Two hours before Bruce Bablicher’s life started to fall apart, he decided his life was perfect.
The Spa On The Mile, which he owned, was humming. At three-thirty, shoppers on upper Michigan Avenue dropped in for a quick facial. At five-thirty, the working girls arrived for their monthly haircut. By six, the pre-theater ladies wanted touching up.
Bruce loved the long rush. He worked like a cat with fifty kittens.
Through the front door came the last lost kitten. His favorite woman and best friend in the world bounced into the waiting area, looking very out of place.
She was a comical contrast to his well-groomed customers. Her long, frizzy, pale hair was yanked back in a ponytail. She wore no makeup on her sunny face. Draped over her long bones were baggy navy coveralls. A lozenge over the left breast said “Debby.” A patch over the right breast said “Zoo Maintenance.” This was not a fashion statement. Dust clung to her steel-toed boots, and the coveralls were stained in a distressing way. Plus the odor. Debby dumped a lunch cooler next to a recliner in the waiting area and turned to blow him a kiss.
He blew it back with interest. “Get naked, sweetheart, while I heat up the leg wax,” he called.
“In your dreams, Bruce.” She sent an indulgently contemptuous glance around the waiting room, stretched, and flopped down in the recliner.
He had to laugh. Debby looked like a classic “before” picture. And here all around him were the delicious “afters.” He strolled slowly through his kingdom to wallow.
Here in the waiting area sat Ever-Gorgeous Emma, still ticking after all these years. Good cheekbones helped, but her legs were her biggest asset. Nobody on the social register believed she was fifty. Good bones, great legs, and a fabulous cut from Bruce Bablicher’s Spa On The Mile. Emma knew the score.
“Leo will be with you in twenty, Emma. Nice dress.”
“Bruce, you hunky thing. You’re wasted on men.”
“You look like a panther woman. Always wear golden-browns and taupes.”
Every woman he knew was a lovely person inside and out—until she got some poor schlub to commit. Then it was the same unbearable craziness his mom put his dad through.
Not for him. He was glad, really, that he’d sworn off physical intimacy. This way he got the adoration of every woman who came through that door, and he could adore them all back, hassle-free. Okay, he might lead the nation in number of cold showers per week. After three disastrous relationships which still haunted him, he had learned to live with cold showers.
He was happy.
And the charade was perfect. It might not fool a real gay man, but it didn’t have to.
There was Divine Donna. What was her last name? He was lousy at keeping TV celebrities straight.
“Bruce!” Donna cried. “Can you do something about my hands?”
Donna was paranoid about her amazing skin. ZBS had hired her for her looks, the dopes. She came in for a mudpack twice a week for job security.
He stopped at her side and picked them up. “’S the matter with the paws?”
Donna’s hands were warm and soft, with lovely tapering fingers. And a perfect manicure, of course. She had it done here.
She clutched him. “They’re wrinkling!”
“Nonsense. Stop wringing them.” He pressed a slow, nuzzling kiss on each palm, then placed her hands back on her tummy. “Don’t smile. You’ll crack your mud.”
“I love you, Bruce.”
“Take a number, darling.”
Go figure. Why should someone as funny and wonderful as Donna fear a zit?
So many women, so little time. He sighed happily. His life was perfect.
Pedicure was an island of quiet after the madness of the hair salon, with low lights and soft, slow, classical music.
His five-thirty was already in a booth, staring at the ceiling, where simulated clouds drifted across a starry night sky. Neiman Marcus bags lay in piles around her chair. He warmed his hands on a hot towel and got to work.
“Oh, Zelda, these tense little toes. You’ve been wearing cheap shoes again, haven’t you?” Lovingly he rubbed between her toes, pulled one toe at a time until it cracked, then worked his thumbs over her arches. “Bad Zelda.” The swishier he sounded, the more tenderly he could touch her.
“Poor Zelda can’t afford new fuchsia Ferragamo pumps.” She sighed. “Oh, thank you.”
“Poor feet,” he crooned. “You must be loving to these feet. They will love you back if you do.” He massaged oil into her arches. She moaned. He smiled.
Five minutes later she was out cold. He shook his head and kept rubbing. Poor Zelda. She was in a miserable marriage, so she shopped until she dropped every day. Not a dangerous form of compensation. He would hate to see her take to tranquilizers.
He switched to pumicing her heels. Her feet could be great if she’d quit abusing them with shoes that didn’t fit. He went into a daydream of fixing Zelda’s feet, maybe introducing her to a nicer man. His hands slid up her pretty ankle and squeezed tenderly. The owner of the ankle smiled in her sleep.
Warm breath blew in his ear. “Isn’t that some kind of fetish?” a familiar voice murmured.
“Leo!” Bruce looked up. “Did you bring Thai food?”
Leo looked overdressed as usual. Black designer tee-shirt, pleated sage chinos, burgundy loafers, no socks. He had taught Bruce how to dress the part. He hissed, “You masochistic tart. Why do you torture yourself? You want them all. Admit it.”
“Of course I want them all,” Bruce murmured dreamily. “Each and every one.”
“You’ll get yourself in trouble with that someday.”
Zelda’s left heel had a lot of callus built up. I must send her a reminder card to come in oftener. “It’s perfectly possible to love three hundred women at once.” Bruce sighed as he stroked. She had lovely ankles. In her sleep, Zelda writhed. “Thai?” he repeated.
“In the break room.” Leo glanced toward the glass door into the waiting area. “Uh-oh. Look what the cat dragged in.”
Bruce glanced up. “Oh, yeah. She’s been waiting half an hour.”
Beyond the glass door, Debby sprawled on the chair, flipping through a sample hairstyle album. He had to admire the way she relaxed. Hers was the most sensual pose in the room, including those of the models in the photographs on the walls. She got to the end of the book, made a wry face, tossed it down on a pile, and picked up another, looking purposeful.
Odd. She’d never even looked at his sample books before. Bruce hoped she wouldn’t sneer out loud. It upset the customers.
Leo put thumb and finger to his nose. “Do you suppose that’s elephant doo-doo? Or rhino poo?”
“Be nice, Leo. Offer her tea. Maybe she’s had a bad day.”
Bruce watched with amusement as Leo minced through the door to the waiting area and did his maitre-d’ act: tipped his head toward the tea table, made little hand flourishes, and flipped a towel over his arm.
Debby giggled and shook her head.
Leo bowed. He returned to Bruce. “We are on a diet. Permission to get on to Emma’s head?”
“Granted.” Bruce finished buffing the feet of the still-snoozing Zelda. Avoiding the eyes of customers in the waiting area who could obviously smell Debby’s boots, he moved to the next booth.
At eight he cooed the last customer out.
He sent his employees home, locked the door, and flattened himself against it. “What a day! Time for a nice light Riesling and a trashy video.”
Leo came out of the break room. “Not yet. There’s Crocodile Debby.”
“She can have some too.” Bruce glanced into the waiting area. “She seems tired.”
“She could have changed clothes before she came in here,” Leo complained.
“So I’ve told her. I think she’s striking a blow for grubbiness.”
Bruce armed himself with Riesling, two sets of chopsticks, and a plate piled with noodles. Then he made his way to the waiting area.
“And how was the zoo?” he said to the odiferous pile of work clothes in the recliner.
Debby bounced up with a start. “Bruce!”
She’s always chirpy when she’s about to start something dumb.
She swung her long legs out of the recliner and sat up, looking determined. “You were right, Bruce.”
Observing her goofy look, Bruce feared the worst. “Always. What am I right about this time?”
Solemnly she said, “You were right. I was wrong. I should have come to you long ago.”
“You waited hours to tell us this?” Leo said, wandering in with the pad thai carton. “Wow. Pollyanna eats dirt.”
“Rub it in. I deserve it.” She said to Bruce, “I’m a mess. I doubt even you can help.”
Leo nodded. “I’ve said so for years.”
“Pipe down, Leo.” Bruce put a hand on her knee. “Debby-darling, give me some nouns.”
She gripped the front of her coverall and tugged. “Look at me!”
“Same old mess.” Leo shrugged. “What’s new?”
“I’m in love!” she proclaimed. Bruce exchanged glances with Leo. She clutched her hands to her chest. “And I need you to make me over.”
“I do believe in God,” Leo whispered.
Bruce’s eyes bulged. “What? I mean, finally! But why?”
“It’s time for me to change,” she said. “Like you’ve always said.”
“Darling, you’ve been in love six times since I met you,” Bruce said. “Each one was a weirder choice. I’ve begged you to accept a makeover for years. Why now?”
A look of holy ecstasy crossed her face. “I’m in love with Hulk DeHaviland!” To Bruce’s astonishment, she burst into tears.
Leo burst out laughing.
“But Debby,” Bruce said helplessly, “do you think he’s your type?”
She blew her nose and lobbed the tissue into the receptionist’s wastebasket. “No. He’s gorgeous and polished and well-dressed and aristocratic—”
“He’s third generation Hollywood, if that’s ‘aristocratic,’” Bruce said. Born and bred to be shallow, vain, self-absorbed—oh ugh, Debby!
“Built like a brick Port-O-San, too,” Leo put in.
Debby nodded. “Exactly. With Oscar-winner parents and grandparents. All those glamorous people. And who am I?” she said with scorn. “Debutawnt Griffin.”
Leo shrieked with laughter.
“Leo, go to your room,” Bruce said.
It was true, Larayna Griffin had, in a fit of ambition, named her only baby daughter Debutawnt. She’d also named her two sons Dewk and Esquyre. The poor woman couldn’t spell. Bruce blamed it on her hair, which added five inches to Larayna’s already statuesque height. Personally he admired Larayna, but he could understand Debby’s feelings.
“So that’s why you have to make me over,” Debby said, coming down from her emotional window-ledge with a bump. “You have to. Bruce, I know I’m not pretty. But you could make me presentable, couldn’t you?” She must have seen doubt in his face. “Okay, I’m a dog. But you’re my only hope. You won’t let me down?”
“Nnoo.” Bruce winced. Debby was his best friend. More simpatico than Leo, the brat, even if she did look like an unmade bed and carried on with the slimeballs of his gender. Now it was Hulk DeHaviland! Oh, hell.