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4

"ANOTHER BEAUTIFUL day in paradise."

"You say that every day."

"Well, of course I say it every day," Preston said, flicking sand off his belly. "That's the point, isn't it? The unchanging sameness, the lack of surprise, the loss of suspense, the eternal undifferentiated pleasantness of it all, of course I have to respond in the character of the setting, with the same hackneyed phrase every single pointless, drifting, inane day. The wonder of it is that you don't say it every day."

Alan frowned. Preston suspected, not for the first time, that Alan had not been paying strict attention. "Say what every day?"

" 'You say that every day. »

Alan scrunched his monkey face into a walnut, a walnut wearing a Red Sox hat and sunglasses. "I say what every day?"

"Oh, Lord," Preston said. Should he try to get back to the beginning of the thread, untangle the snarl? What for? Instead, he said, "You're not quite the thing as a paid companion, are you?"

"I'm every bit a companion," Alan insisted. "I'm here at your beck and call, I engage in conversation with you, I fetch and carry, I completely subordinate my own preferences and personality, and I never argue with you."

"You're arguing with me now."

"No, I'm not."

Another dead end. Preston sighed and looked out over his own supine form on the chaise longue, past his mounded pink belly cresting at the waist of his scarlet swimming trunks, past the tops of his toes, just visible way down there this side of the white wood rail enclosing the porch, past the bit of sand and neat plantings and brick path that paralleled the shoreline, past the shoreline out there and then to the green and foamy sea, speckled with snorkelers, whizzing with windsurfers, caroming with canoes. It was exhausting just to watch all those people exercise. "I hate this place," he said.

Alan had no doubt heard that before as well. "We could go somewhere else, if you'd like," he said.

Preston snorted. "Where else? It's all the same, except most of it is even worse. At least, here there's no weather."

Alan waved a hand at the view. "It's August, Preston," he said, "the whole northern hemisphere's like that at the moment. No snow, not even much rain. You could go anywhere you like."

"You know perfectly well," Preston told him, beginning to become really annoyed, "the only place I'd like to go is the one place I certainly cannot go, and that is home. New York. My apartment. My clubs, my city, my theaters, my restaurants, my board of directors' meetings, my five-hundred-dollar hookers speaking French. That's where I cannot go, as you full well know. And you also know why, because that's something else I talk about often, because it preys on my mind."

"Your wives, you mean."

"To have ex-wives is the normal state of affairs," Preston explained. "It's merely the end product of lust. But ex-wives are not supposed to band together, pool their resources, set themselves to strip their former benefactor to his skivvies, and then set fire to the skivvies."

"You probably jeered at them," Alan suggested.

Preston spread his hands. "Well, of course I jeered at them. Ex-wives are meant to be jeered at. Tiny little grasping brains, greedy little pigs."

"Driving them together."

"Well, they weren't supposed to be together, they were supposed to hate each other too much. If those four women had remained solitary soreheads, as they were supposed to do, I wouldn't be on the run the way I am, hounded to the ends of the earth by the baying of the world's most rapacious divorce attorneys."

"Club Med isn't exactly the end of the earth," Alan informed him.

"It's one of them," Preston said. "It isn't your hub, your beating heart, your nerve center, in short, your New York. It isn't, Alan, New York."

"I agree," Alan said.

"Thank you." Preston brooded, then said, "If I could go home again, Alan, I would go there in a shot, as you very well know, and I would have absolutely no further use for a paid companion, and you would no doubt starve to death in a gutter somewhere. And deserve it, too. Is there anything more otiose than a paid companion?"

"Probably not," Alan said. "Of course, pleasant people get companionship for free."

"And worth every penny of it. What do you mean, pleasant people? I am pleasant. I smile at the waitstaff, I josh with the other guests."

"You taunt and tease," Alan told him. "You like to hurt people's feelings — mine, if I had any — and use big words they won't understand and just be so superior it's amazing you're not in a toga."

"Don't forget the laurel leaves," Preston said, and laughed, and said, "Do you know who I miss?"

Alan seemed mildly surprised. "You miss somebody?"

"That little Albright fellow," Preston said. "The crook, whatever he was. The fellow out of the Bowery Boy movies."

"You miss him," Alan said, the words as flat as a skipping stone.

"I do," Preston said, and smiled at the memory. "You talk about teasing people, he was the best subject I ever had in my life. Albright — there's a misnomer. And when he got to drinking!

"You got to drinking yourself," Alan told him.

"Oh, a bit, here and there," Preston acknowledged, and waved the idea away. "Just enough to keep him company, so he could tell me things I could make fun of."

"You told him a few things yourself," Alan said.

"I did?" Preston tried to remember something he might have told the little Albright fellow. "What on earth could I possibly have told Arnie Albright?"

"Oh, I don't know," Alan said. "Personal details, when you were in your cups together. He's probably forgotten it all. But you know, I almost had the feeling sometimes that he came around so often mostly because he was trying to pump you."

"Pump? Me? Don't be foolish. Arnie Albright was about as crafty as that scuba instructor you inveigled me into going to."

"If you'd gone back," Alan said, "he might have drowned you."

"One of the reasons I didn't. But Arnie Albright. To pump me. He came back, day after day—"

"Because he had nowhere else to go, like you."

"Paid companions do not interrupt," Preston said. "He came back because, in his pitiful little brain, he had dreams of someday one-upping me. It was wonderful to watch him, tongue-tied, nose turning bright red, trying to find a snappy retort."

"No, he didn't have a lot of those," Alan agreed.

"I should think not." With another laugh, Preston said, "Wherever he is right now, back up there in the city, I wonder if he thinks sometimes of me."


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