Janice Bane cranked it up. Neil Diamond. The Solitary Man. Anybody who had a problem with that could go fuck themselves.
“I’ve had it to here, being where love’s a small word.” Janice gripped the steering wheel and belted out the lyrics. “Part time thing.” She hit the gas and passed the Range Rover. “Paper ring.” L.A. traffic was getting to be unbearable.
“I know it’s been done having one girl who loves you.” She swerved around a man puttering along on a powder blue Vespa Scooter. “Right or wrong.” HONKKKK. What kind of man would chose to drive a Vespa? “Weak or strong.”
She picked up some speed on the straightaway.
“Don’t know that I will but until I can find me,” she rolled down the window and turned up the volume. “A girl who’ll stay and won’t play games behind me.” She rolled the window back up, too cold, and sped through the changing yellow light. “I’ll be what I am.” Where the hell were all these people going on a Sunday morning? She signaled a left turn. “A solitary man.” She pulled into the parking spot. “SOLITARY MAN.” Killed the engine. God, that was a great song. She sat back, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath.
The thing you didn’t want to do when singing along with a Neil Diamond song, (actually, get real, the only Neil Diamond song that Janice would ever sing was Solitary Man, the rest of the catalogue sucked) what you absolutely had to protect yourself against when honoring the Solitary Man, was picturing the singer himself. Whether it was the early Neil from 1966 with his jet-black hedgehog hair and brown leather jacket or the more recent Vegas-Neil with his graying caterpillar eyebrows, pork jowls, waning hairline, and a forehead that proportionally overstepped the standard allotment for square footage of his overall face by 50%, young or old there was no escaping the nose. Not quite proboscis but with a definite nod to the flowering vegetables from the cruciferous family, that schnoz was a deal breaker. And like many men, Neil’s nose had grown over the years. If you let it sneak in front of your mind’s eye, if you focused on it, all was lost because it was impossible not to superimpose a nasal tone onto the voice and then of course the song would be ruined. It was essential that the singer and the song be kept separate. And so whenever Mr. Diamond’s face tumbleweeded across Janice’s consciousness she would turn up the volume and fill the car with her own sound, losing herself in the lyrics, forcing Neil out. Janice and her Solitary Man.
She opened her eyes, got out of the car and locked the door. Dropping by Eli’s apartment was not Janice’s idea of fun. This is not a place she would choose to come. Lousy neighborhood. Lousy—like crawling with lice, bars on the windows and security screens on every front door. Would those safety precautions stand up against the two-man battering rams of the modern day SWAT team? She’d very much like to see it tested, Eli’s abode under siege. However, this was not a question that she wanted answered in the next twenty minutes. She’d rather watch it on the evening news from the cozy confines of her living room. No, for the next fifteen minutes, ten if she was lucky, tranquility was the name of the game.
Janice walked up the pebbly concrete steps. Whose idea was it to put little beige rocks in the cement? Was that an aesthetic decision? ‘Cause it was ugly as hell. But it did address the “slippery when wet” issue. Don’t want grandma to fall down and bash out those front teeth or break that fragile hip. 1-800-WE-THE-LAW. She grabbed the wrought-iron banister but then quickly let go and wiped her hand on her jeans. Sticky. Of course it was sticky.
Apartment #7. She knocked and made sure her purse was zipped all the way closed. Eli means God in Hebrew. Upon introduction that was the first thing Eli told people, as if the origin of his name would somehow elevate him to the level of divine or divine adjacent. Eli was also the name of some superhero character in Xena: Warrior Princess. There was a poster of that character above the couch in Eli’s living room. The word embarrassing did not even begin to cover it. She knocked again and then heard the locks turn and the door swung open.
“Three minutes left in the quarter.” Eli turned and sprinted back inside the apartment with the flourish and drama of the mentally impaired. Janice checked behind her then stepped inside and gently closed the door with her elbow. Mushrooms have a very distinctive smell. In the right context, the kitchen for instance or perhaps a steaming bowl of risotto, the smell of mushrooms and other fungi is something that Janice would enjoy. But mushrooms paired with humid upholstery and sticky industrial carpet immediately sent her mind into the realm of tube socks and secretions, sweaty men and words like jism and spunk.
“Eli, are the windows operable?” Janice tiptoed into the living room. “Have you even tried to open them?”
He was back on the couch dressed in his New England Patriots outfit. The XXXL red nylon t-shirt, with the white and blue accents on shoulder and sleeve, and the lucky number 12 plastered across his flabby chest, tented over his puddle-gut stomach. He’d grown a sleazy reddish-brown mustache in the two weeks since Janice had last been here. Throw on a pair of aviator glasses you’d get the classic rapist look, circa 1974. Was that what he was after? Eli picked up the hand-mirror in his left hand and with the razorblade in his right, parceled out two small lines from the little mound of powder, never once taking his eyes off the wall-sized flat screen television. He was a devout sports fan. No matter the time of year, that man had a team to champion and apparently there was an outfit with accessories for every season because this guy was always in uniform. Eli offered Janice the mirror.
“Last batch had a strong gasoline taste,” Janice said as she searched through her purse for the three-inch length of red-and-white striped Dixie straw. Ever since Eli handed her that rolled up dollar bill with a tiny chunk of snot dried on the rim, she’d been using her own equipment.
“Seriously,” she said as she took the mirror. “Smelled like a cerebral hemorrhage.”
Suddenly Eli threw his hands up in the air and roared, “FUCK. YES.” He pounded the floor with his patriotic sports shoes, jumped up, rushed forward and actually kissed the plasma screen. He spent a few moments reliving the play-by-play, up close and in slow motion, repeating each word of commentary with a confident nodded of his head. When they broke for commercial he gave Janice a celebratory slap on the ass then hurried into the kitchen for another beer.
Janice bent and snorted Eli’s, stubby little line of coke into her right nostril. She preferred long, elegant lines but Eli was a lazy pig. She closed her eyes and felt the instant numb at the back of her throat then wash of the drug. God, she loved coke.
“Now this is what I’m talking about,” she said as Eli walked back into the room. She sniffed the other line and gummed the residue. “Much better.”
“Same shit.” He laughed as he dropped back down onto the couch, sloshing a little beer onto the cushion. “Exactly the same batch.”
Eli was a liar. He was a hinky, corrupt little swindler and if his arrest wouldn’t cause more trouble than it was worth, she might think about possibly making an anonymous call. She pulled two hundred dollar bills from her back pocket and dropped them on the table.
“How’s my cousin Frank?” he said as he reached under the cushion for her drugs. Of course Eli’s hiding place would be under his ass. He pulled out a small baggie of chunky cocaine and handed it over. In theory it was an eight ball but Janice didn’t have a scale so there was no telling.
“He babysitting?” Eli giggled. “Taking the kids to Sunday School?”
“Golf.” She stuffed the drugs into the pouch of her wallet and closed her purse.
“What about Jamie, Gardner and Maddie?” Eli said. “You dropped them off at Nana’s or something?”
Janice nodded. She had her keys out and started for the door.
“Wow.” Eli stood. “Really?”
“Lovely to see you, Eli.” She grabbed the gummy knob pulled the door open. “As always.”
There was a juice bar next to the gym. It used to be a coffee place and before that a smoothie store and a few years before that it sold falafels but now it was all about cleansing and optimal health. Janice studied the menu. Alkaline Heaven (spinach, cucumber, celery, carrot, apple), Parsley Pep (Parsley, garlic, ginger, pear), Eye Eye Captain (Kale, carrot, spinach, beet), Cucapple. They all sounded disgusting. She ordered a small orange juice and watched as the girl made a big show of picking out just the right oranges, cutting them in half, and squeezing them by hand. Had this girl washed her hands recently? Too late to ask. There was a book for sale on the counter with a handmade sign announcing that the writer had signed it.
BOWEL CARE: A TIMELESS AT-HOME GUIDE TO COMPLETE COLON HEALTH “This book kept me reading all night. I couldn’t put it down.” The flap jacket promised to teach you how to read your feces so that you could understand the hidden mysteries of the inner you. It also outlined the putrefying effects of red meat and processed sugar. There was a smiling picture of the author. He was bald.
Janice drank half of her strangely bitter juice then threw the cup in the trash and walked into the gym. She was fifteen minutes late but that just meant fifteen minutes less. She wished she’d done another bump before she got out of the car but too late now. Perry was standing by the front desk, waiting.
There were better trainers at the Solid Platinum Gym. Trainers who would make you work hard, and force positive changes on your aging body. There were trainers who took an interest in your diet, insisted that you jump rope in the parking lot, made you stand one-legged on the balance board while performing dumbbell curls. There were men and women who used loud voices and foul language to inspire their clients towards and new and better physiques. But Janice hadn’t hired any of those individuals. She was not interested in being scolded, pushed or prodded.
Perry did not smell particularly good, was not overly intelligent nor did he have a sense of humor. He wore his sweat pants pulled just a tad too high over the swell of his stomach and his collared polo shirts were on the tail end of respectable. He was pale, pasty and pudgy, a real stumper for contestants on “What’s My Line”. He did not carry a gym bag filled with nutritional supplements from which he might earn a substantial commission. He did not sell any at-home equipment with which the client might keep him/herself busy on those long off-days between gym sessions. There were no famous athletes in Perry’s stable, no ex-basketball stars or football wonders to validate his unique approach. Perry did not have a ticket to the hall of fame. He was not going to write a book or host a TV show. He would never be invited to that party. But Perry, and Perry alone, traveled with the Maxi Rub MR-2 Professional Back Massager, the NM#3 Shiatsu & Vibration Neck Massager (with heat), the hand-held Thumper Sport Percussive Massager for the smaller muscle groups, all with various retractable extension cords. He packed his contraptions neatly into his faded red Samsonite roller bag, which he pulled into the gym each morning, so he could incorporate the various electronics into his routine. Perry believed that relaxation was the key to a balanced body and every session began with a thorough massage.
Janice pushed her way through the turnstile and forced a smile at her eager trainer but then suddenly had a change of heart. This morning, even 45 minutes with Perry was just too much. It was Sunday, for god’s sake. How about a day of rest?
“I gotta go.” Janice waved her arms in a demonstration of urgency. “My mother. I have to run over there immediately.”
“Can I help?” Sweet Perry, so earnest and sincere. So disappointed not to spend the hour with Janice. “I could drive you,” he said.
“No! That’s okay.” Janice was definitely going to go hell. She would be tortured, eyelids held open forced to watch unspeakable atrocities, denied water, burned for her unforgivable sins. It’s what she deserved. How could she do this to such a nice man? Looking into Perry’s concerned and disappointed face was proof of her wickedness. She felt terrible. But then she often felt terrible. In fact, she spent much of her life huddled under a great dark cloud of free-floating shame. What kind of a woman uses their eighty-year-old mother to get out of a workout on a Sunday morning? Who drops their children at the mother-in-law’s so they can replenish their stash? She, Janice Bane, was a monstrous, selfish human being.
But on the other hand, why did Perry have to wear that hangdog look? She’d already paid him for the damn hour. What was the big deal? He could go have a cup of coffee or a nice little nap. He should be happy. Really, his disappointment was a little creepy. And it was kind of stalkerish that he wanted to go to her mother’s house. It might be time to change gyms.
Janice got in the car, leaned over the center console of her Prius and helped herself to a couple more hefty snorts of coke. She pulled out of the parking lot and found herself turning left towards her mother’s house instead of right, which would have led her home. It was a subconscious decision but one she recognized as yet another murky act of misguided retribution. She was doing this more and more often lately. These unplanned visits never made her feel any better but her mother seemed to enjoy them. I’m sorry, mommy. I’m sorry. What was she so sorry about anyway?
The Wilson residence, red brick, white windows, black shutters, classic Georgian architecture, big and traditional. There had been a lawn jockey in Janice’s early childhood. Red vest, white pants, black face with exaggerated lips and bulging eyes. It sat next to the front door. Janice had a clear memory of tying the family dog to the brass ring when she was about five years old. They must have gotten rid of that little embarrassment shortly thereafter. Janice’s mother claimed the lawn jockey never existed.
Janice got out of the car and started for the house. As she unlocked the front door with her key, she wondered briefly if they sold hair shirts at Neiman Marcus.
Her sister Lynn came out of the kitchen eating a piece of chocolate cake with her hands. Lynn had thyroid problems, according to Lynn.
Lynn shook her head and worked furiously to clear her mouth of that final bite. She had temporarily moved back into the house right after their father died two years ago and she was still here, territorial as an elephant seal.
“It’s Sunday?” Lynn said as she wiped the crumbs off her cheek. She missed a couple that had stuck to her increasingly dense and fuzzy menopausal mustache. “Brunch at the beach club?”
Mother’s schedule was the focal point of Lynn’s life and she took Janice’s lapse of memory as a personal insult. For the last thirty years their mother had Sunday brunch at the beach club. Actually it was a little weird that Janice had forgotten. Score another point for Lynn Wilson.
During her first six glorious years of life Lynn existed at the exact epicenter of the universe, idolized by her adoring parents. To this day, she carried a set of vivid memories from that time, charming vignettes of an only child, which she shared freely at any given opportunity. And then, shortly after her sixth birthday, baby sister came along. The details have never been spelled out but Janice does know that at three months old she was found on the sidewalk, hidden in amongst the trashcans, and was rescued by the garbage collector. At four-and-a-half months she was hospitalized with mysterious food poisoning. And then, one morning after Lynn had returned from Sunday school, when Janice was seven months old and almost starting to crawl, Lynn swaddled her tightly in dishcloths, placed her in a laundry basket, and set her adrift in the swimming pool. That’s when they brought in the professionals.
“Tell mother I stopped by.” Janice turned, had the door open and was halfway down the steps thinking she might actually make a clean getaway.
“What are you doing?” Lynn was right behind her, crowding her personal space.
“Going home.” Janice kept walking towards the car. “I was at the gym.”
“You’re awfully thin.”
“Thanks, Lynn.” Janice pulled open the car door.
“It wasn’t a compliment.”
Janice slipped into the driver’s seat.
“Do you have a cold?” Lynn held the door open with her man-sized hand.
Janice started the ignition. “Gotta go.” She shifted into reverse and let the car roll back a couple of inches. Lynn jumped back and Janice pulled the door closed. She turned out onto the street and considered re-cueing The Solitary Man but there was no place for him here right now. Janice drove home in silence.