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The Ending We Deserve

The Ending We Deserve

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The Ending We Deserve

Lunghezza:
347 pagine
4 ore
Pubblicato:
May 12, 2011
ISBN:
9781458040992
Formato:
Libro

Descrizione

Fired pro football team recruiter Hank Holloway stumbles into one of the church world’s best kept secrets and becomes a “choir rustler,” battling for soloists against rustlers who violate one or more of the Ten Commandments in this seriocomic thriller that climaxes at “Sing, You Synods,” a nationwide singing competition that’s more Hitchcock than Hallelujah.

En route, Hank encounters the Mafia, a rap-and-roll music mogul, the FBI, the Secret Service, the president of the United States, Holy Rollers who put their faith (and Hank) to the test through trials by deadly snakes, poison and fire, a recovering nymphomaniac, an ersatz Santa Claus with more than ho-ho-ho on his mind, evangelists with dual identities and questionable ethics, and the relentless alimony-chasing lawyer who represents Hank's ex-wife and her boyfriend, a karaoke-singing dwarf.

None of this is helping Hank resolve a troubled relationship with his love-smitten son or his own budding romantic entanglement with the sexy, smooth-talking beauty who is among his fiercest choir rustling competitors.

Pubblicato:
May 12, 2011
ISBN:
9781458040992
Formato:
Libro

Informazioni sull'autore

ROBERT S. LEVINSON, bestselling author of eight novels, The Traitor in Us All, In the Key of Death, Where the Lies Begin, Ask a Dead Man, Hot Paint, The James Dean Affair, The John Lennon Affair, The Elvis and Marilyn Affair. A regular contributor to Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen mystery magazines. Cited annual EQMM Awards poll three times. His Hitchcock short story, "The Quick Brown Fox," a 2009 Derringer Award winner. His fiction has appeared in “year’s best” anthologies six consecutive years, non-fiction in Rolling Stone, Writers Guild of America’s Written By Magazine, Los Angeles Magazine, Westways Magazine, Autograph Magazine. His ninth novel, A Rhumba in Waltz Time, scheduled for August 2011. More: www.robertslevinson.com.

Correlato a The Ending We Deserve

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The Ending We Deserve - Robert S. Levinson

ANGELES

CHAPTER 1

My ex-wife left me for a dwarf.

Not that I have anything against the Little People, as they call themselves, or the Vertically Challenged, as we have come to know and respect them. Fans of The Wizard of Oz don't come any bigger than me.

And the dwarf actually did me a service, as well as his many for Elizabeth.

I mean, besides stealing her out from under me.

Without him I might never have had a true understanding of the word alimony.

It was the alimony thing that threw me into the near death mess I found myself in shortly after going another round with her assassin of a lawyer, him on the phone telling me I was two days overdue on the monthly.

I heard Morry Menschmann out, yadda, yadda, same old sly wheedle in a voice that could mate a herd of elephants, and said, Morry, is she ever going to let me off the hook? It's been seven years.

Seven years good luck, he said. You should count your blessings, not the years, since I helped rid you of that scarlet creature. The alimony? A small price to pay.

When you're working and making a comfortable six figures a year, plus expenses. That's not me anymore, remember? Not for the last six months. If I could afford to buy a pot, it'd give me something to piss in.

"Me, it's seven figures verging on eight, not counting what my own ex, the Beast of Beverly Hills, goniffs off me. Shirley O'Brien Menschmann. He said her name like it was a sour burp. She's the reason I became a lawyer. I taught that mieskeit potato latkes from potatoes, and what did it get me?"

We're in the same boat and still you can hound me like this?

I'll tell you what it got me, Morry Menschmann said. "After she cleaned me dry, that kurveh, it got me out of retail and into law, first in my correspondence school class, who passed the state bar on my first go, and dedicated ever since to defending husbands who got their own nafkas noshing on their bank accounts."

So, Morry, tell me. Where did you miss noticing that Elizabeth was the wife—the wife, Morry—and I was the husband?

Please, Hank, I may be your average chronic alcoholic, but I'm not blind. I never told you there were special circumstances in your case? There were.

Of course, I should have guessed. 'Special circumstances' makes the death penalty possible under California law and you've been killing me for her ever since.

Not her. I do it for Pepe. A family thing. Pepe is my half-brother. I had to do this for Pepe, Hank. To help Pepe reach his dream.

His dream? Pepe Van Patten couldn't reach Elizabeth's boobs if he were standing on his toes, I said of the dwarf I despised in no small measure.

Elizabeth had run away with the little creep without so much as a backward glance at me or our son, Jamie, when Jamie was ten-and-a-half. I was thirty-one-and-a-half, in my first years scouting and recruiting for the L.A. Rancheros, and on the road often enough to figure one day they'd name a highway after me. Chronologically, Elizabeth was three years younger than me; mentally, about the same number of years behind Jamie.

Tired of the TV grind, she started parking Jamie with neighbors and dashing off to a neighborhood karaoke bar three and four nights a week. Elizabeth had a beautiful voice, not the one she used to scream and screech at me when her Valium wasn't kicking in. She was a backup singer fresh off a Rod Stewart tour when we first met, wrestling for the last copy of a rare John Lennon import at the Tower Records on Sunset.

Pepe, was a regular at the bar. He had a voice other regulars compared to Pavarotti, Domingo and that guy Mario Lanza from the old The Great Caruso movie. He preferred and encouraged the Lanza comparison, maybe because Mario had not been so tall himself, not even in the elevator boots he needed to rise about his leading ladies.

I first suspected their affair after Elizabeth and I finished making love one night.

She had called me Pepe between her usual moans and groans and demands for more and bigger. I wanted to know what that was all about. She said I'd misunderstood. What she had meant was she had to make pee pee.

I tried believing her up to the day Pepe arrived in his Cadillac Brougham and sang out for her.

That's when Elizabeth confessed it had been love at first duet for them.

To insult Pepe is to insult me, Morry Menschmann said, finally, his breathing inventing an asthma attack. You still got the house in Hancock Park?

That went when the court ordered me to pay your legal fees.

Thank you. Yes. The Mercedes?

Only if it's now called a Honda. Are you having short-term memory problems, Morry?

Quiet time while he thought about it, then, his words gurgling: Right. We had to rig the gas and brake pedals so Pepe could reach. Anyway, my friend, whatever you have left you won't have when I'm through with you, you don't pay up pronto.

You have a nice day, too, Morry.

*

When my kid, Jamie, came waltzing home to our modest hillside Craftsman two-bedroom in Silverlake, I was pumping out another million résumés at the computer in the corner of the living room that became my office after I dumped my recruiting career into a medium-sized paper box I'd liberated from a trash bin at the Coliseum and kissed my way adieu through the L.A. Rancheros business office, sparing no one.

I was the principal casualty after two losing seasons that had not benefited from the players I'd scouted and recruited. Who got directions to the unemployment line was up to the G.M., and he'd decided on me, not himself, although he'd vetoed my top picks in favor of some prospects whose names he got from Snowy Bircher, the albino secretary in media relations who was grooming herself for higher rungs on the corporate ladder.

Snowy was the prettiest albino I had ever laid eyes on, and that's all, although she was always wig-wagging signals of availability. She had skin the color of polished milk, huge, galvanic breasts that Astaire and Rogers could have waltzed on, and an end zone that half the team had already slammed into for touchdowns, but Snowy wasn't for me.

For the G.M.?

Another story.

He had this thing for goal-oriented people.

Jamie dropped his book bag on the entryway table and thumped his size twelve lumberjack boots in the direction of the fridge. A few minutes later, his mouth working over the remains of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, he collapsed on the threadbare couch wondering, How goes the flow, Dad?

I still couldn't bring myself to confess how losing my job with the Rancheros made me feel like I'd become a failure in the eyes of my son or how anxious I was to find some way to redeem myself. I had no proof of this. Maybe the feeling existed only in my mind, but it existed.

It existed.

It did exist.

Waiting for a callback from the headhunter and getting a better understanding of what salmon go through, I said.

Jamie shot his eyebrows and shook his head. It wouldn't hurt, you know, to think of yourself sometimes, instead of me. He eased into a sitting position and gave me a hard look.

Staring back, I was amazed as usual at how much of myself I saw in my son:

A face most women call appealing, some better than that; soulful ocean blue eyes; high cheekbones; a mouth that always seemed on the edge of a smile; a chin punctuated by a Kirk Douglas dimple.

Jamie still had room to grow. He already matched my six-two, but his tight, broad-shouldered frame would never pack the football weight I did when I was seventeen. He had the slender, elegant carriage of Elizabeth and, frequently, when he spoke I heard her voice, but—

I loved Jamie too much to hold it—or her—against him.

How about the offers that came in from Tampa Bay? The Cowboys? The Rams? How about them, Dad?

And give up smog? My nose would collapse from the shock.

That play gets no yardage with me.

Maybe after you graduate.

The offers may not be there. Listen, Hank Holloway's son is a big boy now, he said, rising from the couch. You go with the flow. I can move in with friends down here or I can go with you to wherever makes sense.

First of all, kiddo, I couldn't live with it. If you stayed down here, I'd miss you too much. If you went somewhere with me, I'd feel guilty about ripping you out of school and away from your friends.

There are other schools.

I swatted about his answer. For one more year there's only this school.

His jaws throbbed with a silent melody of discontent. Fingers danced in and out of his palms. His shoulders sagged in surrender. He gave a weary sigh and started toward me holding out his arms.

We wrapped ourselves in each other.

Jamie gave me a hard squeeze and planted a kiss on my cheek.

He said, I truly love you, Dad.

In this moment, life felt perfect.

It wouldn't last.

CHAPTER 2

Two weeks later, I drove across town to Ronald Reagan High in Brentwood, L.A.'s training camp for kids like Jamie, who have their hopes and dreams set on a career in show business. Jaime had been cast for a third consecutive year in Honor Rock-and-Roll-Out, the magnet school's annual showcase for its most talented students. This year he was one of the stars who'd be performing for an auditorium blending family and friends with some of the industry's top talent agents and executives.

Jamie's ambition was to score a recording contract.

I had scouted him. He had his mother's voice and the bonus of perfect pitch, along with the ability to write songs with graceful melodies that lingered in the mind and soulful lyrics that soared heavenward with emotion and significance I found unusual for someone his age. In other words, he was my son.

As talented and as eager as he was to be discovered and launch a career, he had promised me he'd wait until after graduation next year before he signed with anyone. He understood without our discussing it why I was anxious for him to have a diploma in his hip pocket, hopefully a college degree to follow. They'd be security against the Twilight Zone for the Unemployed that I'd achieved.

*

Halftime.

Jamie had yet to perform.

I was pacing nervously in and around the people bunched at the refreshment tables outside Nancy Reagan Auditorium, when a hand gripped my shoulder like a vise in one of those penny arcade games.

I turned in the direction of the man in the black frock and priest's celluloid collar, whose animated voice was asking, How's the old flipper holding up, Hank?

The voice was familiar, but it took a few moments for me to understand the flame of a fourth-and-goal situation burning in his coal black eyes and igniting the corners of his thin-lipped mouth.

The words slipped out with my surprise at seeing my old UCLA teammate, Grady Big Guy Williams: Jesus Christ!

Just one of his minions, Grady said, spreading boyish charm over his face.

We high-fived loudly, hugged hard and cheek-kissed to a chorus of curiosity stares.

Except for the unexpected laugh lines and signs of eroding muscles that would send his cheeks sliding down his thick neck in a few years, the way they did with James Garner. Grady had held together exceptionally well. The paunch was to be expected, but even that wasn't any more severe than mine. The Big Guy looked like he could still catch a few.

I'd heard Grady had become a priest or something like that after a dozen great AFL seasons with the Nashville Po' Boys—the only team in pro sports history named in honor of a country singer's backup band—but never gotten around to confirming it.

In the intervening years we'd lost contact, the victims of time and opportunity and, to be brutally candid, some residue of envy on my part that Grady had become the football star I should have been, as well, twenty years ago.

I was also drafted by the pros, of course, in the third round, by the Albuquerque Sandmen, who desperately needed the kind of quarterback I had proven to be during three winning college seasons and the clincher, a 28-27 Rose Bowl upset victory my senior year over the number one team in the nation, Ohio State.

Three of the four touchdowns came on bullet passes to Big Guy, the last one a 47-yard desperation toss with three seconds remaining in the game. His Velcro hands grabbed hold of the pigskin and never let go as he sank from sight under an avalanche of astonished Buckeyes.

My pro career ended after one play, in the season opener against the Mississippi Gamblers. I dislocated my shoulder trying to complete a forty-yard fake-and-pass play. It never healed properly. The Sandmen cut me loose and the other teams waived me out of the game. The job scouting talent for the Rancheros came about through a Bruins Alumni Brigade member, who'd bet heavy and won heavier on that Rose Bowl game and figure he owed me something.

Big Guy, meanwhile, began setting records and made the Pro Bowl team that same first season, on three times as many votes as any other tight end received.

What the hell.

So it goes.

Some people answer a call to greatness and others wind up with a wrong number.

Grady stepped out of our lobby embrace as if he were bolting a huddle. He had recognized the question burning in my eyes, same as he always knew the signals I would be calling before I called them.

I'm running the plays now, Hank, at the First Church of the Second Coming, he said. He tapped his collar. This? Not what you're supposing. We're non-denominational. Doors open to all. I liked this collar look ever since I saw it once in drama class, in some book with a photograph of the old Broadway star, David Garrick. Do you remember how I hated ties? They could get a noose down around my neck faster than a tie, but these collars do me fine.

You have kids going here?

He shook his head. The Lord brought me here today. You?

I told Grady about Jamie.

I look forward to hearing him sing, he said. He stepped forward and touched my shoulder, asking more from curiosity than concern: No mention of a little woman?

The little woman ran away with a little man, I said, and his eyes never left mine while I told him the story.

Putting this Pepe Van Patten aside, you sound like you still care for Elizabeth.

"If you mean take care of her, yes. Alimony—the gift that keeps on giving. It's why she's never married Pepe, the only guy I ever caught going up on a woman."

Like the S.C. fake and field goal by Meyerowitz our junior season, the one that caused the riot on the field, he said, changing the subject before I could settle any further into gloom.

We laughed and shared a high five, and I was about to ask him what exactly had brought him to Reagan High and the Honor Rock-and-Roll-Out, when the hallway lights began flashing, signaling the end of intermission.

We slipped into seats at the back of the auditorium.

To my right was a middle-aged man with a bald head and cigar breath extending to his ash-flaked clothing. He was scrutinizing his program with a penlight and pencil. Next to the names of students who had performed in act one he had written one-word reviews. The word that appeared most often was Pass.

One name was circled: Fran Blodgett.

Alongside, he had scrawled three large exclamation marks.

I remembered Fran Blodgett as the sad-eyed blonde with a voice like the rumble that precedes an earthquake. Her version of Rose's Turn, the Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim classic from Gypsy, where she'd come as close as I'd ever heard anyone to out-Mermaning the great Ethel, bringing the audience to its feet for an ovation that ran almost as long as the number.

Bald Man added another exclamation mark by her name as the school orchestra in starched white shirts, brown cords and matching bow ties kicked off the second act with a medley of Snoop Dog classics.

*

Jamie was sensational.

He sat on a bar stool in front of a curtain that seemed to be held together by dust as old as the school, hunched over the Les Paul classic I had surprised him with his fourteenth birthday, playing in a league with Mayall, Townshend, Page, Clapton, all the Brit guitarists he idolized.

He eased through an abbreviated version of his original composition, Poets of My Puberty, his eleven-minute homage to John Lennon that followed a creatively constructed mélange of Lennon riffs and lyrics with Jamie's own tribute:

"Peace and love, love and peace,

"A piece of love, a place for love,

"Until he left, but never gone,

"Except to the john, our John,

"Who pissed on war and violence

In the name of peace and love.

Jamie finished with a guitar flourish and an explosive vocal note, and the auditorium exploded in the thunder and lightning of an overwhelmed audience.

I stole a glance at what Bald Man had scribbled in his program for Jamie:

The pencil collar and three large exclamation marks.

i nudged him with my elbow and whispered, How about the standing ovation? Bald Man gave me a curious look. If you were counting, you know his was six or seven seconds longer than Fran Blodgett's, so shouldn't he get the same four exclamation marks you gave her?

He blinked and screwed his face into a What kind of nut are you? look.

I was not in an arguing mood.

I captured his pencil and program with a yank and added the fourth exclamation mark beside Jamie's name. He grabbed the pencil and program back and scribbled it out. I won the tug of war for the pencil and program, restored the fourth exclamation mark and added a fifth. I dropped the pencil and program onto his lap and growled through clenched teeth, Don't you even think about changing it again.

Bald Man inched away and ran his head around the auditorium, possibly searching for an escape route, as Grady's fingers dug into my arm and he signaled me to quiet with a vertical finger to his lips.

Next on stage was a plumpish black girl tucked inside a choir robe as red as the globe of hair sitting on top of her head like an incendiary fireball from outer space. She stood stark still in front of the floor mike, eyes closed, arms pressed against her stomach, fingers bent inside fingers, listening attentively to the orchestra's introduction before her mighty voice soared to the highest reaches of the paint-chipped dome ceiling:

"By and by when the morning comes

"All the saints of God are gathering home

"We will tell the story how we overcome

We will understand it better by and by.

The audience swayed and clapped to the rhythm.

Some began calling out words of prayerful encouragement.

There was near-chaos by the time she finished, took a nervous bow, and raced off without further acknowledgment of the appreciative pandemonium, which showed no sign of subsiding until the school principal strode onstage and determinedly waved everybody into their seats.

I turned to check how Bald Man was grading her. His seat was empty, except for the program. He had scratched out Fran Blodgett's name. He had scratched out Jamie's name. He had given a collar to the black girl's name—Aretha Mae Brown—and punctuated it with eight exclamation marks.

I swung around to say something to Grady.

Grady also had disappeared.

It wasn't until after the end of the show and the curtain calls that I saw either again and found myself falling down a rabbit hole into a world I never knew existed.

CHAPTER 3

I caught up with Grady backstage, where a boatload of producers and agents were searching for performers they'd targeted. Some of the kids and their parents were already caught up in these fishing expeditions, perfectly-cast conversations baited with visions of fame and fortune. Others would be hooked when they came up from the dressing rooms in the basement.

Grady was sitting on a crate by the stairway to the basement, looking despondent. He gave me a sad, indifferent wave as I approached. I'd hoped to be the first, but your friend was faster and cleverer, he said, shaking his head to go with a half-hearted smile. First is always better.

"My friend who and first is better than what?"

Syd Tan, he said. He tugged at his collar. The devil incarnate. Tan ignored the rules and went— Grady pointed downward, at the stairs. First? Always better for choir rustling. Spoken as if that explained everything.

Before I could ask him to define choir rustling, the Bald Guy came up the basement stairs and Grady made an ugly noise.

Syd Tan? I said.

Grady's face twitched up and down in confirmation.

Syd Tan was wearing an unlit cigar the size of a corn stalk between his two rows of crooked, nicotine-blackened teeth. There was evidence of a smile being directed at Grady, and I half-expected Tan to add a Churchillian V for Victory. Instead, he extended a pudgy middle finger, strutted past us and vanished into the sea of negotiating.

Come on, we're going downstairs, I said.

Off-limits, Hank.

Big Guy, it's the quarterback who calls the play, remember?

Grady caught my pass, whizzed past me and down the stairs two steps at a time. A moment before I joined him, he had located the name he was searching for on lists Scotch taped to the dressing room doors.

After some urgent knocking, Aretha Mae Brown opened the door. She was now wearing a rainbow-colored muumuu and around her neck an immense cross of polished mahogany that could have come from the prop department at Oberammergau.

Aretha Mae sized up Grady with a smile and guileless brown eyes as soft as cookie dough and said in a voice as sweet and flavorful as fresh strawberries, Mr. Syd Tan said to not talk to nobody else but him.

I'm certain Mr. Tan didn't mean me, Grady said, not convincingly.

Of course, I meant you, Syd Tan said. He was behind us, holding two Diet Pepsis like candelabras. Your inquisitive friend, as well. He stepped around us, handed Aretha a Pepsi, and gently nudged her back inside the room, closing the door behind them.

Grady gave me a brave, inconsequential smile.

Meaning what, Big Guy?

Choir rustling at its best and worst, he said. We can talk about it later.

*

I found the door with Jamie's name on the posted list and knocked.

After another minute I knocked again.

After another minute the door opened a cautious width, enough for me to recognize Fran Blodgett, late of Gypsy and three Syd Tan exclamation marks.

Her blush told me what Jamie's face confirmed when it materialized behind her shoulder, her rich, creamy lip gloss smeared sloppily all over his mouth.

Cheeks.

Nose.

Neck.

Ears.Hi, Dad, he said. I don't think you've met Fran Blodgett yet.

Neither have I, Grady said, but she's one of the reasons I'm here today. I hope you can spare me a few minutes, Miss Blodgett?

She cocked her head and studied his frozen Crest smile; tilted her head back and told Jamie, "Your father and a minister, but

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