ahab," I told him.
"So you don't think I should use the shots, huh?" he asked.
"No, I don't think you should use the shots, Ahab," I said. "You'd be an asshole to use the shots."
"I'll decide if I use the shots or not," he told me. "You got that?"
"Loud and clear," I said and went back into my lair to work on my mechanicals.
As I worked, I drank evil tasting coffee from the roach-infested automatic and looked out the grimy window at the soot-grey pigeons who lived on the ledge. I say lived, because they were always out there. Day and night. They didn't eat, sleep or fuck. They just cooed, shit, and circled aimlessly around. I figured they were incarnations of departed Titanic staff members and hoped I wouldn't come back as a pigeon, at least not here.
But what I really thought about was getting my hands on that fat, juicy box of big-tit girlie chromes. I was short of cash this month and there was pretty much nothing left worth stealing, except for the furniture, which of course I could not get down by myself. So that left the box of slides.
Sometimes, when only a couple of sets had come in, Whale would take the four or five big manila envelopes under his arm when he left the office. Sometimes he stayed later than me, and sometimes he left and came back, but that last one wouldn't be a problem. By now it was already around five-thirty. I'd just have to wait and see.
By six it was dark and I smelled the telltale odor of marijuana smoke wafting out of Ahab's office, a good sign since he usually blew some pot before heading out the door. At six-thirty, as I was on the home stretch with the stuffer mechanicals, I heard my esteemed employer make a few phone calls. At five past seven, my office was graced by a visit from no less a personage than Ahab himself, who clutched in one hand four blue-lined squares of heavy stock to which translucent vellum sheets were taped.
"Here's the covers," Ahab said.
"Grazi, padron," Tony told his boss.
"That means thanks, right?" replied Ahab. "I speak a little Italian, you know."
"And your cover artistry is like unto the masters of the Italian Renaissance," Tony said, flipping back the vellum and beholding Ahab's atrocious renderings. "Here we have art worthy of a Rafael. Here, a Ucello. Here a Michelangelo. Here a Randazzo."
"Randazzo. I never heard of this Randazzo."
"Great artist, Ahab," Tony said, "trust me," as he glanced nonchalantly at the leather carrying case in his boss's hand. It was stuffed with papers, and there was no sign of the slides on his person. Unless he'd left the box on the couch outside the hole, it meant the box was still sitting in the office.
"Look, Tony -- I might be coming back so don't lock the door."
"Sure, Ahab," Tony said, "no problem."
This made me extremely glad, because if Ahab told me that he might be coming back, it meant he wanted me to think he might be coming back, even though he had no plans of coming back until late tomorrow afternoon, which is when the rough beast managed to slouch his way toward Manhattan.
I sat there awhile, sipping my coffee with my feet up on the edge of the desk, looked at the pigeons who were still on the ledge in the dark, then back at the mechanicals. I didn't want to start messing with the slides only to have to go back to what I was doing. It was like hitting my head against a wall. I'd been doing it for hours and it was starting to feel good, but once I stopped it would be murder to start again.
So I knocked off the five or six mechanicals that were left of the job, taking me until around eight o'clock, and set them out front on the reception desk near the copy machine. Copying the mechanicals so we'd have dupes was no-brainer work I could do after I got the chromes, and I still had time before the Fedex guy came by. Besides, I was too curious about the treasure that awaited my plundering to resist.
Ahab had locked his office, but I had the key, so in I went and flipped on the lights and sat in Ahab's chair and looked through the box of chromes, and man, could I see the dollar signs hanging before my eyes. There were at least a dozen sets there, all first-rights sets, and all of them very good. Not great, mind you. But pretty damn good. And they were big-tits sets, just like my guy of a guy from Kowloon paid me boo-koo bucks for.
Swiftly I worked, and within fifteen minutes had extracted about fifty choice slides from each set. Tomorrow I would put them in vinyl sleeves and send them on their way to the orient, where the charms of these western beauties would entrance my horny Asian money friend.
But after I put the slide sets back in the box, I remembered that it had been awhile since I'd rifled through Ahab's desk. Not that there was anything worth stealing in there, but it was good to keep tabs on it. Bypassing Ahab's secret hidden tape recorder in the top drawer, I checked out the rest and broke out in a broad grin, for fate was really smiling on me tonight.
There, in the back of the drawer, was a gram of cocaine, a beautiful gram I could sell to a guy of a guy on the West Side tonight to top off the day's haul. After a quick phone call, the deal was struck. I'd meet him in his lobby in an hour and a half. He'd bring money, I'd bring the coke.
Tony Fucking Blake would have to move quick, though. There was still the mechanicals to be copied and boxed before he could leave. So he hustled back up front, turned on the copier and began running each mechanical through. When, midway though, Tony heard the door unlocked and somebody come in, he knew right off from the rattle that it was Colleen the cleaning woman.
Tony was not happy about this development because apart from her being a spy for Ahab, Colleen also liked to waste his time telling him about her debutante days in Dublin, when everything was roses. More than once, I'd thought about throwing Colleen a quick fuck across the reception desk on nights I'd worked late, Henry Miller style. Though her face had some mileage on it, her body still showed promise, and I had never forgotten Graham Greene's assertion in Travels with my Aunt about what kind of ladies ended up as cleaning women sooner or later.
Tonight, buoyed by the hundred and eighty I'd made that afternoon, the thousand buck haul of chromes and the two hundred fifty I'd get for the gram of coke, I toyed with the same idea, especially since Colleen was standing behind me, pressing her fulsome tits against my back, and looking over my shoulder at the pictures of naked women on the mechanicals as I ran them through the copier, as was also her habit.
"Lord, but don't she have big ones!" Colleen said, indicating one of the girls. "You like them like that?"
"I like them all," I told her, feeding another mechanical through the machine, with Colleen still watching.
Finally, I had enough. The Fedex man be damned. Propriety be damned. Tony Fucking Blake turned around and put his hands on her hips.
"I bet you got nicer ones," he told Colleen.
There was a rap at the door and a shout of, "Federal Express!" Tony and Colleen broke the clinch and Colleen, moving fast, was already through the door of the office behind them, leading Tony Fucking Blake to wonder how she'd practiced that move to do it so well. Forgetting the rest of the copies, Tony just boxed the mechanicals and handed them to the Fedex guy.
"See ya later, Colleen," he yelled into the next office and headed out the door as fast as he could.
It was getting late and he had an appointment with a guy of a guy on the West Side which he now realized he might not be able to make in time. Outside, at half-past eight, the rain was still coming down, and Tony pulled up his jacket collar as he walked through it toward the pay phone at the corner.
It was one of those double kiosks, and one of the two phones was occupied by a woman screaming that somebody took her baby and wouldn't give it back. The other didn't work.
I dropped the handset and let it dangle by its silver metal cord. The world was a fucking zoo and I was babysitting the rain, just babysitting the rain. One day, years from now, maybe, I could get enough space to write something about what went down when I was Tony Fucking Blake of Titanic Publications, watcher of pigeons, babysitter of rain. But not now. Now it was too real, too close, too me. I walked away from the kiosk and signaled for a cab, still hearing the woman screaming at the phone about her baby, and how somebody had taken it away.