|Jan/Feb 2003 fiction|
Mrs. Mir-Abrisi was late. She hadn't paid either, though she promised the money and hinted at signing up for a full six-week course. The other "call-backs" hadn't called back, and nothing else had booked for the rest of the week. None of this a good sign for the end of his first month at work.
Phil Warnecke paced the anteroom of the Max Astaire Danceteria. At the far end he performed a right turn-under to begin in the opposite direction. His was a natural flourish from years of mambo, hold, then two quick steps. The baseboards needed painting, the carpets were worn down to the threads from thousands of feet clad in ballroom shoes. The walls, paneled with veined mirrors, bulged out at the bottom where the glue had relaxed from the heat of years of forced air. Yesterday's newspapers, or maybe from the day before, were haphazardly folded on an end table. Phil avoided all newspapers now. There was also a mix of old trade papers and a couple of People Magazines more than two years out of date. Who cared about Donnie Osmond's life in Utah? This was his first job after eight months of looking.
Down the hall came the clash of competing music—cha-cha's in Studio 1, lambada in Studio 2, some hip-hop tune in Studio 4 that Loquita, the black street dancer, played for the Fogarts, a couple in their 50's trying to keep up. Studio 3, Phil's room, stayed silent, empty, waiting for Mrs. Mir-Abrisi. He received a draw plus a percentage of every lesson he brought in. Mrs. Mir-Abrisi was the cousin of his dentist. Secretly, Phil thought his dentist intended to marry off the widow to anyone, even a dance instructor who seemed to have lost all other marketable skills, along with his earning power and a house with a terrific monthly nut that had to be unloaded in a bottoming market at firesale prices. Temp work had been out of the question; Phil didn't type. Sometimes brusque on the phone, he despised taking orders. He had two specialties: he knew everything about land and everything about the mambo.
"We no rape," Saito, his nemesis, had said in their final conversation eight long months ago, repeating a quote attributed to Phil in a newspaper profile. Out of context. Hard to believe that one Japanese businessman could have so effectively, completely, thoroughly, bloodlessly ended his career, but all development in Los Angeles appeared to have ceased as far as Phil Warnecke was concerned. The phrase had been offered as a metaphor. No one was supposed to take it literally. A metaphor calculated to set the developers in the buccaneer tradition. Now Phil had been frozen out. Friends who used to fight to have him at their parties knew where their support came from. They couldn't help or didn't help or wouldn't. A bad joke, an unfortunate phrase. Phil had given liberally to women's causes—when he'd had the money. In their actions his friends revealed themselves as cowards, and in their words a sham optimism, always saying, Something should break any day now, Phil. We'll get back to you, Phil. Hang in there, Phil. Eventually, they refused his calls and left his messages unreturned.
Phil promenaded, managing three steps in each direction before running into a brown-edged potted palm one way, the reception desk the other.
"Jesus, Phil," Desiree, the receptionist said. "I just watered that plant. You know you have a lovely hesitation."
"She's not coming," said Phil.
"And the nicest cross-over."
"I did your chart today, and Aries rising tells me you're golden."
"When are we getting some new music?"
"She'll be here," Desiree said.
"So you say."
"The charts never lie. But they don't tell me if now is a good time to buy. I found a little place they call 'Beverly Hills adjacent.' Perfect for me. Should I get it?"
"I'm not a man to be trusted, according to some people," Phil said, "so I wish you wouldn't ask me. I don't do that anymore."
Today was rumba day, not his favorite, but who better than Xavier Cougat to take him through? The music intricate, the percussion designed to throw off the dancer, especially unwieldy Americans used to counting to four, but once a student learned to listen to the claves, the steps came quickly. Through the thin studio walls, Phil heard shouted instructions: step left shift, step right shift, now left, slow, shift, your other left, now reverse, step right shift, step left shift, left, slow, shift. That's it. That's it. Again. Step left shift... and on it went. He examined the albums available. The only copy of a record by Noro Morales had vanished, the pair of Cougat's worn and scratched, the vinyl warping.
He tucked in his shirt for the third time, trying to pull the front tight. It didn't work. His stomach pooched out, lately more and more he noticed, his pants snug. He could see the white of his pocket linings beginning to show. His suit-coat felt restricted under the arms.
In the studio he held onto the bar before the mirrors and flexed his legs. Because his pants might tear, he didn't try any deep knee bends or other limbering exercises. He had stretched some at home, and it would have to last the morning. Still waiting, he checked the shine on his shoes, then the floor for any debris that might trip up Mrs. Mir-Abrisi.
When he had warmed up as much as he thought he could, when he had checked and cleared the floor of anything loose, when he tucked in his shirt, again, for the fourth time, he put a record on. He placed a hand at his waist, palm pressed to his belly, the other outstretched and bent at a right angle to shoulder height. Then he glided along with the sounds of Tito Puento playing a mambo, his favorite. The music ran through him, gathering heat, streaming downward through his hips, through his legs, into his feet. The lighting changed, the music became louder, the conga drums pounded with his heart. He kept his back straight, his shoulders level, his head up. He glided, fluid with the music and its distinct hesitations, through the charge, the chase, an open cross-over break, coil turn, walk-around. A bulky man who scarcely seemed to touch the floor, he danced as if holding a woman, as if the music became a woman to whom he offered the fire of his movement. "¡Ay Carumba!" he shouted.
Applause from the door, and Mrs. Mir-Abrisi looked him up and down. Phil recognized the look and brought his hands together in front of his stomach. "Warming up," he said, squeezing his palms together, "and ready for you."
"I am ready for you too," Mrs. Mir-Abrisi said.
The abbreviated hour was not abbreviated enough. Mrs. Mir-Abrisi sweated easily, her perfume heavy and cloying. For simplicity, he kept her in a closed position, using his chest lead, but she bumped into him, stepped on his feet, knocked him twice in the shins. She confused her left and her right, focused on the trumpets instead of the underlying beat. Whatever grace he possessed earlier vanished while he pushed and pulled her about the room as if she were newly sightless. After the second kick, Phil stopped to see if the contact had been deliberate.
"Yes?" said Mrs. Mir-Abrisi.
Phil played a new record and returned to her side to give instruction. She placed an arm around his shoulders, then dropped her hand to his waist and pulled him into her, smashing her hips into his. Mrs. Mir-Abrisi had plenty of padding. He bent away and said, "That is not the correct position, Mrs. Mir-Abrisi."
"Don't resist me," she said.
There was a discreet knock on the door.
"Our time is up," Phil said. "Have you decided on the rest of the series?"
Mrs. Mir-Abrisi collected her coat and purse from a chair in the corner. She shook herself and straightened her clothing. "You thrill me," she said. "You and your music, Mr. Dance Man."
"The series, Mrs. Mir-Abrisi? Have you decided?"
"Always the questions about money. Money, money, money. I think you see me as nothing but a paycheck."
Phil came to her side and took her hand where it lay in his palm, warm and moist and swollen. "Without your support," he said, "I won't be able to continue here. I'm sure you understand. The managers, they pressure me."
She seemed mollified and said, "Only if you can do better in your instruction. I may need private lessons. At home. I'm alone now, you know."
She held a check out, fanning the air slowly like a movement from the dance of the seven veils, waving her arm, her body swaying slightly. "You didn't think I'd desert you, my dance man?"
The blue paper moving languidly from side to side, one hand on her hip, the hip jutting upward and out, her weight forward on the other leg, her cleavage exposed, waving the paper.
"Don't move," he said. "Now, that is the position. Feel it. Remember it."
"We just have no more time. My next lesson," he said.
She brushed by and placed the check in his shirt pocket. "For today and two more," she said. "I may need many private lessons, and I have many checks."
Mrs. Mir-Abrisi's perfume remained heavily on him and his clothing until much later when he took a shower and changed suits. Desiree happily took the check, "Didn't I tell you," she said. "Aries rising higher and higher." The manager was pleased.
"Way to go, honey boy," Loquita congratulated him when they walked out together. "They come. You'll see. Got to get out the word. Throw in a couple of spins and the fly-kick. You'll get them."
Phil celebrated with a large lunch and then dessert: pie à la mode with extra vanilla ice cream. He scraped the last bit of melted ice cream onto his spoon, combining it with a few crumbs from the crust, and ate, trying to savor the last bite for as long as possible. Now too full to comfortably leave the table, his pants stretched and his stomach felt tight. Fly-kick indeed. On the way out of the restaurant, he caught his reflection in a full-length window. He was developing jowls. Except for the dancing, he hadn't worked out in months. His girlfriend had dumped him. His savings were depleted. How many times did he awake wishing he'd never met Saito, never spoken to the building press reporter? All of this from one stupid interview.
Phil met Saito for the first time at the Riviera Country Club only a year before he was reduced to giving dance lessons to Mrs. Mir-Abrisi, only a year before when Phil stood on top of the world as top salesman of the month for Reese Management—for the sixth month in a row. His girlfriend of that moment, the actress Tracey Smith, called him her top man. Top dog. Top 'O the morning. Top of the world.
Saito double-bogeyed the fifth, only to send his white Titlist careening into a water hazard off a vicious hook. Some of the rest of the team snickered, but Phil, taking a final bite of his nutrition bar, marched down the shallow bank and didn't stop as he hit the water. On that day in September, a hot wind blowing off the desert picked up, ruffling the water. The grass around the hazard was trampled down but dry as if the water, only a few feet away, couldn't reach it. From somewhere a dog barked, and Saito's caddie began pointing and shouting in Japanese. "Anno very ma," it sounded like. "Anno very ma."
Phil splashed in deeper and deeper. The sun glittered, causing him to squint. The cold water shocked him, but he didn't flinch or twitch or in any other way betray himself. He kept walking, each step harder and harder against the resistance of the water, and when the level was about waist high he bent over and plunged into the hazard like a pre-historic fisherman going after trout by hand. A few seconds later, he emerged, water coursing from his hair, his chest, his arms, but he held the Titlist covered by the brown muck of the bottom of the hazard.
Scattered applause came from the bank as Phil walked back out. He handed the ball to Saito, saying only, "Two stroke penalty. Good luck."
The next morning Saito called and arranged an appointment. He came to the office flanked by two assistants, one of whom carried a gift-wrapped box, blue with a silver bow.
Saito spoke in halting English. It took five minutes for the bowing to stop. Another two or three for Phil to move the group past the secretarial area into Phil's office, the mass of people clinging to each other in lock-step, the assistants following Saito, Phil leading the way like some anxious shepherd. It took several minutes to choose seats. No one wanted to sit until Saito did, and he, politely, waited for Phil.
Finally, they were settled. Saito spoke about the weather and how it was different there in Los Angeles than back in Osaka. A different kind of breeze, a different smell to the air. It was different. Phil felt his gaze slipping past Saito to the Van Gogh print on the wall, the picture of the flowers, the original purchased by a Japanese investor for millions of dollars. He willed himself to continue looking at Saito's oval face and almond eyes. Saito spoke about cloud patterns and how little it rained in Los Angeles. He enjoyed the rain because, after its cessation, it brought out the most fragrant blossoms, and he liked nothing better than to pause from the busy activity of his frantic work day and consider the beauty and dignity of nature. He spoke about smog and traffic congestion and how antithetical they were to nature.
"Many car," he said.
Phil nodded, saying mostly "yes," and "I know what you mean." In the middle of a most difficult sentence on street lights, Saito seemed to notice the gift-wrapped box for the first time. A half an hour had passed. Phil's appointments waited, calls needed returning, papers needed review. The day stacked up. His secretary came in three times, but Phil gave her the look. Patience mattered. Patience was crucial. Patience would lead him to an unthinkable reward.
The gift was casually handed over, and Phil accepted it with a bow, placing it prominently on his desk. He resisted the urge to shake the box and guess its contents, to touch the bow, to rip the paper, to open the gift and casually toss the wrapping aside. He resisted the urge to even move the box to a place slightly more out of the way.
More tea and coffee arrived. Saito spoke of a restaurant he recently visited. Finally, he said, "Ah, Mister Warn-i-key. I interest in office. I buy. Yes."
"Would you care for more tea, Mr. Saito?" Phil said, standing to pour. Nakamura Saito ranked as the fourth richest man in Japan. The fifteenth richest man in all of Asia. Phil discovered this the night before in the Who's Who Of The Far East. His volume had a typographical error rendering the title Who Who Of The Far East. The book dealer remarked that the error would probably make it a collector's item in a few years, worth some good money. Phil thanked him for that also. Phil had learned that Saito had a particular fondness for American food and American movies, a self-made man, a non-conformist in a conformist society, who demanded absolute conformity of his people.
Now, almost as an afterthought—the correct way of presenting a gift—Phil said, "I have something for you too, Mr. Saito."
From a lower drawer of his desk he pulled out his own gift-wrapped package, black with white trim—traditional colors suggesting long life and health.
"Please, Mr. Saito," Phil said, handing over the package. Saito allowed himself a smile and a bow stiff yet elegant and graceful. When his head came back up, the two men regarded each other.
"Tell me, Mr. Warn-i-key, you like scotch?"
Mrs. Mir-Abrisi had a neighbor who became a client, another divorcee but older and hesitant. Her interests stayed in waltzes only, safe music with regular rhythms she understood; Latin music terrified her, making her hardly able to hold onto Phil's hand. She was no threat to Mrs. Mir-Abrisi, who felt, he supposed, she could share her dance man with the less fortunate—and garner his greater good will at the same time.
An open house at the studio netted a few more clients, not the old nor lonely, but younger ones: a corporate lawyer who needed the exercise and possessed pleasant memories of long-ago cotillions; a hair-dresser preparing for her wedding, who worried about the first dance with a new husband; a hope-filled actress, kept by a much older man, looking for diversion; and a young cartographer named Geoffrey, who used his lessons to enchant women, surprising them with his grace. He especially wanted to concentrate on the paso doble. "My God, they love the throw-overs," he said. "They can't wait to get me home." He gave Phil breathless descriptions every week. He seemed not to mind being taught by a man, telling Phil, "I like the idea of one man passing on knowledge to another. My friends think I'm quite daring." Loquita gave up the Fogarts, who expressed an interest in more traditional lessons and came over to Phil. Within a month, studio three became one of the busiest, and Phil had to buy new clothes.
His days began to pile up. He arrived at the studio every morning at about ten. His weight began to pile on as well. The more lessons he gave, the more he celebrated with lunch for one, big enough for two, then for three. One entrée was not enough, one dessert didn't fill him. He needed more. The Maitre'd recognized him now, calling him by name. Loquita poked his stomach, and he didn't mind anymore when Mrs. Mir-Abrisi pulled him close. Though they were supposed to be in the open position, he let her. "Instruct me, my dance man," she said. "Take me to the stars. Only you can show me how." He bent her back into a deep, deep dip and she shouted, "¡Ay Carumba!"
The thin veneer paneling covering thin studio walls no longer depressed him. The scratchy records became familiar and welcome. He brought in a portable CD player and added to the collection. He knew the hard spots on the floor, the loose tiles. He steered his customers away. Every lesson Mrs. Mir-Abrisi pulled him close, and then she signed up for three more. She prepaid for seven months, full-time, and the manager was ecstatic. "You are a real find, Phil-O," he said. "Where have you been hiding yourself. If I had you ten years ago during the disco thing we could have had franchises by now. ¡Ay Carum—."
"Please," said Phil, "I hear you."
Desiree told him that his Aries had moved into ascendancy, and she lowered her eyes. Phil said he had to get back to planning the next lesson. Alone in the studio between those lessons, Phil danced to the mambo, only the mambo, the only dance that really mattered. He was a bull on the dancefloor, powerful yet graceful, giving the music the power of his adoration. His feet slid, his hips swayed. His bulk topped 275, but he moved like a man with helium shoes, ball-bearing soles, the gift of a cat, the dance of water.
During a break between lessons one morning after nearly a year at the studio, Desiree showed him the real estate section. "Didn't you used to work for these guys?" she said.
"Put your money in the bank," Phil said. "It's safer."
"They having some legal problems. I have a sensation of their auras being misaligned. Know anything about that?"
"They should have put their money in the bank too. What time are the Fogarts coming in?"
Phil excused himself to the bathroom. He locked the stall door and swabbed his suddenly sweating head with paper. He knew everything about their legal problems, their money problems—as one of the sources of their difficulties. They would be coming after him. Any time now, firing an insufficient penalty. Phil remembered the day, the day he meant to sign the papers with Saito, to close on one of the biggest projects he and his company had ever undertaken. He had been ready for it. He had worked toward it. He deserved it. He wore the suit, his deal suit, the closer. A charcoal gray, beautifully appointed garment, hand-made by a tailor who died shortly after he finished the work. It may even have been the last suit he ever created. They were going to sign that day, Saito and his group, on a large-scale development project. Phil felt terrific.
He came into the office snapping his fingers. Moving between desks, he hummed "Ran Kan Kan." The office was busy, yet it was unusually quiet. Secretaries kept their heads down and typed. Around the full desks, Phil danced, he swayed, did a couple of tight turns. Thin and lithe then, he moved between tight places, pulled out an empty chair and swung it about, pushed it back in and entered his office. He tapped on the desk, tilted a chair back, flipped pens in the air, bumped the window with this hip. They were going to sign today.
His secretary stood at the door holding the newspaper. "Have you seen this yet?" she said.
"Get ready for a bonus," he told her. "Get ready for two bonuses and a dinner out with me."
"Phil, have you seen the paper?"
"Cha-cha Cha-cha Cha Cha. Cha-cha Cha-cha Cha Cha. Cha-cha Cha-cha Cha Cha."
CHANEL HAS AWESOME SALES SAYS LA DEVELOPER WARNECKE the headline read in bold type above the fold on the first page of the business section.
"Great picture, don't you think?" said Phil. "They got my good side."
Saito's call came an hour later. "We no rape. We no pillage," Saito said. "We no have deal."
Fifteen million in fees to the firm, swept aside in a nine second phone call. Saito pulled out. The banks pulled out. The deal evaporated. Phil kept his door closed, refused all calls, tried to figure out how to salvage the situation.
What was so bad about the story? "What was so bad?" he asked a tank full of Brazilian fighting fish that occupied the far corner of his office. He had revealed some of the details of the deal with Saito, a complex series of financial arrangements that involved Japanese lease-backs, stock exchanges, and a build-for-tax incentive offered by the city. The Times reporter, Rona Vasher, said she understood. On the very same couch where he'd exchanged gifts with Saito, she sat wearing a very short skirt. A tight, black, short skirt that rode up her slim hips. He came across as an assertive, self-starting man. She'd been flirting with him, trying to draw him out. He understood that now. She made no effort to stop the skirt from riding up higher and higher, and that was when he recklessly made the comparison between pirates and development. We're all pirates, he said, plying the high seas of development, because it takes a pirate mentality to make it in the development business. Her knees began to drift apart. She wasn't wearing hose. Sometimes in a deal you get to rape and pillage, he said, or something to that effect. Farther apart. Her pen scrawled. No hose at all.
He had spoken metaphorically. Why couldn't Saito understand? The entire Japanese language was constructed on ideograms that meant something else. Phil had never actually raped or pillaged anyone. Phil's word was his bond. He tried to engineer every deal so that everyone came out happy, although in the best deals he came out the happiest. He never reneged. Never. "I never reneged," he said to the fish. "Never." He told the fish he never went back on a deal, could be trusted and counted on to maintain a core of honesty in a business with dishonesty more often the rule. But he expected rewards for his hard work. No hose, hanging on his every word. He never got her number nor saw her again, though she did send him a laminated copy of the story. One of the male fish darted to the surface, its snout smashing into the last of a litter of babies. Something to hang in a place of honor. With quick snaps of its teeth and shakes of its head, it tore the last two babies apart and ingested them—just like that. A flash of movement in the tank, fish scurrying to all corners as the male fed, hiding anywhere they thought they could be safe. Then the male swam away.
Phil was finishing a second piece of pie, savoring the crunch of the pecan, the jellied texture of the filling, cool and smooth against his tongue, when his former girlfriend entered the restaurant. He dotted his lips with the crisp linen napkin, holding it with round, bulging fingers, wiped crumbs from his shirt, settled his bulk more easily in the banquette, which gave a bit underneath him. Violins swelled on the hidden speaker system. A waiter came past with something sizzling on a tray. The busboy refilled Phil's waterglass. His former girlfriend paused at the far end of room, surveying, posing, preparing. Then she began her walk toward him. Phil stared up at her and smiled, waiting for her to say hello; they had parted on difficult terms—she dumped him hard and quickly—but he still felt great fondness toward her, remembering the many good times. The Maitre'd seated her at the other end of the restaurant, her back to the room. Not even a glimmer of recognition. All those nights together, making love. My top man, she called him. "¡Ay Carumba!" she used to scream. Phil ordered another piece of pie.
The lessons were going well, his client base growing, a steady income beginning to come in, but it wasn't enough to do more than pay the most immediate bills. He had to keep a roof over his head, power, water, food. He didn't have the house, but his other outstanding debts were massive, racked up in his former life when he thought nothing about hiring a limousine for the entire night complete with a full bar of top-shelf liquor and a set of first-run videotapes, thought nothing of splurging on several of the best bottles of Krystal champagne, thought nothing of chartering a plane to fly up the coast with a full contingent of friends for whom he always paid, thought nothing of loading up his house with certified antique furniture and oriental rugs and original paintings by the lesser masters. All investments. Seed money. Priming the pump. An upfront outlay that earned him tens of thousands in commission because all this made Phil friends, and from his friends came his deals. He put together Canadian tax-shelter condo packages over Easter brunches, new malls financed with locked funds while talking at the beach under the shade of an umbrella, shopping centers combining Hong Kong notes with oil profits while refilling glasses out on the veranda. Hail met and hearty Phil Warnecke, top dog, he was good to have around.
He had to give up his house for a loss, lost his car to repossession, his leather furniture and his VCR, too. They took the big-screen TV and the home theater sound system, muscling the components outside, rolling up the carpets and carrying them away, stripping the walls of the paintings he had competed for at auction. Then a real estate agent relieved him of his keys, saying, "Sorry, Phil, the party's over."
Bankruptcy might have been the easy option, but how low and dishonorable. Phil's bond was his word. He had incurred the debts. He would pay them off. Bankruptcy no option.
Thank God his refrigerator had been paid for, outright. It was all he was left with. Except for a cracked fruit drawer and a leaky catch pan that required frequent emptying, it worked perfectly, resiliently staying cold in a world where he had almost nothing else. Though it took a substantial portion of his salary, he kept the unit filled with midnight snacks of Ghirardelli chocolate bars and four different kinds of cakes—not the fat-free kind either, because he didn't like the taste. He needed butter in his cake, real butter, and plenty of sugar throughout—in the frosting, especially. No tricks to the tastebuds, give him the real stuff. He heard about a recipe for frosting made with shortening and sugar, colored pink—his idea of heaven. He sought it out, found it at a bakery not far from work whose owners specialized in Southern-style cakes, and brought home two a week. On the top shelves, he kept generous portions of lemon meringue pie and apple pie and cherry pie and strawberry pie, when in season. He went through the list of all the pies available from The Pie House, trying each and settling on these. He stored packages of donuts in the door and brownies way in the back. He had Snickers candy bars in the freezer along side cherry bon bons and Dove Bars and open quarts of Hagen Daas vanilla and coffee ice cream. He drank Classic Coca-Cola straight from the bottle, Mountain Dew, Dr. Pepper and Jolt, prizing the sugar and the caffeine which his body seemed to crave. For all the mountains of sweets, he did discriminate: no jellied candies or chocolates filled with goo, no Twinkies or store-bought cupcakes or any kind of candy made especially for kids. He made one exception for the large jar of malted-milk balls that he dipped into while watching the news.
He had acquired a 13" portable color television, the tube going bad, a boom-box that Loquita sold him at cost, and a single director's chair, the bottom worn and stained by who knew what. He slept on his back on a gray futon set in the middle of the room, his girth raising the covers almost two feet above the floor. At first he rolled the futon up every morning, folded his covers, swept the floor in front, unrolled the futon at night. As his bulk grew he simply let the lumpy mat stay in the center of the floor, a sheet incautiously thrown over it, a rumpled comforter on top. Bending over to roll and unroll the mat took up too much energy. He stopped seeing his toes, and once down on the floor he didn't want to have to get up again until it was light. The apartment had an address in the flats, the lesser part of Beverly Hills, in an older building with a Spanish motif subdivided beyond the legal limit. Phil managed the rent each month, on time, and the landlord left him alone. So Phil said nothing about the stained walls in the kitchen, the cracking plaster in the bathroom, the roaches under the sink, so long as the heat continued to work, the water to flow.
He had to get back in. He needed a project to concentrate on, a small property, he decided. Something modest that his limited banking connections—still in place he believed—might finance. He began reading the newspaper selectively, concentrating only on the classifieds, perversely convincing himself that if he avoided the real estate articles he wouldn't stir up any of the painful muck that had settled around his heart. The property had to be close enough to walk to, and with his ever looming bulk, the locus of walking distances diminished by the week. People moved out of the way when Phil came by. He took up the whole sidewalk. He had trouble squeezing through tables. He avoided aisles and began choosing the last seat on a row. Phil loathed public transportation, the other passengers crazy or homeless and the seats too small to support him. Without credit cards—taken in his fiscal collapse—he couldn't rent a car. He had to walk.
Fifteen blocks from his apartment, south, through a residential section of houses set so close to each other that neighbors could hear tea boiling next door, past a playground where no children played though the sandbox was carefully raked, past a deserted park where he had to hop out onto to the street to avoid sprinklers working even through the drought, under old growth trees trailing brown leafy streamers almost to the pavement, beyond the freeway teaming with cars at all hours of the day, there he found a corner gas station that had been closed for seventeen months, fenced with hurricane wire and boarded up. Vandals had managed to get on the property and spray-painted illegible gang logos that looked like Greek letters or symbols of the Zodiac. Trash had accumulated at the based of the fence, weeds coming up through cracks in the tar.
But Phil needed to gather some important data. He needed to know about the street traffic, its frequency and density during all times of the day, the business mix, how good the freeway access. What was the demographic composition of pedestrians in the area? Many questions. Phil posted himself on the sidewalk with a clip board and counted cars during the rush hours when could get away from the dance studio. He had started in just this way a few years back, young, eager, taking down the lists of office tenants in buildings around Los Angeles, surveying, gathering occupancy statistics, looking for potential clients.
Another mini-mall wouldn't do. The city was against it, citizens groups, too, rising up to stop unbridled and useless development. He needed a unique concept and a strategy in support.
He found the design in a German magazine on an outing to the library, elegant in its simplicity: an enclosed, multi-purpose space with underground parking. The interior formed an open courtyard, around which customers walked or sat or dined. The exterior walls were windowed, the structure inviting the public to come inside. He made drawings, rough sketches, and got an old friend who didn't depend on Saito's influence to do the full-color renderings.
Phil worked up the numbers, put together a presentation. Still he ate. Still he danced. He went into another size suit, now a firm customer of Bray's Big And Tall Specialty Shops.
In his small room, Phil practiced his pitch, talking to the wall, preparing just as he had on every deal he ever put together. He worked on his timing, his emphasis, his hand movements. "Multi-level," he said. "Inviting the public inside." "Shadow studies." "Community participation." "Tenant access." "Local responsibility." Night after night he refined and refined, and then he felt ready.
He secured an appointment with an independent bank in Beverly Hills, Middle Eastern money, another favor from the dentist. He took one more look at the site then, after canceling his morning dance lessons, and went to the bank. He was ushered into a nice-sized office: upstairs and in the back, plush carpet, a desk of dark wood, several conservative prints on the walls. A broad window looked down upon the bank floor through open slatted blinds.
"Nice view," said Phil, surprised to discover he had once known the loan manger, had minor dealings on a small project some years before.
"Mr. Phil," the loan manager said. "It has been too long. Too long. I hope you have not been having many parties without the inviting your old friend."
"No parties," said Phil. "I've been taking a sabbatical."
"Yes," said the loan manager. "Sometimes rest is always good, although not too much rest." He laughed, and Phil laughed with him. Then he steepled his hands in front of him and said, "You have for me something? A jewel for my eyes alone?"
Phil handed over a folder set in a leather case which had cost him a half-a-week's pay. "A small project," he said. "Small-ish. Manageable. New building. Manageable tenancy. Something you could keep inside."
"Why share?" the loan manager said.
"If you don't need to."
"Unless there is a risk. Too much risk. We have to consider the risk."
"We will do everything to minimize the risk."
"Ah," the loan manager said. "And what have you been doing on your sabbatical?"
"This is a very manageable project, and manageable spells profit. For everyone."
"Our friend tells us that you have been teaching dancing? Dancing?"
Phil waved his hand. "Part of my resting."
"No, not you. It is part of your marketing strategy, I am sure. You are in the finding out. You cannot fool me about these things. But I am being rude. Would you care for coffee or tea or perhaps the soft drink?"
"I'm fine," said Phil. He leaned back in his chair and resisted the impulse to look at his watch. Mrs. Mir-Abrisi was his next appointment. He remained calm and focused on the man in the chair across the desk from him, staying relaxed, acting as if this didn't mean his entire foreseeable future.
"I have never danced," the loan manager said. "I have not the natural rhythm. It made for the ruination in my first two marriages."
"Practice and proper instruction," Phil said.
"You think?" The loan manager had the proposal open in front of him but he ignored it. "I have a new girlfriend," he said. "Somewhat younger. More than somewhat. She enjoys, dancing."
"After we conclude our business, you should invest some of your profits in a few lessons."
The loan manager swung his chair around to turn sideways to the desk. He leaned back and reached his hands to the ceiling. "In the home there was not time, we did not have the money. I am the first of a very large family. You, perhaps, did not know this. I had... responsibilities. So many responsibilities. There was hardly time for sleeping, and who could in a bed shared with four other brothers?
"But I cannot blame my parents. The oldest son must shoulder his burden. This is how things are. It is why I went into banking, so I would always be near the money."
He turned back to Phil and said, "But I am speaking too much."
These ruminations might auger for the good or the bad, the banker's face and posture gave no indication. And the loan committee had yet to decide. Still, the project could be killed right here if the banker said no.
Phil said, "I will oversee your instruction personally. It would be my pleasure."
"But why not right now?" the loan manager said, coming out of the chair suddenly, putting the folder onto his desk, coming around, opening his arms to include the room. "Yes, why not right now?"
"Here? We have no music."
"Surely you must know the songs. Come, we'll be moving the desk out of its way."
Phil stood with the loan manager in the middle of the carpet. He explained about the line of direction around the room, about leading and following, about starting from the base, and the loan manager seemed to grasp it all.
"That is all there is to it?" he said.
"Not unless you planned on entering international competition later this afternoon."
"Mr. Phil you are always with the joking."
Phil showed him the four positions of dancing and assumed the woman's role. He had to force the loan manager to lead.
"I am not sure," the loan manager said. "My rhythm."
"Listen to my count," Phil said. "Focus on the numbers. We'll start with the rumba."
Through the late morning and the lunch hour, Phil pushed and pulled the loan manager around his office, counting off the time, singing to him in a soft, baritone voice.
"Very good," Phil said, "Left. That's it. Right. You have plenty of rhythm, what do you mean? Again."
At the end of three hours the manager had to sit down, catch his breath, wipe his face with a handkerchief.
"I am old," the loan manager said.
"Nonsense," said Phil. "It's a lot at one time. There are hand positions we need to discuss, posture, attitude, but those things come later, after you feel more comfortable with the steps."
"This is exhilarating. Oh, the times I have missed. I feel particularly alive."
"Wait until you mambo."
"I cannot wait." The loan manager wiped his face again, then he took a checkbook from his drawer and filled out a slip using a gold pen from the set on his desk. "This is for the lesson," he said, when Phil tried to protest. "The banking regulations and all. We would not want for anyone to be thinking you might try your influence on me." After he handed over the check he said, "Mr. Phil, you know of course for the loan I must consult others."
"But I believe that my very strong recommendation will help things along."
"When you decide, if you bring the papers over to the studio, we can work in another lesson. You should bring your new girlfriend too."
"No," the loan manager said. "I want this to be a surprise. I am so out of breath. Everything will be ready next week."
Phil was tempted to cancel all of the rest of his lessons but, until the papers were signed, until the deal closed, he couldn't afford any interruption in pay. Still Mrs. Mir-Abrisi seemed distant that afternoon. Maybe the dance lessons weren't turning out the way she hoped, or they required more work than she might willingly expend, or Phil hadn't yet asked her out, or he didn't know what. She wore a brown, sack-like dress and seemed older, the corners of her mouth turned down. She didn't pull him into her once. The record skipped, Phil lost the beat and hesitated, causing her to bang into him.
"You are so clumsy," she fumed. "What kind of dance instructor are you?"
"Allow me to show you the turn once again. Remember your hand position. It must be unique."
"No, no more coil turns, no more Ran Kan Kan, no more Perez Prado. Who dances this way? Shall we then pick the sugar cane? T-huh. I cannot stand another minute."
She walked from the room slamming the door behind her, rattling the glass, skipping the record again. Phil caught up to her at the water fountain. "Mrs. Mir-Abrisi, would you like to take a little walk outside?"
This appeared to take her by surprise. "Why, a walk? No, I do not think so."
He took her by the arm, and her resistance melted. "A walk?" she said.
He led her down the stairs and into the bright sunlight. There were several other people on the sidewalk. Cars drove by, the concrete clean as if recently swept. Only a paper or two swirled in the gutter. The small trees on the street were manicured. A doorman at an expensive clothing shop tipped his cap to the couple.
"Did you know I used to put together developments like that?" Phil pointed at a three-level retail group across the street, something fancier and more elegant than a traditional mall, a forty million dollar project with gold frames around the windows and new brick. The buildings projected upward at a step angle, the elevator stack, visible from the street, was constructed of exposed glass, the machinery rising above the levels and an interior courtyard.
"Suggested some of the design details. Anything to keep the client happy. Yes, that, and many more. You didn't know that."
"Just from your dancing," she told him. "You are so gentle and assured, I thought it was your whole life. But I believe you would be good at whatever you did."
"I thought building things were what mattered, that and making money. I used to have a lot of money. Did you know that?"
She patted his arm. "That doesn't matter to me," said Mrs. Mir-Abrisi. "I, too, have much money, more money than I can count. My husband..."
She dabbed at her eyes, and they on walked for a while in silence. The cars passed, one of them belching out a blue cloud of smoke, which hung above the pavement, spreading slowly.
"It's a lovely day," said Phil.
"Idiot," Mrs. Mir-Abrisi said.
"They should be arrested, such filth, taken away, whipped in public. That is how we would do it at home."
"Mrs. Mir-Abrisi," Phil said, "things break. Sometimes they can't be fixed."
"No," she said. "I cannot accept that. I will not. People must try harder. Even trees bend."
After the cloud of blue smoke dissipated, a calm renewed on the street. No one hurried. Several Japanese tourists looked into windows. A limousine pulled away from the curb. An elderly woman walked a small dog, her manservant following behind with plastic bag and shovel.
"What is troubling you, Mrs. Mir-Abrisi? Tell me now. I am your friend."
"There is nothing wrong. Today I am in a bad spirit. It is nothing." She waved her hand. "I am thinking about home. America is so very different." He stopped her and turned her toward him. He chucked her under the chin. Then he took her arm again and they continued walking.
"The aloneness," she said, at last. "I want and I feel and I lie awake and I have nothing. You cannot know what it is to be deserted, after so many years."
"Death is unpredictable."
"Death? Death? Is that what Morris told you? How he wishes to spare an old woman's feelings. It is the same as death. My husband found a much younger woman. They are somewhere." She waved a hand faintly in the direction of the west.
They walked on for a while until they reached a corner where Phil stopped them and turned to face her.
"I want to give you some advice, Mrs. Mir-Abrisi."
They stood on the corner, an unattractive middle-aged woman in brown, a young man gone fat but still the shimmer of handsome underneath.
"I do not want for advice. I do not want for anything. You should please stick to what you know."
"This is what I know. Concentrate on your coil turns, your style hand, the energy of your breaks. Practice them. Practice, practice, practice. Live the tango, walk with the beat of the mambo in your heart. No, no. Don't stop me. These are the things that matter. The music. The fire in your blood, the heat you feel, the charge of your partner and his chase. Perfect your moves and you will always find such partners. Never alone. I know this."
"I have felt that with you," Mrs. Mir-Abrisi said.
"Tomorrow, you will feel it again. Tomorrow, when you come for your lesson, wear loose clothing, something lighter, more festive. Put up your hair. Prepare to work. I promise you won't be alone."
After Mrs. Mir-Abrisi, Phil had only one more late lesson, and he stopped for ice cream on the way back. Men rushed by on the street, others in cars talked on telephones, beeping their horns, careening through yellow lights, anything to get somewhere. It took him a long time to eat. He saw women who looked like his old girlfriend, their faces carefully made-up, posturing and posing, but there was nothing underneath. He pushed his ice cream in swirling shapes, slicing the spoon down and through, bringing a bite to his mouth, returning his spoon to the dish, moving, always moving to the beat of music only he heard, dancing the mambo, executing perfect coil turns in the vanilla.