October 11th, 2008

If you have any interest in reading this, you should probably first read Chapter One, which is two or three posts below.

This is more-or-less first-draft material, the opening chapters of the second book in my non-Bangkok series, featuring a burglar named Junior Bender who occasionally solves crimes for other crooks.  I write this series to make myself laugh and for the fun of seeing how the story will come out, and where it will go before it does come out, and I have no idea at all where that will be.  Anyway, here it is, as it stands now.


An Original Void

The month’s motel was Marge ‘n Ed’s North Pole at the North end of North Hollywood. The advantage of staying at the North Pole was that even the small number of people who knew I’d lived in motels since my divorce would never figure I’d stoop that low. The disadvantage of staying at the North Pole was everything else.

I’d been put into Blitzen. In an explosion of creativity, Marge ‘n Ed had decided not to number the rooms. Since there were only so many reindeer names in Clement Moore’s poem “The Night Before Christmas,” Marge ‘n Ed had pressed Rudolph into service and then come up with some names on their own. Thus, in addition to the reindeer we all know and love, we had rooms named Dydie, Witzel, Tinkie, and Doris.

Doris wasn’t actually being passed off as a reindeer, She was Marge ‘n Ed’s daughter. Marge, who grew confidential as the evenings wore on and the level in the vodka bottle dropped, had told me one night that Doris had fled the North Pole with someone Marge referred to only as Mr. Pinky Ring, a pinky ring being, in Marge’s cosmology, the surest sign of a cad. And sure enough, he’d broken Doris’s heart, but would she come home? Not that kid. Stubborn as her father, by whom I assumed Marge meant Ed, whom I always thought of as ‘n Ed, and who had shown the judgment to depart this vale of sorrows six years earlier. It was probably either that or somehow orchestrate a global ban on vodka, and death undoubtedly looked easier.

The string of Christmas lights that livened up Blitzen’s front window blinked at me in no discernible sequence, and I’d been trying to discern one for days. They sprang to primary-colored life whenever anyone turned on the ceiling light, which was the only light in the room. I’d tried to pull the cord from the outlet, but Marge ‘n Ed, or possibly just Marge, had glued it in place.

“YouTube-dot-com,” Rina said on the phone. “Are you there yet?”

Something unpleasant happens even to the most agreeable of adolescents when they talk to adults about technology. A certain kind of grit comes into their voices, as though they’re expecting to meet an impenetrable wall of stupidity and might have to sand their way through it. My daughter, Rina, who still, so far as I knew, admired at least one or two aspects of my character, was no exception. She sounded like her teeth had been glued together.

“Yes,” I said, hearing myself echo her tone. “I’ve managed somehow to enter the wonderland of video detritus and I await only the magical password that will let me sift the chaff.”

Dad. Do you want help, or not?”

“I do,” I said, “but not in a tone of voice that says I’d better talk really slowly or he’ll get his thumb stuck in his nostril again.

“Do I sound like that?”

“A little.”

“Sorry. Okay, the interview is called ‘Vincent DiGaudio Interview,’ have you got that?”

“Slow down,” I said. “The Vincent DiGaudio Interview is called ‘Vincent DiGaudio Interview’?”

“Oh.” She made a clucking noise I’ve never been able to duplicate. “Sorry again.”

“Got it,” I said. “Thanks. Anything else?”

“Not on video. I’ll e-mail you the links to the other stuff, the written stuff. There’s not much of it. He doesn’t seem to have wanted much publicity.”

“Wonder why,” I said. No point, I figured, in telling her I was probably going to be getting involved with a mob guy. She might worry.

She said, “But the FBI files are kind of interesting.”

“Excuse me?”

“Somebody used the Freedom of Information Act,” said my thirteen-year-old daughter, “to file for release of a bunch of FBI files on the outfit’s influence in the Philadelphia music scene. Since DiGaudio’s still alive and he was one of the guys they were investigating, his name is blacked out, but it’s easy to tell it’s him because a lot of the memos are about Giorgio. The files are on the FBI’s site, but I’ll send you the link so you don’t have to waste time poking around.”

“The FBI site?” I said. “Giorgio?”

“Wake up, Dad. Everything’s online.”

Was I going to log onto the FBI site? “Who’s Giorgio?”

“The most pathetic of DiGaudio’s little Elvises. Really pretty, I mean fruit-salad pretty, but he couldn’t do anything. Tone deaf. He stood on the stage like his feet were nailed to the floor. But really, really pretty.”

“He wasn’t in the paper you wrote.”

“I didn’t need him. And he was so awful that he kind of stood alone. He wasn’t an imitation anything, really. He was an original void.”

“But pretty.”

“Yum yum yum.”

“Thanks, sweetie. I’ll check it out.”

“You can look at Giorgio on YouTube, too,” she said. “Although you might want to turn the volume way, way down.”

“Let me guess,” I said. “It’s under ‘Giorgio.’”

“Try ‘Giorgio Lucky Star.’ That was the name of his first hit. ‘Lucky Star,’ I mean. Little irony there, huh? If there was ever a lucky star, it was Giorgio. If it hadn’t been for Elvis, he’d have been delivering mail. Anyway, search for ‘Giorgio Lucky Star.’ Otherwise you’re going to spend the whole evening looking at Giorgio Armani.”

“Is your mom around?”

“Um, out with Bill.”

“Remember what I told you,” I said. “Whatever you do, don’t laugh at Bill’s nose.”

“There’s nothing wrong with Bill’s nose.”

“Just, whatever happens, next time you see Bill’s nose, don’t laugh at it.”

“Daddy,” she said. “You’re terrible.” She made a kiss noise and hung up.

So I was terrible. She only called me daddy when she liked me.

* * *

I had wanted to stay in Donder, but it was taken. Donder is a convincing name for a reindeer. “Blitzen” sounds to me like the name of some Danish Nazi collaborator, someone who committed high treachery in deep snow. But Donder was occupied, so I was stuck with either Blitzen or Dydie. Unlike Dydie, Blitzen was at least in the original poem, and it was on the second floor, which I prefer. It also had a connecting door with Prancer, which was unoccupied, so I could rent them both but leave the light off in one of them. This is a configuration I insist on, a little escape hatch that has probably saved me from a couple of broken legs, broken legs being a standard method of resolving disputes in the world of low-IQ crime. And as much as I didn’t like the name “Blitzen,” there was no way I was going to stay in Prancer. It would affect the way I thought about myself.

Blitzen was a small, airless rectangle with dusty tinsel fringing the tops of the doors, cut-outs of snowflakes dangling from the ceiling, and fluffs of cotton clued to the top of the medicine cabinet. A pyramid of glass Christmas-tree ornaments had been glued together, and then the whole assemblage had been glued to a red-and-green platter, which in turn had been glued to the top of the dresser. Marge ‘n Ed went through a lot of glue. The carpet had been a snowy white ten or twelve years ago, but was now the color of guilt, a brownish gray like a dusty spiderweb, interrupted here and there by horrific blotches of darkness, as though aliens with pitch in their veins had bled out on it. The first time I saw it, it struck me as a perfect picture of a guilty conscience at three AM: you’re floating along in a sort of pasteurized colorlessness, and wham, here comes a black spot that has you bolt upright and sweating in the dark.

I have a nodding acquaintance with guilty consciences.

When Andy Warhol predicted that everyone in the future would be famous for fifteen minutes, he was probably thinking about something like YouTube. What a concept: hundreds of thousands of deservedly anonymous people made shaky, blurry videotapes of their pets and their feet and each other lip-synching to horrible music, and somebody bought it for a trillion dollars. But then all this idea-free content developed a kind of mass that attracted a million or so clips that actually had some interest value, especially to those of us who occasionally like to lift a corner of the social fabric and peer beneath it. There is nothing too obscure for YouTube. I hadn’t yet looked for a video of Hermann Goering singing “Tea for Two” with hand puppets, but if I did, I’d expect to find it.

Vincent DiGaudio Interview popped onto my screen in the oddly saturated color, heavy toward the carrot end of the spectrum, that identifies TV film from the seventies. DiGaudio, whom I was supposed to meet in person in about forty minutes had, in 1975, been a beefy, ethnic-looking guy with a couple of chins and a plump little mouth that he kept pursing as though he had Tourette’s Syndrome and was fighting an outbreak of profanity. His eyes were the most interesting things in his face. They were long, with heavy, almost immobile lids that and sloped down toward the outer corners at about a forty-degree angle, the angle of a roof. His gaze bounced nervously between the interviewer and the camera lens.

Vincent DiGaudio had a liar’s eyes.

As the clip began, the camera was on the interviewer, a starving woman with a tangerine-colored face, brutally bobbed blond hair, and so much gold hanging around her neck she wouldn’t have floated in the Great Salt Lake. “. . . define your talent?” she was saying when the editor cut in.

“I don’t know if it was a talent,” DiGaudio said. “I seen a vacuum, that’s all. I always think that’s the main thing, seeing in between the stuff that’s already there, like it’s a dotted line, and figuring out what could fill in the blanks, you know? So you had Elvis and the other one, uh, Jerry Lee Lewis, and then you had Little Richard, and they were like on one end, you know? Too raw, too downtown for a lot of nice kids. And then you had over on the other end, you had Pat Boone, and he was like Mr. Good Tooth, you know, like in a kids’ dental hygiene movie, there’s always this tooth that’s so white you gotta squint at it. So he was way over there. And in the middle, I seen a lot of room for kids who were handsome like Elvis but not so, you know, so . . .”

“Talented?” the interviewer asked.

“That’s funny,” DiGaudio said solemnly. “Not so dangerous. Good-looking kids, but kids the girls could take home to meet Mom. Kids who look like they went to church.”

“Elvis went to church,” the interviewer said.

“My kids went to a white church. Probably Catholic, since they were all Italian, but, you know, might have been some Episcopalians in there. And they didn’t sing about a man on a fuzzy tree or getting all shook up, all that shorthand about getting – can I say getting laid?”

“You just did.”

“Yeah, well that. My kids sang about first kisses and lucky stars, and if they sang about a sweater it was a sweater with a high school letter on it, not a sweater stretched over a big pair of – of – inappropriate body parts.”

“Elvis sang about that kind of high-school thing,” the interviewer said, looking earnest. “Won’t you wear my ring around your neck, songs like —

“Always sounded uncomfortable to me,” DiGaudio said. “Be kind of tight, wouldn’t it? Sort of S&M. Anyway, whatever Elvis sang, you knew it was all about jumping some chicklet’s bones. Look what he was doing, for chrissakes. Getting the little girls all crazy.”

“They screamed for your boys, too.”

“And? I mean, what’s your point? Girls been screaming and fainting at singers since forever. But you knew if a girl fainted around one of my kids he wouldn’t take advantage of it. He’d just keep singing, or maybe get first aid or something.”

“There were a lot of them, weren’t there?”

DeGaudio’s face darkened. “Lot of what?”

“Your kids, your singers. Some people called it the production line.”

“Yeah, well, somebody can bite my butt. People who talk like that, they don’t know, they don’t know kids. These were crushes, not love affairs. The girls weren’t going to marry my guys, they were going to buy magazines with their pictures on the front and write the guys’ names all over everything, and fifteen minuted later they were going to get a crush on the next one. So there had to be a next one. Like junior high, but with better looking boys. Girl that age, she’s a crush machine, or at least they were back then. These days, who knows? Not much innocence around now, but that’s what my kids were. They were innocence. They were, like, dreams. They were never gonna knock the girls up, or marry them and turn into drunks and kick them around, or turn out to be as gay as a lamb chop, or anything like guys do in real life. They were dreams, you know? They came out, they looked great, they sang for two and a half minutes, and then they went away.”

“And they did go away. Most of them vanished without a trace. Are you still in touch with any of them?”

It didn’t seem like a rough question, but DiGaudio’s eyes bounced all over the room. He filled his cheeks with air and blew it out in an exasperated puff. “That ain’t true. Some of them, they’re still working. Frankie does lounges in Vegas. Bobbie and Fabio, they tour all over the place with a pickup band, call themselves Faces of the Fifties or something like that. They’re around, some of them.”

“And Giorgio?”

The fat little mouth pulled in until it was as round as a carnation. “Giorgio,” he finally said. He didn’t sound friendly. “Giorgio was different. He didn’t like it, you know? Didn’t think he belonged up there.”

“A lot of people agreed with him.”

DiGaudio leaned forward. “What is this, the Cheap Shot Hour? I think the kid went through enough without somebody like you piling on. Some local talent on a TV station in some two gas-station market. I mean, look at this set, looks like when we’re done they’re going to bring in a bunch of second-graders to finish coloring it –”

“This is obviously a touchy topic for –”

“You know, I came on this show to tell a story about music and Philadelphia, about when your audience was young, about a different kind of time, and what do I get? Miss Snide of 1927, with your bleeping jack o’lantern makeup and that lawn-mower hair –”

“So, if I can get an answer, are you still in touch with Giorgio?”

DiGaudio reached out and covered the camera lens with his hand. There were a couple of heavily bleeped remarks, and then the screen went to black.

“My, my,” I said. I glanced at my watch. DiGaudio lived in Studio City, way south of Ventura Boulevard, in the richest, whitest part of the Valley. I had another thirty-five minutes, and the trip would only take fifteen. I typed in Giorgio Lucky Star.

And found myself looking at fifties black-and-white, the fuzzy kinescope that’s all we have of so much early television, just a movie camera aimed at a TV screen, the archival footage that the cameraman’s union insisted on. Without that clause in their contract, almost all the live television of the fifties would be radiating out into space, the laugh tracks of the long-dead provoking slack-jawed amazement among aliens fifty light years away, but completely lost here on earth.

Even viewed through pixels the size of my thumb, Giorgio was a beautiful kid. And Rina was right: he couldn’t do anything. He stood there as though he’d been told he’d be shot if he moved, and mouthed his way through two minutes of pre-recorded fifties crap-rock. Since the face was everything and he wasn’t doing anything with the rest of himself anyway, the cameras pretty much stayed in closeups, just fading from one shot to another. No matter where they put the camera, he looked good. He had the same classical beauty as Presley. Like Presley, if you’d covered his face in white greasepaint and taken a still closeup, you’d have had a classical statue, a cousin of Michaelangelo’s David.

But unlike the sculpted David, who stares into his future with the calm certainty of someone who knows God’s holding his team’s pom-poms on the sidelines, Giorgio had the look you see in a crooked politician who’s just been asked the one question he’d been promised he wouldn’t be asked, in the athlete who’s been told he has to take the drug test he knows he’s going to fail.

Giorgio looked terrified.

9 Responses to “LITTLE ELVISES — Chapter Two”

  1. Jen Forbus Says:

    Rina made me laugh again. The YouTube section is quite priceless as well!

    Just like in The Fourth Watcher, the chapter titles are so much fun!

    You go, Tim! 🙂

  2. bets Says:

    I’m enjoying it, Tim.

  3. suzanna Says:


    These are some of the parts I liked best about this chapter.

    Your description of adolescent impatience:

    “A certain kind of grit comes into their voices, as though they’re expecting to meet an impenetrable wall of stupidity and might have to sand their way through it.”

    “She only called me daddy when she liked me.”

    Description of rooms at Marge ‘n Ed’s North Pole, especially this touch:

    “A pyramid of glass Christmas-tree ornaments had been glued together, and then the whole assemblage had been glued to a red-and-green platter, which in turn had been glued to the top of the dresser. Marge ‘n Ed went through a lot of glue.”

    Your description of youtube and that some use it as a way to “peek beneath the social fabric.”

    Keep them coming!

  4. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Thanks, everybody. The book continues to come at a good rate, maybe 1500 wpd, which is down from the usual beginning sprint of 2500-3500. Of course, at the beginning of a book it’s impossible to make a mistake (or it seems like it is) because you haven’t committed to anything yet. Now, about 27,000 words in, I’ve got fewer options and more responsibilities (I started all the story threads –I should either deal with them or eliminate them), but the book is an enormous amount of fun to write. Something happened yesterday for which I believe I can thank Barack Obama — Junior goes to the house his former wife, Kathy, shares with their daughter, Rina. Rina has put together a bunch of online info about the little Elvises for Junior to review. When he knocks on the door, it’s opened by a 14-year-old boy, and he’s black. And I mean BLACK, not beige or tan or cafe au lait. Junior is going through an extremely complicated reaction (one line I like is, “‘Sure,’ I said from inside a cloud of mutually exclusive emotions”) and it turns out that the kid and Rina have a class together (“Modern Media”) and while Rina was doing her paper on the little Elvises, Tyrone was doing one on the time-honored tradition of lynching souvenirs, which used to be on sale in towns throughout the Deep South. Rina really admires Tyrone’s seriousness. Junior, in the meantime, is checking to see whether the bed is either messed up or suspiciously neat. I love putting him in this position; he would say he’s completely unprejudiced, but . . . but . . .

  5. Dana King Says:

    Sorry I’m a little late here, I’ve been away for a few days and I’m just now catching up.

    Using the technology that’s somewhat beyond him and watching his daughter walkhim through it is not only well done, but something everyone with kids can relate to. (The marketing department might think it skews old, but no one in marketing is over 30, anyway. All they read are jeans labels.)

    The dialog is good, and the descriptions are funny without being comedic, witty as opposed to being an attempt for multiple laugh lines. You keep posting these, and I’ll keep reading them.

    It is a little irritating to think this is the first draft, though.

  6. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Thanks, Dana — And I’m sorry for taking so long to respond. I’m writing this one, editing MISDIRECTION (which may be re-titled as BREATHING WATER) and getting ready for a two-week cruise that leaves this Wednesday. And also trying to have a life and a marriage and a dog, and, and, and . . .

    But I really appreciate the kind words, especially the really elegant distinctions about the various kinds of humor. I have to watch it, or I’ll do three jokes where one is plenty, or even one too many.

  7. Stephen Cohn Says:

    I really like the characters – the daughter is a great addition and DiGaudio is someone we know all too well. I’m fascinated with the way that music is interwoven into the story. I look forward to seeing where it leads. BTW it’s funny!

  8. Nadja Says:

    And as much as I didn’t like the name “Blitzen,” there was no way I was going to stay in Prancer. It would affect the way I thought about myself.

    That made me laugh out loud. Good job, Tim. I really like how this is shaping up. I’m not a big fan of first person POV, but I’m intrigued by the idea of a PI for crooks. That’s a fresh twist (I believe).

  9. maria aguayo Says:

    I was laughing out loud throughout most of the Rina section and interview with Di Guido. The room is a nightmare. It gave
    me hives thinking of sleeping there.
    I picture you laughing your head off as
    you create these characters. It’s so
    much fun.

Leave a Reply