The door to the parlor of Francis Franklin’s hotel suite was open a few inches, and we heard clucking noises inside. It was not uncommon for Franklin to have chickens in his suite. We heard a flopping sound, as though a great fish had been tossed onto the carpet, and Franklin’s voice cried, "Oh, get down in it, baby!"
I held back from going in, but Gretchen Schindler pushed open the door. She laughed hoarsely and screamed, "What the fog are you doing, Francis?"
"God dawg, pussy has ruint his brain," Billy Bob Teagarden said, shoving past Gretchen and disappearing into the room.
Colonel Burnett looked quickly at me, wanting to share his anticipation. The Colonel was a tall man in his middle fifties with short white hair that lay close on his skull. He had purple pockets beneath each eye, so that he always appeared to be recuperating from a beating. Annoyed when I didn’t grin or wink or slap him on the shoulder, he grabbed the arm of Jerre, a red-haired hooker, and dragged her inside with him.
I scratched the back of my head against the plaster in the hall. For the past week, traveling across the country on a promotional tour for the television series Six Guns Across Texas, in which I starred as a genuine, authentic, pistol-shooting, shit-kicking cowboy, I had been taking Bennies at the rate of about ten a day to keep my mouth and head working, and whenever I did try to lie down for a few hours I would get a rerun flash that would snatch me right back up again. In New York the night before, on the Tonight show, sitting there with all those cameras aimed at my face, an Italian starlet at one elbow and a blind man who whistled bird calls at the other, I had found myself saying that in fact I had a very low opinion of my TV series, and planned to quit it immediately and go home and make a movie about Texas in partnership with my good friend Buster E. Gregory, who knew how to take pictures, and we would tell what the place was really about as we lived it, not the crap people were supposed to believe if they watched Six Guns Across Texas. I hadn’t intended to announce that just yet, but when you take a lot of Bennies you don’t always know what you are about to say. Now, in this Washington hotel hallway, I could feel my heart plunging through my back against the wall. I’d probably had fifty martinis and Scotches since I’d last tried to eat anything but an Almond Joy, and I was entering that strange, illusory country where soon I might hop sideways to avoid a man in a black leather cape, or catch from the edge of my eye the flicker of a creature that had not been there an instant ago. All I really wanted at the moment was to keep from patting any invisible dogs and get back to Dallas.
On the wall outside Franklin’s suite was a painting in an ivory-colored frame that had cherubs carved at each corner. The painting showed a shipwreck at sea in a storm, the ship rolling its masts down to the waves, and the lifeboats swamping, and men clutching at broken timbers, and, far up in the right corner of the canvas, the sun faintly starting to cut through the clouds. My mother had a painting like that on the wall of her living room in Dallas beside "The Last Supper" and a picture of Jesus praying in the garden at Gethsemane.
"John Lee, come see what this big fool is up to!" Colonel Burnett called from the doorway with a glass of whiskey in his hand.
The Colonel and Billy Bob Teagarden were lobbyists who worked for Big Earl, the ninety-three-year-old Dallas billionaire, and his kind of simple-minded son Little Earl, and for Francis P. Franklin. Colonel Burnett represented the Republic of Haiti and Big Earl’s family interest there in sugar, coffee and sisal, and had at one time influenced the prosperity of ranchers and sugar-cane growers in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Billy Bob and the Colonel both put in a word in Congress now and then in behalf of oil producers, pipeline and heavy-construction companies and any other enterprises favored by Big Earl, Little Earl and Franklin.
"Better have a cocktail before you witness this scandal," Colonel Burnett said, giving me the glass. Gretchen’s furry laugh came from behind him, and Billy Bob Teagarden was giggling through his nose. The clucking had ceased, replaced by a crackling sound, as though newspapers were being crumpled for the fireplace.
"John Lee, old cock! Hidy! Hidy!"
Hearing Franklin’s voice, Colonel Burnett stepped aside. I saw Franklin lying on the floor with his feet together and his arms out-stretched in a crucifixion posture. He wore only a pair of sagging Jockey shorts with orange stains on the pouch. At one time Franklin had been the tallest pilot in the United States Air Force. Laid out on the floor, his six-foot-eight-inch body covered nearly half the width of the room. His chest and stomach were stacked with paper money. Money had scattered all over the parlor. The carpet crunched with it. Money littered the coffee table, the couch, the bar and several chairs. Looking down at my shoes, I saw that all of the money was one-hundred-dollar bills.
"John Lee Wallace, old cock!" said Franklin.
Franklin’s hands closed on two bunches of bills. Moaning and clucking, he rubbed the money on his face, his chest and his stomach. He lifted the elastic band of his shorts and crammed money into the pouch.
"Gretchen, baby, come get your dinner," Franklin said.
"I’d like to get nailed on a bed of hundred dollar bills," said Billy Bob Teagarden.
"I’ve did worse," Jerre the hooker said.
Jerre yanked off her high-heeled shoes and waded in money. She raised her skirt and the tail of her mink coat so she could kick money into the air. Gretchen dropped to her hands and knees and crawled through money, flinging batches of it over her head. Franklin sat up and pushed her and she rolled over on her back, wallowing in money, groaning and laughing. They were like children playing in a pile of leaves. Franklin hauled himself up to a cross-legged position. Hundred-dollar bills floated off him. Colonel Burnett filled glasses at the bar, pouring Scotch dark as Darjeeling tea. Winding up like a baseball pitcher, Billy Bob, in his green silk suit, waded money balls and hurled them against the red velvet drapes, shouting "Low outside corner! Strike three! The mighty Koufax!" His expression was considerably happier than it had been an hour earlier when we had picked him up in Colonel Burnett’s rented limousine outside a federal courts building.
I drank a couple of swallows of the Scotch Colonel Burnett had given me and, wincing at its iodine taste, looked over to see Franklin staring curiously at me. He still sat cross-legged in the heap of money, round-bellied and thin-chested, long arms reaching out to either side and fingers idly stirring money as though making rings in a pool.
"I read in the paper in New York that you were here for Billy Bob’s trial, so I decided to come down to Washington and ride home with you," I said.
"Then you didn’t know it’s my birthday?"
"Not until I ran into the Colonel in the lobby of the Dupont Plaza this morning," I said.
I had remembered then that Franklin was a Virgo. He used to make fun of the signs. If someone mentioned astrology, Franklin would recite Virgoan traitsthey are said to be neat, orderly, dependable, thrifty, painstaking, modest, hypercritical and so onand would demand to know how any of these fit him.
"John Lee, goddamn, I was being flattered that a big star like you had come specially for my birthday," he said. "Anyhow, this’ll make it a hell of a party. You can stay at my house."
"A girl’s meeting me, Francis."
"Same old John Lee! You just coming down for a visit? It’s been a long time since we’ve seen you and that maniac Buster Gregory running around naked in public and doing rain dances and causing floods. I can’t say it’s been dull, but we’ve missed your craziness."
"Buster and I are going to make a documentary movie about Texas, mostly about Dallas," I said. "We’re going to tell the truth about it."
"That’s a peculiar effort," said Franklin.
"Maybe you’d like to invest in our movie if you have any spare cash," I said, glancing at the carpet of hundred-dollar bills.
"John Lee, I don’t ever use my own money for anything, you know that. Besides, what kind of truth are you talking about? Any kind of truth you and Buster try to tell is liable to make a movie that is way too far-fetched. Take my advice and get yourself a reasonable angle."
Franklin looked at me in a manner I took to be odd and maybe hostile, but I considered I might be misled by the Bennies and weariness. An oddly proportioned bug, a flying worm or tadpole, wiggled through the air in front of my face. I clutched at it. Franklin suddenly chuckled.
"Catch it, old cock, it might be real!" he shouted.
"Franklin scrambled to his feet. He had aged very much for only a year to have passed. He was not more than fifty, but he had turned the corner. His hair was thinner and grayer, his flesh dry and loose under his chin where a year before it had been tight. His nose seemed sharper and had taken on a reddish hue. Broken veins spread across his cheeks. His stomach was rounder and more prominent, his liver swollen, but he still looked fierce as an ostrich.
"Girls, clean this stuff up," Franklin said. He tossed Gretchen a large airline flight bag. "Stick it in there."
Billy Bob lobbed a money ball into the flight bag.
"How much loot is this?" he asked.
"Two hundred thousand," said Franklin.
"Your birthday present?" the Colonel asked.
"Little Earl wants to give it to some A-rab," said Franklin.
I sat in an overstuffed chair and closed my eyes. Behind the flying worms were other strange-colored shapes. Colonel Burnett opened the drapes to let daylight in as Gretchen and Jerre scooped money into the flight bag. The Colonel looked down on Pennsylvania Avenue and jiggled the ice cubes in his drink.
"Hey, John Lee, here’s your picture in the Post," Billy Bob said.
"Yours was in there once in handcuffs," said Gretchen.
"That wasn’t damn handcuffs! I had my hands behind my back is all," Billy Bob said. He showed me the picture of myself on the television page. Since I had grown long hair and a mustache, whenever I saw my picture or a reflection it took a moment for me to recognize myself.
John Lee Wallace, one of the stars of the popular Western series Six Guns Across Texas, revealed on the Tonight show in New York that he will not return to California when the series resumes filming late this fall. The actor said he intends to shoot a film of his own in Texas, probably in his hometown of Dallas. Norman Feldman, producer of Six Guns Across Texas, told me today that Wallace’s action is "preposterous nonsense. John Lee tends to be somewhat erratic, you might even say bizarre, in his behavior. This is merely an example of his whimsy. He will definitely be back on the show. . . ."
"Ain’t it kind of stupid to quit?" said Billy Bob.
"I like to keep it moving," I said.
"Are you really a star?" asked Jerre.
"No," I said.
"Seems like I would of heard of you," she said.
"Here’s his goddamn picture to prove it," said Billy Bob.
Jerre’s round gray eyes studied the photograph, lashes popping like butterfly wings.
"I never saw that show," she said.
"It’s about a old man and his crippled brother and his son and three orphan boys that live on a big ranch and shoot ever’body’s ass off if they mess around," said Billy Bob.
"Are they queers?" Jerre asked.
"Queers! Shit-fire, this is a family Western show!" Billy Bob said.
"I hate violence," said Jerre.
"Hasn’t the Colonel asked you to pound his bobo with a slipper?" Gretchen said.
"I don’t do them things," said Jerre.
"Well, you should of seen John Lee when he played Tarzan," Billy Bob said.
Jerre looked at me skeptically.
"How long ago was that?" she said.
"Right after he left Dallas to go be a star," said Billy Bob. "He give up his TV show where he was doing real good on the news, and we thought he was crazy and ruint, and next thing I saw of him he was running through the woods with a towel around his waist."
"Maybe that explains his hair, but Tarzan never had no mustache," Jerre said.
"He only made one movie as Tarzan," Billy Bob said.
"Did they use a double for Tarzan," Jerre asked me.
"For a lot of body shots and swinging in the branches and swimming underwater and for most of the animal rassling," I said.
"How come with so many real guys who could do it and would love to of got the chance they had to use a fake Tarzan?" she said.
"Tarzan was never real live in the first place," said Billy Bob.
"They wrote him up in a book, he was a English prince," Jerre said.
Franklin came out of the bedroom wearing a dark suit, white shirt and white tie. His cheeks were powdered, and the aroma of cologne floated around him. He hefted the flight bag and gave a hundred-dollar bill to each of the women.
"That A-rab can’t count high enough to miss a couple of these," he said.
Franklin zipped the bag and hung it over his shoulder. Billy Bob phoned for a bellhop. In the lobby an assistant manager leaped around his desk to beg Franklin’s prompt return. Franklin got into the front seat of the limousine and told the driver to take us to a luncheon club for drinks. I sat in the jump seat with one knee mashed against the warmth of Jerre’s thigh. The club was in a hotel. Billy Bob Teagarden pushed a button, and we heard a click. A carved wooden eye looked at us from a gilded triangle. We walked through a room that had a small bar of black tufted leather with a brass rail. Mounted fish gleamed against paneled walls. Billy Bob led us on into a room that had a player piano, stools with red leather tops, a sofa and two cocktail tables. The flight bag swung from his shoulder as Franklin sat down on a stool made from an elephant’s foot. He left the bag on the floor and went to the bar, and we heard him muttering into the telephone. I peered into the third room at the dining table and paintings of pheasants. When Franklin returned, Billy Bob was telling Jerre about Franklin’s appearance in court the day before, when Franklin had been called to recount what he knew about Billy Bob bribing a congressman to make sure a bill that raised the tax on earth-moving equipment never got out of committee.
"Two marshals had to go in the can and catch Francis by the feet and drag him out of a stall," Billy Bob said. Franklin stopped to light a cigar and summon a scant smile. Among Franklin’s friends there was very little that might not be told about one another, except of course nobody told stories about Big Earl or Little Earl within their hearing. "Francis was shaking and sweating like he had malaria," said Billy Bob. "They put him on the stand and started asking if he was on the board of directors of this or that corporationand he didn’t know!"
"Nobody’s perfect," Franklin said.
Being Big Earl’s top executive and one of his few partners of consequenceBig Earl didn’t have much use for partnersFranklin was involved with hundreds of corporations, many only as a name on a document.
"They got to naming off these corporations and asking if he was on the board, and old Francis got to guessing," said Billy Bob. "He’d say yes or no like calling heads or tails. He had a bad streak of guessing wrong. Finally they come to the Kum Klean Soap Company. You could see Francis looking at them gals on the jury like he knew ever’ one of them used that soap."
"They all looked like my sister-in-law," said Franklin.
"The U.S. Attorney is a smart little Jew. He said all right, Mr. Franklin, are you on the board of the Kum Klean Soap Company?’ Francis looked at them gals and pulled hisself up straight and said yes, sir, I sure am.’ The Jew said no you ain’t.’ Francis said well, boy, I wish I was.’"
Jerre looked at Franklin as if he had confessed to being a vice-squad officer. "There ain’t nothing to this little deal," said Billy Bob. "They’ll drop it when the papers lose interest."
"On your damn head," Franklin said.
"I use that soap myself," she said.
"Billy Bob, you’re so cautious with your mouth I can’t imagine how you ever got in trouble," Franklin said.
"They wouldn’t let me go down on a thing as small as just trading some favors," said Billy Bob.
"Pretty popular with the Attorney General are you?" Franklin said.
Billy Bob fell to brooding. With money he had made from a company that sold spare parts for airplanes and helicopters, Billy Bob had put all eight of his children into private schools and had bought a big old house in Georgetown. What he seemed proudest of about the house was that when you opened a closet door a light automatically went on inside. At a cocktail party a year earlier he had taken me around the house opening closet doors and saying, "They’d jump through their butt if they saw this in Cotulla."
Between seizures of nausea and rushes of agitation, I ate half a bowl of cashew nuts and listened to Gretchen gossip about politicians. Gretchen had a German accent, a husband or ex-husband somewhere in the U.S. Air Force, and she was what we called an everywhere woman. Some said she was a spy for West Germany, and others said she was simply a prostitute. She was one of those people who is drawn toward power.
While Gretchen chatted on, and Billy Bob Teagarden struggled with his gloom, two young men in white linen uniforms and one in blue with a stethoscope around his neck entered the club. The two in white were wheeling a stretcher. The one in blue glanced at a piece of paper in his hand and then raised his head and looked around.
"Mr. Wallace!" he called.
"That’s him!" yelled Franklin, pointing at me.