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Chapter Thirty-Two

I’m in his office at the Kaleidoscope, which is more like what I’d imagine Hitler’s suicide bunker must have looked like.

There are no windows, leading me to believe that this was once something like a large utility room. The three floors of this office building have forgotten about the impressive combined space of square footage they command, and it all really deadends here, in this space shriveled as a spitball, in the cramped airless amnesia of this office. Here not even darkness prevails – just a dimness like the inside of a miser’s pocket.

A Bank of America is housed on the first floor, the second floor’s dedicated to suites for All State Insurance, the third – this one – is vaguely medical, with offices that variously have something to do grinding optical lenses, durable medical equipment, and supplying, I think, prosthetic limbs and cosmetic accoutrements. The hallway, visible through the open door, has a carpet worn to rhino hide. People, less flashily attired than on other floors, nevertheless pass by busily with places to go, dotted lines to sign – people who have nothing to do with Sage.

Ricky’s sitting in his chair behind a mound of papers vaguely shaped like a desk. His black shoulder-length hair is a shatter of strands and gives him a dinghy, almost reprobate, drunken old-school journalistic look. Every time the phone – not even an office phone, but a cell phone – lets out its digital yodel, Ricky answers it and pitches his voice into higher feminine octaves: this seems to be his version of the pert athletic receptionist who never was. He slips from her voice to his with an expertise seamless as Velcro, like he’s been doing it for years.

“Just got back. It’s a long drive. What do you want to hear first,” he asks, “the good news or the mildly bad news?”

“If you watch TV or read the news, you know that there’s no good news,” I say. “Just gradations of bad. That’s Sage’s theory anyway and I’m inclined to agree.”

Since Sage has been gone I’ve taken to quoting her, as though she were a saint or an oracle – this is something she would find amusing. “What’s all this business about saints and oracles?” she would ask. “Sure, there have been saints – few and far between – and as for oracles, not much is known. What I’m saying, professor, is no one is a saint or an oracle.” In reality, of course, there were times when I didn’t agree with Sage, was not ready (“Ready to take my ride?”) or, more often, many times when Sage’s opinion of something was so imperiously voiced that even if I agreed in principle with her interpretation of an event or an observation she made, I objected to that unreflexive slathering of spunkiness she spread over her convictions, because I knew others might find it off-putting, mistaking her passion for rigidity. It bothered me to think others might perceive her this way, and it bothered me that I would care what others might think when she didn’t care at all. But that wasn’t the way I presented it to myself. No, I preferred to think that my own convictions were more charitable and elastic, could be stretched to fit the relative nature of the shifting outlines of things – until I realized that by definition, then they wouldn’t be convictions, and I then would become even more disturbed. Perhaps the willing embrace of a lack of conviction could itself become a conviction? In the end, sometimes I would go over the unflattering conclusion I’d drawn about myself with Sage, hoping she’d spill her secret to me, but she, of course, believed in learning lessons for yourself, and I would once again confront the same attitude I’d speciously objected to in the first place.

“You bend – I don’t as much. So what? Maybe I should have married myself?” she would ask, pronounce, actually – oracle-like – or say something like it.

Ricky says in a muffled voice, “Gradations of bad. That might to a certain extent be accurate.”

“Just go, any order.”

He’s eating a Subway sandwich, a doughy neck of bread extending from a wrapping-paper shirt. Ricky is a smacker, not a chewer, and opens his mouth cloud-high to masticate. As a consequence I see a quick-cut series of lurid overexposed snap shots like a butchered body in a crime scene, a forensic pathology of lettuce, lunchmeat, cheese, before the lips like a shutter come down. He holds the sandwich out, offers me a bite. The appetite I didn’t have anyway slams a door in my stomach’s face. But before I can say “no thanks” it’s in his mouth again.

“I called Dodge’s parents’ place yesterday. I wanted to see who’d answer the phone. I figured ff his parents were gone, maybe the housekeeping staff would be there, I’d tell them I was an old friend and get Dodge’s number if he wasn’t there, find out whatever I could. But the staff doesn’t pick up the phone – he does. The last time I talked to him was a year ago, I think. I told him I wanted to do an interview – how he’s had a lot to do with the whole club scene in Milwaukee. My angle was the bad press his clubs have gotten because of being connected with Ecstasy and so on, and I told him this might be a chance to offer up his side of the story and clean up his image. Which is in desperate need of cleaning. He was hesitant until I promised I’d put him on the front page, Esquire style, with Dodge looking hip and sardonic, moussed hair, Italian shoes, standing on a pile of money his expression tells you he doesn’t give a shit about, he’s in it for the pure clubbing rush of it – the new breed of young entrepreneurs, money just an afterthought, a consequence of being in your zone. The potential for some minor celebrity won out in he end.”

“Did you find out if Sage was there?”

“I’m getting there. My folks live maybe half a mile away from Dodge’s parents’ place, up in Sister Bay. We could do the interview by phone, I told him, but I was coming up that way to visit my folks, so why don’t I just stop by and we can do the interview, throw in a catch-up-on-old times thing. This makes sense to him. So early this morning I drive up to the Door Peninsula, about a three hour trip if you drive the speed limit. I got there in a little under two.”

“Wait – you went there? To his house?”

The cell phone chirps.

“Hell-LUUU? Who? May I ask what your business is with Mr. Chang?” He’s doing a pretty good impersonation of a receptionist eating a Subway sandwich. I notice that to shoehorn his way into character he unconsciously employs helpful feminine mannerisms, barberpoling a strand of hair around a finger, pursing his lips in a contemplative pout as he listens, holding his hand out and examining his nails not by bending them into the palm inner-wrist up the way a man might, but from the back, knuckles up, fingers spread. “Umm-hmmm. Umm-haam. Yes, he’s already taken care of that. I personally witnessed him sending the remittance off, yesterday. Oh yes, I’ll convey that. My name? Samantha. Ummm. Mr. Ridges, I’m flattered that you think  yes, my voice seems to have that effect sometimes, but no, I cannot consider having lunch with you. By-yiiiiii.” He instantly returns to himself, stops channeling the receptionist. “If only Mr. Ridges knew. Hell, maybe he does know. Yes, I went there. Guy with a stun guy met me at the gate and let me in, talking all the time to someone with a walkie talkie glued to his mouth. I’d forgotten about the front door, the huge logo family-crest thing with the keychain.”

“And the titanic genitals,” I add.

“How’d you know about the titanic genitals?”

“Sage told me. I don’t think she’d ever gone there, but Dodge told her about it.” “The house is big. My idea was to get him to take me through it, a trip down memory lane. The last time I’d been there I was nine, on a play date that was a disaster. His father keep popping up in hallways like some kind of ghoul. My idea was, wherever he took me in the house, I’d know that was cool. Wherever he didn’t want to take me and avoided, maybe that’s where your wife was.”

In my eyes Ricky Chang was no longer an ordinary mortal, a young man with a somewhat troubling predilection for female interviewees, but was elevated into the lofty spheres occupied by unsung geniuses. I’m buoyant with that bloated happy-ending feeling that marches endorphins into your system when you watch certain Stephen Spielberg movies – ET or The Color Purple, all tensions caressed into closure, the reconciliation of the antipodal themes of wandering disenfranchisement and the weepy epochal journey home – and, floating from my chair, not knowing how to express my admiration for the receptionist/journalist, spilled out of my characteristic self-containment (maybe you should just sort of loosen up, Sage had once advised me when I was locked up in the asylum of trying to write when having nothing to say, and let your hands relax on the keys, instead of holding them there in the claw-like pose of readiness you’re inclined to adopt), I close the space between us and grip his forehead with both hands in the be-healed fashion of a television evangelist casting out demons. Ricky is terrified and drops the gnawed nub of the sandwich, and I can’t believe I’m actually kissing his forehead.

His eyes enlarge beyond the scope warranted by the spontaneous gesture Sage might have applauded, the way eyes enlarge when they see something you don’t, behind you.

“Well say now. Loosey-goosey. Hey, the door was open, it’s not like there was a do not disturb sign on the door or anything.”

There’s no way to back off gracefully and nonchalantly from Ricky’s forehead, which now seems much larger and more cranially invasive in its insistent proximity to my lips than need be, beyond even what’s necessary for warehousing monumental cerebral strategies. Ricky – genius that he is – solves the problem with his ilk’s brilliant simplicity, rolling the chair back a few inches. Unfortunately, this leaves me in my frozen, half-over-corner-of-desk extended position, and I awkwardly and gingerly straighten as though wearing, under my skirt and strapped to my chest, some cumbersome nuclear device, volatile contraband, weapons of mass destruction clinging to my skin in loosening strands of cellophane tape.

“I can come back later – much later, if necessary.”

“Don’t be an asshole,” Ricky says.

The young visitor’s tall in the manner of a weasel pulled lengthwise and held against a yardstick – a trophy weasel, its record-breaking lank on display. With hair buzzed short, a vaguely affected English accent, complexion darker than mine, his face is attached to vastly oversized glasses and he wears a buttoned up tweed sports jacket, his arms oddly wrapped high around his chest, hands clamped beneath the armpits. “Oh yesssss, loosey-goosey,” he chants again, and though I’ve never quite known the meaning of the expression and still don’t, I’m beginning to appreciate its aimless contextual plasticity.

Ricky sighs. “What’s up, Hollingdale? I’m in the middle of a meeting, here.”

“Well there’s no need for me to feel self conscious in this crowd.” He drops his arms and walks into the room, talking long strides toward the desk, spinning around sharply, then strides to the door again, stands arms akimbo in the doorway. “What do you think?”

“It talks,” Ricky says. “It walks. It’s a miracle.”

“Don’t be a bee-yotch,” Hollingdale says. “Look.”

We both look at his face.

“No, down here.” Exasperated, as though putting out a fire, his hands flipper rapidly and lightly at his chest.

The jacket he’s wearing is a bouquet of bunched up fabric where his arms had been crossed. We’re unable in all honesty to give him the response he feels he’s earned. In creative collaboration with the doorjamb, he rearranges his body in a quick parodic series of still lifes to present it to best advantage. Gallantly he lets time pass, like he’s in line with a single item and time’s an elderly shopper. Finally he strips off the jacket and casts it over one shoulder, an unconvincing and more gangly Frank Sinatra, and as though Sinatra’s over-the-shoulder jacket were hand woven from weasel skins. The white oxford shirt he wears protrudes grotesquely, and in the inverted pyramid of skin visible beneath 3 undone buttons I glimpse cleavage between firmly gelatinous scoops of flesh.

He walks right over to me, takes my hands, places them on his chest. “Squeeze, like a BIG BAD BOY.” I have no idea what’s happening though I seem to be playing a part in it. Big bad boyishly or otherwise, I cannot, in all good conscience, squeeze. He manipulates my hands so that they find themselves without volition palpating, opening and closing like air-stricken gills. “How’s it feel?”

I look at Ricky. “Make him happy, maybe he’ll go back to work. Tell him it feels incredibly life-like and womanly.”

I tell him this but leave out “womanly.”

“Really?” he asks. “Don’t be influenced by the fact I’m a man. Close your eyes, if necessary.”

I don’t close my eyes but do tell him, once again, how incredibly life-like they feel, this time adding “womanly.”

“Well sookey-sookey now,” he lilts, the second sookey vaulted sharply above the first. He puts on the tweed jacket, strides to the door and leans in the frame. “I want you boys to take a look at something else,” he says. “I’ll be right back.”

When he’s gone, I articulate my deep concern to Ricky. “What in the moonless depths of hell?”

“This is what I have to put up with. Two, three times a day sometimes. He designs and tests out prosthetics in a lab down the hall, or works on coloration. Or maybe it’s something like quality control, I’m not quite sure. Once he tried to make me stick my finger in a rubber navel. I’m not sure why” He pauses, the squid of a shudder sliding over him. “Let’s go to the park across the street before he comes back.”

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