When Lessner asked him to be best man at his upcoming wedding, Stavis couldn't hold back a laugh. "Again?"
"Hey, this time's for real."
"Okay to say something without hurting your feelings?"
"Rumor has it there's been a sexual revolution."
"You can do it without getting married."
"So why number three? A fondness for wedding cake?"
Lessner's first marriage was to a shy girl named Nicole who acceded to his every whim from junior year in high school through college, then during his training in the National Guard and after. Together they spent long weekends and countless vacations camping, plus many afternoons with Nicole providing encouragement, refreshments, and, when needed, an additional pair of hands as her boyfriend restored a '55 Chevy that had long sat rusting in a junkyard.
Once Lessner, who had been supporting himself by repairing appliances, took a sales position at a company manufacturing automotive air filters, a wedding date was set. With Stavis, who had moved to Los Angeles, flying in to be best man, the festivities were held in the New Jersey industrial town where they grew up. Yet the evening took a less than festive turn when Nicole approached Stavis as people were leaving.
"So glad you made it," she said.
"Wouldn't have missed it. Ready for the next chapter?"
"Ready to be grown--ups at last."
Stavis didn't have to wait long to learn what that statement meant, for a week--and--a--half later came a late night call. "You'll never believe it," groaned Lessner, who clearly had been drinking. "With Memorial Day approaching, I'm packing for our usual trip---"
"Nicole gives me a look like I'm from Mars. 'What in hell is this?' she blurts. So I say, 'Preparing for us to go camping.' So she hits me with, 'What's this us?' And I say, 'But we've always gone camping.' Then she goes, 'But now we're married!'"
An appearance in divorce court took place before the newlyweds had time to buy a barbecue or his and hers luggage.
Thanks to energy, resourcefulness, and his gift of gab, Lessner rose swiftly at the filter company, being named supervisor of the Tri--State Area---New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut--when his predecessor was found to have augmented his income with kickbacks, side deals, and double billings. A year--and--a--half later came another promotion, to National Sales Director.
"You've always been good on advice," Lessner said on his maiden business trip to Los Angeles, where Stavis's efforts to make it as a screenwriter had yielded a Go project. "Anything I should or shouldn't do?"
"Don't be piggy."
"No grandstanding or flaunting. And nothing ostentatious."
"But isn't that half the fun?"
Surprised that Lessner had miraculously morphed from car aficionado to full--fledged Motorhead, spouting nonstop jargon about fuel efficiency, NASCAR, and corporate sponsorships--and with a newly acquired Good Ol' Boy Southern accent--Stavis held up his hands midway through dinner at a Oaxacan restaurant.
"Do I know you?" he asked.
"What's that mean?"
"Enough with this Dale Earnhardt, Parnelli Jones, Dale Unser stuff. I'm the one who talked our way out of a ticket when we were doing 110 on the Parkway. And drove us to the Shore when we got suspended for lighting cherry bombs in the school cafeteria."
"And don't forget about signing my father's name on notes every time I played hooky."
"So save the car talk for when you're on the job. When you're with me, remember who you are. And like I said, enjoy the perks without getting greedy or calling too much attention."
For several months, Lessner heeded the advice. But everything had changed by the time he called to inform his old friend that he had met his soul mate.
Fern, as Lessner put it, was pure Manhattan, though to Stavis, who joined the lovebirds for dinner while on a business trip to New York, she was more Hewlett, Long Island.
Under her influence, Lessner was living way beyond his means. Having forsaken his home state for an apartment on the Upper East Side, he had defied the company's unwritten rule about American cars by persuading them to lease him a Jaguar convertible for his daily commute to North Jersey.
Gone, Stavis discovered, was Lessner's incessant car talk, replaced by the jargon of his new stomping grounds. Bridge--and--tunnel was the put--down Lessner used for people from their home state, a flying rat was a pigeon, and what people spread on a bagel had become a schmear. Exasperated, Stavis again held up his hands.
"Do I know you?" he asked.
A moment of strained silence was broken only when a waiter appeared with three heaping plates of chicken parmesan and spaghetti.
Yet when the two friends stayed for a nightcap while Fern went off to make some calls, Lessner once more became the fun guy Stavis remembered.
Nuptials followed several months later, with Stavis again flying in to be best man. Instead of the nondescript Renaissance Hotel in Elizabeth, this time the event was held at Manhattan's Carlyle Hotel.
Having received yet another promotion, to Vice President of Sales & Marketing, Lessner, Stavis discovered, had developed a puffed chest the likes of which he never would have dreamed possible. Sporting an Armani suit plus Gucci loafers, spouting projections, referring to Wall Street simply as The Street, and boasting about his newly purchased co--op on the Upper East Side, plus the place he was eyeing in the Hamptons, the groom was someone from whom Stavis tried to keep his distance.
Except for his role during the ceremony, Stavis succeeded until cornered near the men's room.
"Somebody's been avoiding me," Lessner said.
"Somebody's got a keen eye for detail."
"Can I get a Why?"
Stavis simply frowned.
"What's that supposed to mean?" asked Lessner.
"This is not the appropriate time."
"Bullshit. If there's something bugging you, I want to know."
"Okay. Who are you?"
"C'mon, isn't a guy allowed to grow?"
"Grow? You bet. But into a caricature?"
Lessner seemed ready to blow, but then he bit his lip. "Jealous?"
"Sure, green with envy. I'd give up the movie biz in a flash to make the run from the Upper East Side to Linden every day to peddle filters."
Lessner took a deep breath. "Okay," he said. "You win."
"I'm not looking to win."
"Then what are you looking for?"
"The guy I used to know."
Lessner studied his companion, then shrugged. "C'mon," he said, putting an arm around Stavis' shoulder. "Let's go get a drink or three."
In the five--and--a--half years that followed, though there was never anything resembling a falling out, or even a minor dispute, the two friends spoke less and less frequently. Stavis, in addition to writing a film about a Harlem playground basketball legend, then producing a series that required countless hours at the beach, had married a writer of children books, which led to the birth of a son.
Lessner, meanwhile, after fathering two daughters, went on to mount an unsuccessful coup d'etat at the filter company.
Undaunted by his failure to become company president, Lessner broke the extended silence with a call on a Thursday evening. "I'm starting over," he announced proudly.
"I want you to join me in something new."
"Give me that in English."
"A consulting firm I'm forming. Together, you and I would be dynamite!"
"Thanks but no thanks," Stavis answered, expressing how happy he was with family, work, and life in Santa Monica.
What he didn't realize until later was that for Lessner starting over meant complete and total reinvention. Hanging out a shingle for his new firm was only part of the story, since the transplanted Jerseyite had also said goodbye to Fern and their two daughters.
Ironically, Bride #3 marked Lessner's return to Jersey, though to a part of the state that seemed like an entirely different universe. Born into the country club set, Lacy Hotchkiss, Stavis discovered when he once again assumed duties as best man, was the antithesis of her predecessors: blonde, patrician, cold, and distant.
Even more disconcerting, during the rehearsal dinner, first Lacy's parents, then their friends and business associates, tried to engage Stavis in talks about politics, which translated into dismissals of everything he stood for, cared about, and believed in.
Worse still, Lessner, too, had taken to mouthing their patronizing views.
Wishing he had stayed on what they condescendingly called The Other Coast, Stavis ducked what could have easily escalated into World War III by heading to his hotel room the minute dinner was over. The next morning, rather than join the other invitees for breakfast and more politics, he drove to a diner, where he ate a spinach omelette in peace while reading the sports sections of two different papers.
To Stavis' amazement, the wedding ceremony took place outdoors, with bride and groom on horseback. That reminded him of a Billy Wilder quip which would have provided a perfect description of Lessner had he been older: Poland to polo in one generation.
Thinking how weird it was to feel so totally ill at ease in his home state--though horse country had less kinship with an industrial town like Elizabeth than with Venus or Mars--Stavis found himself wishing that he had booked a return flight on the red eye rather than one the next morning.
Making an effort to keep his distance not merely from Lessner, but also from those who wished to question what they dismissed as his Southern California values, Stavis went on repeated strolls until he felt that he could comfortably take his leave.
But as he was about to get into his rental car, an all too familiar voice was heard. "Bailing already?" Lessner asked.
"Blame it on jet lag plus too much wine."
"Right, and I'm LeBron James. What's bugging you?"
"Aside from the gibberish about Trickle Down Economics, Supply Side, plus how the 1 percent is under siege?"
Lessner frowned. "Exactly."
"Hearing you parrot that crap."
"What if I believe it?"
"Next you'll tell me you're a fan of Ayn Rand."
"So she and Paul Ryan are driving when hunger strikes. They pull over at a roadhouse, wolf burgers and brewskis, then suddenly keel over. Why?"
"I give up."
"That's an oversimplification."
"Really? What in hell happened to you?"
"Aren't I allowed to grow?"
"Grow? Sure. But not cranky and impossible."
"Okay, Mr. SoCal. How would you, coming from a place that introduced skateboards and smoothies to the world, and that has more yoga studios than Mumbai, and where you're nobody if not vegan, define conservatism?
"A justification for greed."
"But you didn't say it's wrong. Ask you a question?"
"You won't like it--"
"Your dad's Sid Lessner, right?
"And your mom's maiden name was Bernstein?"
"Neither of whom I've seen, by the way."
"They're not thrilled about the marriage."
"And probably didn't think they'd fit in."
Lessner glared. "Your point being?"
"If you hadn't married into this clan--"
"Think you'd be welcome?"
Fourteen months later, while at a film festival in Nashville, Stavis was surprised by a text from Lessner: We still on speaking terms?
Depends what we're speaking about, Stavis replied.
A moment later, Lessner called. "I hear you're making documentaries."
"Which is why I've only got a couple of minutes, since a film of mine is about to be screened at a festival here."
"Well, I've got one for you."
"You sound dubious."
"Only because everyone and his uncle seems to have a doc for me."
"When can we talk?"
"Late tonight, or tomorrow morning."
"How about I call you at 11 tonight?"
At 11 PM sharp, Lessner rang. "Ready?"
"The greatest tale you've ever heard. I rep a piece of software that increases computer speed and efficiency by up to 35%."
"We had a deal in place with one of the top computer companies. Or thought we did--"
"Some illicit reverse engineering."
"So you're thinking about some muckraking--"
"Which probably involves a fair amount of detective work, plus a shitload of traveling."
"All of which adds considerably to the budget."
"Which shouldn't be a problem."
"Shouldn't? Or won't?"
"Let's put it this way," said Lessner. "The same Cal Tech guys who came up with that software--"
"Have come up with new software that simultaneously increases fuel efficiency and motor performance."
"What's that got to do with anything?"
"We can use the licensing from it to finance the film."
"Okay for me to ask a serious question?"
"What's the catch?"
"Why should there be a catch?"
"How many reasons do you want?"
"One or two will do."
"First, I didn't fall off the turnip truck yesterday. We both know there are no free lunches in this world."
"I know you."
"C'mon, I'm a changed man."
"In what way?"
"I've met the woman of my dreams. Who, believe it or not, does reiki healing. Never expected that, huh? And guess who's doing Ashtanga yoga. Plus, if you're ready, is a vegan."
"But you still didn't tell me what the catch is."
"Damn straight. In what way is the money dirty?"
"Dirty's not the appropriate word."
"Then what is?"
"In my eyes the money's okay," stated Lessner.
"And in mine?"
"Maybe a little less so."
"If you're going to be coy -"
"I just don't think it matters."
"And are you the one who makes films and has a reputation to protect?"
Dead silence ensued at the other end until Stavis spoke again. "Ten seconds, then I hang up."
"It's a subsidiary of a company in Kansas."
"I really think it's beside the point."
"You've made clear what you think."
"It's owned by two brothers," said Lessner in a strained whisper.
"Who, according to Greenpeace, coerced more than 400 members of to sign a pledge to vote against climate change legislation?"
"That's an overstatement."
"And fund efforts to stop the growth of solar?"
"And let's not forget their work against patient protection. And something called the ACA."
"You don't understand their greater goal."
"To buy the country?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"When you gonna get off your high horse and acknowledge how things really work?"
Stavis took a deep breath. "Is somebody judging me?"
"Something wrong with that?"
"Considering three blown marriages, plus being estranged from your kids, damn right there's something wrong with that."
Stavis chose to have zero involvement with Lessner's proposed documentary. Nor did the three--time best man choose to attend his one--time friend's fourth marriage, which took place less than three--and--a--half months later.
Alan Swyer's novel The Beard has just been published by Harvard Square Editions. His recent boxing documentary El Boxeo is now available through Amazon Prime. He has just finished a film about singer-songwriter Billy Vera.