Howie's On Charlie
An excerpted chapter from
Notes For A Theory Of The Chaos At The Heart Of Things
Charlie called me right out of the blue. I love that subtle Southern twang of his. What is it, Texan or something? I don’t know. It’s educated but easy. He’s my man. I watch him every night if I’m still awake. Howie, he said, I want you on my show. It was like I knew he’d call. I don’t know how I knew, but I knew. I told him it would be my pleasure and what should I wear. I could wear my corduroy velvet sport coat with a red silk tie. I could wear a Ralph Lauren blue jean shirt with a black knit tie. I like that look on me. He told me to bring a couple of outfits and his people would pick one out. I love that. His people. He has people. I have people, but not like he has people.
Then I asked him point blank, and I don’t know where I got the balls to say this, but I asked him, Is this about me or is this about Gideon? You, he said, you. It’s all about you, Howie. But everyone who watches the show is going to want to know about Gideon. Charlie, I said. Let me make this clear. I am not comfortable talking about Gideon. Well think about it, he said, because everybody is going to want to know. Do I have to wear make-up? I asked him. I wasn’t sure if I could deal with that. Howie, he said, make-up is easy. You won’t even know it’s on your face. And you will look great. I promise you will look like a million bucks. Well I knew that. They have that great dark background, it makes everything look so incredibly important and prestigious. And with my salt and pepper head of hair, and my tall slouch I figured, wow, even Mindy will be impressed. And I needed to impress her. She’d been acting kind of crazy lately, ok, she’s been fucked up. I thought I knew that girl. I really did.
Anyway that’s how the dream starts. How about that, doc? I don’t know what to make of it.
“Mmm, hmmm…. He wanted you to talk about Gideon?” A long lethargic pause. “Do you want to talk about Gideon today?”
(No, you freaking idiot, I do not want to talk about Gideon today. I just want to talk about my dream and get out of here in one piece. Is that too much to ask?)
I came out of the building through the side door. There is a lunch guy right on the street right by the door. He is there no matter what kind of weather. He is the man. So I grabbed a cream soda and a cannoli, no, that’s not right, I grabbed a chili dog and a coke and I walked across the street to the bookstore. This little bookstore, I love this bookstore. Tucked away in the canyons of the Street, it is like a little tiny island of sanity in the mad stock market sea. And there’s this great old guy, Tony is his name I think, yeah Tony, great old guy, and he runs that little store. He knows every book in the place. It’s not that big a place but still.
See I am like a history buff. History was my major at Princeton. Russian History to be exact. People used to say I looked like the young Joseph Stalin. Which was a compliment. Well, he was very handsome. Full head of thick straight black hair, piercing eyes. He was also a psycho killer, but if you saw the pictures, you would see it was a compliment. Anyway, the bookstore has a revolving door with some kind of eerie ESP thing going on in it, because half the time I swear to god, just as I step into the revolving door my phone goes off and I just sweep right around, with a big shiteating grin for Tony as I go, and I do a three-sixty and head back to the trading floor.
But on this particular day I came through the door with the chili dog in one hand and the cannoli, that’s right it was a chili dog and a cannolli, not a coke, and I came through the revolving door and goddamn sonofabitch Gideon Fine was standing in the back of the store talking to the books on the bookshelf in the Cinema and Fine Arts section. Yes he was. Not loud. Not totally and irrevocably call security intrusive, but he was having a major conversation with the third row of books from the top. I should have turned around right then and there, but goddammit I am not afraid of Gideon Fine and I do not intend to spend the rest of my life tiptoeing around him and his nonsense.
“G-man,” I said. I did not want to let him see me first. “G-man.” I walked up to him all smiles and a handshake. And then I grabbed him by the throat and said, “Cocksucking fuckbrain. You come to my house? You come in my house and you bleed all over my goddamn bed? What the hell are you doing in my bedroom, G-man? That is off-limits.” I shoved him against the wall underneath an oversize coffeetable book with a cover photo of that famous shot of Warren Beatty in Splendor in the Grass where he has his hands on Natalie Wood’s ass. “Who told you you could walk into my home and go bleed all over my bedroom bed? My wife was very upset. She was visibly upset. Are you reading me loud and clear, G-man?”
Tony was at the cash register. “Hey fellas,” he said, “Take it outside. Take it out of here. I don’t want any trouble in here.” I turned to the old guy and I apologized.
“Tony,” I said. “I am so sorry. Please forgive me. This is a minor personal matter. I had no idea. I came in here on account of I read a great great review in The Times about a new book about Henry the Navigator. I know you have it, don’t you, Tony? You do, don’t you? You read my mind on this one. I know you did.” He smiled in spite of himself. “Tony, you remember Gideon Fine. My ex-partner, G-man? G, you remember Tony, right?”
I turned to G-man but he was tugging on my sleeve and speaking very low.
“Howie. Look at this. This is really weird.” He pulled a book off the shelf. “I was over in the physics section and I found this piece of crap film homage to MechaGodzilla. vs. Mothra. It was totally mis-shelved. It’s a movie book and it’s sitting on the physics shelf, right. So I go, that’s kind of weird like that. Isn’t it? Yeah, and then it suddenly occurred to me that MechaGodzilla is a lot like beta decay in the unstable isotopes of uranium and several of the transuranic elements that have relevance to nuclear fission. You see where I’m going with this? Because then I go, whoa whoa wait a minute, because Mothra has a lot of similarities, wait wait I gotta get out my notebook here and take a few notes, because Mothra has a great many similarities to the deuterium tritium vector that is used in nuclear fusion, the so-called thermonuclear reaction.” He flipped a brown notebook out of nowhere and scribbled furiously in it for a few seconds. “You see what I’m saying here? Fission? Fusion?” I put on my best deadpan face, because I was afraid he would go off if I started to laugh and I was finding it very hard not to laugh. “There is no way this is just a coincidence, Howie. No way on earth.” I mean do you believe this nonsense? How do you hold a conversation with this guy?
“It’s mis-shelved,” I said. “It happens all the time.
“But why here? Why now? Why this book, which has connotations on so many levels?”
“Hey, G-man,” I said. “Could you just concentrate here for a second. Could you just respond to me on a level I can deal with?”
“Howie, this means something.”
“Forgive my inquisitive nature, G-man, but is that blood on the cover of that notebook. Is that the same blood that is all over the mohair throw in my master bedroom? Is that the same blood that is all over my sheets? Is that the same blood that there is a bloody handprint of it on my bedstead? Is it? Or is that OJ’s?”
So in the dream I was somehow in Charlie’s studio. Just like that. And I was having major reservations about going on his show. I did not want to talk about Gideon. I hadn’t really made that clear. And my clothes felt all wrong, like they didn’t fit right, but then I saw Charlie and he had a great big, good old boy Southern hospitality smile on his face and he slapped me on the back like he hasn’t seen me in a million years and gosh how great I look. He led me to the dressing room and this gorgeous babe in spike heels and leather, she smelled like Mindy, was putting make-up all over my face before I can say not to, and it’s like sex, I can’t explain it. Each stroke, each touch, each breath, the most erotic thing anyone has ever done to me, my whole body shivering with each daub, little gasps and groans coming out of my mouth as her brush slides by my lips, my mouth. I got this bad panicky feeling like you get in dreams sometimes that things were getting out of my control, but then I saw the set. Charlie’s set. With the big wooden table and the big wooden dinner table chairs and all the hot lights peering down, with people wandering around on the periphery. And I could not wait to sit down in that chair and start talking to Charlie. I am such a sucker sometimes.
“Did she tell you about the notebook?” G-man hissed at me. I mean he was way way out there, out in the power alley between left and center, the sun in his eyes, the roar of the crowd in his ears, but the ball was not in his mitt. “What did she tell you, Howie? Tell me what she told you. You are sworn to secrecy, you bastard. Say it. Say I swear myself to keep this secret. Say it.” G-man had a look in his eye that made me want to bearhug him till be broke down and cried. But I was not going to risk any real physical contact.
I had not seen him this bad in quite some time. I thought he was doing better. Mindy said he almost seemed normal when she saw him. But then what does Mindy know about normal? She is not exactly fluent in normal. She’s more like an exchange student from another continent who has come to learn the language.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, G-man,” I said. “What is this about a notebook? You stay away from my house I will stay away from your notebook.”
“Fine. Fine by me,” he said. I backed away from him. There was no way I was turning my back.
“Hey, Howie.” Gideon was hunkered down in the corner. “Look at this. Just look for chrissake.” There was an oversize book lying on the floor where we had knocked it loose in our little tussle. I glanced at it. “Look at this, Howie.” The book had fallen open to a page about Stephen Spielberg. There was a picture of the first Indiana Jones movie on one page and a picture of the third one on the facing page.
“So what, G-man? What has Spielberg got to do with this?”
“It’s the Holy Grail.” He picked up the book in both hands and stared at the page. “This is not coincidence. Did you do this?”
“Did I do what, G-man?”
“I don’t believe you, Howie. You are full of shit.” His eyes went very wide. He breathed in sharp and deep. The air groaned out of him. He seemed to be hanging by a thread.
“G-man, G-man. Get a grip. Come on. You’re in a public place.” I had to do something. I hunkered down next to him. Not easy, I’m a big guy. I have a certain girth. As soon as I touched him, he let go. Tears came down his cheeks, a gurgling freeze-your-nuts whimper in his throat. I put an arm around him. His body shook and shivered like a little kid’s.
“It’s ok, G. It’s gonna be alright. Come on, take a deep breath. Deep breath. Like in the old days when you got the wind knocked out, remember how coach Danakis used to say to you, Come on, sissy. Take a breath.”
You wouldn’t have thought he had room inside his psyche anywhere for humor, but he started to laugh. Laugh, cry, cry, laugh. What a major loon. Exhausting, high- maintenance Gideon. It was ever thus.
“Come on, deep breath,” I said. He sat with his head in his hands and wiped the tears away. We lay there, me and him and Stephen Spielberg for a couple of quiet minutes. I knew I couldn’t just get up and say bye. I knew I was stuck.
Next thing I knew it was showtime, and it’s me and Charlie and we were just jawing away and laughing and I was so goddamn funny talking all about my fascinating life and everything. And then he asked me with that sly little grin, “Tell me, Howie, what is your favorite swear word?” Wow, that really threw me for a loop, that question. I mean that isn’t right. That’s not his question. That is the question that guy asks on Inside Actors Studio, that pompous fawning little prig whatever his name is. And it’s supposed to reveal something deep and profound about you.
And I was thinking wait a minute, am I an actor? Am I some kind of movie star? That can’t be right, but I went with it because I had this great answer I have been waiting to use for just this occasion, so I told him Charlie, my favorite profanity is cocksucking fuckbrain. Cocksucking fuckbrain. I mean listen to that word. You’ve got the k’s going off like hand grenades. You’ve got the rhyme. And just when it you think it can’t get any tastier, it jumps from the back of your throat to your vibrating lips and comes spraying out of your mouth. Just say it, Charlie. Say cocksucking fuckbrain.
So Charlie said it, only it didn’t sound quite right on him. He didn’t say it with the proper conviction. So I told him he’s got to work on it. He’ll get it. I was hilarious. All over America intelligent people were laughing at my profane wit. This was the greatest moment of my life. I was a movie star, a celebrity. I could hear people laughing all over America, this warm sea of laughter washing over me, making me feel good to be me. Now tell me that ain’t weird.
“Uh huh. And what about Gideon?”
“Howie, was it you or was it her?” he asked me after a long quiet moment.
“Was what me? Was what her?”
“Who started it, Howie?” I couldn’t look at him. I scanned a row of self-help books. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that he was looking straight into the floor like he was looking for the truth where God buried it in the earth when he first made the world.
“What do you want me to say, Gid?”
“Start with the truth and then embellish it,” he said. Always with the jokes.”
“You want to be mad at me, I’ll say it was me. You want to be mad at her, I’ll say it was her.”
“I want it to be like a dream where suddenly everybody wakes up and it never even happened.”
Oh god. What was I supposed to do with this guy? “It’s not a dream, G-man.”
And then I said a stupid thing. “It’s more like a nightmare.” He looked at me funny like what are you trying to tell me Howie. Only I didn’t really want to tell him, not right then, not lying on the floor so close I could smell his sadness, the two of us wedged in between the movie stars and the self-help gurus. Pitiful state of affairs. How did I get myself into these situations?
“Who is this chick I married?” I asked him, not because I thought he knew the answer. I asked him because I thought God might be listening in on this one, monitoring the conversation for insights into the state of our souls, and I wanted Him to know I was confused. “I thought she was a sexy little firecracker. You always gave off, ‘Hey I got me a sexy little firecracker, don’t I?’ Didn’t you? You did, you know you did. You lied to me, G-man. She is not a sexy little firecracker, is she? Is she? No, she isn’t. She’s like a thing, a whachamacallit?” We were leaning against each other kind of close, kind of way too intimate for a pair of grown men, even if they did share their childhoods, their business careers and a certain wife.
“Succubus?” Gideon offered.
“Vampiress?” he volunteered.
“You knew. Of course you knew. You insidious little fuck.”
“Howie, sometimes you don’t really know what you’ve got till you lose it. You know?”
“You think this is funny, G? I have lost my sense of humor on this one. You know my migraine medication? No, you probably don’t. I’m on this new medication. It’s called Inderal, it’s this tiny little microscopic pill. So small. How could it wreak such havoc?”
“What?” he asked so innocently, but he couldn’t wait to find out.
“ It interferes with my, how shall I say this, my ability to…. my libido.”
“She calls me names, G. You want to know what kind of names?”
“Good, because I don’t think I could tell you what they are.”
“How is it for the headaches?” he asks.
“Headaches are gone. So is my hardon.”
“Tough shit, Howie.”
“Thanks for caring.”
“I care. I care.” He just didn’t care enough to hide the great big grin that spread across his sensitive littleboy mad scientist puss.”
“I’ll shove that smile right down your throat.” I said.
“Sorry. Sorry. I was just thinking.”
“You don’t speak Italian,” he mused.
“No, I don’t. I don’t know what she’s saying half the time we’re in bed.”
"Does she do the thing where she sounds like the fat lady in a Fellini film?”
“I think I heard something like that once or twice.”
“And does she sometimes say things you can't tell if she's laughing or crying?"
“Yeah, yeah.” I had to admit it. “What is she saying?”
“I wouldn’t tell you if I knew.”
“Yes, you would.”
“Yes, I would if I did,” he said still with the idiot grin on his face. “But I don’t. I just know it ain’t good. You can tell from the way it comes out of her mouth like she’s spitting out a bad piece of meat. “
“Yeah. Yeah it does, doesn’t it.” I started to laugh. He started to laugh. We laughed. We stopped. My phone went off. I looked at it.
“You want a kraut dog? Chili dog?” I asked him. “Something? I’m buying.” He seemed much better. Our lifetime thing, our friendship, had worked its weird magic once again.
“No, no thanks, Howie.”
“What are you, macrobiotic now? They got cannolis. That’s health food.”
“Nah, nothing for me.”
“Ok, I’m outta here. Nice to see you, G-man.”
And then he did it. Charlie asked me what it is like to live in the shadow of Gideon Fine, this genuine certified genius whom I have known since childhood, who was the king of cool in middle school, who outshined me with effortless ease in high school, who eclipsed my every academic accomplishment at Princeton, whose unpredictable outbursts of genius, his mathematical inventions, garnered untold millions for our business and gained the notoriety of Wall Street, whose gorgeous and desirable wife is known throughout Manhattan and Westchester County for her stylish demeanor, her lavish entertainment budget and her perky little fuck me butt.
How about that? Is that some kind of weirdness or what?
Goddamn that pissed me off. Charlie was supposed to be my man.
“Why the hell did you come here, G-man?”
“I don’t know, Howie. I just needed to see your face. Been a long time. I’ve been feeling kind of cut off.”
I didn’t buy it. But I let it go for the time being. We picked ourselves up off the ground.
“I’ve got to go, G. My beeper.”
“Yeah. Go. Do what you gotta do. Go.”
I went. I was halfway to the door when he said, “Howie, I think can intercept the virtual trades on the quantum level in the secure workstations.”
You can what?”
“On the Unix servers on the private trading floors. I think can intercept the trades that don’t exist and I can buy and sell them and make a fortune. I can execute a virtual trade before the phantom buys and sells annihilate each other in the quantum foam. I mean I think I can. Listen to me, Howie.”
He giggled. His eyes darted. They briefly met mine. I didn’t know half the words he was using. Buy and sell, I recognized. Make a fortune, I recognized. He was pulling my chain. It was obvious.
“I gotta go, G-man.”
“Wait, Howie. What day is it today?”
“It’s Friday,” I said.
“Oh, yeah. And I got services tonight at the temple. You coming to Bobby’s Bar Mitzvah?” I asked. “It is almost upon us.”
“Yeah, we got a date in late November.”
“I don’t think I’m allowed. And by the way I appreciate your paying for this. I owe you on this.”
“Hey, no sweat on that,” I said as I stepped into the revolving door. “Only too glad. And I’ll see what I can do about getting you in there for the thing, put in a good word with the powers that be.”
So in the dream I said, Listen to me, Charlie and listen to me good. I loved this guy from day one. Like in fourth grade when we are having our first report card day and we are finally going to find out who is smart and who is really smart and I peek at my report card, and I’ve got A’s and B’s. Holy christ! A’s and B’s. I am on cloud nine. I am smart. It’s official. And here comes Gideon down the hallway, which is glassy with the sheen of fluorescent light, and he whips it out and he has got straight A’s and a D in handwriting.
It is the D that kills me dead. The semi-legendary D in handwriting. Because even then everybody knew that sloppy handwriting is a sign of genius. Who gets A’s in handwriting besides girls who draw daisies on their notebooks? But Gideon gets straight A’s and a D in handwriting and he is already mythic. And who am I? I am just the fourth grade schmuck who happens to be his best friend. Doesn’t matter. I still love him. I would die for him on an island in the Pacific in World War II if they were still having it.
And then in eighth grade I summon up every ounce of courage I have in the world, and I walk up to Janie Logan at the candy counter at Woolworth’s, and I buy three licorice sticks and a Pez, and I ask her to the movies to see Psycho, it’s playing again, and my heart is pounding so loud the old guys at the lunch counter look up because they can hear it.
And all she can talk about is Gideon. Who does he like? Does he like her? Would I ask him? What would I say when I do, and please not to tell him I talked to her, and how freaking Laura Schweitzer thinks I’m cute. But that’s ok because I love him. I would go with him to Vietnam if I had to and pull him drowning from a rice paddy in a deadly cross fire and rescue him in my Huey.
Now it’s junior year in high school. We are on a double date in my Dad’s Buick Skylark, and the radio is playing Everley Brothers and Rubber Soul, it’s prefect! And me and Laura Schweitzer are in the front seat in a sexual miasma of unimaginable proportions, and I have finally for the first time in my life got my hands on her bare tits, and she is moaning like you read about it in a book, and I am triumphant, a tit man with Laura Schweitzer’s bare tits in his hands, I might ascend bodily into heaven, and I swear to god I go to kiss her and we hear this sound in the back seat and I look in the rearview mirror and I notice that Janie Logan is out of sight, and we hear this liquid sound from someone’s mouth, only this is not a kissing sound, and I realize Janie Logan is sucking Gideon’s cock in the back seat of my Dad’s Buick Skylark, Janie Logan who I have beat off to the image of her face in my lap since I knew what going down meant. And I am utterly, utterly destroyed. But I still I love him. Still. I do. I would be a roadie in his rock band, and mix his music every night in the back of the stadium while ten thousand girls scream for him.
Now we are juniors at Princeton and we are living in this really cool dorm in the tower of Blair Arch, and me and my buddies, we are hot shit. We’ve got a band. We’ve got brainiac rich chicks with white blonde hair from Miss Porter’s School hanging all over us, we are outrageous, and I am playing sockball on a Friday evening waiting for the action to kick in, and this girl walks in the door in torn jeans and high heels and she is drop dead in your tracks gorgeous, black hair thick as celery, you want to salt it and eat it, maybe with some peanut butter. I mean like animal, scare-you-half-to-death beauty, this is the one and only time in my entire life I have fallen head over heels in love at first sight. And she slings her purse on the sofa and she says her name is Mindy Tempesta and do I know where she can find this guy, his name is Gideon.
Even so, I love him. I stay at his side. I cannot get this girl out of my head. I am stricken. Every time I come home, they are going at it, like she purrs, she moans, she begs, she laughs this heartstopping filthy laugh. I cannot escape her, and I want her so bad I cannot explain it to you. And they are slipping off here, and sneaking off there, and tiptoeing away everywhere we go and coming back all smiley and goofy and she’s got this dazed, just fucked look in her eyes. And then he marries her, and I have to give him the ring, to marry this goddess at his wedding. And still I love him. I would dig my way into a Turkish drug prison and swim the Hellespont with him on my back, dodging gunboats all the way.
Then one day he comes in with me and we go to work on Wall Street. Now I am good. I am sharp. I have learned the ropes, made connections, worked my way up. I go out on my own and I am doing very very well, and I take him in, because I love him. I do. I want to help him. I do. And we hit the jackpot, holy cow. We call it Market Computer Strategies, but really what it is, it’s a goldmine. Money is pouring in, we’ve got to catch it in bushel baskets and bury it with a treasure map to hide it from the IRS.
And what do they all say? I have been down there for years making my name. What does everybody on the Street say? Gideon! Goddamn Gideon! Guy’s a genius. Where’d you find him? You lucky bastard. He’s one in a million. Gideon! Gideon! Goddamn Gideon! I want to kill the bastard. I want to destroy his life. But I can’t. Because I love him. I love him. I want everything he’s got. The brains, the looks, the wife, the reputation. I want it all for mine. I want to take it from him. But I don’t. I would never do that. Because I love him. I love the stinking bastard. So let me tell you, Charlie, since you asked me. That’s how I feel about Gideon Fucking Fine. Ok? Capiche? Are we done? Is that a wrap? Can I go home now?
And I wake up.
“Hmmm. How do you remember all that?”
“But you did take his wife. And his kid. And his reputation. You took his life. How does that make you feel?”
How do you think it makes me feel? I hate myself. I love it. I’m disgusting. It thrills me.