Authors: Dan Fante
THE APARTMENT WAS on Twenty-seventh Place in Venice. Number 12A. Up a flight of brick stairs. The corner of Speedway, a hundred feet from the beach. Two bedrooms. The view was my reason for signing the lease. Great wide windows looking out at an endless Pacific Ocean.
Thirty days after my return to work, the stitches were out and my wrist cuts were healed. On the phone I’d been selling like a man possessed, my one aim was to prove myself to Eddy Kammegian. To show him I was serious.
It was a Saturday, seven a.m. My boss and Doc Franklin and eight other receiving alkie employees teamed together to help me move in to my new place. Kammegian had dubbed these guys his Orbit relocation SWAT Team.
We converged at my new apartment building with a rented truck loaded with furniture. A king-size bed and frame came from Doc’s garage, along with a desk for my typewriter. The leather couch, pots and pans and dishes, and two tall oak bookcases I’d bought myself from a second-hand store on Venice Boulevard. A table and chairs were donated by Eddy’s secretary, Elaine. The only unused piece of furniture was the TV; a big thirty-five-inch job. I’d put five hundred down on it. The owner of Orbit Computer Products co-signed for the balance—another thousand dollars—to help me re-establish my credit.
With Eddy Kammegian barking orders, the whole move was done in under two hours.
There was no bullshit in my boss. His commitment to his employees and recovery was absolute. On our way back from returning the rental truck, Doc Franklin and I talked. It was then that I finally learned Eddy’s story, the beginning of Orbit Computer Products. As it turned out, Eddy K’s early circumstances had been similar to my own. Just worse. Kammegian grew up, adopted, in Ghost Town in Venice, a shithole of a neighborhood, even then. By fifteen he had quit school and was hanging with bikers, sucking back brown-bag Nightrain wine. At twenty-six he began a thirty-month sentence in the slam for dealing dope. After release, on parole and jobless, is when his life changed. One morning, after a two-hour bus ride from L.A., tattooed, long-haired, Kammegian answered a phone-sales job ad in
The L.A. Times.
A telemarketing bucket shop on Van Nuys Boulevard. Pens and pencils. No one, least of all Eddy himself, would have believed what happened. By quitting time that day, he had earned five hundred dollars in commissions. Shazam!!
When the move-in was done and the other guys were gone, me and my boss stood alone at my window above Venice Beach. This was my first apartment, by myself, in years. The phone and utilities in my name. The heat of the weekend day was already beginning to drive an inland tidal wave of cars, filled with a hundred thousand sweating bodies, toward the sea.
In a parking lot north of my building, the first beachies were arriving. Looking down, we saw a dozen teenage Asian kids, tapping a soccer ball back and forth, make their way across the sand. Two of the guys, gang members in head bands, were carrying forty-ounce beer bottles. Already half drunk. They
were arguing and pushing. Their girlfriends, wearing thong bikinis, looked on.
Kammegian’s face distorted as he took the scene in.
He turned to me. ‘I want you to do something for me, Bruno,’ he said. ‘A favor. Sponsor direction.’
‘Do you know your way to the “Hollywood” sign, in the hills?’
‘At the top of Beachwood Canyon,’ I said. ‘Off Franklin Avenue.’
‘I want you to leave now. Get in your car and drive to the “Hollywood” sign.’
‘There’s a good view of Los Angeles from there. Above the freeway shootings and the porno shops on Sunset Boulevard. I want you to make a pilgrimage, Bruno. Will you do that?’
‘When you’re on the road above the sign, stop your car and get out. Just stand there. Will you do what I ask?’
‘Fill your lungs and yell these words. Yell out,
I will never be a fucking loser, again!
Will you do that?’
This was pure Eddy Kammegian. Symbols of self-actualization and AA recovery. I stood scratching my face. ‘No problem,’ I said.
That afternoon, hours later, after I got back to my apartment from Hollywood, I plugged in my refrigerator, opened the door, and found a note along with ten fifty-dollar bills. The money was stuck in the fly leaf of a copy of
How to Master the Art of Selling,
by Tom Hopkins. The note read:
‘Bruno; your move-in bonus. I’ll see you at the top!…Best wishes. Your Pal, Eddy K.’
It was five months before my fortieth birthday. No one, not my own father, or a wife, or an ex-boss or a teacher or a friend or anyone else in my life, had ever extended himself to me the way Eddy Kammegian had. I made a commitment to myself—consciously made my mind up—I would stay sober and give Orbit everything I had.
THE COMPANY WAS in the last six weeks of its annual summer contest, ‘Paris for Predators’. Orbit had plaques and prizes for everything, but this year’s two-month Paris deal was the biggest contest ever, the monster. Kammegian had a firehouse bell mounted on the sales floor and made each of his salesmen clang the thing when we wrote a fresh order. Team banners hung from the rafters. Loud, piped-in marching music came through the sales room speakers before work and at breaks. There was even a dart board with money pinned behind the balloons. You got one dart to throw if you sold two dozen or more of any product.
First prize in the contest was a round trip for two: ten days in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. All expenses paid. Second prize was two weeks in Puerta Villarta, and third prize was a sixty-inch TV/DVD home entertainment center.
Orbit’s top people were pushing hard to finish in the bucks. Eddy Kammegian loved the casino atmosphere. Tempers flared. Ego was king. Out of the seventy-five telemarketers in the running, the two men to beat were Frankie Freebase and Doc Franklin. Frankie was ahead with twenty-eight grand in confirmed, shipped orders. Doc was second. Judy Dunn, a pretty, ex-IBM printer division rep, was a distant third, tied with four or five other salesmen.
Doc had won the contest three years in a row but this year the worm had turned.
As phone guys, Frankie and Doc were opposites. Freebase was old school, like me—a relentless banger. He slurped coffee seven hours a day at his desk with the telephone glued to his ear. A bad-tempered asshole on most any occasion, contests made Frankie worse. He’d built a massive account base of one thousand active customers.
Doc was his opposite: loose and funny, never letting himself work more than a couple of hours at a stretch without a break. In conversations in the coffee room, telling his Internet jokes, Franklin affected the voice of an FM radio jazz DJ and referred to himself as ‘The Doctor of Love’. Franklin was cool. Everyone liked Doc. But his real talent was a lethal ability at landing the big fish: huge orders. Having once been a data processing manager himself, he knew many of the top DP people in the industry and his account files included Orbit’s five biggest customers.
From his beginning at the company, Doc had been top gun, just beneath Kammegian himself in personal sales. Until now. And his bread and butter client for the last four years was the giant: American Farmers Insurance, with fifty-three branch offices across the country. Franklin had the DP Manager, Milton Butler, at AFI’s headquarters in Denver, in his pocket, ‘tagged and bagged.’ Over time Doc had manipulated steadily-increasing orders from Butler and worked American Farmers up to paying absurd prices for their supplies. Every August Franklin made sure that AFI’s huge summer order corresponded exactly with the deadline of our company’s contest. Nasty Frankie Freebase had been edged out twice.
But things had gone sour for Doc. For the first time in a decade, AFI’s annual earnings slipped. Overnight, a directive came down mandating Milt Butler to cut costs. He was ordered to drastically limit his supply orders.
Naturally, shit rolls downhill. Butler’s phone call hit ‘The Doctor Of Love’ like a sucker punch after the bell, and he over-reacted to the setback. Too slick for his own good and determined to salvage as much of his yearly commission as possible, Franklin shot an angle and ‘created’ a bogus sale, introducing a new product to AFI: a second-rate generic cheapo toner cartridge our company had been buying for years from Korea. The product cost us half as much from the Asian factory, but it was junk. Doc knew this, but selling it to Butler allowed him to cut our price to American Farmers on the cartridge by thirty percent. The made-up sale gave Milt Butler a reason to go to his Purchasing Department with a hefty supply requisition.
Then, everything backfired. An eight-dollar-an-hour bean counter in AFI’s Vendor Control Department spotted the weight disparity between the contents of the two toner cartridges and Butler’s requisition got red-flagged. The DP Manager had no choice but to follow AFI’s New Product protocol and do a test study. His department was instructed to buy samples only from us and conduct a six-month comparison test. Snickering Frankie Freebase looked like a shoe-in to win the ‘Paris for Predators’ contest.
The owner of Orbit Computer Products took the loss in revenue from American Farmers as a challenge. Kammegian thrived on overcoming shit. Any adversity. His personality was equal parts Billy Graham, Tony Robbins, and George Patton. ‘The Big Guy’ began spending every day on the sales floor setting an example, slamming customers, opening new accounts himself, leading his troops. Within two weeks, between Kammegian’s personal sales contribution and the hysteria of the ‘Paris for Predators’ contest, our company was back to having its biggest three months ever.
My recovery in AA and my success had become a priority to Eddy Kammegian. We attended three AA meetings a week together. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, at the end of the day, I was called in to review my sales and to receive a monograph on personal growth. I had homework too: books to read and tape programs.
The Greatest Salesman in the World, The Psychology of Success. Think and Grow Rich.
My ‘In’ basket was thick with magazine and newspaper clippings on self-motivation.
And, as a salesman, I was taking no prisoners. I had won the New Accounts bonus three Fridays in a row, and my average weekly commission was twenty-one hundred dollars. One Tuesday morning, on a fluke, from a referral to the data processing manager of First Gulf Savings in Shreveport, I sold four hundred and thirty-two re-stuffed Lexmark printer cartridges. The guy had an emergency and was out of supplies. A ten thousand eight hundred dollar commission. One call. The largest order on a new account pitch in the history of Orbit Computer Products.
The news rendered Eddy Kammegian delirious. He used the sale to further boost morale and paid my commission in cash the next day at our morning meeting. Ten thousand loose silver dollars wheeled in a wagon. Noise-makers and confetti were passed out, and I was presented with a plaque and a special momento from my boss’s collection: his own personally-signed photograph of Dwight Eisenhower.
My phone rang. It was after midnight early Friday morning. When I answered, there was no voice on the other end, only breathing. I knew it was her. Like a ghost—a child listening behind a keyhole. I could feel her heartbeat. ‘Hello,’ I said again.
Over the last several weeks, I had left only one message on Jimmi’s sister Sema’s answering machine; it contained my office extension number at Orbit and my new home number. There had been no reply until now.
I could hear traffic noise in the background, a horn honking. ‘Is that you?’ I said.
Finally, a ripple of laughter:
‘Bob, do these toner cartridges go out to your attention?
…Guess who, baby?’
‘I don’t need to guess.’
‘Missed me, right?’
‘How are you?’
…No answer. More cars going by.
‘…How’s the boy? How’s Timmy?’
‘Timothy! My son’s name is Timothy.’
‘Okay, Timothy. How’s Timothy?’
‘…You got your job back at Orbit with Adolph-fucking-Hitler-fucking-traffic-cop-Kammegian. Right?…’
‘Are you okay?’
More laughter. Crazy.
‘There’s a sale made on every call, BRUUUUNNNOOO, you buy their tears, or they buy your toner…’
‘…Sema said you said in your message that you have your own place now.’
‘At the beach…Where are you?’
‘Hollywood. Here on Franklin. You should see this shithole, man. Junkies ‘n weirdos everywhere. A billion cucarachas and no fucking air-conditioning. You. You’d look straight down your fancy writer’s nose…Hey, can I tell you something?’
‘Guess what, man?’
‘I missed two periods. I’m pregnant. Guess who the daddy is?’
‘Don’t worry. They want two hundred and forty-seven dollars at the women’s clinic to take care of it. My appointment is for Monday. In the morning.’
‘You think I’m the father?’
‘Hey man! I lap dance. I suck dick for money. I had sex with one person in the last three months.’
‘Fuck you, Bruno…’
‘You sound high.’
‘I’m sick iz what I am. Weak all the time. First thing; I need to get out of here. And I need a ride to the clinic on Monday. You got money now, right?’
‘Money’s no problem.’
‘Man Bruno, this fucking dump! Disneyland. Ya know? Every time I open my fucking door to go down to the bathroom or the pay phone, some zombie crackhead motherfucker is breathing on me—checkin’ out my tits—talkin’ shit. I gotta get outa here. Okay?’
‘Where’s your car? Your bug?’
‘Okay. Now! Come now! Right now.’
‘Is Timothy with you?’
‘He’s okay. With Sema and her girls…but they don’t want us there no more. Caesar, my brother-in-law, made me leave. Hey, guess what, they gave my kid tests, you know. Sema took him to UCLA.’
‘Is he sick?’
‘My son’s I.Q. is one thirty-eight! They want to put him
in special advanced this-and-that. They’re making him a G.A.T.E. kid. Gifted And Talented Education. Sema says I have to put him in special school. Computers n’ math n’ shit.’
‘Remember the way we did it in my car, Bruno? That’s when it happened. Remember?’
‘I remember, Jimmi. What’s the address on Franklin?’
‘It’s the Hollywoodland Motel. The Holly-weird-land. By Wilcox. By the corner of Franklin. I feel like shit, man. How soon will you be here?’
My red-handed clock at the other side of the bed blinked the time. 2:05 a.m. ‘Half an hour,’ I said.
The laugh again—strange, off sync—as if owned by another body. ‘You still love me, done chu? You still crazy like a rat for me? Yes or no?’
‘You’re high, Jimmi.’
‘Honk your horn when you get here. You know, easy: beep-beep-beep. Two—three times. I’ll hear it, and I’ll come out. But keep your doors locked, and done talk to none of these donkey motherfuckers. Iz crazy over here, man. Half an hour, okay?’
The next morning, still sleepless, I called in to work at five thirty-two a.m, trying to time it right so Eddy Kammegian would be away from his desk, on the Orbit sales floor, revving up his SWAT Team. I’d waited an hour for Jimmi outside the motel on Franklin Avenue. Now she was asleep across my living room on the couch, curled up under a blanket, a ratty Barbie under her chin. She had come with almost nothing. A purse, her dolls, and a plastic bag of clothes. Timothy was still at her sister’s house.
Karen, the receptionist, took my phone call. I lied, telling her I had food poisoning, saying I would not be in. After a long, stupid silence, Karen said she would pass my message on to the boss.
At Lucky’s Open-All-Night Supermarket on Lincoln Boulevard, I stocked up on groceries and aspirin and over-the-counter nausea medicine for Jimmi.
I got home before six thirty. The heat of the day was already seeping into the apartment. Jimmi had relocated herself to the bedroom. Coming through the door, seeing her naked on the bed, her black hair splashed across my pillow like careless silk, my breath stopped. In the daylight her beauty was flawless. Even the room seemed different, remade by her being there. Her perfume was everywhere.
Crossing to the bed, I looked down, watching the steady, quiet, up and down of her chest, studying each detail of her. Fingers and arms had just been created for the first time. Perfection. Her hands, their length and elegance. The line down her neck to her back and ass. A Degas painting. It made me shiver.
Then I understood something. I knew why it was that I loved this woman. She was like my dead father, at war against her own life and time. Ten thousand disappointments would kill her as they had killed him. Living head-on against herself would kill her.
Her legs were apart.
I wanted to taste her flawlessness, kneel down and worship that place, slide my tongue far inside that holy door.
I eased my weight across the mattress until my face was there and began to lick, gently and slowly, afraid she would stop me if I woke her. The sensation caused her to turn on her side then come to rest on her back.
I began again. Cautiously. Working my tongue inside the wetness of her, more deeply, until I felt her body accept me.
She awoke but didn’t stop me. ‘Okay, do it,’ I heard her whisper. ‘Do it, baby. Lick it. Suck it. Do it.’