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Corey Mertes

I’ve been unemployed for almost eight months now. Recently my best friend, Ron Pfiester, emailed me that Esquire article about Roger Ebert’s face. Ebert, of course, is the Pulitzer Prize winning film critic best known, until recently at least, for the thumbs up or down rating system he pioneered in the 1980s with Gene Siskel on At the Movies. Now he’s perhaps known as much for the operations he’s had on his face in his fight against thyroid cancer, which have left him without a lower jaw and so without the ability to eat or speak.
In college we referred to Ron as the king of schadenfreude. He sent the article without an explanation but it’s clear what he was trying to say: Look, at least you have a jaw. I recall a time in school a hundred centuries ago when he came bounding into the student union one late spring afternoon radiating with a glow of divine mischief. By his arch smile you might have thought he’d just won the Nobel Prize in economics for modeling the cost-benefits of prohibiting seat belts rather than what it turned out to be—he had found, a few minutes earlier, a twenty-dollar bill lying under a bench on the south quadrangles. When he explained, it was clear he wasn’t so much lifted by his sudden, negligible increase in fortune as by the knowledge that out there some sap would shortly learn he was a little less well-off than he previously imagined.

That’s about the worst thing I can think to say about Ron, which is the best worst thing I can think to say about almost anyone, which is one reason he’s a good friend. Ron’s put that ubiquitous flaw to benign service. Today he’s a principal with Intel. He and his wife are building a passive house.

I bring all this up because I’ve been in therapy lately learning to express my emotions. The truth is, the first thing I felt after finishing the Ebert article was Shit, I’m really getting old. I haven’t heard boo about Ebert in two decades and here he is with an extra hole in his head and I had no idea. For reasons that should become obvious, this revelation triggered another memory of another old friend of mine named Dave Kosar. I haven’t heard from him in years. We shared a small apartment in Hollywood during graduate school. One night he came home very late after being out with a good friend of his, whom I knew only casually, a Palestinian named Fadel. I’d been told Fadel made a little money here and there selling drugs and that he also ran a harmless little sports book out of the back room of a camera shop in East Los Angeles. He and Dave had similar tastes in women and music, but who doesn’t. It was past five in the morning when he opened the door. I was making a sandwich, having spent much of the night with a girl I’d recently started seeing, shooting pool and getting burgers and beer with her and having sex on the floor of her Venice Beach studio. Dave had a grin on similar to the one Ron sported a couple years earlier after finding the twenty-dollar bill. He grabbed a beer, put his feet up on our oversized ottoman and told me about the adventure he’d just had.

He and Fadel had been to a show at the Palomino that night to see a new local band called Dystopia. They’d had a few drinks and had done a couple lines of cocaine in the bathroom at the club. There they met a woman. She smoked cloves and wore a blue cloche hat. At the bar she introduced herself to Fadel, who’s a handsome son-of-a-gun, I remember that much about him, with a flashy broad smile full of whiter than white teeth. After the show, the three of them went back to Fadel’s apartment.

Dave is well-read, and at the time preferred writers who first looked low for their inspiration—Charles Bukowski and Henry Miller are two who come to mind, also the Marquis de Sade. That he and Fadel and the woman they picked up engaged in a threesome that night came as no surprise to me, in other words, since the shape Dave seemed to envision his life taking was a triangle anyway, of the scalene variety. “She kept her hat on the whole time,” he recounted. The whole time meaning a few minutes groping on the bed and about an hour of knobby contortionism in a claw-footed bath.

Dave got what he wanted but it was not exactly sex. The woman obliged only Fadel by any technical definition. After half an hour of largely ignoring Dave, of indifference to and even annoyance at his manipulations, and an exaggerated satisfaction in all that Fadel alone had to offer—which, as I was led to understand, was more than ample—Dave did something that I think of now as quintessential him.

“I stuck my thumb up her ass.”

There’s no more delicate way to put it. “You should have heard her yelp,” he said, coughing up beer in a series of brief staccato spasms. I bet he told that story a hundred times after that, and frankly I’ve told it about a dozen times myself.

Funny the connections the mind makes when you’re broke, drunk and alone. Ebert showed up on Oprah not long after the article about him appeared. He could type words into a computer that would speak in his old voice thanks to a revolutionary new technology. Dave and I wrote a couple of screenplays together that were rightly pissed on by every third-rate agent or wannabe producer in Hollywood. I left town and the business completely and got married, and then divorced in jagged increments. Dave stuck around so he could hit himself over the head with a bottle for ten years while he looked for demons behind the tree where the puff of smoke always was in the park on Alvarado. Miraculously, he turned it around. He went back to school at UCLA. Met the right people, gave up the stuff, and finally broke through writing remakes of classic horror films, first of Peeping Tom, and most recently of Val Lewton’s Bedlam. The woman in the tub turned out to be a prostitute. Fadel had paid her secretly beforehand, but when they were finished she demanded more money for the pain and humiliation she claimed to have suffered as a result of Dave’s bizarre indiscretion.  The two friends just laughed as they escorted her roughly down the hall, banging through the building’s vestibule before pushing her out into the street. They continued to laugh as she stumbled away cussing. In the last hour before Dave returned home to tell me the story, he and his friend helped light up the dawn with the glow from a bottle of cheap golden scotch. Two years later and by this time straight, Fadel lost an arm in an unexplained warehouse explosion that made all the news. One of the stories related his plan to survive afterward, by selling rings in his uncle’s jewelry store, which is what he ended up doing. It gives a guy hope just thinking about it. “That’s nothing,” he said to a local interviewer on TV, indicating his missing limb. “The Devil’s entitled to his vig.” Then he flashed that million dollar smile of his just before they cut away to a commercial.


Corey Mertes is a lawyer and former casino pit boss and ballroom dance teacher, with a bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago and an M.F.A. in Film and Television Production from U.S.C. (Don't ask.) I have published one short story previously, in the Hawaii Review.

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