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Insomnia in Excelsis


by Peter Cherches


“Tell me, Anthony, what are you going to do with a gross of blackhead removers? I don't mean to pry or nothin', but I'm curious. … No, baby, I didn't tell the mailman nothin'. … Wait a minute, honey, you don't have to talk to me like that, I wouldn't do anything to … No! Anthony! Please! Stop!”

            Weird shit TCM shows in the middle of the night. “One Hundred and Forty-four Blackhead Removers,” starring Shelley Winters and Richard Conte. Low-budget film noir. Or perhaps I should say tête noir.  I have to be up at six. It's almost four now, and I can't sleep.

            “Where's Paparelli?”

            “He ain't here.”

            “You ain't holdin' out on me, are you, sister?”

            Click, click, click.

            “Reverend Bascomb, what are you doing?”

            “I must have blood, ten thousand more pints, if our work is to continue.”

            “Curse of the Vampire Evangelist,” starring Earl Holliman as the evangelist.

            “I'm sorry, Mr. Cherches, but the X-rays reveal an eight-piece serving for four in your left lung. We're going to have to operate.”

            “What are my chances, Doc?”

            “Poor. Very poor.”

            “Give me percentages,” I say, trembling. Wait a minute, I'm not trembling, I'm having an orgasm. The nurse is giving me a blowjob as the doctor delivers the bad news. I pull back the sheets. The woman with my cock in her mouth is Maria Ouspenskaya. I shoot my load and I hear a Bach fugue.

            The nurse is now at the harpsichord. “I am not Maria Ouspenskaya,” she says, semen dripping from the corners of her mouth. “I am Wanda Landowska.”

            Now a cop is handcuffing me to the hospital bed.  “Hey, what gives?” I ask.

            “You're under arrest for child molestation,” the cop says.

            “Child? This woman is as old as dirt.”

            “The only dirt in this room is you, my friend. This girl is eleven years old and you are a very sick man.”

            I take another look. My goodness, it's not Wanda Landowska or Maria Ouspenskaya at all. It's Patty McCormack, straight out of  “The Bad Seed” in an inappropriately sexy nurse's uniform. Patty is throwing a tantrum. “He made me do it! That bad man made me do it!”

            What's that I feel now? Damn, the doctor is poking me with a fork.

            “Feel anything?”

            “Nope.”

            Now he's cutting me with a steak knife. “Anything now?”

            “Nope.”

            “Now?” he asks as he pours Tabasco into my lacerations.

            “Yes,” I say, just to get rid of him.

            But he doesn't leave. He starts licking my wounds. But wait, it's not the doctor. It's Agnes Moorhead, and I'm in the hospital ward of a women's prison.

            Wow, I guess I fell asleep after all. Good. I need all the sleep I can get. I want to be ready for that audition tomorrow. Tomorrow? Today?

            Do I really want that job? Before I saw that ad I never even knew such a job existed. Corporate crooner. It's part of the spiritual wellness program at a too big to fail financial institution. When the bankers and brokers need a break they go to the lounge and make requests of the crooner. According to the ad, the job requires a broad knowledge of popular music of all styles and periods. That's me, for sure, but do I really want to be a karaoke mascot for the one percent? The money is tempting, though. Eighty grand.

            “As it is written in chapter 7, verse 11 of ‘Ecclesiastes,' or is it chapter 11, verse 7 of ‘The Book of Job'? Or perhaps it's the twenty-second psalm, or the fifth commandment, or the fourteenth amendment, or the eighteenth hole at Inverrary. Maybe it's the last game of the '55 World Series. Or position 247 of the Kama Sutra. Damn it, I just don't know. I don't know! I don't know! What do you think of that, you fucking assholes?”

            Wow, the minister on “Sermonette” is having an on-air breakdown. What the fuck? I thought they canceled “Sermonette” years ago.

            Click, click, click

            “…Then I'm doing two weeks at the Hattie McDaniel Room of the Best Western Biloxi, and after that I'm booked for a month at the Golden Chili Dog in Chickasha, then I'll take a few days off to catch my breath before I'm off to the Tennessee Williams Festival in Zagreb, and my baby's due in April, and on May 17th I start shooting a TV movie called ‘Superficial Two-Step with an Indelible Cataract.'”

            “Will that be a comedy?”

            “They haven't decided yet.”

            Click, click, click.

            “Nothing gets out stains like new Bizz, with hydrochloric acid.”

            “Hydrochloric acid? But Marge, isn't that dangerous?”

            “Nonsense. You're soaking in it now.”

            Click, click, click.

            “Tony, you've got to find me ten more teenage girls with lousy skin.”

            “But boss, where am I going to find them.”
            “Same place as always. St. Vitus Tap Dance School for Girls.”

            “But boss, Sister Philomena is getting suspicious.”

            “You just take care of the girls. I'll take care of Sister Philomena.”

            I have to pee. Real bad. But I don't want to get out of bed. I don't want to get out from under the covers. It's cold out there and I'm exhausted.

            I'm ten years old and I'm watching my mother vacuum the living room carpet. She's singing in a foreign language I don't understand, but the melody is “Melancholy Baby.”  Then, after a while, she departs from the melody and goes into a Schoenbergian sprechstimme, now reciting the English lyrics to “Melancholy Baby” in a high-pitched shriek.  And her housedress is made out of teeth. Suddenly she puts the hose of the vacuum cleaner to my head and it sucks out all my hair, and now I'm completely bald. I start crying, and she lashes out, starts scratching my arms with her long fingernails, draws blood. Then, all of a sudden she starts singing “Auld Lang Syne,” only it's not my mother any more, it's Agnes Moorhead and it's New Year's Eve in a women's prison.

            And when I wake up I still have to pee.

            Click, click, click.

            “…and lift and stretch and bend and lift and stretch and lift and stretch and lift and bend and stretch and bend and lift and bend and stretch and bend and stretch and lift and stretch and lift and stretch and bend and lift and … exhale.”

            Click, click, click.

            “Where are you taking me, mister?”

            “To a very special place where they can cure even the nastiest case of blackheads.”

            “Even mine?”

            “Even yours.”

            It's been six months since I've had a paycheck. Six months since I was fired from my legal proofreading job at Four Dead WASPs. Fired for insider trading. I had passed on info gleaned from my wee hours proofreading sessions to my brother Bart. The one they got us on was the National Rendering takeover bid for Superior By-Products. They promised not to prosecute if I resigned quietly. My money's running out. I'm in a bad way.

            And I still have to pee. I can't hold out any longer. I get out of bed and start walking toward the bathroom. Just outside the bathroom I see a cockroach. I'm about to step on the bug when I hear a tiny, high-pitched voice. “Please don't kill me, Mr. Cherches!”

            “How did you know my name?” I ask the roach.

            “This is your apartment, silly,” the roach replies. Then he says, “Follow me, we're having a party!” So I squeeze through a little hole in the wall, after the roach, and inside hundreds of roaches are dancing and munching on familiar-looking crumbs.

            “So,” I ask my roach host, “what are they dancing? La Cucaracha?”

            “The Mashed Potato,” the roach replies.

            The music is very faint, but yes, indeed, it's Dee Dee Sharp singing, “It's the latest, it's the greatest, mashed potato, yeah, yeah, yeah…”

            And I wake up and I still have to pee. I go to the bathroom and I take a leak, finally. I piss for like twenty minutes. When I'm through I return to the bedroom and get back under the covers.

            “That was some racket you had going: smuggling dope in blackhead removers, child prostitution, insider trading, covert operations for the CIA. But it looks like the party's over.”

            “Don't count on it, copper.”

            Six AM. I turn off the alarm before it has a chance to ring. I hop out of bed, shower, throw on my three-piece suit and take the subway to Wall Street.

            I had arranged to meet Lee Feldman, my piano accompanist, in the lobby of the office building. He was already there when I arrived. “Everything OK, Lee?” I ask. “Sleep well?”

            “Great,” he replies. “I slept like a baby.”

            Bastard.

            We take the elevator to the 40th floor, the bank's executive offices. “I have an appointment with Mr. Lusk,” I tell the secretary.

            “Have a seat,” she says. “I'll tell him you're here.”

            Two hours, three issues of The Economist, a coffee-stained copy of the Kiplinger Newsletter, and everything I ever wanted to know about Lee's kids later, a large man in a gray suit comes out to greet me. He's incredibly tall, close to seven feet, and his head and hands are disproportionately large. I suspect he has acromegaly, like Andre the Giant.

            I stand up.

            “Mr. Cherches?” I nod my head. “Will Lusk.” He shakes my hand. I suppress a scream. “Follow me.”

            Lee and I follow him into the lounge. It's like a mini-ballroom. Curtains all around, chandeliers, and a white grand piano with a candelabra. “Here, put this on,” Lusk says, tossing me a jacket. It's a sequined white dinner jacket, Liberace-style. I replace my suit jacket with this one.

            “All right, Mr. Cherches,” Lusk says, “are you ready?”

            “Yessir,” I say.

            Lee sits down at the piano, spared the indignity of the sequined jacket. He feeds me my intro, and I start to sing: “Money makes the world go round, the world go round, the world go round …”

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