Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Last of the Cowboy Poets

Gerald Shapiro
Prairie Schooner, Vol. 86, No. 2 (Summer 2012)

 
‘‘You ever written any . . . poetry?’’ Doyle Porterhouse asked. The word ‘‘poetry’’ came out sounding like ‘‘poy-tree.’’ Porterhouse’s head was cocked, his bushy eyebrows all askew; it was as if he were a shy girl asking Lenny Halperin to the prom.

‘‘Of course. You bet I have,’’ Lenny said. That was a lie, more or less, but he wanted this job, he needed this job, he wasn’t going to go back to Kansas City and tell Joan he’d blown the interview. In fact he had written a poem once, long ago: a ten-line elegy called ‘‘Bang, You’re Dead,’’ composed in the immediate aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination. In study hall he showed it to his best friend, Alan, who read it, wadded it up, and said, ‘‘Don’t quit your day job.’’ Lenny didn’t have a day job. They were in the seventh grade.

‘‘Poetry’s what this job is all about,’’ said Porterhouse. ‘‘Rusty Boltz, Last of the Cowboy Poets, using his verse to speak out on issues of the day, offering honest hardworking folks a dose of good old-fashioned cowboy common sense. Radio audience of three million listeners, most of them fans for decades. That’s brand loyalty. There have been four Rusty Boltzes over the years. Like Lassie. First fella really was named Rusty Boltz, if you can believe that. He lasted a long, long time. Nice guy, but he got old. Died with his boots on. Then there was Rusty Junior. He had . . . malaise. I think that was the word he used. What the hell’s malaise? Rusty the Third got hepatitis. Then a couple of years ago we hired an actual cowboy poet, Laverne Hildebrandt. Rusty Boltz the Fourth. Laverne was the real thing. I mean the guy rode a horse and moved cattle for a living. So he had that whole authentic bowlegged thing going for him, and plus, he played the harmonica. He’d haul out old Sally—that’s what he called his harmonica—and give out a tune. You don’t play the harmonica by any chance, do you?’’ Lenny was about to say he’d take lessons, but Porterhouse waved him off. ‘‘Anyway, he ended up with prostate cancer. All the cowboys do, from what I hear. Riding those damn horses. Does something to you.’’ He thrust a sheet of paper across the desk to Lenny. ‘‘Here,’’ he said. ‘‘Read this.’’

It was a poem titled ‘‘They Call This Mess Success,’’ printed in large block letters. Lenny glanced at it and asked Porterhouse, ‘‘You want me to read this. Out loud?’’

“Just give it a run-through. Just the first stanza, let’s say.”

Lenny shrugged, cleared his voice and began to read:
 
My wife wears silk every day of the week,
And our friends all envy our life so sleek,
But in the dark of the night, I’d have to confess,
My life seems empty, hollow, and bleak.
Oh, it’s hard to say when more turns into less,
Hard to say when love turns into emptiness,
And that’s why they call this mess . . . success.

‘‘Damn,’’ Porterhouse said. ‘‘That was good. You’ve got some pipes, my friend.’’

‘‘Thank you,’’ Lenny said matter-of-factly. There was no use in assuming an ‘‘aw, shucks’’ modesty; he knew he had a great voice; it had been the essence of him all his life. Here he was now, sitting in a dusty office in downtown Los Angeles, a room paneled in cheap knotty pine, auditioning for a job he didn’t want, but none of that mattered now. He wanted to cry.

‘‘You got to work a little bit on your twang,’’ Porterhouse said, ‘‘but other than that, you got the soul of it. One read-through, bam, finished. You’re a pro. I can tell that. Rusty Junior could do that kind of thing when he wasn’t feeling suicidal. You’re not suicidal, are you?’’

‘‘Not so far.’’

In a profile of Lenny Halperin published some years ago, Time magazine described his voice as ‘‘warm cognac poured over silk.’’ He’d had it all his life, this golden baritone. In elementary school his teachers had always asked him to read aloud to his classmates; in fourth grade he’d moved them to tears with Anne of Green Gables. Even now, he often talked to himself in the car, reading off street signs, billboards, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, just for the sheer pleasure of hearing his rich amber tones.

Porterhouse held up a vanity mirror, like an oversized lollipop. ‘‘Well, my friend, take a look at yourself,’’ he said with a broad, winking smile. ‘‘Say hi to the new Rusty Boltz.’’

Lenny glanced in the mirror. He didn’t look like a cowboy poet. He looked like a sixty-year-old man who’d used up all his chits. But then Joan’s voice started beeping in his ear like a car alarm. ‘‘I don’t want to jump the gun,’’ he said. ‘‘But can we talk salary and benefits? I’m sorry to bring it up. But I recently got married. We have a little boy. My wife’s kid from a previous marriage.’’

‘‘Sure,’’ Porterhouse said. ‘‘I like talking money up front. I shoot from the hip. Let’s say starting salary, two hundred thousand a year, plus standard benefits and expenses.’’ It was as if he’d picked the number out of thin air. ‘‘Does that sound fair? You can sign the paperwork out in the main office. Edna’s a sweetheart, she’ll take good care of you.”

‘‘Fair enough,’’ Lenny said, his voice calm and steady. Once upon a time, two hundred thousand a year would have been insulting, chump change, but that was many years ago. Two hundred grand was exactly two hundred grand more than he’d earned last year.

‘‘Going to be some lifestyle adjustments involved on your end—but like they say, that’s show business. You’ll have to live out here, at least for a while, but we’ll pay for that. I’ve got a place picked out, set you right up, you’ll feel at home in no time.’’

‘‘Wait. You’re saying I can’t live in Kansas City?’’

‘‘The wife and kid can come visit you now and then, how’s that? Take the kid to Disneyland, he can meet Mickey and Goofy, he’ll think he’s died and gone to heaven. How old a kid?’’

‘‘Why can’t I just live at home? Kansas City has recording studios. It’d be a snap.’’

Porterhouse grabbed the vanity mirror out of Lenny’s hands. ‘‘I want you here, right here, where I can keep an eye on you, train you, groom you. Being Rusty Boltz isn’t just about cowboy poetry. It’s about a place, a time, a way of life. I’ve read your résumé, I know your record. You’ve got a fine voice. But you don’t know dick about being a cowboy. That’s the job. Take it or leave it.’’

Once upon a time nobody would have said something like that to Lenny Halperin. He stared at his hands, empty now that the mirror was gone. ‘‘I’ll take it,’’ he said. His voice sounded like it had been clubbed to death with a baseball bat.

‘‘Well, then, you’re hired. You’re Rusty Boltz, Last of the Cowboy Poets. Just see Edna at the front desk about the paperwork. And work on that twang, my friend.’’
 
Lenny Halperin had been out of a job for seven years, and he still had five years to go before he could start collecting his full pension from aftra. Five years is a long time if you’re holding your breath, and that’s what Lenny felt he was doing. Occasionally he’d inhale, and Joan would look at him as if he’d stolen air that was supposed to go into her lungs. Joan and Walter, her cross-eyed nine-year-old son. Lenny had adopted little Walter, and he loved him, he really did, he loved him the way he would have loved his own child if he’d ever had any, despite the kid’s lazy eye, his poor grades, his ‘‘Village of the Damned’’ lack of affect.

Joan still worked, thank God. If she weren’t gainfully employed, they’d have to sell their house, an elegant 1925 faux Tudor in Kansas City’s Country Club district, and move into a roach-infested apartment across town. Walter would have to transfer to a brutal inner-city school where the other kids would steal his lunch money and laugh at his lazy eye all day long. They’d be forced, the three of them, to live off the proceeds of the sale of the house until Lenny’s retirement kicked in, watching their pitiful nest egg dwindle away month by month.
Joan’s job, which involved cold-calling senior citizens to try to sell them burial insurance, left her drained and irritable at the end of the day. She’d worked for her company for seven years, ever since Lenny had lost what had turned out to be his last job in radio. Every night over dinner Joan recounted tales of the misery she faced at work. Old people could be so cruel over the phone. All she was trying to do was help them save their families the heartbreaking expense of putting them in the ground. But were they appreciative? Were they friendly? Were they even civil? No, no, and no. Old people seemed to feel that they’d earned the right to say whatever came into their head.

Sometimes she’d get so worked up describing her day at the office that she’d start screaming at Lenny. He never screamed back. He didn’t listen very closely, but he’d heard most of it already, anyway. And besides, he didn’t blame her for screaming. If he’d been Joan, he would have been screaming too. They’d gotten married in Palm Springs only a month before the Famous Radio Announcers’ Academy, Lenny’s last semi-legitimate job in radio, went belly up. Joan had had a hard life (two messy, improvident marriages, two grown sons in jail, a tattoo on her left calf she’d gotten in a filthy shop in Barstow). Walter, a souvenir of her second marriage, was the only decent thing in her life until she met Lenny. For a little while, Lenny had changed everything for Joan. They met by chance in the paint aisle of a hardware store in Long Beach. Joan was on food stamps at the time, and was planning to repaint the living room of her miserable apartment in the hope that the paint would mask the smell of cat pee that permeated the place. That very night they had sex on her kitchen table, and judging from Lenny’s groans of appreciation, Joan thought, with some justification, that her ship had finally come in. On their first date Lenny told her about his current status as a faculty member at the Famous Radio Announcers’ Academy. On their second date he casually mentioned his impending aftra pension. ‘‘That’s all up the road, of course,’’ he added, but just the word ‘‘pension’’ brought Joan to the brink of orgasm. She’d been waiting for this all her life. Joan didn’t care that he was no longer Lenny ‘‘Hepcat’’ Halperin. He could have been Len Halperin, garbage collector, as long as the job came with a pension attached. Gradually over the next couple of months he told her the truth: the money he’d made from Hepcat was gone, the Famous Radio Announcers’ Academy was a massive fraud, and the aftra pension was like Shangri-la, a mystical place high in the Himalayas where the air was thin and Sherpas served as your pack mules. But by that point Joan was already telling herself she was in love.

In her cubicle at work in Kansas City, Joan kept a mini-fridge full of diet Coke and a supply of analgesics to take away the throbbing pain in her neck and shoulders. On her desk sat two framed pictures of Lenny back when he was big in radio. There was a large one of him in his salad days, Lenny ‘‘Hepcat’’ Halperin, host of Hepcat, which was at one time the most listened-to show in the history of am radio. This photo was taken back when Lenny lived in la, where it was sunny and warm all year long and everybody was beautiful, even waitresses at hot dog stands. He was in his first marriage then, to Kathy, a platinum blonde real estate broker he’d met at a bar in Malibu. She was a ballbreaker, according to Lenny. Kathy’d had her face done, and her skin was so taut her eyes were like slits. Joan didn’t know much more about her than that. What she knew was that for decades Hepcat had made Lenny rich. Payola raining down, money pouring in—oh, the radiant, long-past days of celebrity. He was seen as a visionary, the first deejay ever to play ‘‘Li’l Red Riding Hood’’ by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs on national radio. Tommy James and the Shondells had said publicly that ‘‘Hanky Panky’’ would have gone nowhere had it not been for Lenny’s tireless efforts on the song’s behalf. He wasn’t just another host of a music show: he was the voice of a generation that would never grow old. And half of everything he’d made had gone to Kathy.

Talk about coming in at the tail end of a good movie. That’s how Joan felt. She’d missed out on the Italian loafers, the Italian sunglasses, the Italian sports cars. She’d missed the years of radiant sunshine, the fame, the booth at Musso and Frank’s. She’d missed everything.

Hepcat, which rose to fame and fortune on Motown, R&B, the British invasion, and American folk-rock, eventually fell victim to acid rock, then heavy metal, then grunge, then rap and hip-hop; tastes had changed, but Lenny’s tastes hadn’t, and as his original audience aged, they stopped listening to the music he wanted to play. In fact they stopped listening to anything. Most of them couldn’t hear all that well. When Hepcat went off the air, Lenny felt like he’d died. He’d never gone to college. He’d never done anything else. He had no skills. He couldn’t type. He didn’t know a computer from a Cuisinart. All he had was his voice, but what good was it if there was nothing to say and no one to say it to? Then, out of the blue, a call came from the Famous Radio Announcers’ Academy, offering him a lucrative faculty position. That was right around the time when he met Joan.

A small group photo of the academy’s distinguished faculty sat on Joan’s desk. In the photo, the faculty members were posed insouciantly on bleachers in an outdoor setting, a dozen of them, all flashing professorial smiles in the sun. Several of them smoked pipes and wore tweed jackets with elbow patches. Lenny sported a rakish beret. Joan knew that the Famous Radio Announcers’ Academy didn’t have bleachers; in fact it didn’t have any physical facilities at all. The ‘‘school’’ was a mailbox somewhere in Simi Valley, an airless office, a secretary, and a delivery service. Lenny’s work as a faculty member consisted entirely of evaluating voice tapes sent in by prospective students. He was instructed to admit everyone, and so he did. He admitted lispers, stutterers, people who couldn’t pronounce their r’s and l’s. He admitted recent immigrants who could barely speak English, people who were clearly illiterate, people who spoke as though they had a cleft palate or a mouth full of mush. ‘‘I think you have what it takes to be a radio star,’’ he’d write in his evaluation of these applicants. ‘‘Just enroll in our easy, do-it-at-your-own-pace, sixteen-week course, and by the time you’re finished, if you’ve worked hard and paid attention to my advice, you’ll be ready for your on-air debut.’’

Occasionally a prospective student’s voice tape was so wretched, so utterly hopeless, that he was moved to tears by the simple pathos of it. Many mornings as he brushed his teeth and regarded himself in the bathroom mirror, he was overcome by a terrifying sense of guilt. He wanted to beat himself to death with his toothbrush. Here he was, a shoo-in for the Radio Hall of Fame, participating in what was no doubt the worst scam in the history of broadcasting. But dammit, they were paying him decent money; he had bills. He’d just met Joan, and they were in that crucial early romance stage, going out for dinner every night and then heading somewhere illicit (parks, wind-swept beaches, the parking lot of the Hollywood Bowl, anywhere to get away from little Walter) for amazing sex. That cost a lot of money—not the sex part, but the dinners. The sex was free.

Two more years of this depravity, and if he stuck to a budget and learned to drink wine that came in cardboard cartons, he’d have a small but decent nest egg built up. He just had to keep listening to these goddamn tapes and admitting everyone who applied to the Famous Radio Announcers’ Academy, and one day fairly soon he and Joan would be set for life.

But then without warning, Karl Lizarde, the entrepreneurial genius behind the academy, fled Simi Valley with an entire semester’s proceeds, having cashed three hundred tuition checks the previous afternoon, and overnight the academy closed its nonexistent doors.

When Joan and Lenny first hooked up, there had been the implicit promise that once they were a full-fledged couple she would not have to work at all—that she could take on the role of a kept woman, someone who existed in order to have great-though-infrequent sex with her husband, make him delicious meals, shop for clothes and furniture, hire various workmen to keep the house in shape—in short, to do all the things Mary Tyler Moore did on The Dick Van Dyke Show back in the 1960s, when Joan was still a girl, before everything in her life turned to shit. Not long after the demise of the Famous Radio Announcers’ Academy, Lenny and Joan moved to Kansas City, where Lenny had been born and raised. He still had contacts in Kansas City, he told her, friends he’d known since kindergarten, and besides, everything was cheaper there. And it was true, Lenny sold his house in Beverly Hills for a small fortune, and it was amazing how much house you could buy in Kansas City with that kind of money. The 1925 faux Tudor in Kansas City’s Country Club district was swell, Joan agreed—but soon after they’d moved in, it became apparent that the house was their only asset, and it needed the refurbishing that any house that old would need, but they didn’t have a dime to put into it. Lenny had no income, no investments, no iras, no tax-sheltered bond funds, no source of income whatsoever. His old friends from kindergarten were flatulent deadbeats. Joan was accustomed to hardship and knew what she had to do. She gritted her teeth and called a telemarketing firm, and within a week she was trying to sell burial insurance to the elderly over the phone.
That was seven years ago.
 
The limo driver, who’d been double-parked during Lenny’s interview with Doyle Porterhouse, drove him to a crumbling motel at the end of a quiet-looking street in North Hollywood. Lenny’s room—a suite, really—was large. There was a kitchen equipped with broken appliances, a living room full of dusty furniture. The bed sagged in the middle. The wall-to-wall shag carpeting hadn’t been touched by a vacuum cleaner in a decade, and a mysterious smell of decay pervaded the entire suite. Lenny opened all the windows to let in some air, and immediately heard the wail of police sirens, a woman’s high-pitched scream, and the pop! pop! pop! of something that might have been gunfire or firecrackers. He shut the windows and turned on the air conditioning to drown out the noise. Then he found the telephone, thumbed through a tattered phone directory, called a neighborhood liquor store, and ordered two fifths of gin and a bottle of tonic to be delivered to his room. He hadn’t even unpacked his suitcase.

Lenny had never been much of a drinker, but this seemed like a perfectly good time to start. He should never have flown out here to Los Angeles to interview for this job. He was desperate, sure, and the economy was awful—but why couldn’t he have simply stayed home?

Late that night—it was two hours later back in Kansas City, but Lenny had downed several gin-and-tonics and wasn’t keeping tabs on the time—he called Joan to give her the good news. ‘‘That’s fantastic, honey,’’ she said. ‘‘Does this mean I get to quit my godawful job?’’

‘‘Of course it does. Go in there tomorrow and tell them you’re finished.’’ He surveyed the dusty confines of his hotel room. ‘‘Tell you what: buy some drapes. Buy a couch.’’

‘‘You mean it, darling?’’

‘‘Of course I mean it. You’re talking to Rusty Boltz, Last of the Cowboy Poets.’’

‘‘I’ve been meaning to tell you: I feel like I’m on the verge of a new spiritual awakening.’’

‘‘What does that mean?’’

‘‘I don’t know. Can I really buy a couch? Have you been drinking?’’

‘‘Absolutely not.’’

‘‘I thought Jewish men didn’t drink. I’ve always admired Jewish men.’’

‘‘I don’t know who told you that. Jewish men drink. They do everything.’’

‘‘You know, Randy and Dewayne both drank. Dewayne sniffed glue, too, which is why Walter has a lazy eye and can’t concentrate.’’

‘‘You wait and see. When it’s time for college, Walter’s going to Harvard.’’ This was a bald-faced lie, of course; when it was time for college, Walter would be lucky to get into a trade school and learn how to fix copy machines. But now was not the time to bring this up.

Joan paused. ‘‘I had no idea you were poetic,’’ she said.

‘‘I’m not. Well, I mean, I am. I can be, anyway. Just give me a rhyming dictionary.’’

‘‘Maybe you’re on the verge of a spiritual awakening too.’’

‘‘Listen, Joan: this is a job. I get paid. That means you don’t have to work anymore. Okay? I’m on radio again. Back where I belong. And once the health insurance kicks in, let’s get little Walter an operation to fix that lazy eye,’’ he said. ‘‘How about that? Listen, I gotta go.’’

He awoke at three in the morning still drunk, his bladder full. His bedroom was pitch dark, and he was so disoriented it took him a moment to remember that he was in Los Angeles. He realized he couldn’t remember where the bathroom was, had no idea how to turn on a light. He fumbled around for a few minutes awkwardly pawing at the wall, searching for a light switch, but had no success. Finally, the urge now desperate, he gave up and peed in the bedroom closet, half convinced he was more or less in the bathroom. Then he went back to bed. When the alarm woke him up again at seven, he was wrapped in his clammy sheets like a corpse in a shroud. He vaguely remembered what he’d done in the night. After a dispiriting shower (the water pressure was little more than a trickle), he dumped the rest of the gin down the kitchen sink and then dabbed ineptly at the spongy carpet on the closet floor. The place had already smelled a little like urine, even before he’d errantly peed, so he didn’t feel as bad as he might have. It wasn’t as if he’d defiled a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. But he had to face facts: peeing in a closet, even in this dump, was not good news.
 
That morning at the studio, Lenny began to learn the ropes of Cowboy Poetry. ‘‘We’re running some golden oldies most of this week while you get your feet under you,’’ Porterhouse told him. ‘‘We need to talk about subject matter. You know. A poem’s got to be about something. Am I right? So for instance: I’ll just throw out a topic, you do the rest. You’re the poet, after all. I’m just your boss. Okay: The American Family. Try that one on for size.’’

Two hundred thousand a year: Lenny painted the number in the air and watched it slowly dissipate, like the plume of a jet’s exhaust. Little Walter’s lazy eye, lazy no more. Joan, her tattoo ablaze, shaking herself free of a silk see-through nightie bought out of a catalogue that came in a plain brown wrapper. ‘‘You want me to write a poem about . . . about the American Family?’’ he asked at last.

‘‘Sure. You don’t have to rhyme anything with family. Nothing rhymes with family. It’s like orange.’’

‘‘Nothing rhymes with orange?’’

‘‘Say, how much poetry have you written, friend?’’

‘‘A lot,’’ Lenny said, and folded his arms across his chest. ‘‘Some of it didn’t rhyme.’’

‘‘Is that right. Well, when Rusty Boltz writes a poem, it rhymes,’’ Porterhouse said, ‘‘because that’s what real poetry does.’’ Porterhouse once again pronounced the word ‘‘poy-tree,’’ as if suddenly he’d adopted an English accent. ‘‘Say you start with this: ‘Little Suzie, she’s three, and as anyone can see, she’s the apple of her Daddy’s eye.’ Okay, take ’er from there.’’

Lenny stared at him. ‘‘You want me to—’’

Porterhouse waited a long moment, his face a mask of patience and regret. ‘‘Here, try this out,’’ he said finally. ‘‘‘But if the factory boss needs to cut him some loss, Suzie’s Dad’ll be left high and dry.’ See? That’s a conflict. Suzie’s Dad’s gonna lose his job, and she’ll be left eating dog food in a culvert, in the pouring rain. Poor Suzie. See? A poem’s got to have a conflict.’’

Another long pause ensued. Lenny’s mind went blank. Poor Suzie. Little Walter came to mind, then Joan. He imagined Walter eating dog food in the rain. The kid’s lazy eye was wandering everywhere, like it was on vacation and had lost its map.

‘‘Go on,’’ said Porterhouse. ‘‘Just pick it up and run with it. Do another line for me.’’

What was this, a fraternity initiation? Poetry on demand?

‘‘‘We got to keep these jobs right here on our shores,’ ’’ said Lenny at last, ‘‘‘right here in our very own shops and stores . . .’ ’’ He faltered a moment, then went on. ‘‘’Stead of sending them all some place overseas, where workers live and die on their knees . . .’ Jesus, this is hard,’’ he said. He was winded. He didn’t know what he was talking about. Writing poetry was like pushing an ice pick through his forehead. ‘‘Is this going to be on the final?’’ he asked.

‘‘You’re doing just fine,’’ Porterhouse sighed. ‘‘Now wrap it up in a line or two and guess what, fella, you just wrote yourself a cowboy poem.’’

Lenny took a deep breath. He pounded on his temples with his fists but not hard enough to hurt. ‘‘ ‘So c’mon, American bosses out there, stay true to your flag, stay true to what’s fair, ’cause there’s a lot of Suzies growing up strong,’ ’’ and then he fell silent, looking for a rhyme for ‘‘strong.’’ Bong. Kong. Dong. Long Dong. Ping Pong. Tong. Song. ‘‘‘Dreaming big dreams and humming a song,’ ’’ he continued, ‘‘‘hoping tomorrow will answer their prayers. So keep Dad on the job, keep food in their fridge . . .’’’ He stopped again. Midge. Ridge. Then lightning struck: ‘‘’Cause a job today is just part of a bridge,’ ’’ he said, ‘‘‘a bridge to tomorrow, where the sun shines through, and all Suzie’s hopes and dreams can come true.’’’ Lenny slumped back in his chair. ‘‘The end,’’ he said. ‘‘My God. That was hard. It was beyond hard.’’

Porterhouse beamed. ‘‘Rusty Boltz—I mean the real Rusty Boltz, the original—he couldn’t have done any better. I was writing down every word you said. Listen to this. You just wrote it:
 
Little Suzie, she’s three, and as anyone can see,
She’s the apple of her Daddy’s eye.
But if the factory boss needs to cut him some loss,
Suzie’s Dad’ll be left high and dry.
We got to keep these jobs right here on our shores,
Right here in our very own shops and stores,
’Stead of sending them all some place overseas,
Where workers live and die on their knees.
So c’mon, American bosses out there,
Stay true to your flag, stay true to what’s fair,
’Cause there’s a lot of Suzies growing up strong,
Dreaming big dreams and humming a song,
Hoping tomorrow will answer their prayers.
So keep Dad on the job, keep food in their fridge,
’Cause a job today is just part of a bridge,
A bridge to tomorrow, where the sun shines through,
And all Suzie’s hopes and dreams can come true.

Now that’s cowboy poetry, son,’’ Porterhouse concluded.

‘‘I don’t much like the part about the fridge and the bridge,’’ said Lenny. ‘‘What does that mean? I know I said it, but I don’t know. I was desperate. It doesn’t seem to fit very well.’’

‘‘Now you’re fishing for compliments.’’ Porterhouse clicked his pen a few times. ‘‘We got to get a publicity shot of you for our monthly brochures.’’

‘‘A photo? Why do you need my photo? This is radio.’’

‘‘Like I just told you: we send out a monthly brochure. Rusty Boltz always has a poem in it. Say, how fast can you grow a moustache? Rusty had a big handlebar job like Wyatt Earp.’’

‘‘I don’t like having my picture taken,’’ Lenny said. He thought of Joan’s display of Hepcat and ‘‘Famous Radio Announcers’’ publicity shots. They made him sick.

‘‘I can fix you up with a moustache toupee for now.’’ Porterhouse reached into the top drawer of his desk and pulled out an oversized handlebar moustache that appeared to be made of yak hair. He blew on it, and a small cloud of dust flew into the air. ‘‘This is just temporary. While yours grows in.’’ He handed the moustache to Lenny. ‘‘Put that on and see how it feels.’’

The moustache had stickum on the back. Lenny applied it to his upper lip and felt the tickle of the thing under his nose.

‘‘Hey, hold on,’’ said Porterhouse. ‘‘I got a present for you.” He wheeled around and produced an enormous hat box. With a flourish he opened it and lifted out a ten-gallon hat, high crowned, wide brimmed, made of a luxurious tan suede. ‘‘Here you go. Try this on for size.’’

‘‘Oh, gosh. You shouldn’t have,’’ Lenny said. He’d wanted a hat like this when he was eight years old, but when he informed his parents of this, they told him he was a cretin and sent him out to play, even though it was raining. He held the hat. It weighed as much as a brick.

‘‘Sure, it’s heavy,’’ Porterhouse said. ‘‘Put it on.’’

Lenny settled the gigantic hat gingerly on his head. He imagined the caption under his photo: ‘‘Jew Wearing Cowboy Hat.’’

‘‘Hey, now. I do believe that’s Rusty Boltz, Last of the Cowboy Poets. Take that back to the hotel with you and write three more poems tonight. Wear the hat. It’ll be your muse.’’

‘‘Do I have to wear the moustache too?’’

‘‘Just avoid soup, that’s my advice. No chili, either. Stick to solid foods, you’ll be fine.’’
 
That evening, Lenny went down to the dimly lit lobby to pass the time with Hassan, the Sikh working the front desk. ‘‘Janis Joplin killed herself here, you know,’’ Hassan told him in a tired singsong voice. ‘‘Room 431. There’s a plaque.’’ Then he went back to reading his newspaper. He probably said that to everyone who came through the hotel. Lenny, who’d actually met Janis Joplin not long before she died, the poor girl—he’d smoked some so-so dope with her when Hepcat was all the rage, in fact—could have told this Sikh son of a bitch a hundred and fifty things about Janis Joplin, including that she hadn’t killed herself, she’d died of an accidental heroin overdose. But what would the point be, to get into all of that now?

Lenny wandered out to the swimming pool. Its glossy, iridescent surface was adorned by clumps of what appeared to be used dental floss. Undernourished palm trees leaned ominously, as if a good wind could knock them down. Groups of hotel residents were out already, sitting listlessly at plastic tables around the garbage-strewn deck, drinking coffee out of Styrofoam cups. They all had the bruised look of failure: men recovering from messy divorces, young women who’d come to Los Angeles to get into show business and had ended up waiting tables.

When he got back to his room, he sat on the dusty sofa and contemplated the fact that Janis Joplin had probably done herself a hell of a favor by dying when she did. If she’d managed to survive the seventies and got herself off heroin and Southern Comfort, she’d be playing county fairs by now, still doing ‘‘Ball and Chain,’’ ‘‘Just a Piece of My Heart,’’ and ‘‘Me and Bobby McGee’’ for aging hipsters with love handles and gray ponytails. She’d show up on Oprah to talk about her sobriety and her three adopted Zimbabwean orphans. Fuck Janis Joplin. Fuck Otis Redding, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, all the rest of them who’d checked out early. What was he supposed to do, turn back the clock, go back to 1970, and hang himself in the basement? Here he was, Lenny Halperin, sixty years old and hung over, sitting in a shitbag hotel, about to launch a new career in radio as Rusty Boltz, a goddamn Cowboy Poet. There might be something grimly amusing about all of this, he realized, something he’d joke about over drinks years from now, but for the moment, Lenny wasn’t laughing.
 
Later that night, drinking, he looked up Moe’s Delicatessen on Pico Boulevard in the phone book. It wasn’t listed. Once upon a time he’d been a regular there. They’d named a sandwich after him. Now Moe’s was history, as was the Lenny ‘‘Hepcat’’ Halperin sandwich: chopped chicken liver on rye, topped with coleslaw, chicken fat, chopped egg, and onion. A year’s worth of cholesterol in one meal. The venerable deli he and his family had gone to every Sunday morning of his childhood, the Brooklyn Deli on Troost Avenue in Kansas City, was gone too, a victim of demographics (nobody wanted to eat stuffed derma and kasha varnishkes anymore), health department violations (mouse droppings in the back room), and the age-old venomous feud between its two owners, Rabinowitz the gimp and Gerstler, poor Gerstler, addicted to the ponies. Everything was gone. He himself, Lenny Halperin—he was like a deli that had gone out of business too. That was the way of the world. He put on his cowboy hat.

Lenny wrote three poems that evening:
 
The Past Don’t Last
The past don’t last, time just moves too fast,
And if you look away, yesterday becomes today,
And then tomorrow.
When you’re out on the range, nothing ever seems to change,
In the canyon at night the stars are just as bright
As they are atop the peak of Kilimanjaro.
But in your heart it’s all been changed, everything just seems so
strange,
’Cause all your joys along the way have turned to sorrow.
 
Git Along, Little Dogie
‘‘Git along, little dogie’’ makes me sound like a fogey,
But I guess that’s just what I am.
When I go into town, folks all running around,
Everybody seems to be in a rush.
But when the herd’s all asleep and you can’t hear a peep,
It’s just me and the breeze and the hush.
I been around awhile, I got an old-fashioned style,
What I learned long ago still seems true.
Sure, I’m lonely at times, being lonely’s no crime,
Now and then I wish things would change.
But that’s the life I chose, as everyone knows,
Out here on the open range.
 
My Dog, Buck
Ol’ Buck and me, we make a pair,
And when we come to town, folks wave.
When the grub’s running low, we’re glad to share.
We bed down together, cloudy weather or fair,
And I’ll be sadder than sad to dig his grave.
See, Buck’s getting on, fourteen years old,
And Doc tells me he’s going blind.
But nobody knows how things’ll unfold,
Buck’s a tough old mutt with a heart of gold,
And being blind might suit him just fine.
Who needs to see all the fools in this life?
Why look at the mess they’ve made?
Buck turns away from anger and strife
And just takes a nap in the shade.
And when that day comes, I’ll dig his grave,
And wish for the best of luck—
That when I meet my fate at the pearly gates,
I’ll be greeted by my ol’ Buck.
 
The next day a photographer who called himself Gaspard, thin and acne-ridden, came to Porterhouse’s office and spent an hour posing Lenny against a flat white backdrop. ‘‘Give me that cowboy look. You know. Like you’re about to kill a rattlesnake,’’ Gaspard said.

‘‘Whatever,’’ Lenny muttered. Sweat was pooling inside the cowboy hat and trickling down Lenny’s temples by this time. His moustache itched like a son of a bitch. It was hot under those lights, and he was tired. His head snapped forward; that cowboy hat weighed fifty pounds.

‘‘Keep your head up,’’ Gaspard demanded.

Doyle Porterhouse stood behind the photographer grimly with his arms folded across his chest. ‘‘We’re going to start you out doing the show from a shopping mall, with a live audience all around you. You recite a poem, then you engage the audience. Take questions from the crowd. Then you give ’em another poem. Like that. The Gene Autry Mall out in Costa Mesa. Heckuva place. That’s tomorrow—I’ll swing by your hotel before noon to pick you up. Fantastic place, the Gene Autry Mall. Every discount store you can think of. You’ve heard of the Dollar Store? They’ve got a Fifty-Cent Store. Cardboard briefcases, that kind of thing. It’s our demographic group, down-and-out Americans—they might be on the dole, they might be eating surplus cheese and peanut butter from the Food Bank, they might be sleeping in the pickup and showering at the ymca, but they’re good folks, good to the last drop. They’re going to love you out there, just wait and see. What a crowd!’’

‘‘That’s completely out of the question,’’ Lenny said. He took off his hat. ‘‘I’m Lenny Halperin. I do radio. I’m a voice. A voice. I don’t do parking lots or shopping malls.’’

‘‘I pay you two hundred grand a year. You’re Rusty Boltz, Last of the Cowboy Poets. Write me three more poems by the weekend. Those last three were pretty glum. Put a smile in it, will you? Cowboys are happy.’’
 
That night the phone rang in Lenny’s suite. He was wearing the hat and the moustache and trying to eat a pastrami sandwich ordered in from Kanter’s Deli. Mustard was everywhere. He swallowed deeply, took a swig of water. ‘‘Rusty Boltz here. Last of the Cowboy Poets,’’ he muttered into the phone.

‘‘Hi honey! Guess what!’’ It was Joan.

‘‘Oh, hi hon. What.’’

‘‘Go ahead. Guess.’’

‘‘I can’t. I’m tired.’’

‘‘Remember I told you I was on the verge of a spiritual awakening? Well, guess what! I’m converting!’’ she shrieked at the top of her lungs.

‘‘To what?’’ Lenny asked. His eardrum felt as if it had been punctured.

‘‘To Judaism, of course. What else? I’ve already been to see Rabbi Federbusch.’’

‘‘Why would you do that? Listen, did you buy that couch? Did you buy the drapes?’’

‘‘The couch is on order. I opted for custom upholstery. That takes six weeks. It’ll be beautiful. By the time it comes, I’ll be Jewish. And Walter will too. He’s getting circumcised.’’

‘‘Tell me you’re kidding.’’ Lenny stood up and surveyed the wreckage of his sandwich. Then he swept it all onto the floor. Some of it landed as far away as the living room.

‘‘You’re Jewish. I want to be Jewish, and I want Walter to be Jewish too.’’

‘‘I’m as Jewish as a baseball bat, Joan. I’m Rusty Boltz, Last of the Goddamn Cowboy Poets. Anyway, why would you want to put Walter through something like that at his age? That’s going to hurt. Trust me. It’s elective surgery. It’s not even covered by our insurance.’’

‘‘Rabbi Federbusch said you’d be thrilled. It’s a sign of my devotion to you.’’

‘‘The man is demented, Joan. He shouldn’t be let out of the house without an attendant.’’

Joan began weeping. ‘‘Can we come out there and see you? We miss you.’’

‘‘Soon,’’ Lenny said. ‘‘I have to go write some cowboy poetry now.’’ He hung up.

Later that night he tried combing the mustard out of his moustache, but stubborn clumps of it still clung to the yak hair. As a last resort he got out a small handheld vacuum cleaner he’d bought at Kmart. The contraption immediately sucked the moustache up into its innards, and he had to break the machine to retrieve the moustache. Twelve dollars down the drain. And the moustache looked horrible now. It looked like a piece of lint—like the stuff cleaned out of a dryer vent after running a load of laundry. He stuck the moustache back under his nose and looked at himself in the mirror. He was wearing lint on his face. Jesus Christ. Then he made a pitcher of vodka gimlets and sat out by the dental floss pool until the wee hours, drinking and watching the moonlight play on the stagnant water. No one approached him. For one thing, he was muttering to himself in a steady stream of baritone gibberish, and he knew it too—that is, he knew it was gibberish, and he didn’t mind. Pool. Fool. Tool. Drool. Uncool. Stool.

‘‘Mr. Halperin?’’ Hassam called from the back door of the lobby. ‘‘There’s a phone call for you. A Mr. Porterhouse? Should I bring you the phone?’’ Lenny waved him away without a word. He wasn’t in the mood to chat. He had his cowboy hat with him, planted in his lap like an enormous dildo, and he planned to clap it on his head if anyone came close. A big cowboy hat’s just the thing to keep the riffraff at bay, he told himself. Those vodka gimlets were tasty, and it was true that he had a pitcher of them to consume, but every pitcher has a bottom, and Rusty Boltz, Last of the Cowboy Poets, was in no mood to share.