The thing on the bar of the smoke shop was oblong, heavy dark plastic with a simulated wood grain. Its tiny black curtain opened on a retro telephone. The telephone’s cord looked like an umbilical—thick, twisted, blue, and translucent.
“Why, it’s a miniature confessional booth,” Magnum said, staring in bemused astonishment.
Ron Brell beamed, blowing a smoke ring out past his hand-rolled and personally blended cigar. “Oh yes,” he confessed proudly. “And I’m going to order five thousand of them initially, for a Sunday ad in Parade magazine.”
“Am I?” The two men stared each other down. Former friends during their University of Hawaii fraternity days, they’d been known to swap pranks in the past. But this was middle age now, a reunion for them a lifetime later in the choice-blasted landscape of compact cars, sensible shoes, and 401Ks.
“What have you been drinking as well as smoking?” Magnum asked. He noted Brell’s thinning red hair, one hand resting on his widening paunch, where his fingers drummed as if testing a market watermelon. “You got some weed mixed in there, too?” Magnum added, and nodded at Brell’s cigar. “Is this what a mid life crisis looks like?”
Brell smiled thinly, hiding his golden teeth. His pate might look like a cue ball soon, perfectly round and hairless as he regularly used a razor to reject God’s meagre allowance. By contrast, Magnum’s gut was still flat, due to innumerable sit-ups and the tight support of elastic. Above a Madras shirt, Brell’s eyes fluttered like American flags—red, white, and very blue. “I’ve bet the farm on development costs,” he told his ex roommate, evenly. “It’s a sure thing, which is why I’m already celebrating with a fine cigar.” Brell took another long draw, savored it, then exhaled slowly, bathing Magnum with the aroma as if to chastise him, Higgins-style, for driving a Fiat instead of a Ferrari.
Magnum glanced back at the confessional telephone on the bar, noticing a thin cord which snaked behind it under the counter. His stool squeaked under him as he turned fully to study it more closely. “You’re not even Catholic, though,” he heard himself say, testing the first of an entire litany of objections he knew would soon come to his attention.
Brell laughed. “My market base is non-Catholics. Do you know how many non-Catholics there are? Or Catholics with a sense of humor about the Pope?”
As if on cue, the phone rang in its miniature confessional enclosure. Or rather chimed. The bartender answered it, exchanging glances with Brell. “It’s for you,” he said, and handed the receiver to a surprised Magnum.
“Who knows I’m here?” Magnum asked Brell, whose smile now flashed golden in the recessed lighting as he tilted back to lock his hands behind his head. Into the phone Magnum said, “Hello?”
The voice on the other end was upbeat, up tempo. “What do you think so far?” it asked him.
“Excuse me? Who is this…Higgins?”
“Gordon Bellamy, Magnum. Ron’s publicist and manager. Yours too, if you come aboard.” Magnum was speechless, although his mouth dropped slightly before hanging to one side. Half an hour later, as he pulled shut the tiny black curtain with his forefinger and thumb, Magnum was chastised again with a long, slow ring of smoke which encircled his head like a noose.
“I have to confess,” Magnum began, over lunch the next day at Ric’s New Cafe, “it does have a kind of kitschy appeal.” He stabbed a hunk of beef with his fork, lathered it in A-1, and chewed for a moment of consideration. “I like the ad too. Avoids sacrilegious references. Challenges the buyer. How’d you come up with the idea of promoting truth and honesty?”
Brell smiled. “Makes a great gift for the boyfriend, son, or gossipy old aunt, doesn’t it?” Magnum lifted the mock ad, as it would appear in Parade should he agree to write a check for it in a sum equivalent to his savings during five years as a P.I.. In the image at the upper left was the confessional booth, seemingly full size, its curtain closed. Is there something you need to confess? the ad asked. In the lower left was an image of the confessional open, the phone showing. Remember–you must not tell a lie. Or else.
“Makes a great gift,” Brell repeated, tapping the slogan in the lower right, where details were given, along with an 800 number. He grinned. “The price is right, too. Twenty nine, ninety-five. Under thirty, because if you go any higher than that magic number, you lose half your audience. At five thousand initial stock, if we sell out we clear ten bucks each, that’s–”
“I can do the math,” Magnum said. “But what if we don’t sell out?”
We. Oh boy, he’d said it, now. It had slipped out, and he knew what that meant. Brell knew it too. Now it was Brell’s job to move past it as fast as possible.
“That’s just initially,” Ron cooed, ignoring the question. “There are other ads to run as well, and other magazines, like the Enquirer. Other venues too.”
“Late night television. The Home Shopping Network. We should get plenty of free local publicity too, with such a unique product. Imagine the possibilities. We could go on radio and TV talk shows and talk about how we want to clean up phone sex with minors. Talk about how good people will feel to get things off their chest and tell the truth for once. How people need to communicate with someone they’ve neglected calling, or treated badly in the past. A former classmate, an in-law. We could say that’s how we got back in touch, too. You and me! We could say we had a fight back years ago, and that we hated each other, underneath it all, back then. Then a late night phone call, a little reunion of old buddies, plenty of confessions, forgiveness on both sides, and now we’re thick as thieves.”
“Good analogy. You’re not serious.”
“No? Well, I’m thinking of writing a book, too. A companion volume to the phone, titled I Cannot Tell a Lie. How confession leads to discovering your inner self, and that speaking the truth sets you free! With sample conversations…even tips on how to confess your sins and cleanse your soul. Hell, it should be a bestseller! Buyers of the confessional phone can be pitched about the book later, or get it now as part of a deal for thirty-nine ninety-five.”
Magnum shook his head in amazement. “You got it all worked out, haven’t you. You and. . .”
“Gordon. Yeah. He’s presenting the idea to various talk show hosts now. He’s very creative. The phone call to you at the bar was his idea, you know.”
“For what percentage?”
“He gets fifteen percent. The rest of the profit goes to pay back our development and advertising costs.”
“You talking net or gross for Gordon?”
“Net, of course! After unit product costs.”
“What if the units don’t sell? Who pays Gordo then?”
Brell pinched the bridge of his nose. “You’ve got to think long term, Magnum. I know that’s hard for you, but after we’ve paid ourselves back the investment we made for development and startup, it’ll be pure profit, plenty of money for everybody.” He looked up and grinned. “We’ll be rich, my son!”
Magnum sat back and studied the half moon of fat rimming his plate, where his steak had been. He didn’t realize he’d been so hungry. When the bill came, though, Brell got up to take a smoke outside.
Sunday morning, five weeks later, 9 A.M.. Magnum approached the corner table of the smoke shop, near the window. He set down his Colombian–-cream, no sugar-–and lit up a Dominican. Then he pulled Parade magazine free of the newspaper he carried in his other hand. Next he sat and began to leaf methodically through each page, scanning the contents like a typical reader might, letting the articles and ads catch or lose his interest in turn. As he neared page 21, where Gordon told him the half page ad would appear in nearly every newspaper in America, he tensed involuntarily, and then paused before turning.
Then he did it. The page turned and fell. He was staring down at a full page ad for a commemorative medallion celebrating the battle of Gettysburg, in .999 fine silver, shown 4x size, at $99 plus $8 shipping and handling. Visa and Master card accepted.
He looked down for the page number, and stared at it as his heart skipped, beating erratically now, faster and faster, like an old Fiat—accustomed to slow speeds and needing a tuneup—when it is floored for the first time in years.
Page 21. There was no mistake. The opposite page displayed an article—an interview with grade school students on what they thought of mandatory school uniforms and turnstile metal detectors. He flipped to the end, hoping for some last minute placement adjustment, but the last pages displayed discounted vitamins and interviews with aging movie stars. Now he went in reverse, thumbing through each crisp, colorful page like a nervous junkie in search of a fix. When he got to page 1, he accidentally spilled his coffee, sloshing one leg. The heat of it burning into his thigh failed, however, to stop his head from turning to view the pay phone just outside. He rose and exited, walking robot-like, oblivious to stares from an old geezer in the corner, his throat emitting a low, sustained growl of pain edged with a plaintive, almost pleading quality. He dialed Brell’s number first. There was a click, then a mechanical voice said, “We’re sorry, but this number is no longer in service. Please hang up and try again.”
He did, but this time he dialed Gordo. “We’re sorry,” the same voice repeated, “but this num–”
Magnum slammed the phone back hard into its cradle for a ten count. Number ten cracked the black plastic on the receiver end, and drew a series of honks from a laughing gaggle of frat boys passing outside in a Camaro. He clamped shut his eyes and took several deep breaths as he remembered Brell’s words: We hated each other, underneath it all, back then. Had it been true? For Brell, at least, it was now obviously true. Secretly, Brell had hated and envied him all along. Had it started when he began dating Brell’s ex girlfriend, Jill Conners, their Junior year? Jill and Ron had seemed finished at the time, but maybe Ron had hoped to rekindle something with her, and he had spoiled it. What a bizarre way to get revenge, though, twenty years later. Unless he was looking for a mark, was in town for a while, and Magnum seemed easier to scam than a stranger. Maybe Brell had gotten the plastic confessional phone out of some Taiwan novelty catalog. Was he in Hilo already, showing the thing to some other patsy in a bar or smoke shop?
Magnum called the owner over, asked asked for a phone book. No matter what it took, he would track Brell to the gates of Hell. If what he did next required a priest for absolution. so be it. Not that he cared. He wasn’t even Catholic.
“Why, it’s a miniature confessional booth,” Ed Weiss said, staring in bemused astonishment.
Ron Brell beamed, blowing a thick smoke ring straight up toward the ceiling. “Oh yes,” he confessed proudly, once again, for old times sake. “And I’m going to order five thousand of them initially, for a Sunday ad in Parade magazine.”
“I never kid,” Brell replied, smiling his golden smile. As if on cue, then, the phone chimed in its miniature confessional enclosure. The bartender answered it, exchanging a surprised look with Brell. “It’s. . . for you,” the bartender said, and then handed the receiver to an even more surprised Ron Brell.
“Hello? Gordon?” Brell said tentatively, looking out at the L.A. skyline. For an odd instant he half imagined a killer standing beside the dead body of Gordon Bellamy, gripping a still smoking 45 mm. Then he shook it off. “Gordon?” he asked again.
The phone went dead. Brell replaced the receiver slowly. His face drained.
“Who was that?” the newest mark named Weiss asked.
“I’m not sure,” Brell confessed. “And as you know, on this phone, I cannot tell a lie.” He smiled, then sat motionless for a moment, stymied, as his own smoke ring gently settled back down over his head like a noose. –0–
© 2004 in Plots with Guns by Jonathan Lowe