An hour before noon Venice Beach was crowded, but something had changed in the rather extended period since my last visit. There were no longer any pit bulls strolling along with their masters. A prohibition against dogs, which at Venice Beach meant pit bulls, was announced on signs posted every twenty yards or so. The dogs had added a special look of malevolence to the always dense crowd but, after all, it was only a look. This was in truth a peaceful location: really just a parade of low end fashion choices. On either side of the boardwalk stalls offered silver jewelry, paintings on cardboard, reggae cassettes, t-shirts, hats, sunglasses.
I approached a sunglass stall across the boardwalk from a bicycle rental. This had been my instruction on the phone. The vendor was attired against the heat in a sort of beekeeper’s outfit, all in white. It could also have been a fencing costume, absent the mask. From under his white baseball cap a towel hung to protect his neck. Nonetheless, what I could see of his face was deeply sunburned. He wore reflecting sunglasses with wraparound lenses of a bluish hue.
“Bill?” I said. “We talked on the phone?”
“You look great.” I couldn't help commenting.
“It’s hot, bro.”
Was this the man to whom Bean had referred me? Apparently so. He had seemed comfortable with what I’d said to him in my call. I told him I wanted exactly what I’d told Bean. There had been no hesitation: “Cool. Venice Beach. Sunglass place across from bike rental.”
We stood there. Then he turned, and I saw a woman in the shadows of the stall. At his glance she rose from her beach chair and moved to the front of the stall. She was older, heavy set, like the fortune tellers and palm readers on the boardwalk. "Take over for a sec, will you, babe?" he said, and then to me: “Come on in, bro,”
I walked past rack of sunglasses as he unfolded another beach chair in the back of the stall. “Have a seat.”
We faced each other in the beach chairs. He removed his glasses. I saw his blue eyes, the white skin around them, the whitness of the whale...
“What was your name again?”
“Oh yeah. How you doing today?”
“Mitch, when’s the last time you had sex?”
“Five years ago. Ten, maybe.”
“So you want some changes in your life, right? In your sexuality.”
“Okay.” From his pants pocket he took a green and yellow bead bracelet. “Fourteen hundred dollars. Bro, days of free pussy are over. But put this on and see what happens.”
“What will happen?”
“Show me the money!”
This guy -- Bill -- he had to be kidding. I had never felt so low. As if from a great height, I saw myself informing this jive talking con man that I’d not had sex in ten years. Even worse, I could not have cared less what he thought. Part of me found certain nobility in that. I was honest, and it is said that honesty is the best policy. But really, honesty meant no more to me than the thoughts of the jive talker. I’d just gone numb. Anesthesia was my everyday experience. In the bank, for example, I had no inhibitions about announcing I was broke. In fact, it was quite enjoyable to make that announcement. Having nothing, I hid nothing. But was I now nothing?
Sartre’s title Being and Nothingness came unexpectedly to mind. What was it in French?
“Snap out of it, Mitch.”
I cocked my head. “What?”
“You’re spacing out. This is a business, bro. Yeah, the bracelet costs money. But it gives you what money can’t buy. You haven’t had any of that in five years. Maybe ten. By your own admission. You said so yourself. But if you don’t want it, that’s okay. Suit yourself.”
He put the bracelet back in his pocket.
“I do want it,” I heard myself saying. “I’ve got the money,” I lied.
“Yeah? But you were spacing out, Mitch. You weren’t acting like you wanted it. You were acting like you didn’t want it. I can tell when people want it. I know when a dude wants beautiful, luscious women to go nuts over him no matter how pathetically shriveled up he is. How old are you, bro?”
“Sixty-one? Hey, that’s nothing. Seventy, seventy-five? That’s nothing. You know how old the oldest dude that bought one of these was? A hundred and seven. Dude walks in here, he’s a hundred and seven years old, he’s totally shriveled up, he knows there’s not a woman in the world that will go to bed with him, but he still wants beautiful, ripe, luscious women -- just like when he was a kid! So he pays the money because he still wants it! Ha! He pays the money and he takes his choice! Dude is a hundred and seven years old! One hundred and seven!”
He fell silent. In the sudden quiet I detected a shuffling noise. It was the woman from the front of the stall. “I got to take a piss, Bill,” she said over my shoulder.
The woman moved into the sunlight. “She’s going to the Starbucks,” Bill said, as if to reassure me. Did I think she would squat in the alley? He got to his feet, replaced his sunglasses. “Just hang out here a second here, bro. I got to man the fort.” As he passed, he clapped me on the shoulder. “Now don’t space out! Ripe, luscious, succulent babes! Fourteen hundred dollars. Want it or no?”