12 October 2023

Brankton Walks Austin, TX

Brankton started out the day as usual with a nasty little headache. Not enough oxygen to the brain. The majority of his family, dominated by males, suffered from the same malady, that is to say, snoring, but with Grizzly bear ferocity, capital ‘S’ snoring.

Years ago on a ski holiday to some swanky resort in Utah hanging out with all of the swells with their whiz-bang skiing accoutrement and private chalets adjoining the main run, the unfortunate souls in the townhouse next to his family actually complained to the leasing company that owned the tony Deer Valley complex that their trip was ruined because of the ungodly racket that he and a half-dozen of his brothers harmonized for four nights of sonorous hell. Not even the most desperate succubus would sit on the chest of any of his brothers attempting to snatch a soul during the night's witching hour. Upon hearing the horrific sound emanating from their large, undulating thorax, the noise most assuredly would drive even the stoutest of succubi away. Having been married to and driven one off, Brankton felt he should know.

He walked the Austin neighborhood by himself, with its old twisted oaks and the occasional stray cat and ubiquitous Obama/Biden yard signs. Austin might be in Texas, but as the liberal hub of the south there were plenty of state employees working at and owing their allegiance to the "sunset red" hued granite Capitol building right off of Congress Ave. Brankton was getting used to making his daily constitutional alone, although this trip to the big hat capitol caused him to feel a bit more out of sorts than usual. His momentary boredom had its typical result: Brankton was feeling hungry.

Sitting alone in the multi-level mid-century house turned into a restaurant on 6th St., Brankton ordered the “big ole pancakes” for brunch. He was beginning to regret the blue wool sweater that he put on in much cooler Los Angeles just a few short hours earlier. The typical Austin weather of 95% humidity and low 90’s temp did not agree with his sartorial norm; especially in a restaurant with two dozen obviously gay men surrounding him, dressed much more weather appropriate with assorted chambray shirts and long board shorts and snug-fitting t-shirts, now frowning upon his choice of garb, he felt, save for one very attractive co-ed “friend of the gays” who, with her masculine, deep voice, oozed a sexual confidence that mocked Brankton’s recent string of asexual years. Brankton spied her looking his way several times in a few short minutes, which of course meant she saw him seeing her.

Ten long minutes later, his heavily tatted and overly tanned waitress informed him that she forgot, over on this side of the restaurant house which was by definition in another time zone, that brunch was over and that he would have to forgo the pancakes he had been thinking about and craving for a month now. Brankton had visions of a rotund Orson Welles with white chef hat in the back somewhere saying that he'd "flip no flapjack before it's time." He also had a vision of smacking the sass off that fat man's face. His pancake cravings started right after his wife left him and took their dog along with her “big ole” pancake recipe, the one hanging on their fridge, and not much else -- though he wished she had taken the cuckold knife out of his back at least "for a nice sense of symmetry" as their designer used to suggest.

The twenty-something Janeane Garofalo-type with the gay men had a mouth on her that, for lack of a better emotion or description, disappointed Brankton. Her descriptions of “her gay” -- as she proudly called her homosexual best friend -- and his proclivities for certain gay sex put Brankton’s gag reflex on overdrive at the sight of the gravy-covered chicken-fried-chicken that he reluctantly ordered due to the no pancake past brunch rule. He wasn’t the only one to cringe either. There was a family of four “to his 9” – this was his grandfather’s phrase when he wanted to say “to the left” in a cool sort of grandpa way -- who looked as out of place as an Amish family with big tall black hats and long ZZ-Top beards shopping in a Fred Segal store.

She continued unabated regaling the men in her gay coffee clutch. Some occasionally tried to compete with her, but she had the floor and wasn't about to let the spotlight slip from her grasp for a moment. None really could compete; her stories had just the right combination of raunch, real life patois, and an unexpected ending. And of course, she knew her audience, and they laughed, which inspired even filthier anecdotes. She had an expert comedienne’s deft touch, though the venue and time-slot were no doubt inappropriate.

“What?!” the twenty-something brunette (maybe she favored Sarah Silverman?) finally asked Brankton as she caught him glancing her direction one-dozen times too many. Her friends were caught-up in conversations about Barton Springs and some festival that was happening that weekend. None of her friends would hear his response so he was confident, at least more confident than he would have otherwise been.

“You’re crude. Crude, but funny.” Brankton turned in his seat to deliver what he thought would be his final line more forcefully. “In fact, I’d say your crudeness is bordering on rudeness. You’re a crudeness/rudeness straddler.” Brankton wasn't overly impressed with his own line as some men are in such situations. The line was delivered by a man who was enervated from worrying about conversations where lines like this were supposed to reflect an insouciance natural to the courier.

“Is that so?” She turned in her seat to catch his opinion head-on. “Well who exactly cares what you think?”

“NBC does.” Brankton regretted saying it the instant the two-word reply left his half-filled chicken-fried-chicken mouth.

“NBC? What, is that supposed to impress me?” The coffee clutch was breaking up and her friends were throwing 20’s into a pile to pay for their meal. They were waiting for her to pony up as well. “Jackie, $20.00 please,” said a friend from somewhere in the scrum.

Jackie turned her head only slightly from Brankton for a moment.

“Nels, can you cover me please?” 

“Oh, shit, girl,” was the response from Nelson and a few others who had obviously “covered” one too many times for ole Jackie. 

The “Bitch, please!” retort belied a belief that maybe she had indeed earned her keep with her mid-morning improv routine.  “So, Mr. NBC, you were saying.”

Too late. Brankton had already packed-up noise-reducing headphones, a next gen iPhone of some sort, a tin of Macanudos for smoking after the show, a Montblanc fountain pen, the Wall St. Journal and a GQ with Eva Mendes on the cover (whom he went to undergrad with) into his leather satchel in record -- and it must be said, Dear Reader -- stealthy time. His back was already to Jackie as he headed out toward the doorway that led to the main dining room. Behind him lay two ten-dollar bills occupying their own little competing pile, face-up with two dead, white male Sec. Treasury Hamilton's (illegitimate bastard child that he was) enjoying the view of a semi-riled rebel rouser.

“Pussy,” she said as quietly yet forcefully as she could muster, seeing now for the first time the family that had front row seats to her “blue” performance. She also clearly saw Brankton swing a hand behind his head with a middle-finger salute to show his appreciation for their conversation that never really got started.

Out on 6th St. Brankton stripped off his sweater, tied it around his waist, and hoped his sense of direction was true. The right arm in his mouth of his gold-framed aviator sunglasses with the green tinted lenses showed several year’s worth of teeth marks, while the left was as new as the day his ex-wife had bought them for him on a trip to Colonial Williamsburg.

He hated confrontations and heated conversations, which is most likely why he was still single, the thought of being the bad guy all the time, again. His older brother, the one who was a borderline sociopath (somehow, Brankton drove his older brother to this border often in their childhood), had once beaten him, to Brankton's way of thinking, within an inch of his life when Brankton was ten year’s old because little brother had discovered and eaten older brother’s entire Almond Roca stash. His brother simply followed the gold foil wrapper trail back to its source and found a contented if not bloated Brankton sitting on the couch watching a rerun of Highway Patrol starring Broderick Crawford, that porcine-looking actor with a waddle and jowls that wobbled every time he barked his lines, with size 10 black brogues that always made that interesting crunching sound on the gravel and with his broad-brimmed hat.  That was the last time Brankton ever talked to his brother-the-rabbi on his own accord. The Brankton brother now has a congregation in upstate New York, and by all accounts weighs over 350 pounds and closely resembles Broderick Crawford with sizable waddle of his own that sways whenever he speaks his mellifluous Hebrew sermons.

The theme song for an NBC hit show began to play from the bottom of his leather messenger bag. Brankton continued walking and dug around inside his bag until his fingers felt the familiar heft of an Apple-made Steve Jobs-designed product. Each time he swung his arm around inside his bag, he was reminded of the thousands of times his mother and wife had whisked hands around their own purses, with that rustling sound of hard and soft objects rolling over each other like so many socks and thongs and jeans in a dryer.

“Yeah,” Brankton said to his assistant. “Are you at work?”

“Yes,” she said. “Remember you were supposed to call me when you landed?”

“Oh, yeah, sorry. I’ve gotten a bit sidetracked.”

“Are you still going to see that guy tonight?” she asked. “The one that Pat O’ from UTA asked you to see?” Brankton pulled out the coverage of the script his assistant prepped for him earlier in the week. “Is it really this good?” he wondered.

“It’s the best thing UTA has sent us this year. Best script I’ve ever read. So, yeah, it’s pretty good.” His assistant was an MBA grad from Wharton who was probably one year from landing an incredibly high-paying job herself if Brankton didn’t get fired before she could transition out and up. "So, did you actually read the script, and not just the coverage?" she asked.

Brankton, as an exec at NBC overseeing “current comedy" didn't actually read spec scripts for development. However, as certain gigs go, this position at NBC was tenuous at best because of several seasons reflecting NBC’s ratings nadir, and Brankton was ready to develop some hits if he could. The low ratings weren't Brankton’s fault; he transitioned into this job after a merger of several companies that landed him atop the pile of mid-level execs as VP Current Comedy. Salary above $300k, and a staff of two talented and incredibly loyal assistants, it was hard not to like his “new” role. 18 months later, and Brankton knew his head was on the chopping block if things didn't change. When times are tough, it's better to ask forgiveness rather than permission which is why he and Team Brankton were now looking to land new writers and producers for development deals for the Peacock Network which was outside of his normal purview. It was a desperate move that reflected Brankton's and NBC's contretemps.
Brankton moved across the street seeking the shade of the oaks lining the other side. He liked the houses over there better besides.

“No, I haven’t read it yet. Can you make sure that Pat O’ knows I’m definitely going to see his guy at the comedy club?”

“It’s not a club!” she interrupted him, which he hated. “It’s some music venue, and from what I gather he’s opening for the band.”

“Put Friday on the phone,” he said.

Brankton’s other assistant was a former Playboy Bunny, general contractor, and current law student. She was 62-years old, could get anything done, not unlike Radar on M*A*S*H, and hated the varicose veins in her legs and the AARP membership that was continually offered to herself and her Boomer contemporaries. "Friday," as with most assistants in large agencies and some studios, was already on the line listening. She unmuted her line.

“Yes, dear?”

“Can you please make sure my car is waiting for me at – what’s this place called that I’m staying at?" Brankton could hear Friday’s long nails punching the keyboard in its face with enthusiasm.

“You’re at the Driskill, and yes, your car is confirmed to be waiting for you after sunset,” she said leaning back in her chair, shaking her head looking down the hallway that led to Brankton's office where his other assistant was holed-up. Saturday office hours working for the network that had become a perennial loser. If you don't come in on Saturday, don't bother coming in on Sunday it was sometimes said during these desperate times.

“Thanks, guys. Let’s keep our fingers crossed,” Brankton was wrapping up when his other assistant interrupted again.

“Please read the script! I put it in your man-purse...”

He hung-up in his usual style that revealed to the triumvirate of Team Brankton that she had been heard. 7 blocks from Brankton’s current GPS location, and within walking distance, was the Austin, Texas, home of his ex. Had it not been Shabbat, he would have punched up on his iPhone her address and turned his convertible in her general direction where he would have watched from the street to see who had inherited his problems and was now taking deep dives into the path of her verbal scythe and psyche.

Divorce finalized for a month or so, Brankton’s ex dropped by unannounced, where she witnessed first-hand the post-apocalyptic proof of her 30 year-old mid-life crisis and his moving in to a new place scattered throughout in the form of boxes, forwarding addresses yet to be affixed to envelopes, crates filled with knickknacks breaking under their own weight, an unplugged fridge and a freshly painted green front door wide open drying in the Culver City sun.

There was also a new mattress standing in the corner of the living room playing hostess to several Rolling Rock empties competing to see who could get closest to the edge without falling, and an ashtray with several half-attempts at his new habit of cigar smoking. The divorce and separation were complete before his new gig was finalized, and it made him feel a little better that she would have been proud of him for landing such a plum on her watch. When she frog marched up the back stairs to the carriage house early that evening -- carried both by a modicum of guilt and a dark secret -- he recognized her familiar gait, with YSL pumps pounding the way bravely.

“Hello?” she said.

Her curled brunette hair and buxom figure found their way over Brankton’s stoop like an octogenarian unsure of the distance of the next step. She wore a leopard print dress with pumps that rhymed with “eff” and “me.” Brankton first knew her as a twenty-year-old, when she was sinewy in the arms and thin faced as all women of her age are who have studied ballet for a dozen years, with a shapely figure that she was able to hide beneath most of her outfits as she was a modest, though sexual person. As a dancer, she was ashamed, for a while at least, of her large breasts, the talented dancer’s curse.

After one miscarriage and two decade’s worth of living in her twenties, only the blind could not see a woman to behold and to be held, with strong arms and legs, a curvaceousness that men admired and women envied, and green eyes that could size-up a person and adjudicate in a glance. Their relationship, though, was never about sex. Brankton felt it was about his disappointing her and him resenting like hell the nagging and judging that followed whenever he would make promises that were often not kept because of, well, for various reasons. They had both searched in earnest, treading water for the entirety of their relationship, taking that “deep dive” in counseling sessions into their psyche, looking for that important lever that could rescue them and haul their heavy burdens out of their troubled waters and onto a passing trash barge heading to New Jersey.

He was told by their marriage counselor, Dr. Sheila Stein, that renowned MFT who liked to say “deep dive” at least once a week to them, that he would have had a lot more sex had he kept a lot more promises whenever he complained about the lack of it.

“Huh? Oh, hey …” he feigned surprise at her arrival.

Half the neighborhood could hear her steps and their echo bouncing off of the walls of the too closely positioned homes with their stucco and brick walls, with her as the fleeing bad guy in a Western riding like hell through some winding canyon in the middle of nowhere with a tracking shot above as she outdistances the feckless posse.

“Where you going?” he asked in a tone intimating that one of these things just didn’t belong there.
 “Soooo, I was on my way over to The Roosevelt,” she said over her shoulder as she was inspecting the mantel’s rather spartan display of nostalgia, none of which featured her.

She tugged at the dress’s hem, pulling it down. This was not to draw attention to her figure; it was her nature to tug and to fix. The Roosevelt is a hotel in Hollywood with a true “old” Hollywood provenance sitting amidst new Hollywood gentrification. Just a decade ago the area was the armpit of Los Angeles with its Pussycat Theatre, tattoo parlors, gangs and stores hawking knickknacks at 99 cents a pop up and down Hollywood Blvd. And now, well, now restaurateurs and The W Hotel and high profile clubs and New York-inspired luxury lofts with lofty price tags were the talk of the town. And, there, still proving to be a player in a town of washed-up, wannabe and new players, was The Roosevelt with its old soul charm and neo soul soundtrack.

Rumored to be haunted by two deceased silver screen icons from the 40’s, whose ghostie penumbra make for inconvenient, though now kitschy, appearances on several floors, the hotel was finding new legs from a decent anchor restaurant (which isn’t saying much in Los Angeles where restaurants are known to flip every six to nine months – very much like a bad play opening on Broadway), and a de rigueur pool on the roof and bar with some house dj spinning records most weekends with an electronica eclecticism steeped in a heavy bass, surrounded by short skirts. Today's Roosevelt is a far cry from its former self where the first Academy Awards dinner was hosted in 1929.

His ex was a trust fund beautiful baby with an expat Italian Baron father and black American mother who looked like Lena Horne. It should go without saying that her family’s team of lawyers saw to it that her small fortune was safely bifurcated away from her husband’s hands and assets vis-à-vis one massive pre-nup. There might have been premarital cohabitation between him and his ex, but nuptial commingling of funds, never. The Baron owned The Roosevelt. He also owned several other hotels across the country through a network of corporations, LLCs and joint-ventures that never ceased to impress and confuse Brankton.

“So, why are you here?” he finally asked.

“Well, you’re like the one person I’ve trusted for the last 10 years to tell me how my outfits look," she brought her hands together and her chin down like a bad girl, twisted one foot in and looked up with big eyes. "Your place ... what does one call this? It's sort of like Audrey Hepburn's Sabrina meets O.J. Simpson's Brentwood guest house, isn't it? Anyway, you were on the way and I needed your expert opinion.”

She moved from the flameless ornamental fireplace, which reminded her of a plastic rose on a restaurant table, towards Brankton and the large writing desk he had facing out the carriage house’s living room window. She was nervous, which knotted him up because he believed her nervousness to be for somebody new -- not to mention that he was pissed for the hubris she displayed in coming here ... dressed like that. He feared this visit might rip his heart out, or at the very least Julienne, dice and cube it with a dull blade.

Brankton noticed her stirring a bit as she does when she’s wrapping up, preparing to make her exit. It was nicely orchestrated after years of practice. There was the quickstep drumming of her fingers, usually accompanied by stacking of papers or finally setting an object in its place, and then the wrapping it up neatly with a phrase that was as practiced as any radio disc jockey cueing up the commercials heading into his break at the top of hour.

He walked over to her where she had put one-half of her ass on his desk, clutching a sandstone bookend which was still in search of becoming the terminus for a dozen or so books stacked on the far corner of his desk. Brankton picked up its mate and caught a glimpse of her out the corner of his eye. She didn’t look up as their legs touched and he pressed his palm on her lower back almost out of habit. Almost.
Brankton removed his hand after a moment’s hesitation. She said what he thought she might.

“Don’t,” she shook her head not exactly believing her own body language which leaned toward him like some far off tower in an Italian suburb. “I mean,” she tried to soften it a bit, “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”

“Yeah, probably not,” he said.

He reached out of habit for her hands -- the hands with the many lines and wrinkles on her palms as if she had been swimming for an hour, even when she hadn’t. She inherited this trait from her cherished grandfather and would most likely pass this oh-so-minor flaw on to her children. She didn’t like to think about that, the passing of an imperfect gene. The rest of her was as smooth and tan as the calfskin car seats of her 1957 SL Roadster. Brankton convinced himself long ago that she loved the car more than him. She placed her hands in his as she used to, but now a reserve could be felt, reflecting the permanence and resolve behind the decision she made in Dr. Sheila Stein’s office on a shady little street in Larchmont Village just a few shorts months earlier.

“You look good, girl … no matter what friend you’re meeting at The Roosevelt,” he said.

She didn’t answer him or his searching, not even with her eyes. She just looked at him. He was amazed how much difficulty he was having trying not to say “honey” to her. It crossed his mind that such pet names were really just pleasant conversation fillers or simply habit, like “um” and “you know” for couples who said nothing to each other, really.

The taste of his beer (the one still sitting on the desk behind him with condensation drops running down the side of the green bottle leaving ring after ring on his job offer from NBC) made him self-conscious about his breath. Although Brankton’s mind was a bit muddled from mixing his beer with two Vicodin, it only partially explained his inability to engage his brain in any meaningful way. There was also the scent of “eau de ex” now filling the carriage house, an amalgam of her private label perfume, shampoo and oils; the sound of her walking in those heals; the way she looked in those heals; and the memory of the last time those heals were safely tucked under his bed. The depressing night he caught her cheating was also thrown into the memory mix for good measure. Brankton was trafficking these emotions and feelings and memories like some illicit drug runner through the overburdened transformer that was his frontal lobe now arriving on time at the juncture of recrimination and longing and sexual tension when it finally blew spectacularly. A million cognitively dissonant thoughts and then … nothing.

“Turn around, let me see,” he finally said out of instinct.

“One last twirl, huh?”

“No, just one last look,” he said as she began to spin with an easy expertise. She was always willing to dance, to work the practice bar with grand plié, arabesque and demi-plié under the watchful eye of her Italian ballet teacher, the Cecchetti task master with her arthritic, withered hands clenching a stick from the old country to whack unsuspecting, inconsistent and imperfect students. She also tap, tap, tapped the floor incessantly with it, inculcating the girls with a metronome of rhythm for their trips across the floor. If a woman could be a misogynist, her teacher with the broken English was it. He reached for his ex’s hip and felt her body spin under his touch as her hand stayed perfectly balanced in his. When she stopped turning, she pressed into and through him kissing Brankton with a warm and wet aggressiveness that he had forgotten existed. He matched her efforts like any good partner in a pas de deux. Her countenance of indifference replaced with bedroom eyes, she reached up to the mattress still wrapped in its Ikea protective plastic that partially covered the window, adroitly avoiding the half-dozen empty beers, and handed the ashtray with half-attempted cigars to Brankton.

“That’s a nasty habit,” she said. She looked back at him through hair falling over her face and grabbed a fistful of plastic, yanking down the mattress. One bottle flew squarely into the fireplace and shattered into a dozen large and small pieces. The rest just bounced off wood floors like so many bowling pins finding their way into the kitchen, hallway, with one even bouncing back onto the mattress. “I approve.”

As Brankton walked south on Lavaca heading toward Barton Springs, he tried to remember that afternoon and those sixteen minutes of tussle and lusty rekindled affection. He remembered her and that dress and what was under that dress, the tan lines, matching lingerie, the things they said to each other and the things they didn't. He was, in fact, haunted by these things, stunted into a half-lived life of victim status whilst she moved on to a better life.

Two things Brankton the peripatetic Jew from Los Angeles didn't expect to see in the Capital of Texas: a Jewish Temple, and the woman he had only hours earlier flipped the bird in a hasty exit. Jackie and Nelson were dropping someone off -- Brankton assumed he was part of the gay coffee clutch -- at the Temple Beth Selah. It was a smallish, unremarkable building next to an Austin firehouse. Nelson carried some sort of dish behind their friend who was juggling several. Jackie recognized Brankton walking up to her British green convertible Mini Cooper.

“Oh, hey!” she said. “You left before I could give you this,” Jackie flipped him off enthusiastically and turned her back to play with her iPod to change songs.

“That’s mature,” he said.

“What’s that?”

“I said …”

Jackie looked at Brankton and turned the volume up to “10.”

Mirror in the bathroom, please talk free. The door is locked just you and me. Can I take you to a restaurant that’s got glass tables? You can watch yourself while you are eating.

Brankton was mouthing something, pretending to use sign language. Jackie just smiled at him. She relented turning it down to a still-loud “6.”

“I said very funny. You could be a comedian,” he said.

“How do you know I’m not?” she asked. Nelson came around the building running down the driveway to where Jackie and Brankton continued to size each other up. Nelson with his baby dreads hopped into the Mini.

"You two kids still going at it?" Nelson said. He turned down the radio. "Where you going, dude? We'll drop you." Jackie looked with full disapproval at Nelson who was rocking shades and a t-shirt that said Not on my watch! featuring a tiny dog lifting his leg on to a Rolex. "What now?!"
“What now?” An incredulous Jackie shook her head. “How about now you don’t offer my taxi services to complete strangers,” she said. "I might be the Sabbath Goy-toy, but I'm your Goy-toy." The designated and occasional Gentile driver for Nelson showed her irritation.

“Jackie, chill. I bought your breakfast again. And, stop saying Goy, you sound ridiculous. Let’s just see where big man needs to go,” Nelson and Jackie looked at Brankton in unison. Jackie worked the convertible's clutch, turning the car off. Her flexed runner’s calf muscle pulled her sock down just enough to reveal the top of a tattoo, six tiny numbers from her grandmother's Auschwitz internment as a non-Jewish political prisoner. As freshmen at the University of Texas, Nelson and Jackie became best friends the semester he asked her about the tat.

Brankton didn't want the ride. He was about to head-off for one of two places on his list before heading over to The Driskill to check in and get his car. The other person in their group reappeared and walked down the driveway halfway.

“Okay, kids, all set,” he said. “Thanks again for the lift.” He waved them goodbye.

“Dad, come meet someone,” said Nelson. Nelson’s father obviously wasn't from the not-so-secret society of same sexed singles breakfast earlier in the day. Brankton had gotten the wrong end of the stick on that one.

Nelson switched to kneeling on the seat as he directed his dad over towards Brankton. His long frame and muscular shoulders and arms tested the Mini car seat’s integrity as he pushed forward over the headrest with folded arms. Several women and one male admirer had suggested that Nelson get a tattoo on one of his oversize they-make-me-weak-in-the-knees shoulders. Jackie also thought it the perfect canvass for some ink, like some “baller in the NBA.” Nelson would only answer this chorus of devotees that he wasn't about to put ink on the temple of God.

Brankton and Nelson’s dad met at the rear bumper like the Union and Central Pacific railroads coming together, two men running on the same gauge tracks, but most likely not quite on the same page in life. The Rabbi, a man of faith, and Brankton a man of what exactly? In search of meaning through his father’s faith, with his father’s off-the-rack suit of Judaism not quite fitting as snug as he would’ve hoped.

“Very nice to meet you,” said the Rabbi. “Rabbi Yauch.”

“You, too,” said Brankton trying not to say too much.
Up front Jackie said to Nelson under her breath, “I’m a yuck mouth, ‘cuz I don’t brush!” mimicking a PSA from the ‘80s.

“Shut it.” said Nelson.

“So, how do you know my son and Jacqueline?” asked the Rabbi with a bit of twang, surprising Brankton who expected a bit more of a New Yorker, Yiddish sort of vibe.

“I don’t, really,” said Brankton.

Jackie piped in more loudly this time up to the sky, “He flipped me off, Rabbi! In front of a young family, on the Sabbath no less!”

Brankton shifted on his feet a bit embarrassed and tried to put a hand on the back of the car to act more casual but he misjudged the height slipping off the well-polished ride. The Rabbi jumped in lending a hand.

“Jacqueline, is that what I saw you doing just a moment ago? A reenactment of this alleged malfeasance?” he asked. Jackie looked about curious. Nelson tapped her and pointed aloft to a pole-mounted security camera some 30 feet in the air.

“Full HD security video feed. Dad had it put in last week and can check-in from the house or even his Smartphone,” said Nelson. “Two more in the back”

“So, are you a Jew also?” the Rabbi asked as he let go of Brankton’s arm. Brankton was surprised by the directness of the query which is why he probably answered so directly in reply.

“Well, my father was a Jew, so I guess I’m not really a Jew by birth, but I have been trying to follow in my own way by keeping Shabbat as best I can.”

“As should we all,” said the Rabbi.

“Dude, are you going to … what’s your name, by the way?” asked Nelson sensing a moniker was sorely lacking amongst the group.

“Brankton,” he said. Brankton thought the less people who knew his name, the less likely his being hurt. He had a belief that when meeting strangers if he gave his name they would instantly Google or search public records to get to bank accounts, family member addresses, and college transcripts. He was often the guy at the party that kept his back to the wall searching sight lines for ill-intentioned interlopers and exits should the need arise.

“Brankton?!” said Jackie to herself adjusting the mirror to look out the back.

“Brankton -- huh, that’s cool. So, Brankton, what, are you like walking all over Austin observing the Sabbath? We saw you a few hours ago on 6th and now over here. That’s like walking a marathon to catch up on some rest,” Nelson put finger quotes up for emphasis mocking the observant non-Jewish Jew.

Rabbi Yauch was a tall man, who looked every bit the part of a movie star styled cowboy, with several discernible features similar to his obviously racially mixed son. Brankton wanted to ask about this, but thought against it because, one, it would be rude as shit. And, two, it would only delay his absolute desire to be the hell on his way, and presently two was much more on his mind than one.
“Brankton, if I may, please forgive my son’s bluntness. However, for Reform Jews, your Jewishness, if I may use an awkward term, is as secure as mine or my wife’s or that of my son’s,” said the Rabbi. That last part raised more questions for Brankton.

Jackie was still watching from the rear-view mirror when she decided to switch her vantage point as well by kneeling like Nelson. The two of them appeared as kids looking out the back of their parent’s car at the local drive-in movie theater.

“Even without converting?” said Brankton.

“It’s certainly not required, unless you seek to return to Israel. But here in the US, your efforts would certainly fall within the practices of Reform Jews like us here at Temple Beth Selah,” said the Rabbi. Brankton was convinced the Rabbi was really working an angle here for his membership and commitment of money, but then the Rabbi asked, “Where are you visiting from, Brankton?”

Instead of asking how he knew, Brankton simply said, “Los Angeles,” and assumed that it must have been his debonair manner and swarthy good looks that shouted “visiting Angelino!” to inquiring Rabbis.

“Oh, shit!” Jackie turned and slid down her seat adjusting the mirror again.

“Los Angeles. A wonderful place to visit,” said the Rabbi with a wink.
Brankton felt sure cowboy Moises Yauch (“Mo” to his friends, Goy and Jew alike) was making a joke of some kind about L.A. not being a place to live. Maybe this was what Reform Texas Jews looked like. Brankton felt sure that the Yauchs must be the exception.

“Have you traveled here today to Austin for business?” asked the Rabbi.

“Yeah, flew in early this morning for a meeting,” said Brankton. “But, I really should be going now.”

“Well, we've already said Kiddush, my son and I, and I’m having several friends over for an after service luncheon. Why don’t we continue our conversation out in the courtyard?” said the Rabbi. Mo-the-Rabbi poked a finger up toward the synagogue like a man pointing out his choice of doughnut to his local baker.

“Dad, I told you that Jackie and I are going to Barton Springs for a swim at the pool and then we have some things to do tonight,” said Nelson.

The Rabbi gave a fatherly shushing with his hand, clearly the paterfamilias even to 6’4” scions. “Nobody was asking you, kiddo,” said the Rabbi with a bit more of his Texan drawl creeping in again. Unbeknownst to Brankton, the Rabbi played strong safety for the University of Texas, still holding the record for most tackles in a single game -- 28 tackles, 18 solo. He was used to telling large men how to behave on and off the field. Brankton pictured the Rabbi saying Kiddush as John Wayne with leather and hat and spurs, he thought he might like to hear how that would sound.
Brankton’s phone rang. He welcomed the interruption, immediately thumbing the green talk button out of habit expecting his unflappable gal Friday or the other smart one whose name he rarely said because it was the same as his ex’s. “Excuse me,” he said walking away from the Rebbe with his finger in one ear and phone to the other.

“I’m actually glad you called,” he said as he moved beneath the shade of a nearby palm on the far corner of the synagogue’s pie-shaped lot.

“Brankton! It’s Pat O’ from UTA!” Pat O’ was always yelling into phones as he was usually en route to or from his office on the Miracle Mile with the convertible top down. Apparently the uber-agent had never gotten the memo that cell phones no longer require such shouting in the 21st century or that sunblock should be amply lathered on sun-exposed pasty skin – he had recently lost several pieces of his scalp, nose and ear to the surgeon’s scalpel. At least he was now wearing a Woody Allen-styled hat during his commutes.

“Oh, sorry, man,” said Brankton. “Thought you were my admin.”

“Yeah, no worries; not sure you’re going to be so glad about my calling though. I’ve got some news.”  Pat O’ said ‘some’ as if he had just substituted it for the word bad, like he had done with the words "illness" for "cancer" when he told his aged mother about her only son's skin issues.

“What’s going on, Pat?”

“Apparently you have a script with a UTA cover on it from a cat in Austin or Nashville or someplace in flyover land?” he asked.

“Austin. Yeah, it’s pretty good. Just read it,” said Brankton lying about having read the script like most in the business in L.A. have lied to their writer friends when asked if they got a chance to read their scripts. They say things like, "Yes, of course." Or, the more inspired, "Really liked the story, thought the characters were interesting." Brankton, however, had two admins and a professional service to provide coverage for any project in need of some executive notes for the writers on the shows under his purview.

“Well, it’s not from my office, B-dawg. We never sent this -- Jack Mann project is it? -- to NBC. And you know we wouldn’t have sent it to you regardless, but over to that king of all assholes, Spilka.”   Even though Pat was in his late fifties, he could still carry himself at a Hollywood Hills soiree; and with his money and Power100 ranking, he went home with many young (and old) industry talent in skirts.  Even one or two well-known starlets, feeling it all slip away, willing to stoke the ego of a not unattractive, still slim, vapid agent, had made that walk of shame from casa de Pat.

“Marcus Spilka is on his way out, Pat,” Brankton was taking stock of the situation. “Let this play out.” Jacqueline Manon Laurent strained to hear what Brankton was saying from her own convertible. Jackie was having a hard time of deciphering it, the conversation, since it was all one-sided responses of a pissed-off Angelino.

“Brankton, I’ve only got a quick second! But, you need to know that this writer was hip-pocketed -- without approval -- by some dumb-ass assistant here, and when I find out who it was, they’re fired.”

“Pat! Just a second!” Brankton looked sideways to see if this scene he found himself in was attracting attention. “I’m here in Austin, now, and by the time we’re done working up a deal with the writer, you’ll promote this assistant, whoever he is, to agent.” Brankton considered that Pat O’ could be working with Marcus Spilka, head of NBC Universal Comedy Development, class-A douche bag rumored soon to be fired, and currently in possession of the job Brankton wanted. “Don’t bet on the wrong horse here,” he said.

“NBC’s my bet, Brankton. Gotta run!” Pat O’ hung up his cell phone and tossed it across his expansive desk in his even larger office slightly disgusted with himself. He picked up his office phone and called NBC.  Pat O' was making a bet, against his better, cancer treatment induced hazy judgement.

“Jesus Christ!” Brankton said as he walked off the grass and onto the street. Even among Texas Jews it was considered poor form to throw messianic epithets into the ether so casually. Mo and Nels Yauch raised eyebrows to each other, sharing an awkward and conjoined moment of father-son disapproval.

Jackie started the Mini Cooper, “Sit your ass down, Nels.”

“What are we doing?”

Jackie waived at the Rabbi and said, “Gotta go, c’mon!” then gave Nelson the universal and impatient sign for wrap it up.

“Dad, probably see you later tonight,” Nelson said with Doppler effect as Jackie roared down the street.

A sheepish Brankton looked up at the Rabbi, watching the rear of the dark-green British import flee the scene.

“Uh, sorry about that,” he said.


“Yeah.” Every sinew in his dialing thumb wanted to call the office, but Brankton’s home-brewed sui generis Sabbath conditions forbad his using any modern conveniences unilaterally. However, if work were to call him, he could respond because to his way of thinking that meant it was an emergency and was therefore granted a special dispensation. And like clockwork, his phone rang.

“Yeah!?” he said again this time recognizing the number as being NBC L.A. “What did you guys do to me with this Jack Mann project?”

“We’ve got bigger fish to fry, boss,” said his admin. “Marcus Spilka’s assistant just called looking for you.”

“Spilka can go eff himself!”

“Yes, well maybe he can and maybe he can’t, but supposedly his office just asked security to come over to our building to escort us off the campus,” said Friday also on the line, whose real name was Rosalind. Brankton came up with the nickname "Friday" for her after Rosalind Russell, although he knew it was bit ham-fisted. She liked it and the name stuck. Besides, he liked to imagine himself as playing Cary Grant the leading man in the classic His Gal Friday, with loyal support staff, and himself rocking nice suits, affecting a smooth, winning way with all who came into contact with his office, handing out cool nicknames as he went along.


“Yeah, apparently he’s convinced facilities that he has the power to tell us to leave the premises,” said Friday. “I know they’re short-staffed on the weekend, so maybe it won’t be for a bit, but what should we do?”

Get Earl Buntz right now at his house and conference me in,” said Brankton. The Rabbi offered his courtyard as a base of operations with a wave of his hand. Brankton gave a non-verbal assent as he followed him up the driveway.

In Hancock Park -- an exclusive enclave of five to ten million-dollar homes in the heart of Los Angeles with old-growth trees and old-money families -- a private office line to Earl Buntz’s home was ringing before Brankton could finish verbalizing his request. The Spanish villa styled manse of Earl and Marjorie Buntz sitting on two shady acres was originally built in 1902, but subsequently gutted and refurbished according to Hollywood executive standards in 1999. Earl’s office overlooked the tennis court, pool, putting green and pergola with the wisteria climbing throughout. It was his sanctuary. Churchill had his Chartwell. Superman his Fortress of Solitude. And, Earl Buntz had his Hancock Park home-office to keep wives of 45-years, grand kids, directors from the NBC Universal Board, and pesky 30-something parvenu execs from Cast.com, the most recent company to buy Universal, all at bay. Even if only for a brief respite.

NBC Universal had several Presidents. Earl Buntz was the least sexy but hardest working. The company had changed hands no less than a half-dozen times since he began there some thirty years before, but he remained. He was the overseer of all things production. He worked out budgets like a big-five certified public accountant, and kept all the moving parts and players saluting his standard that he flew proudly over the NBC Universal campus: the unions, the consultants with their outsourced business processes, the C-Suite of execs dealing with heavy-handed Sarbanes-Oxley compliance issues and the HR staff dealing with employee demands that could sink every publically traded company. Earl became a fan of Brankton’s after a few drinks together at several company retreats, which was fine. However, more important for the problem at hand, Earl hated Marcus Spilka. Spilka was an Ivy League graduate who would tell you within two minutes of meeting you that when he “was in Cambridge recently, meeting with Obama at a private function,” blah, blah, blah. He also had family connections to the industry and a major sense of entitlement. Brankton was counting on Earl’s hatred of Spilka.

“Earl Buntz,” said the squat-heavy man sitting behind his desk.

“Mr. Buntz, I have Brankton from NBC Current Comedy on the line for you,” said Friday. Brankton in his own short time in the business had become a one-name sort of executive, with absolutely zero power or clout. Name recognition, yes.

“Brankton! How are you?”

Brankton said, “Sorry to bother you at home, Earl. Do you have a quick second?”
“Well, I have about 30 kids and their parents down stairs for my grandson’s birthday party,” said Earl.  “Can’t you hear the music playing and the kids peeing in my pool?” Earl Buntz muted the company-owned MSNBC cable channel playing on three TVs in his office.

“Listen, Marcus Spilka is asking security to escort my staff from the lot. I have no idea what’s going on, but I’m assuming he thinks he can fire me and my people, which as you know I have no solid or dotted-line relationship to his office.”

“That little prick,” said Earl, music to Brankton’s ears.

“Since I’m on business in Austin, I’m not there to deal with this in-person. Not that it’d do any good, 
Earl. Do you know anything about this?”

A worried Friday cut into the conversation, “Excuse me, gentlemen, but we have security trying to unlock our door as we speak.”

Earl said, “Brankton, do me a favor and let me look into this. I'll make a few phone calls about Marcus and then call you back. In the meantime, I’ve got this.” Earl stood up from his chair, a man about to swing some of his Fred Flintstone physique around. “What is your assistant’s name?” He dug his toes into the shag white area rug that framed his desk with an extra three feet of matting. Earl was wearing his best grandson birthday party shorts and Riviera Country Club golf shirt with his sandals slipped off somewhere near the ottoman next to his desk.

Brankton's admin was still in his office occupying his $1,200 chair. “Sophia,” she said answering Earl.  She heard the door open in the “reception area” where her desk was. “Hello?” she said.  Sophia and Friday both jumped when the door slammed behind the security officer’s entrance, shaking the wall as it always did when visitors arrived.

“NBC Security!” said a beefy, recently honorably discharged U.S. Marine. "Is Mr. Brankton Newhan here?”

Brankton looked up at Moises Yauch and pointed to an area of the courtyard, asking if he could sit there on the low brick wall. The Rebbe gave him the pointer-thumb okay sign.

“Sophia, can you please put me on speaker phone,” said Earl.

The door opened again, and for a moment Friday thought security had left the office. But, a distinctly high-pitched Brooklyn accent said, “NBC Universal Security!”

The Marine security officer rolled his eyes at his security guard colleague from Brooklyn, “I just said that,” he said. “What, you don’t see me standing here?”

“Yeah, but did you mean it?” asked Brooklyn security.  Brooklyn had been at NBC for twelve years and Marine all of three months. Brooklyn held a visceral and visible chip on his narrow shoulder because some jarhead from Newport Beach, California, already outranked him and was telling him what to do. It didn’t matter to Brooklyn that he himself never graduated high school and that Marine was an officer in the Marine Corps for six years, two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, with a degree in Criminology from University California Irvine.

“Where are the banker’s boxes?” asked the Marine.

“I thought this was a priority walk-out?” said Brooklyn.

Marine walked back and opened the door a third time, “Here’s the priority: go get several boxes for this office to pack up some personal belongings and double-time it back here.” Marine gave Brooklyn wide berth to walk out the door with some semblance of dignity to carry out his assignment.

“Hello?” said Friday as she walked down the hallway toward Brankton’s office. She and Sophia looked at each other and shrugged shoulders.

Marine turned back to his assignment. He pulled out the email from Marcus Spilka’s office and re-read it to confirm the odd name of the executive he was to escort from the lot. “Is Brankton Newhan here?” he said as he walked in next to Brankton’s office looking about.

Friday with her long-legged stride met him within a few steps. She placed herself between Marine and Sophia. “Can I help you?”

“I don’t know if your office was made aware of this communication, but our Security group has been notified to escort Mr. Brankton’s office from the premises immediately.” Marine held up the email.

“May I see this please,” said Friday firmly as she tried to snatch it out of Marine’s hands. She was surprised how rapidly he moved it, leaving her with an awkward swipe at nothing. “Well, no we didn’t get this communication, and I’d like to read it,” she said.

“Yes, then this must be surprising to say the least, so I apologize,” said Marine ignoring her plea to read the directive and folding the email into his back pocket. “Is Mr. Newhan here or on the campus, because we have to escort him out as well?”

Brankton and Earl Buntz were both speaking, answering Marine and asking questions of their own, but could not be heard because Sophia hadn’t put the line on speaker phone properly. “Brankton, let me,” barked Earl with some finality as to which of them would be speaking to NBC Universal Security. Brankton now quiet in Austin, and Earl Buntz with a lung full of bated breath ready to pounce; both men waited for Sophia to remedy the speaker situation.

The door opened again. A slender 5’ 7” Brooklyn stood with the banker’s boxes next to 6’2” Marine who filled every seam and stretched every stitch of his paramilitary security uniform like some ancient wineskin.

“Let’s get these filled up ladies,” said Brooklyn as he tossed one in Brankton’s office and then another down the hall toward Friday’s office. “You’ve got three and a half minutes.” Brooklyn once heard a colleague say something similar to this some ten years earlier, and it just sort of slipped out of him now, like the kid who knocks the glass of chocolate milk with his elbow and knows it's on its way to the floor and that there's nothing to be done now but watch the final results splash out in an ugly way.

“Hey, what is going on here?” Friday immediately disliked the little guy with the accent that reminded her of her first husband who also just happened to be a full four inches shorter than her height of 5' 11" without heels.

Sophia added, “Yeah, who in the hell are you?” Sophia looked down at the speaker phone waiting for a word of authority to finally emanate from her GE phone system and realized her snafu. She punched the button, “Mr. Buntz, sorry about that – you’re on speaker phone now.”

“Who the hell am I?” Brooklyn looked up at Friday as he walked past her to show Sophia exactly who the hell he was. “I’m the guy who’s going to drag your bony ass up and out of here if you don’t get to steppin’, sweetie.”

Brooklyn grabbed Sophia by the arm and hauled her up and out of the Herman Miller chair. “Ouch, hey!” she screamed not so much in pain but fear and annoyance because no asshole should be allowed touch a woman with such disrespect. Friday immediately moved to the nearest object to swing, a silver platter sitting on its edge on one of Brankton’s bookshelves would have to do. It was engraved with the first public offering information for an Idealab company that Brankton was partly responsible for early in his career: four million shares were issued in its name raising over $22 million. It had never been used for anything but proud display, and with its two carrying slats on the side, it was perfectly suited for Friday’s double grip and her French tipped acrylic fingernails.

Marine hesitated for a brief second when he heard someone barking, “This is Earl Buntz! This is Earl Buntz!” He moved to go around the desk to grab a hold of Brooklyn's arm, hopefully snapping it in the process. He imagined throttling the little jerk’s neck as well once they got this office cleared.

Friday spun and aimed for Brooklyn’s head. Having played 3 years of softball and swung a hammer for almost 7 years as a contractor, she could bring the lumber when she needed to. She swung the platter with all of her might, wanting to knock Brooklyn into unconsciousness. She caught Marine mid-step and square in the side of the face instead. Pwang! The reverberation of the impact on Marine’s head almost broke Friday’s hand. She dropped the tray writhing in pain. The former-Marine security guard just stood there. Still. Not reacting.

“Son of a bitch!” said Friday. “Oh, my gawd, I think I broke my hand,” she grabbed her hand and held it close to her body. "Oh, my gawd!"

Earl continued, “This is Earl Buntz! This is Earl Buntz! My name is Earl Buntz! I am the President of NBC Universal.” Earl had a bank of three sliding doors that lead to his veranda. They were all slid opened and the entire party heard Earl telling all who had ears to hear that he was Earl Buntz. The clowns in clown make-up; the 6 yr-olds in Sponge Bob regalia; the moms and dads sipping on beers; the Mariachi band sipping on tequila shots with hot sauce between sets; and Earl’s wife Marjorie who just rolled her eyes. For about 30 seconds, the party turned in to an E.F. Hutton commercial waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Brooklyn looked on with full satisfaction at the left side of Marine’s face that was already turning three shades of red. “Oh, that’s gonna leave a terrific mark, Col. Oliver North!” Still, Marine just stood his ground.  He had once been in a Humvee in Falluja when his squad drove over an IED and the explosion threw the 6-ton jeep upside down and over the wall of a compound.  He and his men all thankfully survived the attack and subsequent burning vehicle and rocket-propelled grenades; the noise and pain was nothing like what just hit him in the side of the head.  Six years of near-death experiences and bloodcurdling combat, no problem.  Six months back and a sixty year-old, well-endowed administrative assistant from NBC Universal knocks the living piss out of him but good.

Sophia twisted her arm free from Brooklyn’s grip like she had learned in self-defense class, “Let go of me.” She turned back to the phone, “Mr. Buntz, security is here trying to make us leave the office and we don’t know why.” She almost teared up, but fought it with all of her might.

“Who is there with you, Sophia? Can you read me their names that should be on their uniform,” said Earl.

“Sir,” Marine spoke up, “I recognize your name from your memos. Uh, we were told by Marcus Spilka’s office to come and escort Mr. Brankton and his staff from the lot.”  Marine yawned, trying to hear right.  His hearing was muffled, except for the ringing from platter up against the side of his head.  That was pitch perfect.

Earl cut him off, “Let me stop you right there, sir. I’m going to look into this right now. And, by "this" I mean the way Security treated our NBC colleagues in Mr. Brankton’s office and the sequence of events that lead you to believe you were supposed to escort these folks from the lot. And by "right now," I mean right effing now! If it is even half as bad as what I just heard, somebody’s going to lose a job. Sophia, are you and your colleague okay?”

“We’re okay,” Sophia looked over everyone in Brankton's office, and only Brooklyn seemed unscathed by the entire incident.  He was still smiling at Marine.

Brankton hung up the phone. He had heard enough. He knew someone would be calling him back with details, even if not good news. Brankton half-expected that there was a chance he’d lose his job this year, but he didn’t think Marcus Spilka would be the one terminating his livelihood. His hands were shaking a bit, so he rubbed them on his jeans and let out a long exhale -- a nervous habit from his mom the sigher. He hadn’t noticed at first with all of the yelling back at Team Brankton HQ, but there was the unmistakable aroma in the air of a dry-rub. Mo' the Texan had fired up the grill and had whipped up a mean rub to season the tri-tip steak that was going on the grill for his afternoon meal. It smelled like carnivore heaven.

Twelve new members of Temple Beth Selah  were in attendance for the afternoon meal.  Included in this get-to-know-ya soiree were two sleeping baby girls presently tucked away in orange and red strollers respectively, each of which could be converted into DOT-approved car seats or Austin-appreciated and Sierra Club-endorsed baby carrier backpacks.  Three rosy-cheeked young brothers (3, 5 and 6) with yarmulkes falling off their skulls as they wrestled each other to the floor alternated tactics between harmless punches and hugs and kisses, all of which elicited laughter and tears that dried quickly in the Texas sunlight.  Brankton envied the brothers’ warmth and affection for each other.  Their mother, the one gently and rhythmically shaking the red stroller, looked to be about 22 years old.  She looked like she could be in school at UT with Nelson or his rude little friend Jackie.  Maybe she was.

The monthly new member's bbq menu offered the usual heart-stopping murderer's row lineup of tri-tip steak and chicken slathered in a tangy bbq sauce that only UT alumnae football players were privy to know.  A generous heaping of freshly cut summer fruit including kiwi, mango and a pomegranate, grilled heirloom tomatoes with a pesto marinate, and a Caesar salad with warm, cubed chicken breast that made one weak in the knees were also stacked high-n-deep along side the main course.

He was surprised to find an appetite still hiding in the recesses of his thorax in spite of the painful knowledge that he was being pushed out after a relatively short tenure with NBC Universal.  It mattered little that Marcus Spilka, massive prick, little man, no-talent-hack -- always had been -- was behind his now imminent departure.  Once the gears or wheels of the rumor mill were set to spinning, their inertia was tough to abate.  Brankton remembered what Mark Twain had said about a lie getting halfway around the world before the truth had a chance to put its pants on.  Until he heard otherwise, officially, though, Brankton determined to sign Jack Mann before he left Austin.  Getting even with Spilka was the furthest thing from his mind, though survival mode was kicking in.  Besides, the network would be on the hook for two more year’s worth of salary, and maybe he could land another gig before his demise was reported in Variety or the Reporter.

The app on his iPhone told Brankton that there were still several hours before sunset.  The wind out his sails, he paid his respects to the first Jewish cowboy he’d ever met as he headed out.  “I’m going to take off.  Really nice meeting you.”  Brankton tried to offer a strong, athletic handshake, and was met with the same.  “Again, I’m sorry for my, uh, language earlier,” Brankton looked down.  “Kind of a bad day.”

“Please, no explanations necessary.  And, you’re welcome.  It’s not just a Texas thing, Brankton, the hospitality.”  The Rebbe walked him down the drive.  “It’s nice to know you, bud.  Where do they have you staying the night?”

Brankton looked at the ex-linebacker and wondered when, if ever, he had been called "bud" before.  Sounded like something out of Leave it to Beaver or Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and it was something he didn't want to be called again.  He hoped the longish pause and one raised eyebrow conveyed this to the Rabbi.  “I’m over at the Driskill,"  Brankton eventually said putting a hand in his pocket, fishing around for car keys, before he realized he still had a walk ahead of him.  "Hear good things about it?” said Brankton a bit annoyed for having forgotten he didn't have his rental car yet.

“Yeah, no, it’s actually a very nice place.  Been in Austin forever.  You’ll do fine there.  Great bar,” said the Rabbi.  And he meant it too, as if he knew a thing or two about single malt Scotch.  "Come visit next time you're in town, Brankton."

Brankton waived to the Rebbe and put his headphones on, sizing up the man as he walked Lavaca Street toward Barton Springs.  Calloused hands and a Talmudist; the two didn't usually go together.  Still athletic build and southern twang intact. Black wife? Sharp mind.  Ramrod posture.  It was becoming more apparent to Brankton exactly how badass Texas Jews truly were.  Or, maybe it was just the folks in Rabbi Yauch's congregation that intimidated him somewhat -- even the wrasslin' kids were a mystery to him. 

Finally making it to "Lady Bird" Trail, Brankton veered to the right and began his final approach to Barton Springs, the freshwater spring bubbling up from the aquifer that runs underneath much of Austin.  It had been an important part of Austin for decades.  Many senior citizens swam there daily, and youngsters (including Robert Redford, whom Brankton had met skiing in Deer Valley) learned to swim there each year.  When Brankton arrived to the side of the river, it shone brilliantly with an expansive shoreline and not as many people as he had imagined would be there.  If only he had some swimming trunks.

Having already stuffed a sweater and folded purple checked collared shirt into his bag, Brankton found that t-shirt and khakis still proved an unequal match for the afternoon heat.   He looked down from the grassy hillside and felt the coolness coming up from the spring.  Though the sunlight remained strong and the temps were still in the low 90’s, a coolness nonetheless hung around the springs.  Brankton wanted to jump into the clear water as much as he wanted to do anything in his life. 

Three perspiring coeds lying nearby on large towels on the grass wasted away an afternoon as only college sophomores with graduation and the real world seemingly a lifetime away could. Assuming like most sunbathing beauties that their oiled bodies, skimpy bikinis, and Saturday night plans were the center of the known universe, they spoke loudly to each other as if Brankton were not there in front of them with one of his size-12 Puma’s resting on the metal railing.  

“He is not going to be there.  He texted Marci that his parents were in town and he had to hang with them,” said the blonde coed with the smallest bikini and matching modesty.

“Sure, just like Tommy’s parents were in town except he was out running that game behind your back,” the slightly overweight redheaded roomie chimed in with her jealousy issues and a habit of rubbing her roommates’ troubles into open wounds while feigning concern.  “Is that the new excuse these a-holes use when running around?  Their parents are in town?  You gotta be kidding me!”  The two looked at each other over gossip and fashion magazines whilst lying on their bellies, two tuchases reaching skyward pulled skimpy swatches of cloth with the letters “UT” into ever-reddening clefts.

“Only a desperate woman would fall for such nonsense,” said the hottest of the lot sitting in her low profile chair between them and the least to worry about such infidelities, or so the brunette mistakenly thought.   She was the only one staring at the flickering water through cheap convenience store sunglasses.  “Besides, I’m looking at this fine brother comin’ up at us right now.”  The three adjusted perspectives in their usual move and shared a lusty distraction. 

Brankton watched the three looking down as a muscled blur came into their view.  Water shed off the shoulders and baby dreds of the swimmer as it also did his red lifeguard trunks soaking the concrete walkway that shuttled its shivering revelers to and fro an inclined lawn and chilly spring feeding the pool from deep underground rivers.

“Damn, I think I want to have his baby,” said the hottie in a now pronounced southern accent as she continued her kibitzing.  “MmmHmm,” the others added in unison.  

Brankton did not remember college women this aggressive.  He turned to see who owned the wet calloused feet slapping against the concrete with such gusto.

“Hey, what’s up?!”  Nelson waived in the general direction of Brankton and the young women.  Brankton looked awkwardly at the man-child that now stood dripping before him; all at once he felt out of place.

“Hi,” all three women responded to Nelson.  Brankton turned around looking at them and then back to Nelson.

“What are you doing here?” asked Nelson completely ignoring an opportunity to chat up three female students from the University of Texas at Austin.  The girls stared slack-jawed laughing at their mistake and all wheeled around onto their towels, grabbing magazines in which to bury faces.

“Well, uh, this is my last stop of the day before the hotel,” said Brankton not sure how to stand or where to look.  Nelson began again up the walk.  “C’mon, I’m over here.”

“Okay, well” said Brankton gesticulating with hands, thumb and finger toward the pool.  “I wanted to, uh” and then just gave up trying to speak to Nelson’s long, swimmer’s back.

“Dude, you’re like setting records with your Austin pilgrimage.  You’re like Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales, except not, because you’re a Jew and all,” said Nelson over his shoulder.  Nelson finally grabbed his chair which was in the shade of a baby oak, and pulled a towel out of the bag. 

“You like Chaucer?” said Brankton.

“Let’s just say I’m glad I read him.” said Nelson.   “So, you’re definitely going to go for a swim?  Alright! You got some trunks in that bag?”

“Actually, no,” said Brankton.  “I heard some people, well, at our breakfast this morning.  You guys were talking about some festival and I overheard someone talking about Barton Springs.  I decided to come here instead of going to my ex’s house.”

“No sh*t,” said Nelson.  “Yeah, well, that was me telling Jackie not to forget that she had to drop me off here before she headed back home to get ready for tonight.”   Nelson stood up and dried off.   He pulled another towel out and threw it to Brankton.  The three co-eds had a bird’s eye view of Nelson stripping down to his Speedos.  He tossed his swim trunks to Brankton, hitting him in the face with a wet splat.  Brankton pulled them down and just groaned.

“Sorry about that.”

“Yeah, no worries, kid,” said Brankton.  He hesitated.

“You know you want to get in there, so suck it up, man, drop trou’ and slip those on,” said Nelson.   “They’re clean, trust me.  I had these Speedos on underneath.  You’re good to go, man.”

Brankton stood and looked around before walking to the edge of the high-dive.  The place seemed deserted.  He bounced once then twice and launched himself into the deep end.   He was not prepared for how cold it was, nor was he prepared for how much cooler the water was 10 feet down.  It was almost painful and surprising to hit contrasting thermal so quickly.  He swam and kicked as fast as he could to get to the surface.  For a moment he panicked, but now was swimming across the pool with purpose.  It took him almost ten minutes to realize his body was not going to acclimate to the coldness; he'd have to take a break.

He found a spot on the concrete to lie down.   Brankton was exhausted.  Before falling asleep in the sun with one foot in the cool water, he noticed a tall and tan hunk with shoulders Atlas would envy walking with three coeds toward the pool.

Next time he'd come here during the week, when a pedometer wouldn't clock the seven Sabbath miles he walked in the Austin, Texas, heat.  That was the thought that was running through Brankton's head when someone's shadow provided momentary shade from the sun that was bathing or barraging his squinting punim with a warm glow or harsh glare of its damaging or darkening rays.  Depends on one's perspective thought Brankton.  His mother never went in the sun without a hat on and SPF and the occasional parasol.  His dad couldn't be bothered, and since he wanted to emulate his father, whether he admitted it or not, neither could Brankton.

"So, dude, are you ready for Jackie to drop you off at your hotel?"  asked a somewhat optimistic Nelson.

"Dude!  Don't call me dude, dude," said Brankton in monotone irritation, eyes closed.  "You call your father the Rebbe "dude" with that mouth?"

The shadow didn't answer.  It just hung over Brankton with an air of expectancy.

"That a no then?"

"It's dad or sir," said the voice providing the shade.  "Sometimes 'pop'."

"But, never dude, am I right?"  Brankton's eyes remained closed, but the squint was gone; he could hear the eternal smile in Nelson's voice.  "So, do you have three dates for this evening now?"  asked Brankton more as a pretext.

"Nah, their idea of fun isn't quite on the same page as mine."

"Do you mean not quite on the same side of the plate?"  Brankton's eyes opened.  He wanted to see Nelson's face for this answer, shade or no shade.  He was instead offered a large hand and pulled to his feet.  A silent Nelson examined the stippling and indentations on Brankton's back made by the concrete as Brankton trudged up the walkway.   He found his clothes where he left them hanging on the small oak like some Mark Twain character fixin' for a swim down by the watering hole.

"The offer stands," Nelson finally said.  "You really don't need to hike it back.  We can drop you."

After a few awkward moments of a wrapped towel around his waist and struggling out of wet trunks and the slipping on of khakis trying not to expose himself to sexually aggressive coeds and ambiguous Chaucer-loving beefcakes, Brankton turned his back to Barton Springs and walked to the Driskill Hotel.

The Driskill with its six million bricks was a place that tried to shutdown every few decades or so.  Built just after the Civil War -- or as they say in the South, the War of Northern Aggression -- the Driskill Hotel was the vision of a cattle baron who sold cattle to the Confederate Army and made a tidy little fortune.   If the war was his mint, the Driskill was his sinkhole.  Two years after losing the Driskill in a poker game, Colonel Jesse Driskill died broke.

From one baron to another, only a century apart.  A Confederate cattle baron built it, and now an Italian Baron with a portfolio of luxury hotels around the globe, also owned the Driskill.  Brankton knew this, but he didn't.  Like so many things about his ex-wife's life, he "heard" that the Baron owned a luxury hotel in Austin, but didn't "hear" that it was the Driskill.  There was a reason his ex lived in Austin, yes, and there was a reason she called him obtuse.  Some things just didn't stick.  Things that had to do with her family's wealth mostly.  With her trust fund, yes, but more to do with their privilege and condescension.

It wasn't that he didn't want to know about his wife's family and life.  It was that, well, yeah, Brankton didn't want to know about his wife's family and their forcing a prenup on him last minute like that.  He forced himself to not know. To unremember.  To be a dimwitted dullard when it came to her Baron father, which was tough considering that he was standing in front of him, off to the side, between the lobby and the bar not 30 feet away.

Brankton recognized his accent and resonant voice, even from a distance, over the din of what?  Definitely something was going on in Austin.  Brankton sneaked left to check-in with the front desk where he found a man who was as still as a wax figure.

"Hi, there.  Brankton Newhan."

"I'm sorry, you must have me confused. I'm Sarell P Goodworthy.  My friends call me Pete on account my middle name is just an initial, "P" -- no period --so they named me Peter in the 5th grade ... which I have always hated."  Brankton looked blankly at the man to make sure he was serious.  Was this perhaps an animatronic like Abe Lincoln at Disneyland that came to life when spoken to?  Brankton began to say something.

"I'm just joshin' with ya, Mr. Newhan.  But, now you know a little about me, and we're lookin' forward to learnin' about you during your stay with us."

The energy that exploded from no-period P almost sapped all of the remaining strength from Brankton.  It reminded him of when he used to crouch around corners and jump out and frighten his mother.  Several times she nearly fell reacting to his antics and once she even cried, which put an end to the fun of scaring the hell out of one's mother.

"Welcome.  We've been expecting you, sir."

Brankton would have preferred a simple "good evening," but whatever. "Hello," was all he could muster back to ole Petey.

"We have your car for you parked just outside.  And we've already taken your luggage which arrived FedEx today upstairs and unpacked for you."   A freakishly small yet bespoke envelope contained his room key and another the keys to his rental.  Pete presented them to Brankton hand-over-forearm like a sommelier would a fine Cabernet.

"Say, Pete, what's going on tonight?  Isn't that the Baron I spy with my little eye?"  Brankton felt the sarcasm creeping in with alacrity.

"You know the Baron, sir?"

"Yes, well, let's just say I used to be apart of a subsidiary of his vast empire.  Based in Los Angeles."

"Oh, very good.  Well then you must know our GM, the Baron's daughter, Sophia.  It's her wedding this weekend."  No-period P seemed to rise on his toes several inches as if he were trying on heels for a bridal party dress.

"You don't say."  The universe was telling Brankton something he was sure of it; he just wasn't sure if he was hearing it right.
Brankton palmed the keys to the rental and his room and nodded a terse thanks to Pete who still had those rays of energy -- powerful enough to sterilize unsuspecting passersby -- projecting out in Brankton's general direction.  As he wasn't sporting his lead underwear, Brankton tried putting enough distance between himself and the desk where others in the Baron's party might also be checking-in.

He settled behind a large desert plant with several dark red flowers in full bloom from where he could regroup and assess his next move.  It seemed like a lifetime had passed between yesterday's casual Friday at NBCUniversal and today, standing in the Driskill's lobby with a large knot pitting in his stomach.

"Mr. Newhan!"

Brankton jumped in spite of himself; so much for keeping a low profile.  He'd been caught spying, and looked back over his shoulder to Pete with an annoyed and guilty head gesture of "yeeesss?"

"Elevators are just around the corner, sir!"  Pete pointed with a crook in his arm.  "Shall I show you the way?!"

The top-half of Pete began to move from out behind the desk, but Brankton didn't wait for the lower-half of his energetic escort to appear as well.  He bolted around the plant and headed for what appeared to be the way.   In the same instant he remembered that the Sabbath was over and reached for his phone to call his office.  He glimpsed Pete giving up the cause and was momentarily relieved as he turned the corner.

"Hey!"  It was a woman's voice, with an accent.  There wasn't enough time for another word to be spoken so Brankton couldn't place its origin just yet.

The side of Brankton's face met with the top of his ex-mother-in-law's head at an odd angle, emanating a sound not too dissimilar of two bowling balls bumping into each other in the rack after their trips down the local lanes.  The pain and bruising would subside, but the hollow thud both heard would not soon be forgotten by either Brankton or the Baroness.  Insult to injury was the shattered screen of Brankton's iPhone as it landed flat on the tile floor.

"Ooooh, oooh!  Oh, darling!"  The step-mother to Brankton's ex was rubbing her head as if making a wish on a genie's lamp.  A more lithe figure could not be cut by a 50 yr-old woman.  She was legs and  leisure and embodied about the only class in the Baron's immediate circle, save for his daughter, Brankton felt.

"Sh*t!"  Brankton bent to pick up his phone, which surprisingly was still intact, though the screen was cracked in several large sections.  He also picked-up two tiny envelopes with rental keys in them as well.   He looked up to make his apologies.  "I am so sorry.  Are you all right?  That was my fault," he said.  "I think this one belongs to you,"  he extended a small envelope in her direction.

"Oh, not to worry, darling," said the Baron's wife miffed.  She reached out blindly to Brankton, feeling for this stranger with her keys and asked, "Are you okay?"  She put the the envelope in her purse.

Their eyes met for the first time, and in spite of concussed senses each recognized the other.

"My God!  Oh, my God!  Brankton, darling!"

"Hi, Dominique." It was Brankton's turn to rub his injury, and because he had about a 3-minute head start on expecting the Baron's family to be in Austin, he wasn't as surprised as she about ramming his cranium into her's.

"What in the hell are you doing here, darling?!"

"Well, it's good to see you, too," Brankton deadpanned.

"I'm sorry, Brankton, but do you know that Sophia is getting married?"

"I just found out," Brankton pointed back toward the front-desk and felt like a complete idiot that a glorified bellhop had informed him that the love of his life was remarrying.

"Surely, you must know that this, your being here," the Baron's third wife, with a silver clutch in her hand, waved her arms around in a swirling motion as she looked about, "is quite unexpected, darling."  She was about twenty years younger than the Baron who was almost 70, and yet she could pass for late 30's.

Brankton noticed for the first time that the trip-hop ambient chill soundtrack favored by most upscale hotels had begun its evening shift.  He liked it, even if it was a bit played out.  All of a sudden he needed a drink.

"Dominique, I just checked-in.  I'm in town on business."  Brankton pointed again back in the direction of no-period P, which reminded him that he had to call the office which was two hours ahead; he pushed the power button on his iPhone to see if he needed to be more pissed off than he was currently. Please work, he thought. 

"Darling, but how did you know that Sophia was getting married this weekend?"

"I didn't.  Swear," said Brankton a bit irritated.  Divorce had many attendant negative consequences, but one of the more ungainly  had to be the creation of a new class of hyphenate family members.  The iPhone's home-screen finally appeared to the relief of Brankton who looked back to his ex-step-mother-in-law.  "I'm here to sign a new act, and have to go out tonight to see him at some club just down the street."

"Oh, really?  So you just decided to stay at the Driskill?"  Sounded a bit fishy to Brankton now that he heard it put like that, and with the English lilt of an islander no less.  The Baron was a man of wealth and taste.  And his taste in women leaned toward the Caribbean:  Olive-skinned, tall, beautiful, and well-spoken.   Brankton had to give the Baron that at least.

"Fine, darling.  Whatever you say," Dominique pulled Brankton toward the elevators.  "Meanwhile, you can tell me your version of the truth over a drink as you and I get away from the lobby."

For a brief moment, it looked like the bartender on the second-floor veranda was actually reading the recipes of the drinks he was pouring.  He'd read a bit, turn the page, then walk over and make a drink.  Then read some more, pour a few more drinks. Brankton watched this for a few minutes before he confirmed that the bartender was most likely the second-string crew, probably a local college kid trying to get some reading done for class while working what would ordinarily be a slow shift.  The A-team would be downstairs working the wedding or the rehearsal dinner or whatever his ex had planned.

"Clink-clink, darling!" said the Baron's wife, shaking Brankton's empty glass with ice rattling to that area behind the bar where waitstaff do her bidding.

"Another Jack-n-Coke?" said the bartender.  Brankton took the span of his hand and inverted it vertically for visual aid.

"Make it tall," said Brankton.

The bartender looked at the Baron's wife.  "She'll have another Bellini," said Brankton, who personally preferred the blackcurrant of the Kir Royale over the peachy, summery Bellini as far as Champagne drinks are concerned.  He pulled his glass from her hand.

"We have one of these every Sunday afternoon at the club," said the Baron's wife now with only her rightful drink in-hand.  "Some traditions are good, wouldn't you agree, Brankton?"  He did agree, but he didn't like the traditions that screwed him over.

"What's it been?  Three years?" asked Dominique.

"Not quite 150 Bellini's," said Brankton pointing at her Sunday afternoon drink, calculating.  Plus three Bellini's from today is 153, he thought.

"You look amazing, Brankton, darling."  The Baron's wife threw one leg over the other, with her open-toed pump pointing at her former ex-step-son-in-law.  Brankton pulled another ice cube from his glass and rubbed it on his cheek bone.

"So, I have to know ... who's the guy?" he finally asked the question that no ex wants to really know the answer to.

"Here.  Try one of the these."

"What's that?" he asked.

"For my back.  Does wonders for the pain, as well as rehearsal dinners," she said.   She placed a silver pill box on the bar and opened it revealing nine elliptical Vicodin pills lined-up 3x3.  "You're going to need it."

"Yeah?  That right?"  Brankton looked at his watch; he had a little over an hour until the set would start.  "Two please," he said.

"Two?  Why not?"  said the Baron's wife.  One neat little row of life-numbing capsules disappeared; two for him, one for her style as they toasted with freshened drinks.

"Clink-clink," said Brankton.

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