Excerpt

Love Junkie

Robert Plunket

May 17, 2024 
The following is from Robert Plunket's Love Junkie. Plunket was born in Greenville, Texas, in 1945 but raised in Havana and Mexico City. After college he moved to New York and embarked on a successful career as a waiter and office temp, then moved to Sarasota, Florida, where he became Mr. Chatterbox, the gossip columnist for Sarasota Magazine. He has written for many publications, including Healthy Aging, This Week in Ft. Myers Beach, and Sandbars and Sonnets: The Southwest Florida Poetry Review.

I’ve hated every job I ever had. I just don’t “get it” when a woman feels she has to leave the home to find fulfillment. I hate to leave my home. And for what? Eight hours of prison! (Although I must say that if you manage to sneak off for a little shopping, those hours stolen from work can be among the most intense you will ever feel.) But on the whole it hardly seems worth it. And who, may I ask, decorates the workplace? They lavish money and end up with something ugly, bland, “efficient.” Why can’t an office be pretty?

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My first job out of college was with the USO, when I leapt at the opportunity to spend a year in Guam. (“Hmmmm,” said Dr. Fineman. “Perhaps you wanted to get away from your mother.”) “She taught the sailors how to play bridge, haw, haw, haw,” Boyce would tell people. Actually, I just worked in an office at Mooney Air Force Base, right behind the Sports Complex. I mostly typed and ran the mimeograph machine. That was my specialty. I was a fabulous mimeographer. I just had a feeling for the machine. I always got the ink exactly right. Too bad it’s a dead office skill.

For some reason this made the US Army consider me qualified to become assistant director of the Arts and Crafts School for army dependents in Kaiserslautern, West Germany. A fancy title, to be sure, but this job was even worse than the other. All of a sudden I had all sorts of “administrative responsibilities.” One of them was to pay the fuel bill. One month I didn’t. That was the month we switched suppliers. I couldn’t figure out which one to pay and was too embarrassed to ask. I kept putting it off and pretty soon it hadn’t been paid for three months and by this time I had no idea what to do and all the books were getting out of kilter. Then we got this nasty letter from a lawyer. Thank God one of my other administrative responsibilities was to open the mail. That was the day I decided to accept Boyce’s proposal of marriage.

Having been both, I feel it makes more sense to be a volunteer rather than an employee. That way the pressure is off and you feel more like a member of the team. And Tom and I certainly made a good team, I must say. He gave me total access to him. In fact, just about every afternoon we would sit in his office and “shoot the breeze” for hours. We discussed plays and movies he’d seen, the latest restaurant reviews in New York magazine, the gossip on Page Six, all of the many things that go into making NYC the great and glorious “Big Apple.”

But what I liked best was when we had lunch together. We did this quite often. One week we did it twice. On Monday we went to Luigi’s Grotto di Mare on Fifty-Fifth Street (Tom had a “thing” for squid), and on Thursday we went to the Coq d’Or on Eighth Avenue, a very attractive French place well known for its moderately priced specials. On Friday, October 2, we went to Jean Lafitte, and Marsha Mason was sitting at the very next table. I kept track of these dates on my desk calendar, using a secret code.

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Tom was a delight to work for, and I’m happy to say that he seemed very pleased with my work. One of our major activities as a public relations firm was to prepare grant applications for clients, and these had to look terrific and contain absolutely no typos, particularly the budgets. That would be a disaster. And you should have seen these budgets—they went on for pages, columns and columns of numbers that had to be lined up just right. I rented an IBM Selectric so I could catch up at home. Even so I was overwhelmed. Finally I started taking the stuff over to this woman on Carmine Avenue in Yonkers. She was a shut-in, thank God, and totally unaware of inflation. She hadn’t raised her rates since 1962. She would do a thirty-page proposal for $7.50, and her work was flawless. Tom was amazed. The only thing he couldn’t figure out was how come I never typed that well at work.

Gretchen Schiller was green with envy about my new job. And Boyce was more thrilled than anyone. It kept me busy, and best of all, it kept me out of his hair. It seemed like one or the other of us was always working late, either Boyce at the Union Carbide headquarters up in Stamford, Connecticut, or me at our office on Fifty-Fifth Street.

The only person not too ecstatic over my new life was, oddly enough, Dr. Fineman. I think he was a little “P.O.’d” that I’d gone out and gotten a job without his input. As a consequence he would always “pooh-pooh” it, implying with his tone of voice that it was some little Mickey Mouse thing, like those ladies who take visitors around historic homes or put together Monte Carlo nights. Under the circumstances, I think you’ll find it only too forgivable that I “embroidered” certain details. After all, what was he going to do—drop by and check?

I sure hoped not. Take our offices, for example. I described them as being in a “midtown penthouse,” and while this was technically accurate, I should point out that the penthouse was located in one of those buildings in the West Fifties that are so sooty and grimy that they now appear to be virtually black. This particular building had actually been rather elegant at one time, but that was long, long ago. Now it was reduced to being semicommercial. Little companies like Gomezfilm and Mardi Gras Fashions had sprouted up all over; there was reputed to be an escort service on the second floor. A few residential tenants were left, mostly little old ladies whom the atmosphere had toughened. Mrs. Bernstein was famous for shutting the elevator door in your face. And speaking of the elevator, more than once I found a puddle of urine in the corner.

Back when the building was fashionable the maids’ quarters were on the roof, in something I want to describe as a large hut. Actually, it was a maze of little rooms, just sitting there in the middle of the roof. The greedy landlord had recently renovated this structure as office space. He was having trouble renting them, though, as the elevator only went up to the ninth floor. This meant you had to climb a flight of stairs up to the roof, where, off in the distance, you could just make out the offices of Arts Resources, Inc.—so far off in the distance, in fact, that one foggy morning I couldn’t make them out at all.

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There were two ways to get there. One was a circuitous route past funnel-like appurtenances and a water tank. The other way was more direct but required climbing over a low wall.

I’ll never forget my first day at work. I was totally convinced that I had the wrong address and was wandering all over the roof peeking in windows, looking for help, when I finally discovered signs of life. A toothy young woman with piano legs was standing before a group of Chinese people in a tiny conference room. The Chinese people were yelling and screaming at each other. “Mistah Wong, Mistah Wong!” the woman kept pleading in a British accent. On the blackboard was written one word in great big letters: DEFICIT.

Somehow I just knew this must be the place. My new job! It all seemed so raffish and exciting. Only one thing bothered me.

Who was she?

*

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Her name was Lavinia, and she was Tom’s partner. As Tom often put it, “She certainly is one of life’s oddities.” The thing that first struck one about her was the clothes. Not that the garments themselves were unusual. In fact, she wore skirts and blouses and slacks (trousers, she called them) of the most ordinary sort obtainable. But those colors! Pea-soup green. Sunflower yellow. Magenta. Chartreuse. Her favorite combination was purple and burnt sienna. Tom had a theory that there was something wrong with the rods and cones in her eyes.

On someone who sprung from the noble tradition of Liberty of London, of J. Ashberry, of Aquascutum, it was all the more disturbing. Perhaps even more painful was the high polyester count of the fabrics she favored. My, how her outfits would shine as the bright morning sunlight streamed into the office we both shared! My desk was positioned so close to hers that I could actually watch her clothes start to “pill” right before my very eyes.

She had many unusual items in her wardrobe, but perhaps none more unusual than the dress she wore one day that fall, a day when the weather was freakishly hot, almost ninety degrees. I can still remember every detail. Made of a shiny black sateen material, it had a low, square neckline, no sleeves, and a full skirt. What grabbed your eye, though, were the parrots. It was covered with bright, garish parrots swooping through the jungle.

Tom found words first. “My, Lavinia—that’s quite a dress.”

“Yais, quite soopah, isn’ tit?” she trilled. “Hard to believe it was once an evening frock. All I did was cut it off at the knee!”

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I am sorry to report that Tom did not treat Lavinia very well. Sometimes his abuse took the form of loading her down with work. She did about eighty percent of everything. She had to write all the grant applications. She had to handle the correspondence. She had to make sure the water cooler was filled. Just about the only thing she didn’t do was the books; Tom reserved this task for himself. He also made her attend the various seminars and conferences around which the arts-administration world revolves, with strict instructions to “work” the hospitality suite and “drum up business.” Unless there was a speech to be delivered, that is. Then Tom would go himself. He was a wonderful speaker, very droll, very much in demand. His most famous topic was “How to Fill Out a Grant Application Even If You’re a Complete Idiot.”

Sometimes his hostility toward Lavinia would rise a little closer to the surface. Do you remember that awful fire they had at the Monkey House at the Bronx Zoo? Mimsy the gorilla was burned to death? Well, as luck would have it, Lavinia called in sick that day. “What’s wrong?” Tom asked. “Smoke inhalation?”

Granted, she was not a beauty. The nose was a little too large, the eyes a little too small … and then there was that mouth. Perhaps to compensate for her lack of physical allure, she had cultivated an unbridled enthusiasm for everything she came across. It was all “soopah, soopah!” More than once it crossed my mind how depleted she must be by the end of the day. So many tremors of delight had passed through her body that she must have crawled into bed exhausted.

You learn a lot by sitting next to somebody eight hours a day, and it soon became clear that Lavinia’s entire life consisted of either the office or the religious cult she belonged to in Forest Hills. It was for rich misfits and was run by a woman named Joya. Joya used to be a perfectly normal Jewish housewife from Brooklyn; she went on a diet to lose weight and discovered, much to her surprise, that she had supernatural powers. She became a follower of the famous Baba Ram Dass, but they had a falling out, and Joya started her own cult. It was very exclusive; it had only about a hundred people; and they all lived in rented mansions. Every Saturday night they held a prayer meeting. Once Joya went into the bathroom during a break and left her body for five minutes. It was the talk of the ashram. Nobody actually saw it happen, Lavinia informed me, but they did find a pinkish residue in the tub.

Everyone at the ashram had tasks for which they were responsible; Lavinia’s major assignment was getting the candle wax out of the carpeting. This she did by laying a brown paper bag over the spot, then applying a warm iron. The heat melts the wax, which is then absorbed into the brown paper. (Try it—it really works.) To further create a feeling of community Joya had given everybody Hindu names. Lavinia’s was Hanaman Giri, which means “mountain monkey.” I found this rather tactless. Every once in a while the phone would ring and a voice would say “Is Hanaman Giri there?”

Tom could put up with Joya. He could put up with the perky enthusiasm. He could even put up with the clothes. But what really got him bent out of shape were the koala bears.

Lavinia had this thing for koala bears. Who knows why; maybe they filled a void in her life. The walls behind her desk were covered with pictures of the cute little creatures. On her lunch hour she was always running over to Qantas to beg for more posters. She had a koala datebook, a koala key chain, and a stuffed koala family on top of her desk. Their names were Humphrey, Lisette, Momo, Denise, and Pickles. Tom would often arrange them in lewd positions. She never noticed.

So why did he put up with her? you are asking. What on earth prompted a man of Tom’s taste and style to go into business with this person? Well, Lavinia, you see, was not just Lavinia. She was Lady Lavinia Turnbull-Ward. (Or, as Tom sometimes called her, Lady Lavinia Warnbull-Turd.) And she was seventy-fifth in line to the British throne.

Actually, due to a flurry of princely births she had slipped down to one hundred and ninth. She was currently right before her sister Davina and right after a Yugoslav princess who lived in Brazil. Tom would go over to the library and keep track. Still, as he put it, “her only hope is nuclear war.”

Lavinia was the daughter of Lord Stoneberry. You remember him—he was the peer who had a whole other family by a Jamaican airline stewardess. It was quite traumatic for Lavinia, so her grandmother Lady Louthe shipped her off to New York and a rich-girl’s job at the Metropolitan Museum. She was in Development.

She met Tom at the Etruscan opening. He, who is occasionally kind to ugly girls, was at his most charming. Lavinia fell madly in love. She declared this in the time-honored feminine manner: free concert tickets. Tom had been down this road before and politely refused. She escalated—a fancy movie premiere. He said he would be out of town. So she pulled out the big guns—a party at the Pierre in honor of Princess Margaret.

This is one of Tom’s favorite stories, and he tells it so often and so indiscriminately that I can’t imagine why it’s never gotten back to Lavinia. The best part is the description of the moment Princess Margaret greeted Lady L.—the discreet shriek of cousinly welcome, the kiss on the cheek. “I couldn’t believe what I lucked into,” he would say. “The room started spinning around me. And everywhere I looked—dollar signs!”

*

One afternoon in late October I was sitting at my desk, watching the backs of Tom and Lavinia hurry across the roof and disappear through the door down to the ninth floor. As usual Lavinia was lagging behind Tom, and as usual he was yelling at her to hurry up. They were off to a board meeting of Dancers on Wheels and were already very late.

I watched as the door shut. Then I waited: they might have forgotten something. So I sang “If I Loved You.” That’s the way I time a minute. Just to be on the safe side I sang “If I Loved You” three more times.

I had been working at Arts Resources for nine weeks, and frankly I was worried. Tom hadn’t asked me out to lunch in a week. It was as if I was becoming part of the furniture. A certain routine had developed. Lavinia and I sat in our room, me typing like mad, she writing applications and dealing with the clients, while Tom kept mostly to himself, cloistered in his private office with the door shut. The heady days after I first arrived, when I would spend an hour or so in there with him, gossiping away a slow afternoon while Lavinia held down the ship—they had gradually faded away.

I looked at my calendar again. It hadn’t been a week since we had lunch. It had been twelve days.

I got up and crept toward his private office.

He didn’t have a girlfriend. Of that much I was sure. Lavinia kept talking about some museum administrator in Salt Lake City whom he was theoretically dating. “Tom’s girl in Salt Lake” was how she referred to her. (And she referred to her much more often than necessary, just to bug me.) But I didn’t believe a word of it. If they were so “hot and heavy,” then how come she never called?

Tom, you see, was a phone person. That’s what he did behind the closed door. I would estimate that in a typical day, after time out for sleep, haircuts, shopping, entertainment, and food, he would spend a good three or four hours on the phone. And we’re talking personal calls here.

I answered the phone, so I knew who the regulars were. The most regular was Floyd. He called several times a day. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out exactly what their relationship was. At first I thought they were brothers. Then old college roommates. Then business partners. Then ex–business partners. They would get in terrible fights that would go on for days during which they would leave sarcastic messages for one another.

Then there was Ronald Russo. I certainly knew who he was. I saw his ads in the paper all the time, complete with his picture. He was one of the largest discount jewelers in New York and New Jersey, and had recently been named to the Jewelry Hall of Fame. He had even done a “fancy but fun” line of pins and clips with Eva Gabor. He called once a day. He had a deep, raspy voice. I’ll never forget the time I had him on hold, waiting for Tom to get off the other line, and he said, “So listen, darling, I hear you’re a fabulously wealthy Iranian refugee. Can I interest you in a bijou?”

There were also several young men—Tony, Nick, and Angel—who called from time to time. They all sounded very young and were definitely not from Park Avenue. It occurred to me that Tom might be doing volunteer work with a Big Brothers group. Some were past reforming, though: a man named Dave Smith called from a jail in Massachusetts, wanting bail money.

Tom told me to get rid of him.

Glancing behind me, I turned the doorknob to Tom’s office and slowly pushed the door open. When they first moved in he had decorated it quite beautifully. The walls were Granny Smith green, and he had artistic photos of manhole covers and sewer gratings in severe black frames. Wire shelving ran along one wall, and on the desk was an expensive Italian lamp. The room’s high-tech elegance was rarely appreciated or even noticed, however, for Tom was just not a neat person. He had files strewn around and baskets full of old clippings and newsletters and magazines, etc. Stacks of yellowing newspapers stood in each corner, and the plants—a trio of areca palms—kept dying no matter what Lavinia and I did to them.

Listening most carefully for sounds from the outer office, I made my way to the desk and slowly opened the center drawer. It held nothing of interest, save a letter from the Armenian American Arts Council that had been missing for weeks. Just stationery, paper clips, a take-out menu from the Shanghai Gardens. There was a box of checks that had Tom’s address printed on them, but of course I already knew that.

In fact, I had even been down there once or twice, just to stand in front of his building for no particular reason. It was easy to get to: you could either take the Sixth Avenue IND and change at Fourteenth Street or take the BMT and transfer to the LL or just get the number 1 local and then walk. I do not recommend the bus, however. The one day I did that, it took over three hours to get there and back, standing up the whole way. To be perfectly honest, the best thing to do was drive. There were plenty of parking places at the meters on Hudson Street, and if they were all filled up you could just drive around the block until one opened up.

I knew the apartment number (9G) but had no idea which one that was. The ninth floor was easy to pick out, though, because one of the tenants had actually hung up dingy sheets instead of curtains. I couldn’t believe it—in a fancy building like that, with its part-time doorman and indoor garage. Those sheets must have been the bane of Tom’s existence. Sometimes, if the windows were open, they would flap in the breeze like small-craft warnings.

I continued to go through Tom’s desk, opening the drawers one by one. It was very disappointing. There was lots of stuff, papers tossed in at random, but it was all so … impersonal. Never had I rifled through a desk that held so few clues to its owner’s personality. It was very frustrating … almost as if he kept it this barren on purpose … almost as if he anticipated someone might go through it.

Then I got to the last drawer. The lower left-hand drawer. It contained just three things. But they certainly were food for thought. The first was a bag of clothespins. Plain wooden clothespins with hinges. The second was a pair of underpants. Jockey shorts, size 32, and not terribly clean. My goodness, I thought. What do you suppose he does? Wash out his underwear at the office? But underneath the underpants was something odder still: a small yellow box that slid open to reveal a half-dozen or so ampoules of something, each encased in yellow webbing.

I looked at the label. “Amyl nitrite.” I had actually heard of amyl nitrite. Fred Farnsworth back in Tehran took it for his heart condition. I believe it stimulated the pumping action. How odd. Tom was a major hypochondriac, much worse than I (as if that were possible). It was one of the bonds between us. But he had never mentioned a heart condition.…

I sat down gingerly in his desk chair. Now my appetite was really whetted. There had to be more. I just wasn’t trying hard enough.

It was well past five by the time I finally found it. I had to pull out all the drawers, but there it was, scrunched up in the back where it had become jammed in the mechanism and hidden for God knows how long: a Long Island Rail Road schedule for a town called Sayville.

Not too interesting in itself; but inside it was a photograph. It was just a color Instamatic snapshot, but I stared at it until darkness overtook the office and I had to switch on the expensive Italian desk lamp. The setting was a wooden deck outside an elegant beach house; in the distance you could see the breakers against a pink sunset sky. A table was set for dinner with fine china and napery; candles flickered in the hurricane lamps. Three people were sitting around the table. One was Tom. It was not, if truth be told, a very flattering picture of him. He had been caught in mid-laugh. One eye was closed, the other wide open, and his mouth looked like a baby eagle’s ready to receive a worm.

Sitting next to him was an extraordinarily handsome man in his thirties. He had dark, wavy hair, magnificent eyebrows, and a firm jaw. He reminded me of that model who does the Jontue perfume ads except that his eyes were a little too close together. But his gaze at the camera was direct and penetrating, and his tan spectacular.

The third person was a woman. And what a woman!—an enormous platinum blonde with snow-white skin and red, red lipstick that matched her heavily shoulder-padded silk dress.

Frankly, she seemed a little overdressed for dinner at the beach. Diamonds—or at least rhinestones—sparkled at her ears and wrists, and not a hair of her elaborate coiffure was ruffled by the breeze that was playing such havoc with poor Tom’s fried and frazzled locks. She didn’t have an expression on her face so much as an attitude. I would describe it as “sensuous hauteur”—not quite a smirk, not quite a sneer. I had never seen anything quite like her, but one thing was certain: this was no museum administrator from Salt Lake City.

__________________________________

From Love Junkie by Robert Plunket. Used with permissions of the publisher, New Directions. Copyright © 1992, 2024 by Robert Plunket.




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