By John Yager
This is the fiftieth chapter of an ongoing series. This chapter continues the story of Rob Ballinger's life after his arrival in Los Angles in June, 1972.
Thanks again for all your comments on this series. I always appreciate hearing from you and try to answer all messages promptly. If I am slow at times it is only because of the pressure of work or my somewhat demanding travel schedule.
Andrew has continued to give much needed proofing and editorial help, for which I am sincerely grateful. I could not post chapters as quickly as I've been doing without his invaluable assistance.
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Billy Bowen came bounding over, greeting me like an old friend.
"You guys know one another?" Nita asked.
"Billy picked me up at LAX last night," I said, explaining the kid's enthusiasm.
"Yeah," Billy grinned, "and I drew your name again tonight."
"Well, then," Nita said, giving my arm an affectionate squeeze, "you get on back to the hotel and I'll see you tomorrow, Rob."
"Okay, Nita," I said, "I guess I'll come by after I go to Mr. Cohen's office."
"Good, sweetie. I'll make some calls and see if I can't get your apartment fixed up quickly so you can move in next week." She turned to go and then called back, "I'll plan on us having lunch together tomorrow unless you get a better offer."
"Great," I said as Billy led me off to one of the studio vans.
"I was wondering if I'd see you," he said as we climbed into the front seat.
"I've been with Miss Ball all day," I said.
"Yeah, I figured," he grinned. "I guess you two hit it off."
"I guess so," I said, "she seems nice."
"If you`re a good looking young stud, she can be very nice, or at least that's the rumor."
I didn't want to get into office gossip, but I did remember the way she stood next to me at the bedroom window and the way she repeatedly touched me in an affectionate manner.
"So who was driving you?
"An older guy named Harry," I said, glad to get the conversation off Nita.
"Yeah, I know Harry," Billy said as we pulled out of the lot. "He's on the early shift. They work six to two. I don't come on until ten, most days, not until two on days I have classes." He made a left and added, "I guess the poor guy doesn't have long."
"I hear he has lung cancer and probably won't last another year."
"Gees, and he's still working?"
"Yeah, he'll work till they carry him away, poor guy." Billy took a fast right and said, "from what I hear he has no family and he's been a driver here since the old days, still insists on wearing the old chauffeurs' uniform, even though they haven't been required for years."
"I noticed he was wearing a sort of official looking grey suit and remembered you were just dressed in your own clothes."
"Yeah, there are three or four of those old guys around who still try to do things the way they were done back twenty years ago. They were really pissed when we went to vans."
"Instead of sedans?"
"Sedans, hell! They had a huge fleet of limos around here until about ten years ago. There are still a few left for the top brass but most of those guys drive their own cars anyway."
We came to a traffic light, forcing Billy to stop, and he turned, facing me for the first time since we got in the van. "I just assumed you were going back to the hotel. If you need to go anyplace else, just let me know."
"Well, actually, I was wondering if you could give me some advice."
"Sure, anything," he beamed.
"Well, for starters, do you go to a gym?"
"Yeah, a great one, over in the area where I live."
"I guess I'll be moving into Alvarado Court. Do you know were it is?"
"Sure," Billy said, giving me another sidewise glance, "it's not far from where I live and the health club I go to would be even closer for you."
"Maybe I should take a look."
"You want to do it right now?"
"Would it be okay? I mean, I don't want to get you into trouble."
"I can take you anyplace you want to go. That's what we're here for."
As we changed direction and headed south, Billy asked me if he'd heard right, that I'd said something to Nita about going by Dexter Cohen's office.
"Yeah, I'm supposed to meet him in the morning."
He gave me another look and then a whistle. "The big guy!"
"Yeah, I guess," I said as we took another turn. I was beginning to recognize the area and knew we were near the apartment complex. .
"I never heard of Mr. Cohen meeting a new Nathan Fellow first thing, like he's meeting you," Billy said as we drove on down a wide tree lined street.
"Well, it's sure not because I'm all that special or anything," I responded, feeling a little embarrassed by the situation. "One of my professors at the University of Mississippi seems to be an old friend of his. I guess it's just a case of knowing the right person."
Billy turned and looked at me when we stopped at the next light. "In Hollywood it's always a question of knowing the right person," he said. There was a hint of bitterness in his voice.
We drove a few more blocks and pulled into the parking lot of a strip shopping center. "Here we are," Billy said and we climbed out of the van.
He'd said the gym was great, but in reality it was like nothing I'd ever seen before.
There was a huge area devoted to aerobic equipment; rowing machines, treadmills, steps. To the left was a separate area for circuit training, and in the rear, a huge free weight room. The locker rooms and showers were fine. In the men's section there was a sauna and a whirlpool and I assumed there were similar facilities in the women`s locker rooms as well. Further over to the right were a row of small rooms which Billy said held sun tanning booths and massage tables.
Suspended from the ceiling everywhere I looked were TV sets. There were a lot of people around but the place was so big that it didn't seem crowded. I was also impressed by the people using the facility. Without exception, they were a bunch of great looking men and women. The "Body Culture" of southern California was clearly a reality.
"Gees, Billy," I said as we roamed around looking at the various areas, "this place is immense."
"Yeah?" Billy said as he steered me back toward the front desk, "there are bigger."
He introduced me to one of the trainers, a powerfully built guy named Sandy who gave me a long look, appraising my body, and then he gave me the pitch. The three of us walked back to the free weight area and he suggested I do a few bench presses so he could see where he'd recommend I start.
"Pull your shirt off," Sandy said as I was straddling the bench. "I want to see your lifting technique."
I did as he said, noticing as I took off my shirt that both he and Billy were really checking me out. Guys into weight training do that, so I wasn't sure if they were just interested in seeing what kind of shape I was in or if either or both of them had any sexual interest. I was certainly picking up a lot of vibes from Billy by then and was a little uneasy about where he was coming from.
In any case, I hit the bench and did a few presses with the weight which was on the bar, about a hundred and eighty pounds. Knowing both he and Billy were watching, I tired to do the presses the way I'd been told by my coaches at Ole Miss. I knew even small differences in the angle and speed could affect the efficiency of each exercise. When I'd done about ten reps, Sandy stopped me.
"That looks good," he said. "I bet you could handle more weight."
"Yeah, I can lift quite a bit more, but I've been doing high reps with lower weight."
"I thought so," he smiled. "You have great definition."
"I had to lose quite a bit of weight over the last year and a half I was at the university. Doing high rep routines helped."
"You were trying to lose weight? Most of the guys around here are trying to bulk up."
"I had a football injury and once it was clear I wouldn't be playing any more, my coaches and I decided I needed to pull my weight down to about what I'm carrying now."
"Wise move," Sandy said. "I see too many guys trying to keep their weight too high after they get out of college sports. The football players who have bulked up a lot are especially bad about that. Sooner or later most of them just go to pot."
He had me do a few isolation curls and then put me on one of the aerobic machines. In each case he seemed to think my body machines were fine and all the time I was working Billy never took his eyes off me. By the time I finished I'd broken a slight sweat and Sandy tossed me a towel. I wiped myself off before putting my polo shirt back on. We walked around the club a little more and he told me about the membership plans they offered. I'll skip the details, but the bottom line is I signed up.
Billy as pleased as a kid with a new bike and kept going on about how "totally cool" it was going to be having me at the same gym he used.
"I can't believe what great shape you're in, man," he said as we got back in the van. As we pulled out of the parking lot he asked me if there was anything else I needed to do.
"Actually, Billy," I said, "I guess I'll need to find a car."
His eyes brightened again and we set off on a tour of used car lots and a couple of new car agencies.
"You're sure it's okay for you to take all this time with me?" I asked again.
"Sure, Rob, it's fine."
By the time we headed for the hotel that evening I had a fair idea of what kind of car I was looking for. I'd give my folks a call over the weekend and discuss the possibilities with my dad. I felt as if my life in the strange new world of Los Angeles was coming together with amazing speed.
On Friday morning I went to meet Dexter Cohen of course, but I've already told you about that.
I got to know Cohen quite well over the next few years but that first meeting always remained in my mind. If you were to ever try to envision a Hollywood studio head, Cohen would have fit the bill perfectly. The guy was straight out of Central Casting.
As I got to know him better and occasionally saw him with his guard down, I began to suspect that he really was playing a role, one of his own making of course, but a role all the same. It was stereotypical but he succeeded in projecting an image of the Hollywood power player which everyone expected him to be. It was only when you got several layers beneath that contrived exterior that you discovered what a teddy bear the guy really was.
After leaving "The Big Guy," as Billy had called him, I found Nita, who was brimming with news and clearly very proud of herself
The painting crew was already at the apartment, she told me, and the carpet was going to be replaced as soon as the painters finished. She'd also ordered some new furniture, including a new king size bed, a desk and three bookshelves. There were a few other things that needed to be done, including the installation of a new kitchen range, because the old one had a bad valve.
"I ordered new Venetian blinds for all the windows," Nita said. "You'll probably want to put up some curtains as well, but there you're on your own."
All told, it looked as if I'd be able to move in by the middle of the following week, certainly no later than the weekend. The hotel wasn't bad, but I was really looking forward to having my own place.
As I approached the car pool that evening Billy saw me and came around the dispatcher's booth. Giving me a rather secretive nod, he motioned me to one side.
"I get off in half an hour," he said. "How about us going to the gym?"
"I don't have workout clothes with me, Billy," I said.
"It's okay. I have extra, everything you'll need and I think my stuff will fit you."
He looked toward the dispatcher's booth to be sure no one was looking, then quickly added, "it's all clean, man. I mean I have clean stuff you can use."
"Well, okay," I said, not having anything better to do. Besides, I told myself, I really needed a good workout. I hung out until he clocked out and then we climbed in his car, a somewhat worse for wear Nova SS, and headed for the gym.
Billy was right, his gear fit me fine, maybe a little tight but not bad. While we changed in the locker room I kept my eyes to myself but knew he was checking me out. I didn't show it off but I didn't try to be all that modest either.
When we left the lockers Billy had not yet pulled on his T-shirt and I saw as he walked ahead of me, leading the way into the workout areas, that his back was badly scarred by the acne which still blemished his face.
We followed Billy's routine, which was good for me. I got a feel for the various machines and really enjoyed them. We sat side by side on adjacent stationary bikes, getting our heart rates up, and all the while, the overhead TV sets blared news of the political polls. Nixon's lead seemed to be growing every day.
From the bikes we went on to the free-weight area and spotted each other on the benches. I was working with a little more weight than Billy, even though I'd come down from the high levels I'd used when I was building or maintaining a body weight of over 210. But by and large we were at about the same level so changing weights between sets wasn't that big a deal.
After about half an hour with the free weights we went back to the bikes for another twenty minutes while we wound down. All told, it was an okay workout.
Back in the locker room, Billy asked if I'd like to go in the sauna for a few minutes. I'd never used one before and was curious. Following his lead, we stripped and wrapped towels around ourselves and went into the incredibly hot little room, which for the first few minutes at least, we had to ourselves. He went to the middle level of the wooden benches but suggested that I start out on the lower level until I got a little more used to the heat.
I took his advice and sat down at the end of the lower bench with my back against the wooden planks of the wall. At first I really didn't think I'd be able to stand it but gradually my body adjusted to the heat and my skin began to drip with sweat.
I was sitting at right angles to Billy so I could look over and up at him. He had his head back and his eyes closed so I felt free to look over his body, or at least the exposed parts of it, without any hesitation. He really had a pretty nice body. His legs were thick and corded with muscles and his chest, while not massive, was well defined. I couldn't tell how cut his abs were because of the position he was sitting in but he certainly didn't seem to have any excess fat.
After we'd been in the sauna for about five minutes Billy loosened his towel, opening it up so his entire body was exposed. I assumed he'd done that because of the heat but I also wondered if he figured I was looking him over and figured he'd just let me see the whole inventory. In any case, after a few more minutes I followed his lead and opened my own towel so it was just serving as something to sit on, to protect my rear from the bare wooden bench. I was sitting there completely exposed for several minutes during which Billy kept his head leaned back and his eyes closed, as if he hadn't noticed what I'd done, or had no interest.
Then after a few more minutes the door opened and two more guys came into the sauna. They were about our age and in great shape. I'd seem one of them in the weight room when Billy and I were doing bench presses but the place was so big I didn't get a chance to really check him out.
Then new guys came in with towels around their waists, just as Billy and I had done. But without any delay, they both removed their towels and spread them on the benches across from Billy and me, one on the middle level, the other guy on the top. Then, naked, they stretched out with their legs toward me and their crotches completely exposed.
The guy on the middle bench was lying so he was more or less at my eye level and no matter how I tried to avoid looking at him, his crotch was staring me in the face, not more than five or six feet away.
Both of the new guys were about my height, in excellent physical shape, and both rather dark. They had olive skin and black hair, both on their heads and over a good bit of their bodies. I wondered it they were of Greek or Italian descent. Both of them were very good looking guys.
The new guys coming in to the sauna caused Billy to stir. He looked across at the two newcomers and said, "hey guys, this is Rob. Rob, Badger and Cid." We nodded and said hi but none of us made any effort to shake hands.
Sitting up now, Billy looked over at me, clearly checking out my equipment without the slightest sign of shyness. I guess the protocol of saunas just includes seeing and being seen.
"How you doing, Rob?" Billy asked, slowly moving his gaze from my crotch up over my chest and then higher until we made eye contact.
"Good," I responded, not knowing exactly what to say.
"It looks like you broke a good sweat."
"Yeah," I agreed. "How long is it safe to stay in here?"
"I usually give it about twenty minutes but that may be too long for you. Let's give it another five minutes and then hit the showers."
"Good," I said, figuring we'd probably been in the sauna about five minutes already and figuring I could survive five minutes more. I just leaned my head back against the wall, closed my eyes and relaxed.
A few more minutes went by and I was roused again by movement. Cid or Badger, I wasn't sure which was which, had gotten up and gone to the metal box by the door which I'd figured out was the heater. He took a wooden dipper from a matching bucket and sloshed the water over stones in a depression on the top of the stove. Suddenly the little room was filled with steam and my skin began to tingle with the increased supercharged moisture.
For a moment it was sheer hell but then my body flipped into a different gear and it was as if I were about to float off into Nirvana or Never-Never Land.
Suddenly I realized that this was something I could learn to love.
Cid or Badger sat down again and we all relaxed but it wasn't long before Billy was moving and we were on our way to the showers. On the way Billy stopped by his locker and picked up a bottle of what looked like dandruff shampoo.
We went on into the huge open shower and found a couple of other men already there. Billy and I moved to two spaces across from one another and about a third of the way into shower. I'd noticed that there was a fresh supply of white towels on a stool by the door and remembered that Sandy had said the gym provided an unlimited supply as one of the benefits of membership. I also saw that by each shower head there were dispensers of liquid shower soap and shampoo, which made me wonder again why Billy had brought his own bottle.
I had my answer soon enough. He squeezed a sizeable dab of the stuff into the palm of one hand and then worked it up into a rich lather with the other. Then, closing his eyes, he began to work the suds over his face and into his hair. An astringent medicinal odor reached my nose and I realized he was using some sort of anti-acne cleanser.
When he'd spread all the suds over his face and head he reached around for the bottle, feeling blindly along the tile shelf below the shower head. Misjudging its location, he knocked it off and the plastic bottle went bouncing across the floor. I picked it up, said, "here, Billy," and reached across to hand it back to him.
With his eyes still tightly shut, he reached out, waving his hands around in search of my hand. "Let me help you," I said, taking hold of his hand and turning it with the palm up. He got the idea and muttered his thanks. I popped the bottle open and squeezed a bit more of the foul smelling stuff into the palm of his hand and, reaching past him, put the bottle back on the shelf.
Billy again worked the liquid into a thick suds and spread it over his shoulders and chest and further down into his crotch and his upper legs.
"Here," I said when he reached for the bottle again. This time, instead of squeezing the soap into the palm of his hand, I squeezed it into my own. I then put the bottle back on the shelf and repeated his actions, rubbing my hands together and working the noxious smelling stuff into thick suds.
I guess he'd opened his eyes just a slit and had seen what I was doing because he dropped his hands to his side and muttered through rather tightly closed lips, "what are you doing?"
Instead of answering him, I just said, "where do you want this?"
"On my back, I guess," he muttered.
"Okay, turn around."
He turned, reaching out blindly and placing his hands on the tile wall on either side of the shower head. His legs were spread and he looked for all the world like a guy spread for a full body search.
I moved across the little space between us and, using both lather-covered hands, spread the stuff over his shoulders, down over his side and back and down over the round mounds of his ass. I felt his body shudder slightly as I touched him there, even though it was a very modest touch and I made no attempt to run my fingers over or into the cleft of his butt.
The guy had a great body and he was really nice looking, or at least could be if he got the acne under control. But I had to admit it seemed odd being so intimate with him, even if it was completely non-sexual.
By then he'd rinsed his face and the front of his body in the shower which was spraying more or less directly onto his head. When I finished and stepped back he turned his face toward me, his eyes now open, and said, "thanks."
"No problem," I said, turning back to my own shower and liberally washing my hands with shower gel from the gym dispenser, anxious to rid myself of the strong medicinal odor of his soap.
I wondered what the two men further along had thought about our interaction but, if they'd even noticed, they said nothing.
Billy and I finished our showers and strolled out, still naked, picking up fresh towels from the stool by the door, and drying ourselves as we ambled back to our lockers.
"Rob?" Billy said as we pulled on our clothes.
"Yeah, man." I responded, sensing the embarrassment in his voice.
"Thanks," he said. "I mean, nobody ever did that for me before."
We continued to dress in silence but after a few moments I worked up my nerve and said, "I guess that's some sort of prescription stuff, right?"
"You can buy it without a prescription but my dermatologist recommends it. I've been using it for a couple of months."
"Does it help?"
"Yeah, it does, not over night, but it's definitely working. I think it works best when I use it after a good workout and a few minutes in the sauna. Maybe the heat opens my pores or something so the medicine can penetrate. My skin is in better shape than it's been in since I was about twelve years old."
"Well," I said as I finished dressing, "keep at it."
"Yeah, I will," he said, stuffing the last of the gym clothes, the things he'd worn and the stuff he'd lent me, into his bag and closing it up.
As Billy drove me back west toward the hotel we talked cars. I told him I was going to call my dad over the weekend and get his advice, then talk to the credit union people again next week.
"If I can help," he said, "just call. I have a class in the morning but I'll be around the rest of the day and pretty much all day Sunday."
I remembered he'd alluded once before to classes and asked what sort of program he was in.
He seemed pleased that I'd asked. "I'm working on a electrician's license," he said. "I love working at the studio but I can't go far without some skill. When I get my license I can become a union journeyman and eventually a master electrician for NSB."
"Sounds good, Billy," I said, knowing nothing then about the hundreds of skilled technicians who were employed by all the big studios.
"Well, like I said," Billy responded, "I should be home by about one o'clock. If you miss me, just leave a message with my mom." It was the first time he'd indicated he still lived at home.
"I will, Billy," I said. "I don't think I'll be doing anything until next week, but if I need a lift I'll call."
"Or if you just want to do something, Rob, give me a call."
When we got back to the hotel he got our of his car and stood on the sidewalk talking for a few moments longer. I felt as if he really didn't want to go.
"Well," I said, "I guess I'll see you Monday."
"Well, okay," he said, reaching out to shake my hand. "Thanks."
"No problem, thank you."
I turned and went into the hotel lobby. I walked to the elevators and pressed the up button and waited. When the doors opened, I stepped in and turned to face the front. Billy was still standing by his car, his eyes still fixed me. I gave him a high sign as the elevator doors slid shut.
To be continued.