Empty Bed Blues

Twelve Customers Gunned Down In Convenience-Store Clerk's Imagination
—Headline in The Onion

Crime? You want crime? Okay, I'll give you crime. But not exactly (I bet) what you were thinking about when you said you wanted to hear all about crime. Crime and punishment.

Now let's get some things, underbrush, cleared out of the way. We live in a crime-ridden country in a crime-ridden age. If you pause to consider all the laws on all the books, all the things that are (technically and in fact) defined as crimes, from, say, jaywalking to serial rape-murder, then we are probably all of us guilty criminals one way and another. If we include all the inside stuff, the heavy stuff of head and heart, if we are to be held responsible and judged for all we have thought and felt like doing (if we weren't so scared of getting caught), we are all criminals in that sense, too, one way and another. Just glance at the Bible or maybe the Book of Common Prayer, in any version up through 1928, and you'll see exactly what I'm talking about. There is no health in us . . .

The indifferent dead (vive l’indifference!) are maybe a sort of an exception in that they are no longer able to commit any crimes, worldly crimes at least. Their criminal days are behind them. Ghosts don't and can't do anything to or hurt living people, as much as they might like to. Sure, ghosts can scare the ever-living wee-wee out of living persons, but they can't actually do anything harmful to anybody who is still alive. Let's suppose that we passed a law, make it a federal law, making bad behavior by ghosts a felony or a misdemeanor or something. How would we manage to enforce that aforesaid law? Not that that kind of problem has ever troubled serious lawmakers very much.

But enough of all this deep philosophy and on with the show and tell.

When you are thinking about crime, you probably are thinking (I assume) about things like mugging and murder and mayhem, about dramatic crimes of violence, about crimes of senseless absurdity like, say, hey-let's-go-and-knock-over-a-7-1 1. And while we are at it, baby, let us rip off a half decent set of wheels and go to California or some sunny place like that. Or let's deal some dope and get rich. Or white collar crime. Let's do a little insider trading. Or maybe we can run a scam on some of the senile folks in a nursing home. Let's rip off their life savings so we can buy some classy threads and go eat snails in a good, four star restaurant.

This story—which really happened to a friend of mine, though I've changed some of the names and some of the sordid details just in case he should happen to pick up this magazine and start reading—is more about the comedy of crime than anything else. The comedy of crime? You may not have thought of it quite that way. But there are plenty of books and movies based on the comedy of crime. I guess my all-time favorite is Elmore Leonard's Get Shorty. Next to that, neck and neck, is a great Italian movie called I Soliti Ignoti (shown over here as Big Deal on Madonna Street), to which Woody Allen made what they nowadays call an homage in Small Time Crooks. Anyway, my point is that plenty of crime is basically comic. Of course, it probably wasn't like a comedy to my friend. I never asked. I never laughed about it in front of him, either. These things are all a matter of context and point of view.

Part of the comedy is the context—the world of academe. There is, of course, plenty of crime in academe. In fact, I can't imagine any worse bunch of criminals than some of the administrators and colleagues I've worked with and for over the years. But, be that as it may, I'm not about to tell you some story about crimes committed solely for the sake of tenure or an office with windows and a better parking place. It's just that this story took place in an academic environment, your basic town and gown milieu. And, let me admit it right up front, tenure was indeed involved yes, sir, peripherally at least. Marvin was up for tenure, but you needn't concern yourself with that. It was his problem.

More to the point, Marvin was horny. Profoundly horny. More than usually horny. Even for him. Partly this was because (I guess) his girlfriend, who had never been too free and easy, anyway, had recently broken up with him. Katie was a neat little blonde chick, an actress by inclination and trade, who once upon a time had a couple of spots on T.V. sitcoms and was hoping to get back into that game as soon as she could swing it. Meantime she was working for our Drama Department and, for a little while, shacked up with ole Marvin. He claimed she had a great little tight ass and perky breasts. "Perky," that's the very word he used. Which may be the case, who knows?, but he was seeing her through the eyes of love. When she dumped him, he was heartbroken, briefly, and soon firmly horny. His condition was aggravated when he discovered the back pages of that otherwise wonderfully entertaining alternative newspaper—The Onion. On the back page, under "Adult" he found ads (and phone numbers) for exciting and specialized phone sex: "Horny Housewives," "Horny H. S. Seniors," "Barely Legal Coeds," "Sex Starved Old Women." Since he could charge these calls to the departmental budget (at least he thought he could; actually it was a crime because we are a state university), he thought, why not?, he would see if it helped.

It didn't. Not much. True, he was able, at first, to gain the sense of "Release!" that they promised. But it was kind of embarrassing and too expensive. (Marvin was a bit of a tightwad, even about things like sex that are very seldom fully cost effective.) As long as it was going to cost him, he figured, why not hire a "real" woman and enjoy a "real" experience.

Big mistake, Marvin.

He goes downtown to a half decent singles bar. Meets a cute little number—dark hair, big boobs, wide ass, kind of chunky, but fit and trim—buys her a couple of drinks. Drinks a couple or three, himself. (Otherwise he might have been thinking a little more clearly.) He's thinking that they are getting along just fine together. Talking about Clinton and the Oval Office which he had found, at least with Katie, can, under certain circumstances, be a turn on.

Sooner, rather than later, the lady is ready to leave, to go somewhere else. She lives with her mother and his place is too small and totally out of control, so they go off to a cheap motel. Once they're inside with the air-conditioner rattling and humming its old familiar tune, she lets him know, politely but firmly, that this is not amateur night. She's a pro and expects to see some money up front before she so much as unbuttons a button or unzips a zipper. Hornier than ever, he hands her the money, sits down to take off his shoes when Wham! Bam! Lights and loud voices. Rude remarks in the imperative mood.

It's the cops!

She's a cop!

Next thing he knows he is in the archetypal police station. Where (in the presence of the aforesaid Carla who makes some cute remarks about his inadequate anatomical equipment) he is strip searched and finger printed, mug shot, booked and then, clad in a set of the county's ill-fitting orange coveralls, placed in a dingy room dominated by an obviously one-way mirror. Just like on television, he allows himself to opine.

It gets worse when the shock wears off. Dawns on him that perky Katie will laugh her little blonde ass off and say I told you so, or something like that. This will probably be in the local paper to the delight of his enemies and the shame of his friends (if any). And there goes tenure. Just when it seemed within reach and grasp.

Representing the power and glory of law and order, Carla, now cuter than ever in her neat blue police uniform, comes in. Offers him a cigarette and lights it for him. Marvin doesn't smoke. Quit cold turkey a decade ago. But right now it tastes wonderful. And, anyway, it might be rude to refuse.

Carla asks him if he has been read his Miranda rights. He can't honestly remember. So, just in case, she reads them all over again. Carla has a husky, sexy voice. Listening to her read Miranda, he feels a little stirring in his loins. Half wishes he were still naked as a jay bird so he could show her that her initial and somewhat contemptuous judgment call was really unfounded.

Then she quietly explains to him what is going to happen to him. Most likely he will get off with just a modest fine. It is, after all, a first offense; and, as he will see soon enough, the county lockup is overcrowded with serious criminal types. His lawyer, any old lawyer, can get him out on his own recognizance sometime tomorrow.

The only bad part, she tells him, especially for a university professor like you, is the public embarrassment. To begin with, it's been a slow night, slow for the newspaper business. For sure they will make a big deal out of it and probably a big joke, too. Chances are that it will be picked up by some other papers in the area. And, of course, Channel 4 will give you some serious attention. Sorry about that....

"Oh, God!" he hears himself saying. "What can I do?"

"Well," she says. Then: "Well, maybe there is something."

Maybe, she suggests, his weaknesses can be turned into positive strengths. It seems (if only he had known!) there is a racket, a call girl ring, right here in this nice little academic town. The law enforcement folks have had bad luck in trying to get enough evidence to shut down this operation. Or—and here Marvin begins his elementary education in crime and crime fighting in contemporary America—at least to control the whole thing. Not just to control the market in high price, expensive pussy, but also to share in the inevitable profits accrued. If the Powers That Be (top level town and county government) can keep this criminal activity under control while allowing an uncontested monopoly and keeping the partners/perpetrators out of jail and trouble, then they (the Powers That Be) surely deserve a modest piece of the action.

Does Marvin understand all this so far?

More or less.

More or less is enough. More or less is all that anybody understands about anything, including brain surgery and rocket science.

"What does all this have to do with me?"

She is not ready, not quite yet, to deal with Marvin's particular problem. First she wants to explain some of the benefits, the all around benefits, deriving from this "...operation." Everybody understands (more or less) that the buying and selling of sexual pleasure ("Release!") is not going to cease and desist until Judgment Day comes along to separate the sheep from the goats. Until that Day comes along, the commerce, legal and illegal, of sex will continue regardless of all laws and regulations, preaching or punishment. The Powers That Be, with the law enforcement folks as their active agents, have an obligation to the community. They must keep the lid on (as they say) or they will be sooner or later replaced by other Powers That Be; and, in addition, to losing their limited powers and their modest privileges and perquisites, they will find themselves deprived of various sources of income, earned and unearned.

The obvious and practical solution to something like this call girl ring is to bring these criminals (by which she does not mean the hard-working woman, but rather the entrepreneurs who are the executives of the industry) into the tent. Better they are in the tent with us and pissing outside than vice versa. What can motivate them to join with us, the representatives of the community at large? The answer is several things. Several things at once. First, of course, the end of their business, at least locally. Likewise the prospect of jail time. Nobody wants to go to jail for even a few minutes after watching Oz and other such shows on T.V. It's a matter of carrot and stick.

Ever the good student, Marvin wonders what the carrot can be.

Good question, Marvin.

Suppose the law enforcement folks and the Powers That Be, having accumulated a gracious plenty of evidence, enough to send everybody involved, at all levels, off to the slammer, just suppose these forces of law and order were to offer the criminals a deal. We don't send you to jail. We don't even close down your lucrative and lively activities. In return for a certain kind of discretion on your part, we allow you to continue. Suppose we allow only you to continue. Suppose, that is, we give you a monopoly on expensive commercial pussy in town. Anybody else tries to get into the act and the business and we run them out of town or haul them into the courthouse. What we have to offer you, then, in return for your good behavior and a negotiable percentage of the profits, is security. And, if you have a taste for irony, some of that, too. The law enforcement folks become your very own security. To be sure, the law enforcement people have every right to share, directly and indirectly, in your profits. Exactly how much and precisely from what source—Powers That Be or you guys—can be negotiated. Like any old contract.


"Carla, I am a little shocked, 'taken aback' would be more like it, by what you are telling me. I do understand, more or less. But what I do not understand is what any of this has to do with me.

"I mean, okay, so I tried to solicit you for some sex. Money changed hands and the cops came in and busted me before I could even begin . . ."

"Professor," Carla said quietly. "I have just given you an overview, a sense of the Big Picture. Now let's go micro, down and dirty. We have got you by the balls and would very much like to squeeze them and encourage you to join with us and help us out. Not a big thing. Call it one small step for mankind. We need to catch ourselves a call girl and put a little heat on her. Are you game?" They need to catch a live call girl, more or less in the act. And then put the squeeze on her, sweating her until she is ready and willing to rat out (as they say, at least on T.V.) her colleagues and superiors.

Maybe, if Marvin agrees to help them in this matter, they can manage to misplace and lose his paperwork and can make sure that his good name and the nature of his indiscretion do not appear in the morning papers or anywhere else.

And wouldn't that be nice?

While Marvin is allowed (briefly, briefly) to think about all this, Carla adds a little spice to the bubbling sauce.

"You know, Marvin, I'm really sorry about all this. I mean, you seem like a pretty nice guy. We might even be friends, down the road a little. . ."

Looking at her large, firm breasts swelling against her policewoman's blue shirt, Marvin feels yet another stirring of the loins (his) as he smiles a wan smile and agrees at last to co-operate with law enforcement in any way that might be helpful.


Before we go any farther with this I'm going to need to tell you a little more about Marvin. Not that we were close buddies. Put it this way. I had known him pretty well for awhile. We both came to work at the University at about the same time. But we weren't really rivals and I didn't have anything serious against him. That made me one of his precious few friends. A lot of people at the University didn't take to Marvin. They thought he was a wise ass and they didn't wish him well. I was at least neutral, and that neutrality allows me to maintain a little more objectivity than most people trying to tell this tale could honestly claim to possess. I did not wish his misfortunes on him. Believe me, it did not give me a whole lot of pleasure, perverse or otherwise, when troubles descended on him like a cloud of gnats or mosquitoes aiming to eat him alive. Sure, I laughed at the time. That is the truth, and I'll be the first to admit it. But I did not, as so many others most certainly did, rejoice and offer up libations of thanksgiving to whatever-gods-may-be for bringing him down to his knees.

Quite aside from personal feelings and ideals of good behavior, there is another very good reason for me to pause here and to tell you a little something more about Marvin. As anybody who writes some fiction will be glad to tell you—and, truth be known, both Marvin and I have written and published some fiction from time to time—if whatever happens to a central character, a protagonist, is to have any meaning or implications (read: resonance), above and beyond the simple recitation of a sequence of happy or unhappy events, if the story you are telling is to have any claim to or hope of engaging a reader and involving the reader's feelings, then you have to know and to share a little bit of information about the aforesaid central character before he or she steps forward into the big middle of whatever shitstorm you have prepared for him/her to face and (maybe) to endure. Of course, it is very easy to overdo this, trying too hard to create sympathy, even empathy for this character when he or she may not be entitled to any sympathy at all. And that, my friends, next to a shrugging passivity on the part of many a modern ho-hum protagonist, is one of the most troublesome problems with a lot of contemporary fiction. Losers are fine and dandy and so are many kinds of anti-heroes, but somehow or other we have to generate a certain amount of engagement, if not really sympathy, with them.

Well, allowing that I am somewhat limited by the fact that, even if you don't know it and have to take my word for it, Marvin, or anyway the character by that name in this story, is "real." There is and was a real version of my character Marvin. To that extent the story I'm telling is "true," a piece of reportage; though only a very few people on this planet will be able to judge the authenticity and accuracy of my version. (To reassure all cynical and sophisticated readers, indeed readers of all kinds, I hereby honestly confess that this story is in fact fiction and nothing but fiction, created out of whole cloth, by a moderately depraved imagination.)

What do you need to know about Marvin? Well, even if he is, by trade, a professor, he isn't your stereotypical intellectual. Sure he can act like one if he has to. (We all can.) But when it comes to life in the academic world Marvin is really more of a hustler, a gifted con artist. You might be surprised how many people working in our colleges and universities—and bear in mind that there are now in America more college professors than steelworkers—are in it for what they can get out of it. Really dumb, you think, having in mind their (usually) very modest salaries. But don't forget that the admittedly inadequate salary is often paying for not much more than 12 or 15 hours of work in an average week, if that much. And the fringe benefits, health package and pension plans are pretty good. Compared to real life in the real world, it is not a hard row to hoe. On top of which you, as professor, are invited to enjoy the privilege of high moral self-esteem for (apparently) sacrificing conventional worldly rewards for the sake of an ancient, honorable, and dedicated profession.

Like a lot of academics, Marvin liked to imagine that he could have been a successful stockbroker or a lawyer or an entrepreneur, if he hadn't freely given his life to teaching.

As for the other basic things. Marvin wasn't bad looking—medium size, good teeth, blue eyes, and a nice head of dark hair. Kept himself trim and fit playing tennis and, once in a while, a round of golf. Was—and I would guess still is—a natty dresser within the fairly lax sumptuary limits of the professional style. Somewhere along the way he had learned to play the piano a little, well enough to accompany his colleagues and their spouses and significant others in the cheerful and raucous singing of old show tunes late in the evening at the tag end of parties just before people started falling down or getting into arguments.

Marvin had been married a couple of times. No children. That was a disappointment, but he had hopes of some day marrying wisely and well and even having a family. Hopes that one day he might write a reasonably successful book. He had written two books already, not scholarly; but in spite of trendy topics, good timing and good reviews, they had both bombed out.

Don't think that some of his academic colleagues didn't see the silver lining of his troubles.

"Cheer up," they said (not to him but to each other). "It will give him a good subject to write about."

Maybe it will.

Are you sympathetic yet?


Moving along smartly with Marvin, then.

Setting up a call girl to be caught in the act turned out to be a little more difficult than you might think. The arrangement, made by Carla and her colleagues, involved, as is usually the case, rigging up Marvin's own bedroom with audio-visual aids. He knew where the cameras were placed and where the audio "bugs" were located. But he could not tell for certain whether and when they might be turned on. This made Marvin very nervous in his own bedroom. It also made him more than a little boring to his academic colleagues when he got on the subject of privacy in America in the electronic age. At the time, of course, we had no idea why this subject had suddenly become an obsession with him; and so it was assumed that Marvin was getting a little crazy, "touched" as the oldtimers put it. Life went on. Marvin showed up to teach his classes, keep his appointments and meet with committees. People tried to keep him as far away as possible from the subject of privacy.

Meanwhile Marvin was trying, under pressure, to do his bounden duty. To be brief, it took him a while to make contact with a working call girl who was not suspicious of him and his motives. Finally, though, one came to his apartment. The cops hid in closets and the bathroom, ready to rush out yelling and shouting and reading Miranda rights as soon as Marvin and the victim got (more or less) undressed and some money changed hands. Trouble was in this case, long before Marvin and the call girl arrived at a legally defined transaction, the young woman revealed herself to be the daughter of the chairman of the History department. The best that could come from this situation was that the two principals agreed (scouts' honor) not to tell on each other.

Truth is, it wasn't a complete waste of time. This young woman, believing she could probably trust Marvin, agreed to recommend somebody else, a call girl colleague with no known academic connections or interests.

The cops were a lot less than happy about this new turn of events, but they were willing to be patient for a little while longer.

(During that time, the time between call girls, Marvin went out with Carla a couple of times, the second of which ended in his less than private bedroom where Carla, good cop always, refused to admit or deny that their antic frolics were being recorded for posterity or at least for the general amusement of any and all down at the jolly police station. Carla was lively and lots of fun and Marvin didn't worry about making a spectacle of himself until the morning after when Carla got dressed and went off to work. He then seriously considered disabling the cameras or, anyway, erasing or changing the film. But he lacked the necessary mechanical expertise to do so.)

The rest you probably know about or, anyway, may vaguely remember if you happened to read our local or regional newspapers. How a big, blowzy, no-nonsense blonde came to his apartment and fell into the trap. A definite deal was made. Money changed hands. Some clothes were shucked off and soon after (not soon enough as far as Marvin was concerned) cops came charging in from all directions and arrested the blondie (let's call her Darlene) and took her into custody and away.

Marvin may have believed that his task was over and done with, that he was (as they say) home free. If so, he believed that only briefly before things took an unanticipated turn. First, Darlene was in every way a lot tougher than Carla and the police had imagined or planned on. No deals. No plea. "Try me in court," she told them. "We'll see how it turns out."

"What's going to happen, honey," Carla told her, "is that if you don't co-operate with us, you will certainly spend some time behind bars."

"Fine," Darlene said. "I can use a vacation, anyway."

On top of Darlene's unexpected recalcitrance there were the mechanical difficulties. What mechanical difficulties? you ask. Well, it seems that the video cameras and audio devices, while not a complete and utter failure, were not quite adequate, in and of themselves, to prove a case against Darlene. But, as Carla told Marvin, not to worry. We have other options.

"Like what?"

"Like you, Marvin."

Which is how, like it or not, Marvin ended up testifying in open court as a witness against Darlene. Kind of ironic, you might say, since from the beginning his whole plan and purpose was to keep out of the paper and save his good name. Nothing he could do about it though. Grin and bear it.

Only there was more to bear than you might think. Because Darlene insisted on testifying on her own behalf. She surprised everyone, probably including her own lawyer, by cheerfully and openly admitting that she was a call girl and that the evening with Marvin was strictly a business proposition.

"I have never pretended to be anyone or anything other than what I am. But even if I am guilty of breaking the law—and that's finally up to the ladies and gentlemen of the jury and nobody else, there are limits to what I will do. And one thing I will never, ever do, no matter what, is to rat out somebody else to save my own skin and reputation, like that college professor sitting over there (witness indicates Marvin) and grinning like a jackass chewing briars."

"You used the words ‘rat out,’" her lawyer said. "Would you kindly define that."

"You mean say what it means?"


"To rat out is to tell on somebody else for the purpose of saving your own sweet ass. I would never do that, not ever, not even to him, the college professor."

"Thank you."

The jury took about forty-five minutes to acquit the call girl. Please bear in mind that it takes roughly fifteen minutes to move the jury from the court to the jury room and roughly the same time to return. Ergo: the jury deliberated about fifteen minutes before arriving at a verdict.

It took a young reporter for the Daily Paper less time than that to see that there was a story there that might be a ticket to bigger and better things in his journalistic career.

Later in the same week I helped Marvin pack his U-Haul trailer and stood out in the street and waved farewell as he drove off in search of a new and improved life.


You may be wondering, by now, exactly where I fit into all this. If you are, I don't blame you. Was it D. H. Lawrence who said "trust the tale and not the teller"? Or was it the other way around?

After some years, marked by lumps and hard knocks, in this fiction game, I would strongly advise you not to trust anybody very much. Greet the teller and the tale both with a healthy skepticism.

In my case, this particular story about my friend "Marvin," you would be well-advised to keep in mind that I have made some serious effort to present the image of myself as a fair-minded fellow, sympathetic to my "friend," certainly not relishing his general discomfort, objective on the whole, and not myself involved very much. Keeping my distance. All well and good. But did you guess, some of the more cynical among you, anyway, that I might be concealing or, anyway, disguising my story by so tightly focusing on his? From the very beginning, the more experienced (read: cynical) among you will have asked yourselves the basic question that always ought to be asked of any narrator and/or character, fictional or factual or a little of both. Namely: What's in it for him? What is his angle? Your truly experienced (cynical) reader knows that nobody ever does anything at all (or leaves anything undone) for any reasons other than dedicated self-interest. Knows, too, that it is almost always a matter of simple self-interest to deny this and to profess its opposite. People keep saying ad nauseam: "All I want to do is leave this world a little bit better place than I found it." Hitler probably said that, too, to his pals in the Bunker in April of 1945. Our former President, Bill Clinton, said exactly that, or its equivalent, from many a podium many times. And it was probably (if you ask me, which you didn't) what he would say to Monica Lewinsky sometimes in the Oval Office when she was too busy and preoccupied to answer back and say the same thing on her own behalf.

But let us not get into any arguments about politics. Let us agree to disagree, bearing in mind always that politicians, by basic definition, are one and all creatures of pure and absolute and passionate self-interest.

It was more a matter of Providence than any planning on my part, that when Marvin's hopes for promotion and tenure were so rudely dashed, mine somehow were enhanced—the old seesaw effect. Look at it this way. The truth is, and I'll be the first to admit it, that, judged objectively, Marvin deserved tenure a lot more than I. But, even so, he will be happier somewhere else, a new place where his story is less likely to be known and bandied about. A fresh new start for Marvin. He may even be grateful. All in due time.

Not so long ago I ran into Carla. She was in her full policewoman's uniform and on duty. But she took time out to have a coffee with me at the new Starbucks across the street from the University. She told me that she still hears from him once in a while.

"It's kind a shame," she said. "Most of the people you meet in my line of work—the bad guys I mean, not the cops—are really no fucking good. Marvin may have had his problems, but he was a gentleman of the old school."

"You could say that."

Meanwhile Katie and I are making a good life together. She's still teaching in the Drama department, and I don't think Hollywood will be calling her away any time soon. We are renovating a wonderful old house a few blocks from the University. She is everything I ever wanted, blonde on our blue linen sheets, and everlastingly—what was Marvin's word?—"perky."