That One Cigarette — Ch2

Screenwriter Stu Krieger launches first novel

As I get ready to launch my book with Publishizer, which you can check out here, I’d like to share a few sample chapters with you to hopefully pique your interest. The pre-order campaign for the novel will begin August 1 and I’d love for you to be one of my early subscribers.

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One thing David Salinger hated most was waking up and realizing he had no idea where he was.

Fighting his way back to awareness, battling through the cotton enveloping his throbbing head, the first thing he heard was the sounds of a television coming from another room. Hugh Downs. “The Today Show.” David cracked one eye, scanned the small, cramped bedroom. Not one damn thing looked familiar.

Are those god-awful gold swirls part of the wallpaper or am I having a stroke?

Pushing himself into a sitting position, he slowly opened his other eye.

Oh Lord. Who invited the drum and bugle corps to practice inside my skull?

He looked around desperately searching for his clothes.

Oh, thank God. There they are.

Folded into an unsettlingly neat pile on the seat of a straight-back chair. Glancing at his watch, David’s heart started to race. 8:32 a.m.

What day is it? Thursday? Howard Zellman is due at my office at ten. If I had any clue where I was, it would be easier to know how long it’ll take me to get to campus.

David realized he needed something to eat to calm his flip-flopping stomach.

A shower is out of the question. I’m not about to do it here…I have no time to get home. Oh my word, what was I thinking last night?

The answer was painfully clear: he wasn’t thinking at all.

David pulled up his slacks, tucked in his wrinkled pinstriped white shirt and fastened his belt. He dropped onto the edge of the bed, tugged up his socks and swiftly tied his wing tips, all the while trying to conjure a picture of the person who would greet him when he emerged from the bedroom. Damn it. He was drawing a total blank.

I went to Corky’s near the Herald to grab a quick drink after class last night…

David liked that place. It was dark, anonymous, filled with alcoholic newsman and ink-stained editors who didn’t care about anything but getting drunk in peace.

I knocked back a couple of Tanguary & tonics…

“Well, good morning.”

David’s head snapped up. The guy standing in the bedroom doorway was an inch or two taller than David, stocky, with a thick dark moustache. He had a bit of a belly hanging over the waistband of his navy blue boxer shorts and wore black socks pulled up over his calves. Instantly, David felt his face flush to a deep scarlet. He couldn’t make eye contact. Hanging his head, he responded with a curt ‘hello.’

“Seems like somebody slept pretty well,” the man chuckled.

David bobbed his head up and down. A suffocating silence filled the space between them.

“Can I, ah…may I fix you something to eat?”

“No. No, thank you. I, um…I…I need to get going. Work.” David snatched his tie and black sport coat off the back of the chair and moved toward the guy with an awkward smile. “So, ah…anyway….” He moved past his host into the hallway, head angled toward the beige carpet. “I’ll…I…thanks.” He started off to his left. The man chuckled again, seeming to revel in David’s discomfort.

“If you’re looking for the front door, it’s the other way.”

David pivoted, reversed course. He barreled into the living room, elated to find the looming exit in his sights.

“It’s Nolan, David. The name’s Nolan.”

Gripping the doorknob, David pivoted just enough to eye Nolan and then quickly nodded before yanking the door open and sailing out.

Standing on the parkway in front of Nolan’s three-story brick apartment building, David was struggling to get his bearings. He spied the intersecting street signs on the corner: Cochran Avenue and Edgewood Place.

That means nothing to me. Is that Wilshire over there?

David dug in his pocket and found his car keys.

Now all I need is my car.

He walked along Cochran, past several apartment buildings and a few modest homes. Finally, he spotted his blue Plymouth across the street. He glanced at his watch. 8:46. The best thing he could do was get acclimated, head to USC and make a beeline for any spot on campus selling a muffin and the biggest cup of black coffee he could find.

The street he thought was Wilshire turned out to be Olympic but that was good enough. He could head east, take Olympic to Hoover and get down to ‘SC without much hassle. Even if he encountered traffic, he’d be able to park at school, grab a quick bite and then settle into his office before the over zealous graduate student showed up with an endless litany of questions about the proper direction for his thesis project.

Oh my word, my mouth is dryer than Oscar Levant’s wit. What else is on the agenda today? Howard, class at noon and then…wait…oh no, dinner at Lisa’s tonight. It’s fortunate I keep a clean shirt and tie at the office.

If he showed up in the wrinkled, stained shirt he currently had on, his younger sister would be all over him — badgering him about when he was finally going to get married and stop living like a rebellious teenager.

“You’re thirty-three years old, for God’s sake. You need a wife; you need to start a family. You’re a college professor. You should be focused on teaching and writing great books and molding young minds — which you could be doing with much more diligence if you settled down.”

He knew she meant well, but he already had one mother. In New Jersey. And he had moved three thousand miles away to escape her, only to have his little sister follow him to the west coast, carrying the maternal mantle all that way on her delicate shoulders.

You know what? I’m willing to put up with every moment of Lisa’s incessant nagging if it means I get to spend time with my beautiful baby niece.

Gina Rose Kaufman was only three months old but she was already the light of David’s life. He swore they bonded the first time he held her in Queen of Angels hospital. Her eyes focused on him and stayed fixed on his face for three or four minutes without wavering. Then she fell sound asleep, making the most precious cooing noises. David loved everything about her — the way her smooth, pink skin felt, the way she smelled — she truly was a gift from God.

Oh my word, now I’m crying.

The steady parade of tears fell from his eyes, made tracks down his cheeks and splashed into his lap. Trying to keep his blurred focus on the road, David searched the glove compartment for a tissue. Finding one, he wiped his eyes, blew his nose and tried to pull himself together.

Why am I such a pitiful mess?

A vision of Nolan in his underwear and black socks popped into David’s head. He remembered the sex, hot and urgent. Finished minutes after it began. A searing wave of guilt and shame washed over David, threatening to drag him down into the muck of his mind.

Why can’t I control myself? Why am I so weak? What’s wrong with me? Everything.

By the time he strode into the lecture hall, precisely as the two hands met at the twelve on the black-rimmed wall clock, David Salinger was back in control. He had downed several cups of black coffee, changed his shirt, had his meeting with the inquisitive grad student and was now ready to pontificate on the root causes of the First World War. It was part of his current undergraduate class, World History of the Twentieth Century.

David was an engaging and popular professor. His classes were peppered with visual aides and entertaining anecdotes; he did his best to try to connect the past with relevant corollaries to his students’ contemporary lives.

He was also well regarded among his colleagues, on a firm path to tenure. He was working on a book about the Jewish American immigrant experience in turn-of-the-century New York. The idea for the project grew out of an interview he had done with his own grandfather a few years earlier, looking to capture that particular bit of family lore before the old man passed away. The vast majority of David’s research was done, he had a firm outline and a clear sense of where he wanted the book to go; all he had to do was write the thing. If only he could add twenty extra hours to each week.

When the class ended, the students sailed out, some in pairs or small clusters, all in animated conversation. It was their unrestrained enthusiasm for the most mundane details of their lives, that David found touching. They practically percolated with optimism and hope.

If they only knew fate is lurking around the corner waiting to kick them in teeth.

As he packed up his books and gathered his note cards, David noticed a hesitant-looking student hovering in his peripheral vision. “May I help you?”

She giggled and blushed as she twisted her big toe into the linoleum. David offered a warm smile, allowing her to exhale and calm down. She had a question about their next paper on the rise of Facism, wanting to know if she could write about General Franco even though they hadn’t yet covered him in class.

David responded, “Since I’m certain the majority of your classmates will write about Adolph Hitler, it would be quite a welcome relief to have you focus on Franco.”

The student thanked him but stayed put. She hesitated and then blurted, “Okay, I know this is probably way out of line, but if I worked up a detailed outline before I start the essay, is there any way you could look it over and give me notes?” David informed her that that was his teaching assistant’s job.

“The thing is, I really need to get an A this semester because, ever since I was a little girl, I’ve wanted to do my graduate work at Harvard and that’s never going to happen unless I do amazingly well here.”

She prattled on about a failed test after a horrendous fight with a boyfriend and gave many more breathless details than David needed, peppering her monologue with ardent praise for David’s teaching skills before she finally paused.

“I’d be happy to review your outline. Drop it by my office when it’s finished.”

The girl gushed, groveled and thanked him profusely and then vanished in a rush before he could change his mind. Buckling his briefcase clasp, David heard the voice of his friend and fellow professor, Charlie Yamamoto, in his head.

“The reason you get approached for this kind of malarkey is because you’re too nice. You let them take advantage of you. Doesn’t happen with me because I scare the crap out of them. They enter my office like they’re taking their final steps to the electric chair. And may I tell you something, David? That is exactly the way I prefer it. And you would, too, if you could learn to say no.”

David had heard variations on this rant every time he and Charlie were together. Thinking it through, David shrugged. He was a soft touch, so what? He wanted his students to like him; he got into this field to see each and every one of them succeed.

Besides, the busier I am, the less likely it is that I’ll wake up in a stranger’s bed.

***

While David returned to his office to outline the following week’s lecture, his sister Lisa Kaufman was home in Sherman Oaks, darting into her first-floor powder room, happy to have to pee so she could catch her breath.

Is this really what my life has become? Getting to go to the bathroom alone is the highlight of my day?

She told herself that even if she was doing her best to relish every precious moment with her new baby, she couldn’t deny that it was hard to recall a time when she wasn’t completely exhausted.

As soon as her intense-but-relatively-brief four-hour labor was over, Lisa was convinced Gina was going to be her easy baby — unlike Gina’s older sister Debbie who needed nearly twenty-four hours of nonstop, searing contractions to make her debut. Even their first child, Michael, took thirteen hours to emerge. Right from the start, Gina was serene, an observer. As long as she was being held, all was right with the world.

Sitting on the couch, giving Gina a bottle of formula as “The Guiding Light” flickered on the TV across the room, Lisa knew she needed to revel in this rare moment of calm. Soon, four-year-old Debbie would be up from her nap, they’d hurry out to the bus stop to meet Michael returning from his school day, and it would be chaos until the kids were in bed. Her husband Martin was a wonderful man, a great provider, a jovial dad — but he simply wasn’t a whole lot of help on the domestic front. He made the money, maintained the yard and, during baseball season, took Michael to a half-dozen Dodger games. What more was a man expected to do?

***

Braving afternoon traffic, David headed for a tiny gift boutique on Ventura Boulevard. Standing with the perky saleswoman, he held a set of plastic stacking rings in one hand and a jack-in-the-box in the other, weighing his momentous decision. The clerk offered a patient grin and asked to be reminded of the age of David’s niece.

“Three months tonight. That’s what we’re celebrating.”

“How lovely. Frankly, I’d go with the rings. The jack-in-the-box is a classic but it tends to scare the living beejeezus out of children. The parents crank the handle, “Pop Goes the Weasel” is tinkling along, and then that clown SPRINGS up so suddenly the poor little tykes burst into tears. I mean, honestly, I have never been clear on whether it’s a toy or a certified instrument of torture.”

David chuckled. “I’ll go with the rings.”

As the saleswoman wrapped the gift in bright yellow paper dotted with buoyant red balloons, David raked his fingers through his hair, worked to press his short sideburns into place and smoothed the front of his pale blue shirt. After having survived this day despite very little sleep and a backbreaking load of Jewish guilt, the last thing he needed was an inquisition from his baby sister.

Taking the tidy package, he thanked the woman and hurried out.

Driving to his sister’s two-story white-shingled home on Vista del Monte, David’s mind wandered to the book he was currently reading, From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming. The main character was a dashing undercover spy, James Bond. David knew that the novel had recently been turned into a film but he had no intention of seeing it.

Movies from books are never as good as the source material so why waste my time and money? Besides, I know I’d much rather hang onto the James Bond living in my head.

David had a fascination with spy novels; he had been reading them since he was a teenager. Because he was a college professor — an “alleged intellectual,” as he often called himself — these works of fiction were a cherished respite from the more scholarly tomes he was required to read at the university. The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan was another favorite — and hadn’t seen that film, either. He didn’t care that the supposed master Alfred Hitchcock directed it; he was convinced it would let him down.

Working it over in his head, David admitted to himself that the reason he loved these formidable secret agents, with their cool demeanor and multiple identities, was because each one possessed qualities he would never have: being cock-sure, unflaggingly brave and determined to seduce any woman who crossed his path.

***

Lisa was in the kitchen adding a splash of olive oil to the kettle of boiling water when the doorbell rang. Instantly, she heard the thundering footsteps of Debbie and Michael overhead as they raced for the staircase.

Moving into the living room, Lisa snatched Gina up out of the playpen where she had been contentedly staring at her butterfly mobile and held the baby against her chest. Debbie and Michael were right behind her, squealing about who might be at the door. Lisa promised to open it to find out.

“Uncle David!” Debbie and Michael shouted as they wrapped themselves around his legs; Lisa pulled her brother inside and closed the door. Before he acknowledged anyone else, David handed the wrapped package off to Lisa and reached for baby Gina. “Come on, give her up. I need to hug that little bundle right this instant.”

Eying the present, Michael piped up. “Is that for me?”

David cradled Gina in the crook of one arm and reached into his pocket with his free hand. “Afraid not, champ.” He extracted his hand and unfolded it to reveal two quarters. “But I do have…twenty-five whole cents each for you and precious Debbie!”

Michael grabbed the quarters, doling one out to his sister declaring that they were rich. Lisa advised them to run upstairs to put the coins right into their piggy banks before they got lost. The kids eagerly obliged. As soon as they were gone, Lisa waved the gift at David. “You know, you can actually show up without a present once in a while.”

David hoisted Gina into the air and slowly lowered her toward his face until their noses touched. The baby emitted a tiny giggle so pure and sweet it broke David’s heart.

Pacing the kitchen floor with Gina against his chest, her downy head tucked against the side of his neck, David watched Lisa slice a foot-long loaf of French bread. She asked how it was possible that Thanksgiving was only a week away. David reminded her she still hadn’t told him what he could bring.

“Swing by Marie Callendar’s and grab a couple of pies. An apple and a pumpkin would be perfect. I’m sure you’ve heard the folks are driving out to Aunt Ruby’s. Mom’s told me thirty or forty times already — squeezed between boundless whining about how you and I had to move across the country and ruin her life.”

David looked over the top of the baby’s head. “Is she asleep?”

Lisa nodded. Gina looked completely at peace, secure in her uncle’s arms. David asked who else would be joining them for Thanksgiving dinner.

“Ken and Marilyn and their two kids…Martin’s parents, of course — oh, and did I tell you? I invited my friend Joanne.” Seeing David’s blank look, Lisa went on. “You know, Joanne, from my painting class. I’ve told you about her: she’s smart and funny, really pretty — she works at Yamashiro as the evening hostess.” Lisa caught David’s eye and raised her brows in a mischievous declaration. “And she’s single.”

Feeling his face flush, David turned away to hide his chagrin.

“Honestly, David, you need to think about settling down.”

Later, after a delicious dinner with homemade strawberry tarts for dessert, David sat in the den with his brother-in-law, giving Gina a bottle of formula. Lisa was upstairs putting the other two kids to bed. The TV was tuned into “Dr. Kildare” but neither of them was paying much attention. David asked Martin about work.

“We’ve been selling like crazy. All of a sudden everybody’s listening to Dinah Shore, deciding to see the U.S.A. in a Chevrolet. And ya know what? Whatever it takes to bring them in is a-okay by me.”

Martin was partnered in a Chevy dealership in downtown Burbank with Teddy Winslow, his college roommate from UCLA. When they set out to name their business six years earlier, they’d tried to come up with a catchy hybrid or hyphenate version of their two names but Martin feared that any variation on Kaufman sounded too Jewish.

“It’s not as if I’m ashamed,” he said at the time, “but we don’t need to shove it in people’s faces. We’re in Burbank. It’d be a different ballgame if we were in Encino.”

In the end, they had simply settled on calling their place Winslow Chevrolet.

As Martin prattled on about the latest fancy features on his favorite new models, David’s attention drifted to the television.

I certainly wouldn’t mind a head-to-toe examination from that Doctor Kildare. Especially not if wanted to get naked with me.

When Lisa rejoined them, it was time to get Gina up to her cradle, still at the foot of her parents’ bed. Martin was sure the baby was ready to be moved into the antique oak crib waiting in Gina’s own room but Lisa wasn’t prepared to let her go.

“She’s our last baby, Marty; please let me spoil her a while longer.”

As Lisa lifted the sleeping tot from the warmth of her uncle’s arms, Gina woke up. Her heavy lids blinked a few times like a sultan’s fan and then snapped wide open. Her gaze fixed on her mother’s enamored face and the baby broke into an ear-to-ear grin.

David was ecstatic. “Oh my God! Did you see that? No doubt about it, it was a purposeful smile for her momma. Not gas, a real smile. And I was here to witness it!”

Driving home, David was speeding through Beverly Glen Canyon. From the Valley, it was a steep incline that peaked at Mulholland and then took a sharp downward grade to Sunset Boulevard. It wasn’t the quickest route back to his bungalow in Silver Lake but, on this particular night, it was the way David felt he needed to go.

Approaching the top of the mountain, his mind was whirling.

Lectures to prepare, letters of recommendation to write, Thanksgiving with a hostess from Yamashiro who, bless her heart, probably thinks I’m a prospective husband. Nolan and his black socks. That fellow from Detroit with the spooky green eyes I picked up so late on a Saturday night on Santa Monica Boulevard. Oh God — and the Midas Muffler man…a brake job and a blowjob — two for the price of one. I doubt if that kid was a day older than eighteen.

Stomping on the gas pedal, David was getting closer to the hairpin turn where he would have a light-dappled view of the San Fernando Valley in his rearview mirror while the open, empty canyon appeared in front of him. All he’d have to do was drive over that rim and it would be done.

The shame. The guilt. The self-loathing. He’d never have to admit anything to anyone. He’d sail into the air and be free.

With no one in front of him, David gunned the engine and punched the pedal to the floor.

In another minute I’ll be soaring.

##

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