Wouldn’t you know it? It’s the damned shampoo. That “100 Strokes” crap Cassie Wright launched. So what if the bottle’s the perfect shape for . . . But wash, rinse, and repeat for a couple days, and you’ll go bald. All this damage just so maybe Miss Wright will smell it in my hair and consider it a compliment. Not that she could smell anything. The place reeks like a stockyard.
Shaking his head, Branch Bacardi looks through the shifting herd of naked men. Pointing at actor 72, where he stands in a pool of white rose petals across the room, Bacardi says, “Dude there?” Bacardi says, “Little dude’s a total boner-kill.” The finger he’s pointing, he turns that hand, cupped palm up, and Branch says, “Dude, spare me some wood?” Cupping his brown hand, the palm stained the same bronzer as the fingers, Bacardi shoves his hand at me. His brown eyes look at me. They look at his open hand. Look at me. Bacardi says, “A pill, dude?” I tell him to take his own. Shaking his head, Bacardi says, “Didn’t bring none.” Shaking my head, I say I need my stash. The pill inside his pretty little heart-shaped girly-girl locket, I tell him. Bacardi should swallow that. Touching the gold locket, where it rests between his shaved pecs, Branch lets his mouth crack open. His Adam’s apple jumps with a swallow. Tapping the locket, Branch says, “Ain’t that kind of pill.” He says, “Dude.” Standing across the room, as far as he could walk without leaving the building, actor 72 stands, one hand rubbing the little silver cross that hangs from his neck chain. Rubbing the cross between his thumb and index finger. His green eyes looking everywhere but at Bacardi and me. The actor’s other arm still cradles the bouquet of roses. “Besides,” Bacardi says, tapping the locket so hard his chest echoes with a deep, hollow thump, “this here’s for a friend.” He says, “I’m just safekeeping it.” He’s Branch Bacardi, I tell him. He won’t need some crutch to perform. “You’re Dan Banyan, dude,” Bacardi says. Was Dan Banyan, I tell him. Actor 72, he drops his top-secret maternity bomb, then hangdogs it away from us, fast, his bare feet slapping the concrete floor. Stomping hard as anybody can against cold concrete, sprinkling rose petals every step. “Banyan dude don’t need pills,” Bacardi says, his bronzer arm bent to keep that hand out, the bicep and triceps jumping inside his skin. Flexing and relaxing, his number “600” expanding and shrinking, his arm has a life of its own. Breathing. “Dude like Dan Banyan, private-detective dude, wasn’t you, like, banging ten walk-ons every episode? Every babe client and witness and, like, lawyer,” Bacardi says. “Dude’s a babe meat grinder ...” Nodding after number 72, I say, “You have to admit, he does look like her.” Above the young man, the television hanging over his head shows Miss Wright’s groundbreaking civil-rights statement about racism, the sexy comedy where a fresh-faced college sophomore comes home for Christmas and tells her doting parents that she’s dating a chapter of the Black Panthers. It’s called Guess Who’s Coming at Dinner. Later re-released as Black Cock Down. “Dude,” Bacardi says, “I’ll pay you, after.” His hand out, he says, “Promise.” I put another pill between my lips, leaving one fewer in the bottle. “Fifty bucks,” Bacardi says. “Cash.” And I swallow. Nodding at number 72,I tell Bacardi, “That troubled young man looks a great deal like you also.” Bacardi looks. At the actor with his roses. Then at Miss Wright stretching her lips around a fat black erection. And he says, “Didn’t happen.” Looking at the locket on his chest, the gold shining pink through a dried layer of his nipple blood, I say, “Just take your own pill.” “That’s how come I’m in the business so long, dude,” Bacardi says. “My whole life, I never shot nothing but blanks.” Snapping his fingers at me, Bacardi says, “One pill and I’ll sign your teddy bear you got.” Mr. Toto. The pen’s still hooked behind one dog ear. I shrug, Sure. And I hand him over to Bacardi. The brown fingers take the canvas dog, and I wait. Bacardi’s eyes fixed on his writing, scratching the pen down the dog’s canvas leg, Bacardi says, “You met Ivana Trump?” He looks up at me. “And Tina Louise? Like in Gilligan’s Island?” He says, “What’s she like?” His teeth, those kind of too-white caps. The white of subway tiles and police cars. Public-bathroom white. The man by whom all other men have measured themselves for a generation. The biggest woodsman in porn. I ask, Are you really sterile? Bacardi holds Mr. Toto, turning the dog and looking from name to name. “Lizbeth Taylor,” he reads. “Deborah Harry . . . Natalie Wood ...” He hands the dog back, saying, “I’m impressed.” Mr. Toto’s canvas is smudged with bronzer, brown fingerprints. Bacardi’s signature is a huge “B,” a second huge “B,” both letters trailing off into illegible black-ink scrawls. I take Mr. Toto from him, telling him, “And now the fifty dollars.” Bacardi snorts, his shoulders slumping, rounded, and his mouth hanging so slack that his heavy, square chin hides the locket, almost resting on his shaved pecs. “Dude . . . ,” Bacardi says, “how come?” Now, me with my hand out, cupped palm up, I say, “Because Dan Banyan was a lot of house payments and car payments and credit-card interest ago. Because right now you need a pill and I need the funds.” From across the room, number 72’s walking this way. Not all at once. He takes a couple steps to the buffet, where he eats a potato chip. He takes another step to stand next to the talent wrangler, says something in her ear, and she flips through the sheets on her clipboard. All this time, he’s working a big circle back toward Bacardi and me. The talent wrangler shouts, “Gentlemen, may I have your attention?” Looking at her clipboard, she shouts, “May I have the following three performers ...” Men at the buffet stop chewing. The veterans freeze, the plastic razors hovering over the leather of their calf muscles and glutes. The men holding mobile phones to one ear, or wearing cordless headsets, they stop talking, silent, and lift their heads to listen. “Number 21 . . . ,” the wrangler shouts. “Number 283 . . . and number 544.” She smooths the papers on her clipboard and lifts one arm straight overhead to wave her hand in the air. “Right this way, gentlemen,” she says. I shake the pill bottle, half empty now, so the remainder of the pills rattle, and I say, “That was a close call.” I say, “Now, fifty dollars, or take that pill you’re safeguarding.” Branch Bacardi breathes in, the pecs and lats and obliques of him ballooning huge, and he breathes out one long, breath-minted sigh. “So,” he says, “you really hung out with Dolly Parton?” My pulse pounding in my ears, I close one eye. Open it. Close my other eye. Open it. I’m not going blind, not yet. And a voice says, “Can I talk to you?” A man’s voice. Wouldn’t you know it? Here’s number 72, standing close by, only a couple steps behind Bacardi and me. One of his brown fingers tapping the gold locket, the fingernail outlined in darker brown, Bacardi says, “This pill, one of them miracle drugs.” Tapping the locket, he says, “Don’t matter what’s wrong, dude, this here will cure you.” His smile flat-lines, those fake teeth disappeared behind his tanned lips, and Branch Bacardi says, “This baby will cure anything.” To the young man, number 72, I lean over a little, brushing my fingers over the top of my head so he can see, and I say, “Is my hair really getting thin?”