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Authors: Stanley Elkin

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The Franchiser

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The Franchiser

Stanley Elkin

FOR JOAN

Contents

I

II

2

3

4

III

2

3

4

IV

2

3

4

5

V

A Biography of Stanley Elkin

The author wishes to thank Washington University for its generous support, and to thank, too, Leanna Boysko, for her invaluable assistance in the preparation of the manuscript.

The characters and events are fictitious and any similarity to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

I

P
ast the orange roof and turquoise tower, past the immense sunburst of the green and yellowsign, past the golden arches, beyond the low buff building, beside the discrete hut, the dark top hat on the studio window shade, beneath the red and white longitudes of the enormous bucket, coming up to the thick shaft of the yellow arrow piercing the royal-blue field, he feels he is home. Is it Nashville? Elmira, New York? St. Louis County? A Florida key? The Illinois arrowhead? Indiana like a holster, Ohio like a badge? Is he North? St. Paul, Minn? Northeast? Boston, Mass.? The other side of America? Salt Lake? Los Angeles? At the bottom of the country? The Texas udder? Where? In Colorado’s frame? Wyoming like a postage stamp? Michigan like a mitten? The chipped, eroding bays of the Northwest? Seattle? Bellingham, Washington?

Somewhere in the packed masonry of states.

He guides the pale-blue Cadillac up the perfectly banked ramp, around one loop of the creamy cloverleaf, positioned, in the large, long automobile, centripetally as a slot car—lovely. And down, shooting the smooth rapids of traffic, into the wide cement of American delta. Like a water skier brought, still on his feet, to shore. He waits at the lights, in some darker medium now, a rich topsoil of city asphalt, waving to the man next to him, miming petition, throwing thanks like a blown kiss, and on green edges forward, to his left. Coming into the service station. (There is cash in his pocket. Credit cards. A checkbook. Licenses. His name and address a block braille on a dozen plastic cards.) And stops. Out of the way of the pumps. And seeing the attendant, his politeness on him like a mood, good behavior premeditated as a sentence in a foreign language, as a question from the floor, gets out of the car, goes to him, the attendant, a young man who barely glances at him. Waits. Walks with the fellow as he goes behind the Chevy Impala at the Regular pump to copy down the number of the plate onto the clamped carbons, accompanying him to the driver, smiling at the silent transaction of proffered charge slip and returned signature, waves to the lady in the Impala as she moves off, turns cheerfully to the attendant, and addresses him in chipper, palsy-walsy American.

“Say, buddy, can I bother you a minute?”

“Sir?”

“I was wondering. Can you tell me—can you tell me just where the hell I am?”

And knows that whatever Jack—he reads the name stitched in red on his coveralls—tells him, it will be welcome news, for he already likes this town, likes the feel of it. He has seen from the highway the low modern buildings of new industrial parks, their parking lots comfortably settled with late-model cars, a bright convoy of good machinery in the wide sealanes of parallel parking.

“Why, this is Boyle Avenue,” Jack says.

“Boyle Avenue,” he repeats, smiling. Yes, he likes the sound of it. “But what city, please?”

“What
city?
Why, Birmingham.”

“Michigan? Alabama?”

“Birmingham, Alabama.”

“Ahh.”

Jack moves away, going toward a Pontiac Grand Prix which has just pulled up to one of the pumps. “Birmingham, Alabama,” he calls after him. “That’s wonderful. I thank you, sir. I thank you kindly.”

He turns back to the Cadillac, suddenly remembers something, and pauses. “Golly, what’s the matter with me? If my head weren’t on my neck I wouldn’t know where to put my hat. Here, son. Here, Jack.” He tries to give Jack ten dollars. “For your trouble. And thanks again. You’re a life saver. ”

“Hey,” Jack says, “you don’t have to—”

“No no. You’re entirely welcome. My pleasure.” He gets into his car. Birmingham, Alabama. I’ll be. It’s a beautiful day in the United States of America.

II

I
took Nate’s hand. “Hey,” Lace said.

“Hay is for horses.”

“Come on, let go. Let
go
.”

“Spare me your colorful crap, Nate. Save it for the hicks. I’m glad to see you, so I shake your hand. I know all about your handshake.”

“Nothing’s settled.”

“Right. You can have it back when I’m finished. I’m finished. How are you?”

“Nothing’s settled. My handshake’s my contract. I ain’t no greeter.”

“No? This isn’t Las Vegas?”

He had gotten to Harrisburg in the afternoon. He spotted Mopiani from the Caddy as he drove up, the man pneumatic in the cop’s criss-crossed leather that bound Mopiani’s tunic, the thick straps and ammunition loops potted with bullets, the long holster like a weapon, its pistol some bent brute at a waterhole, the trigger like a visible genital, the uniform itself a weapon, the metal blades of Mopiani’s badge, the big key ring with its brass claws, a tunnel of handcuffs doubled on his backside, the weighted, tapered cosh, the sergelike grainy blue hide, the stout black brogans, and the patent-leather bill of his cap like wet ink. He leaned against the blond boards that covered the entrance to the building and smoked a cigarette. In his other hand he held a walkie-talkie.

Flesh lowered the electric window.

“Mopiani.”

“Who’s that?”

“How you doing? How’s private property?”

“Who’s that?”

“It’s Ben Flesh. I’ve come to give myself up. Where’s Nate?”

“I don’t know you.”

“You don’t know shit. What’s the walkie-talkie for, Mopiani? The Big Bands?”

“Get away. The building’s closed. Don’t look for trouble. Move along. Go on. Break it up.”

“What am I, a crowd?”

“Just move along. The building’s shut.”

“You’re impregnable, Mopiani. Look at me.”

“The building’s shut down, I said.”

“That a real walkie-talkie?”

“What’s it look like?”

“Give it here a minute.” He reached out. “Come on, I’ll give it right back.” Mopiani let it go. Flesh pressed a button on the side of the machine. “Nate? You on the other end of this thing? Nate? It’s Ben Flesh.” He released the button.

Nate Lace’s voice came back immediately. “Ben.”

“Tell the police force I’m all right.”

He gave the instrument back to Mopiani. The man turned his back to him and leaned his ear into the machine, though Flesh could hear everything Nate said. Mopiani nodded.

“Mr. Lace says it’s all right. I’m sorry I hassled you. I didn’t recognize you.” Ben followed him to a sort of doorway in the wide wall of boards. He waited while Mopiani unlocked the padlock. He took the key not from the ring but from his pocket. Flesh had to bend to go through.

“Where am I going?”

“1572. It’s the Presidential suite.”

It was a hotel, dark except for the light from an open elevator and a floor lamp by one couch. The Oriental carpets, the furniture, the registration desk and shut shops—all seemed a mysterious, almost extinguished red in the enormous empty lobby. Even the elevator—one of four; he supposed the others weren’t functioning—seemed set on low. He looked around for Mopiani but the man had remained at his post. He pressed the button and sensed himself sucked up through darkness, imagining, though it was day, the darkened mezzanine and black ballrooms, the dark lamps and dark flowers in their dark vases on the dark halved tables pressed against the dark walls of each dark floor, the dark silky stripes on the benches outside the elevators, the dark cigarette butts in the dark sand.

He’d stayed here on business once. The Nittney-Lyon. He’d met Lace in strange places before, but this was the strangest. Imagine their names thrown fifteen floors by Mopiani’s walkie-talkie. “Nate?” “Ben.” Quicker than prayer.

Nate’s floor was lighter than the lobby. He glanced at the ceiling of the long corridor. Here two bulbs burned in their fixtures; there, three were out. There was no pattern. Probably Nate had unscrewed them.

The door to the suite was open, Nate at a desk watching him, his walkie-talkie next to the phone. He grabbed Nate’s hand. “Hail to the Chief,” Flesh said.

“Hey come on, let go. What the hell’s the matter with you?”

“I’m glad to see you, so I shake your hand.”

“Nothing’s settled.”

“Yeah. Right. You can have it back when I’m finished. So how are you?”

“I ain’t no greeter.”

“No? Ain’t this Las Vegas? Didn’t you used to be Joe Louis?”

“What are you doing here? We didn’t have no appointment.”

“This place is spooky. Come have a drink with me.”

“I’ve eaten. You still driving? I see the Cadillac out front. What is it, you afraid to fly? Do you think you’ll fall on the ground? More people are killed on highways each year than in the airplanes. You should know that. What are you doing here anyway? We don’t have no appointment. Why don’t you fly? It’s more convenient.”

“I’m loyal to the highway.”

“It’s crazy. Loyal to the highway. It’s crazy. How’d you know I was here?”

“I read about the distress sale.”

“You see? If you flew you’d have been here first maybe. Now maybe whatever you wanted I already sold it.”

“I knew Bensinger’s troubles weeks ago. I called him about the the TV’s, but he thought the Sheraton chain would bail him out.”

“Me.
I
bailed him out.”

“You’re Geronimo, Nate.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? How do you like my new store? Hey? This is really some store I got. TV’s?”

“How much?”

“Sealed bids.”

“What sealed bids? I need a few color TV’s. I’m opening a Travel Inn.”

“I’m sorry. It’s the only way I do business. Sealed bids.”

“What is it with you, you like to get mail? I’ll pay you cash and send it in a letter.”

“I can’t do it, Ben. Listen, I’ll go this far for you. You need TV’s. I’ll give you a price on some black and whites.”

“Black and whites? From the Nittney-Lyon? Eight years ago I stayed in this hotel. They were old
then
. The
white
was fading. Even if they were still in their boxes with the silicon pouches I couldn’t use them. I already told you, I need color. It’s in my contract.”

“How big’s your Travel?”

“A hundred fifty.”

“I ain’t got 150 color.”

“The Nittney-Lyon has 360 rooms.”

“Right. Three hundred color’s what I got. All in good condition.”

“Bullshit on your good condition. I figure it’ll cost me a hundred a set over the purchase price to get them in shape.”

“Never. Why do you say a thing like that?”

“It’s cable TV. The guests flip the channels like they’re winding their watches.”

“They’re in good condition.”

“What time is it?”

“Three. I don’t know. Around three. Why?”

“We’ll watch Merv Griffin. If his suntan works for me I’ll give you a hundred twenty-five a set.”

“I have to be truthful, it’s not a bad price. But you’d have to take two hundred.”

“Businessman! All right. I need a hundred and a half. I’ll take two hundred. I’ll use the extra for spare parts.”

Nate smiled. “You’re a tonic, Ben,” he said. “I figure seven weeks I got to be in Harrisburg. With no one to talk to but Mopiani. You know what that Cossack does when he’s not on duty? Army-Navy stores. He window shops Army-Navy stores, checks out all the Army-Navy stores to see if there’s something new he can strap to his belt.” He sighed. “I don’t know. I bought a great hotel. A beautiful store. I think I’m in over my head this time. A million one it cost me. Two weeks going day and night to do an inventory. What am I going to do with this stuff?”

“You know.”

“I don’t. I really don’t. I don’t know.”

“Come on, Nate, you know what to do with the little soaps, the paper shoeshine cloths, the switchboard, the telephones, the dance floor and bandstand. A million one. You’re here two months you’ll clear five hundred thousand. Four Otis elevators you got like Apollo space capsules. When you’ve picked the bones dry, you pay your taxes and sit on the thing till the city condemns. They pay to knock the hotel down and you parcel the property into small lots and sell it off for more than you put up in the first place.”

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