Train-For-Cocaine Dot Com
How I Stopped Being a Fat Pig, But Never Stopped Snorting
An excerpt from the novel-in-progress
by Richard Engling (all rights reserved)
Chapter One: Prisoner of the Spin Cycle
“Oh, this is bad. This is very very bad,” Dwayne Finnegan whispered under his breath, staring at the computer screen. He closed his eyes and leaned back. The springs of his desk chair gave a hideous screech. A large green parrot in a cage in the corner screeched back.
“What’s the point of paying these, McCool?” Dwayne said to the parrot. “They’ll only send more.” He lifted a fistful of unpaid bills from his large, messy desk and shook them in the air.
“Drink up! Drink up!” McCool urged him. The bird flapped his wings, then spread one of them to the side as he lifted a leg and dropped pellets of guano from his feathered ass.
“You're an inspiration, McCool,” Dwayne said. “Your every word and gesture.” He selected two of the bills at random, rolled over to the corner in his chair, and slid the bills into the tray at the bottom of McCool's cage. “Crap away, my friend.”
“Drink up! Drink up!” McCool urged him again.
“Absolutely,” Dwayne agreed. “Not a moment to lose.”
As he hauled his immense girth from the desk chair, his belt caught beneath the arm rests. The chair rose with him, tipping the scales of gravity against him, and he fell back into it.
“Holy Mother of the tea-totaling, piss-drinking God!” he exclaimed. This was happening far too often. He had to either lose weight or get a new chair. Or maybe he'd simply saw the arms off this one.
He slid forward in the seat until his belt cleared the armrests, and then rose.
“Fatso. Fatso,” McCool chanted. Dwayne's wife Angela had taught McCool that one after she noticed how much of their money was going to replace the clothing that Dwayne outgrew.
“Protestant,” Dwayne shot back. He wadded up a dunning letter, threw it at McCool’s cage, and walked out from the back office to survey his establishment.
It was an odd-looking place; he had to admit. The original fixtures were just fine. He’d found himself a classic Chicago tavern with a beautiful solid cherry wood bar, a traditional patterned tin ceiling, and gorgeous rippled glass light fixtures. But the coin washers and dryers in the south side bar and the computer stations along the north wall never quite fit, no matter how they decorated around them. Nor did they prove to pull in the customers. Only one patron sat at the bar.
Dwayne felt queasy. Abandoned. He slipped back into his office and reopened the box of donuts he bought for the staff. (Actually, his staff consisted of one part-time waitress, and she hardly ever touched the donuts). He grabbed a Bavarian Kreme, took half of it in a bite, and swallowed it down. He ran his tongue over the exposed filling. Heaven. It was like mother’s milk.
Then again, what did he know of mother’s milk? His mother had bottle-fed him on canned formula. She was not one to risk the shape of her perfect breasts. He got that queasy feeling again and followed up the first donut with a chocolate long john, then took a slug of milk from the half gallon in his mini-frig.
Dwayne reentered the bar. He could not help noticing the glass in front of his one patron was empty. As Dwayne stepped atop the creaking safety boards on the floor behind the bar, his customer stared at him expectantly, looking like a hungry baby bird.
I can't do it, he thought to himself. I can't keep pouring away the store.
“Dwayne, my dear fellow.” Tall lanky Tom reached out a long arm to shake hands. Until six months ago, Tom had a well-paid gig as a singer-dancer in a revival of Cats. But then he'd broken his ankle during a weekend excursion to Wisconsin. He’d gone horseback riding with his two brothers and their wives and children. When the guide told them all to get off on the right side of their horses, Tom assumed the guide meant stage right, and he tumbled down into a gully, breaking his right ankle and dislocating his left knee. After he was fired, Tom talked to a lawyer who assured him that the Americans with Disabilities Act did not protect dancers with broken legs.
Dwayne shook hands with him. “Good to see you,” he said sincerely.
In the distance, McCool cried: “Drink up, Fatso!” Well, he couldn't drink up with his friend sitting here, thirsting helplessly for the eau de vie, could he? Hell, he just needed to re-prime the pump. He grabbed two shot glasses, set them on the bar, and pulled the bottle of Jameson from the shelf in front of the center mirror. “You'll have a touch with me, won't you?” From the end of the bar, Jennifer, the pretty young barmaid, sucked her teeth.
“No commentary, please, from Generation X,” Dwayne called, pouring the shots.
“No commentary made,” Jennifer said, not looking up from her script, her face hidden by her thick blond hair. “I've got a really bone-headed speech here.” Jennifer, too, was an actor. She used her slack time to memorize lines. The off-Loop theatre business being what it is, Jennifer made more money while learning her lines than she did delivering them.
Dwayne had always hoped that the presence of his old theatre associates would help draw paying customers into his establishment, but whenever one of his old companions gained any fame, they immediately began frequenting tonier joints than his.
The men raised their whiskeys. “To success all around,” Dwayne said.
“Hear, hear,” replied Tom, and they tossed back their whiskeys.
Dwayne waited expectantly to see if Tom would offer to buy a round, but when he didn't, Dwayne let out a long sigh and proceeded down to his barmaid.
“Jennifer, dear,” he said. “I have got a proposition to free you from the chains of wage slavery.”
Jennifer looked up from her script, a crease of worry crossing her clever face. “Oh, shit,” she said. “Are you going to fire me?”
“Exactly the opposite, my dear,” Dwayne said. “I am going to offer you a piece of the action.”
“A piece of what action?” she said. “This place is dead.”
“That is why we need you in the partnership,” Dwayne said reasonably. “How old are you? Twenty-five?”
“Twenty-four,” she said, looking offended.
“Twenty-four,” he said. “A sparkling age! Wouldn't you say so, Tom?”
Tom nodded enthusiastically.
“I remember when I was twenty-four,” Dwayne continued. “I wanted so much to own a sports car.” He smiled and shook his head. “What I didn't realize—what no twenty-four year old realizes—is that I was walking around in a sports car. At that age, your body is a sports car—your flesh sleek and smooth.”
“Puleese...” Jennifer breathed.
“Dwayne was a slender man in his youth,” Tom said. “He was a sleek as a dolphin. Remember when we did The Importance of Being Ernest at The Body Politic?” he asked Dwayne.
Dwayne nodded with a pleased smile.
“Dwayne played Algernon, witty and handsome,” Tom told her. “Everybody wanted to sleep with him. Boys and girls alike.”
“Who did you play?” Jennifer asked, arching an eyebrow. “Lady Bracknell?”
“Very funny,” Tom said. “I played Gwendolyn. And I was quite fetching.”
“He did not,” Dwayne said. “But we digress.” He turned a sudden, dazzling smile on Jennifer. “May I offer you an espresso?” he said.
“You know my weakness,” she said.
Dwayne swung his heft to the espresso machine, an investment that had not even begun to pay for itself. “We are all weak vessels,” he said, “longing for those brief, all-too-fleeting moments of joy. Sometimes the aroma of a strong coffee, just before the warm liquid touches your lips, can be enough.”
“Dwayne, you are a poet,” Tom said, hoping a little flattery might loosen another shot of whiskey out of him.
Dwayne filled the coffee basket with a scoop of finely ground french roast and twisted it into the brew head of the espresso machine. He set a demitasse below the spout and started a loud gush of superheated water through the system. Thick black coffee dripped down into the demitasse, spreading its aroma through the bar. Dwayne pulled a chocolate biscotti from the jar, put it on the edge of Jennifer’s saucer, and carried the coffee to her.
“You are too nice,” Jennifer said.
“I’ve got something much richer than a coffee and cookie to offer you, Jennifer,” he said. “And I want you to give this your full thought and attention.”
“Drink up, fatso. Fatso. Fatso,” McCool called from the office.
Dwayne pulled the Jameson bottle from the shelf and poured two shots. “Tom, go on over to the computer and check the Bon Appétit web site. See if you can find a recipe for parrot,” he said.
“I notice you’re taking his advice,” Jennifer said.
“This is a little thinkin’ drinkin’ as the immortal Duke once said.”
“Was that in The Quiet Man?” Tom asked. “Maureen O’Hara was divine.”
“What Duke?” Jennifer said.
Tom rolled his eyes. “Well, not the grand old Duke of York, little girl,” he said. “Good lord! The Duke. John Wayne. The Duke.”
“Oh,” she said. “That Duke.”
“Parrot a l'orange,” he said and sashayed off to the computer bank on the north wall.
“Thinkin’ drinkin’,” Dwayne repeated taking a gentle sip of his Jameson. “Because if we are to save Suds and Kisses, we are going to need our very best thinking.”
“You can count on me, Dwayne. I’ll brainstorm free of charge,” Tom called.
“At least the price is right,” Jennifer said.
“Upon what was Suds and Kisses founded?” Dwayne said loudly. “It was founded on the proposition that young men and women want to drink in a place that makes it easier for them to meet and mingle and find romance. And so, we have not only a world-class Chicago bar, but we have a free, self-serve computer dating service, right on the premises.”
“Brilliant,” Tom said.
“Suds and Kisses was founded on the secondary proposition that young men and women might like to have a cocktail or a gourmet coffee among friends, find romance, and wash their clothes all at the same time.”
“Bravo,” Tom said. “I’d drink to that.”
“Your round?” Dwayne suggested.
“Well, hold on,” Tom said, pretending to check his pockets. “I’m going to have to run over to the cash station.”
“What you need,” Jennifer said, “you need to get rid of some of this junk.”
“What do you mean?” Dwayne asked.
“Look at this,” she said, gesturing around. “You are trying to do high concept, but the elements are at war with one another. No girl wants to meet the guy of her dreams on laundry day, with a basket of dirty underwear in her arms and her favorite outfit a prisoner of the spin cycle.”
“You think the laundromat should go?” Dwayne asked.
“Absolutely. Even if you’re just here to have a drink, the machines are too noisy.”
“They’re kind of ugly, too,” Dwayne admitted. “But without the laundry, we’d have to change the name. No more Suds.”
Jennifer drew a beer from a tap, splashing up a frothy head. She raised the mug high. “We’ve got no end of ‘suds’ in here.”
“Bravo, Jennifer,” Tom called. He sidled over to collect the free beer as she abandoned it on the bar.
“Item two,” she said. “Anyone who uses the free computer dating service might as well have a sign on his or her back that says: ‘Desperate nerd.’ No one wants to be seen using a dating service. Especially in a place where you’re hoping to meet someone cute.”
“So you think the computers should go, too,” Dwayne said.
“Not necessarily,” she said. “But spread them around the room. Make them into a tool for flirting. Set it up so people can send emails to other tables. The scariest thing about flirting is standing there and getting rejected. If you could flirt via email, you could find out whether you were going to get shut down before you stood up.”
“So what’s going to happen?” Tom said. “Everybody gets an email address when they enter?”
“The tables have email addresses!” Dwayne said, getting excited. “You redecorate the place to give the tables distinct identities. Put McCool by a table and make that parrot.s&k.com.”
“S&K?” Tom said.
“Suds and Kisses dot com,” Jennifer said with a grin.
“But this place is strapped,” Dwayne said, sitting back on a stool. “We don’t have money for decorating.”
“You’ll get some money for selling the laundry equipment,” Jennifer said. “And I know a set designer who is trying to make a name for herself. I bet I could convince her to design the place in exchange for the publicity. We could post it on the wall: Scenes by Emily Pope.”
“Scenes,” Dwayne mused. “Make the scene. We could have signs on the walls identifying the tables.” His eyes suddenly lit up. “My God, we could get some real PR out of this. ‘Up-and-coming designer recreates the interior of Suds and Kisses.’ Maybe get something on the nightly news. A feature on Artbeat Chicago. I like it.”
“Once the laundry is out of the side bar, she could create some intimate spaces,” Jennifer said. She ran into the side bar and indicated areas with her arms. “Maybe two love seats and a low table surrounded by palm trees for the tropical table here. And blond wood furniture and an old black and white TV for the ‘fifties’ table here. It doesn’t have to cost much if we go scavenging for furniture.”
“This could be fun!” Dwayne said. “And Tom is a fabulous trompe l’oeil muralist. He made his studio apartment look like the halls of the Parthenon.”
“Sure. I’ll help out,” Tom said. “‘Will paint for beer and pizza.’”
“This could be so cool,” Jennifer enthused. “All these intimate spaces—but arranged so that people could see and be seen. Soft furniture. Quirky decoration. Candlelight.”
“A theatre space to act out the scenes of your life. If anyone knows how to do this, it’d be us,” Dwayne decided.
“Should I call Emily?” Jennifer asked.
“Absolutely.” Dwayne clapped his hands. “Let’s get the ball rolling. No time to lose.” He put his arm around Jennifer’s shoulder and squeezed her affectionately. “This is why I need to bring you into the partnership team,” he said. “You have great ideas.”
“I just gave you these ideas for free,” Jennifer said. “Why would you give me a piece of the partnership for that?”
“I need more than ideas and execution,” he said. “I need a level of commitment. For instance, I need you to get your pretty twenty-something friends to come in here. If girls are here, guys will come.”
“I think my friends will like the scenes idea. We might even get some volunteer scavenging help.”
Dwayne turned to Tom. “You see that? She is the key to my salvation.” He moved closer to her. “There is a certain personal sacrifice to be made, as well,” he said. “As the principal partner, I have not been able to pay myself a salary for over six months. We’ve had nothing but negative cash flow. Now I keep my eyes on the prize. When this thing takes off, there’ll be plenty of money. We might even franchise this thing. Take it public. We’ll be rolling in money. But for now, as a new partner, I’d like to ask you to take unemployment until we reverse the cash flow.”
“You want me to labor for no wages?” Jennifer said. “Isn’t that like being fired but I still have to show up for work?”
“Not when you see it as an investment,” Dwayne said reasonably. “The ideas you just proposed were terrific. If you have confidence in your own entrepreneurial spirit, you have an unprecedented opportunity to create something for yourself. Everything is here, Jennifer,” he said, sweeping his arms around. “A vintage Chicago tavern. An inventory of fine drinkables. You could own a piece of it by your hard work and initiative.”
“Well,” she said. “I don’t know. I’ve never thought about being a bar owner.”
Dwayne took her hand. “I know your true heart is in the theatre. In five years, with any luck, you could be collecting profits whether you put in hours here or not. Wouldn’t that be a boon for the lean times? And remember, the PR we get can feature you, too.” Dwayne put on a television newscaster voice: “Actress Jennifer Swain, part owner of Suds and Kisses, was interviewed on this afternoon’s Oprah...”
“Oh, right,” she laughed.
“Listen, I’ll do it,” Tom said.
“You’re not pretty enough,” Dwayne answered. “One of the original reasons I hired Jennifer is that she’s so young and gorgeous. I’d think half the men in town would beat a path to drink in here just to catch a glimpse of her.”
She turned her head coquettishly. “You boys...”
“You think about it,” Dwayne said. “Partnership. It’s a rare opportunity.”
Chapter Two: Roll Over, Whale-Boy
Dwayne came into the bedroom in his nightshirt, an enormous Hawaiian muumuu, printed with images of tropical plants and volcanoes. His wife Angela sat in the bed wearing her reading glasses, paging through the New Yorker.
“How was your day at Duds and Misses?” she said without looking up. “T.S. Eliot come in and recite The Waste Land?”
“I think I’ve convinced Jennifer to work for no pay,” he said sitting on the edge of the bed. “I’m offering her a little piece of the partnership.”
“There’s nothing like a little slice of nothing to motivate today’s workforce.” She put her magazine on the bedside table. “We’ll all take the Dwayne train to povertyville.”
“She had some nice ideas to help the place take off,” he protested. “I was amazed.”
“And you think these ideas are going to work?” Angela said.
“I think they could,” he said, feeling a sudden craving for a donut or two. “But somehow I’ve got to buy some time. I’ve got to get more cash from the investors; otherwise my suppliers will cut me off. I haven’t paid the bills in two months,” he said. “But her ideas are worth a shot. Stranger things have happened.”
Angela sat up straight in the bed. “Here’s a strange scenario for you. I had a dream last night. You tell me if it’s going to come true .” She held out her hands in front of her to frame the scene. Then she changed her mind and grabbed Dwayne’s shoulder. “Wait a minute. Did I tell you this? Yesterday, one of the fourth graders came into school with a gun. A thirty-eight millimeter semi-automatic. Did I tell you this?’
“No,” Dwayne said. “Did he fire it?”
“No. He said he brought it to show his friends. It wasn’t his. It belonged to his brother—who’s in eighth grade. This kid could be in my class next year, for Christ’s sake.”
“You could ask Maurice to transfer you down to third grade next year,” he suggested.
“Very funny. So now everybody is saying that we ought to have metal detectors at the doors and video surveillance in the halls. This is kindergarten to fifth grade, and it’s going to look like a minimum-security prison. I can’t stand it.”
“You want to look for a job in the suburbs?”
“Sure. Great. Then I can take a pay cut and have to buy a car to get to work. Like that’s going to work with our situation.”
“I’m sorry, honey,” Dwayne said.
“I’m going to have to start wearing a bullet-proof vest to work. To teach fifth graders, for God’s sake!”
“I’m really sorry.”
“Yeah.” Angela closed her eyes and shook her head. Then she looked at him sharply. “So here’s the scenario: In two weeks it’s April tenth, the deadline for applying to teach summer school. In my dream, I come home and I say to you, ‘Honey, do I have to work again this summer?’ And you say, ‘No, babe, you take the summer off this year. Go drink cappuccinos with your girlfriends. Hang out at the beach. Take it easy. You need to recharge for a couple months before you go back to instruct those little morons for another nine and a half months in that miserable, dangerous hellhole. You take yourself a little break this summer. You deserve it!’”
“That was your dream?” Dwayne asked helplessly.
“Yeah. Isn’t it something how sometimes the dream world can predict the future? So what about it? Was my dream prescient? Is that what’s going to happen in two weeks?”
“Babe, I would just love it to death if I was able to say that,” he said.
“So you are telling me that there’s no way that’s going to happen? Cause I could really use a break here.”
Dwayne felt a familiar hopelessness wash over him. He and Angela had been married for fifteen years. Time after time he’d promised her the world. And time after time he’d wiped out their savings. Plus he’d gained a hundred seventy-five pounds. Sometimes he wondered how much longer she’d put up with him.
“Babe, I would love it if you could take the summer off, but the only way that could happen is if the investors came up with way more money than I have any reason for hope.” He grabbed a Hostess Cupcake from the package on his night stand.
“Yeah, I figured, Mr. Big Shot,” she said, lying back into her pillows, her black curly hair puffing up around her head. She gave a deep sigh and closed her eyes. “By the way, the first floor tenants say their bathroom sink drain is always slow and they are getting an annoying bang from their bedroom radiator that’s waking them up at night. Take care of that, will you? I’m tired of being the janitor around here.”
“Is the second floor on time this month?” he asked.
“No. That’s another one. You go bang on their door and get the rent. And don’t go inviting them down for a drink this time. The rent isn’t a favor they’re doing us. We pay the mortgage, the upkeep and do all the work. In turn they pay us rent. That’s a fair exchange.”
“I know, Angela, I know.”
“It’s your goofy Irish generosity that gets us into trouble. You’ve got to be a little more hard-headed.”
“I know, Angela. That’s why sometimes it’s better if you collect the rents. You’re better at it.”
“I’ll make you a deal, Dwayne,” she said. “You grade all my papers and I’ll take care of the three flat. Even though buying a three flat with a rotten roof was your idea of a great investment. Even though we won’t pay off the roof for another fifteen years while we’re also paying our thirty-year mortgage. You grade my papers, and I’ll take charge of it. How’s that?”
“Jesus, Angela.” He rolled over and buried his face in the pillow.
“All right, never mind,” she said. “Come on. Roll over, whale-boy. There’s only one thing that’s going to relax me so I can get some sleep.”
“Holy Mother of God, Angela. You’re killing me.”
“Shake it off, Dwayne. We fight a little, then we let it go. That’s marriage. I can’t keep everything cooped up in me. I got to let it out. Then we go on. Come on. I need a little action.”
Dwayne looked up at her mournfully. “For people of Italian extraction, verbally emasculating the husband might work as foreplay, but it leaves a little something to be desired as far as I’m concerned.”
“Hey,” she gave him a smile and put her hand under his chin. “You know that’s all business. It’s the money stuff. So we go past that and then it’s just you and me. You know I love you. Let’s get a little personal.”
“Jesus Christ on a bicycle,” Dwayne muttered. He rolled himself out of bed and stripped off his muumuu.
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