Authors: Dan Fante
KAMMEGIAN’S VOICE WAS roaring on my answer machine. A bullhorn. I turned the volume down so it wouldn’t wake Jimmi. ‘Bruno? Pick up the line…Bruno?…Commando Dante! Storm Trooper Dante!…Are you there?…It is vital that we connect! I want to hear from you on my private phone number, ASAP. Call me the second you retrieve this message.’
It had to be done. I had no choice.
Pulling the phone cord across the floor out of the bedroom, I closed the door behind me. From the couch I punched in the number: a cellphone Kammegian carried in a leather holder on his hip.
‘Bruno!’ he barked. ‘What’s up?’ In the background I could hear the noise of his phone-pounding telemarketers.
‘I’m sick, Eddy.’
‘Let’s review our deal! Your commitment is to be at your desk—your command post—five days a week. Correct or incorrect?’
‘I puked all night…at first I thought it was food poisoning. I ate shrimp from the take-out Szechuan place on Eleventh Street.’
‘What’s your ETA back to the firing line?’
‘I have the flu—something. A fever. The whole deal.’
‘Are you sober?’
‘C’mon, Eddy. Do I sound like I’m drunk?’
‘It’s Friday, the best day of the week, and this company is in the home stretch of a major contest. Your presence making cold calls is an indispensable component. You are MIA.’
‘I’ll be back Monday. Tuesday the latest.’
‘I want a personal call, a progress report, morning and night. On this line. No phone messages. Understood?’
‘Do I have your one hundred percent pledge that what you’ve told me in this conversation is the truth? You have been completely honest?’
‘Jesus, I’m sick, Eddy. Okay?’
‘I will expect to see you at five thirty a.m. on Monday. I want two calls a day until then. Understood?’
The drive down Pacific Coast Highway through Manhattan Beach and Hermosa Beach was much as I remembered it. A little changed, a lot of new high-rise construction, but still beautiful. It was further north, as me and Jimmi passed through Playa del Rey, that I had received a shock. Only months before, on marshland where I had seen a boy throwing a stick for his dog, there was now no trace of anything natural. The power of money, poured concrete, and political juice had erased the open land. California’s bulldozer ecology.
Driving south, after Long Beach, the Coast highway begins to look as it did fifty years ago, in pre-freeway L.A. The towns that Bogart and Duke Wayne saw as they drove from Hollywood to Newport Harbor. Seal Beach. Huntington Beach.
In those days, if you lived below El Segundo near the ocean you were unplugged from Los Angeles; a lightyear away from the oozing greed and hysteria of the movie and TV business. Most of these beach towns had one gas station, a pay phone, a bar, and one grocery store.
We took our time on the ride. The Chrysler was running good. Only a week before, Eddy Kammegian, forever promoting success symbols, had offered to co-sign a lease for me on a new red Firebird convertible. He’d nearly ‘closed’ me at the dealership until I realized what I was doing and backed out just before I had to sign the papers.
Jimmi sat next to me, a Pamela Anderson Baywatch Barbie between her legs, sucking Pepsi and punching cassette tapes into my radio’s console. Bob Seger, Wilson Pickett, Tom Waits. She’d been clean off alcohol and rock since I picked her up. She was trying. Our only stops on the ride were at Burger King to use the bathroom and 7—11 stores for cigarettes and more Pepsi refills. She’d thrown out most of her clothes and dressed herself entirely in stuff from my closet; my sunglasses, one of my white, button-down work shirts, my underpants, my Yankees baseball cap, and my new sandals.
The back of the Villa Capri Motel in Laguna Beach is right on the sand. A swank, upscale bed and breakfast. Every room has floor-to-ceiling sliding windows and a rear deck facing the ocean. Pulling into the parking lot, our view of the water at sundown was unobstructed; a hundred feet away waves from a perfect green Pacific Ocean slapped the sand.
The room rent is cheap for what you get: two hundred and thirty-five dollars a night. Four hundred dollars for two nights. I paid the clerk in cash, and he gave me the key to Room 109. His name tag said ‘Stu’, a middle-aged, soft-spoken queen.
Completing the check-in forms, Jimmi had to remove her baseball cap and sunglasses. Stu recognized her. During the week he did freelance photography, and they had once done a bathing suit shoot together. She pretended to be glad to see him—smiling her perfect, cerulean smile.
Delighted by the coincidence, Stu yelled back through a
door behind the counter. His boyfriend came out. Luca. A well-muscled Latino, twenty-five and fresh from plastic surgery and cheekbone implants. Everybody kissed and hugged. Stu gave Jimmi a business card and delighted in telling her how beautiful she still was, to please call him for more modeling work.
On our way to the room with our stuff I watched her tear the card twice, then let the pieces fall on the gravel walkway.
We were getting along good. While she played with the TV remote I had my nighttime conversation with Eddy Kammegian, still bluffing at having the food poisoning. I’d caught my boss in the middle of an AA meeting and could feel him wanting to make our conversation short, concerned he might be bothering the people sitting near him. We were done in thirty seconds.
After I hung up I began unpacking, changing from my street pants into shorts and a clean shirt. Jimmi was on the bed looking at take-out menus, still dressed in my stuff.
After the call, when I looked over, she was watching me, laughing, waving my roll of bills from the nightstand.
‘What’s funny?’ I asked, my attention now on the perfection of her brown legs.
‘You, big shot.’ The sapphire eyes. ‘You and your success and your fucking money. I guess I finally got me a rich, white boy.’
‘For as long as you want. So, you’re glad we came?’
‘If I was a thirty-five year old fat bitch with three kids and a supermarket boxboy job, how close would I be to a flash motel in fuckin’ Laguna Beach?’
‘You’d be in canned goods stacking spaghetti sauce.’
Playfully, lifting her shirt, she cupped her naked, brown tits. ‘That’s how I see it.’
Before I could walk to her, she was heading for the bathroom. ‘Chriss man,’ she snickered, kicking off my pair of underpants, ‘just go out and get us some food. Pizza or something. And something for my stomach. I’m taking a shower. Come back in half an hour, and we’ll fix your dick then.’
‘I’m easy, right?’
‘Way easy, baby. Guys are dogs. Little boys. Your cocks do all your thinking.’
I picked up my jacket and my money from the bed. Of course she was right. Only for me it was far worse. She knew the truth, but still I was afraid to say it. To me, nothing mattered except her. Nothing at all. Not my job, or AA, or Eddy Kammegian. Just her.
Leaving the motel, I drove around looking for a restaurant to buy a pizza, taking my time. I found an open drugstore that carried the kind of antacid pills she wanted.
In my pants’ pocket was three thousand dollars in cash, so I walked the aisles buying other junk too—pissing my money away. Stupid stuff. Laguna Beach tee shirts, folding beach chairs, a new Barbie in a box—Hollywood Legends
Gone With The Wind
Barbie—three different sweat outfits for Jimmi (different colors), a bathing suit, hats, and a gag greeting card. On the cover of the card was an antique photograph of two circus elephants, each standing on one leg with their trunks hooked. The caption read,
‘If we were together forever dot dot dot…’
Then you open the card and the two elephants are humping. The inside read; ‘…
I’d want more.’
At the register I borrowed the clerk’s pen and signed the card, ‘I love you. Bruno.’
On the walkway back to the room with the pizza and my first
load of packages, I began hearing music. Seventies disco. Barry White. It hung in the night air like a bad fart.
The sliding glass door was open to Room 109. Stepping inside, I saw that the source of the noise was a blaring CD player on the dresser. There were bottles of tequila and bowls of lime and ice on the night stand. Four tanned boys in shorts, shirtless and shoeless, drinks in their hands, were moving to the groaning, repeating, lyric;
‘…oh baby. Baby, baby…’
The odor of Mexican reefer filled the place.
Setting my pizza and the other stuff down, I looked around for Jimmi. She was outside on the deck, twenty feet away, a drink in one hand, still wearing my button-down business shirt open at her chest, dancing, matching Stu and face-implant Luca, step for step.
Crossing the room, I yanked the plug on the music. I tried not to let the anger in my voice show. ‘Party’s over,’ I called out.
Ending the noise got her attention.
Half stoned, eyes like two mescal pin pricks, she maneuvered her way back inside, then took a long time leering at me. On stage. Gloria Estefan with a mean attitude. ‘Hey, c’mon guy, plug the box back in!’
I controlled my mouth. ‘Tell your friends to go home, Jimmi.’
Coming closer, grabbing my hand, she slid her drink into it. A big, sexy, TV commercial smile. ‘Vente, baby. Lez dance. C’mon, Bruno.’
I pushed the glass back then pointed at the door. ‘You know my deal. Quit screwing around.’
Spinning away, giggling, she slapped one of the guys on the butt crossing the room, then disco’d in silence to the dresser and re-plugged the boom box. ‘Thaz right, I forgot!’ she yelled, defiant over the music, making sure she still had her audience,
‘You’re mister AA again! Charter-memer-CHIP. One of Eddy Kammegian’s robots. A champion closer! No drinking, right, mister big-deal-hot-chit-genius-telemarketer! No partying! No fun!
You buy their tears or they buy your toner.’
The eyes of the others were on me. ‘I may not be much, Jimmi, but I’m all that I think about. My paycheck paid for your fucking dance floor.’
Moving closer, rolling her hips to the rhythm of fat Barry White’s absurd vocal, she wet two fingers and pushed them deeply inside her mouth, then wiped the spit across my lips and chin. ‘Heeeeyyyy Bruno,’ she hissed, ‘I’m habin’ fun, okay? If you don’t like my party—leave—take a fuckin’ pill—come back later.’
I held up the room key.
Jimmi let my man’s dress shirt drop from her shoulders to the floor. Naked now, defiant, she pushed her bare tits against me. The boys loved it. Cheering. ‘How ‘bout this, Bru-noooo,’ she demanded, ‘shove your money and your fucking motel room up your ass!’
I felt my rage and tried to back off.
It should have ended there with me walking away. But as I turned to leave, my mouth wasn’t done. It spit the syllables, ‘No problem, crack-whore,’ I snarled, ‘you win.’ Then, from my pocket, my right hand peeled off two crisp hundred dollar bills, wadded them in a ball, and let them drop at her feet. ‘While you’re at it, cunt, buy
a few hits of rock. Just so they know who’s paying your bills.’
I slammed the door behind me.
ALONE, IN MY Chrysler, in the dark parking lot, I felt the knife in my stomach, the desperate craving for a drink. Shame and hurt ripped my heart. My need to inflict pain and destroy, always trying for maximum damage. I had come here to strengthen whatever was between us, to help her stay sober, to convince her to live with me. What a fool I was!…
my brain screamed, fuck her. Fuck that bitch. For her, I’d lied to my boss and risked my job. Fuck her. She was poison, and I was a fool. I hated her.
For an hour I rode up and down the coast highway, my mind racing. I was desperate for a drink, anything to calm the screaming. Eventually, at a 7-11, I bought two tall containers of hot coffee, half sugar, and guzzled them in the parking lot. It helped me slow down. Then, after a few cigarettes and driving some more, I convinced myself to go back.
At the motel, the instant I clicked the motor off, I felt panic. I was sure she was gone. What an asshole I was. I had shit on my only chance to make our relationship work.
I hurried down the walkway to Room 109.
The door was ajar, so I pushed it open.
She was there, alone, sprawled on the bed, naked. Seeing me come in she turned to looked up. A drunken, evil panther, frightening and beautiful. The new Barbie I’d bought was next to her on the pillow.
The place was a junk heap of half-eaten pizza crust, cigarette
butts, and empty plastic tequila glasses. A two-foot-wide brown stain festooned the center of the carpet and there was an odd chemical smell in the air.
I sat at the foot of the bed. ‘Are you okay?’ I whispered.
She wouldn’t look at me. Grabbing a plastic lighter she made a clumsy attempt at striking it. Over and over, refusing to engage me.
After a dozen more tries, when the thing still wouldn’t work, she glared. ‘Whaz your problem now, man?’
‘You’re pregnant. Has that occurred to you?’
The crazy, possessed laugh…‘Soooo?’
‘Can we talk about this?’
Taunting me, tipping forward, she snatched the book of matches from my shirt pocket. I handed her my cigarettes too.
Leering, she shook her head. ‘I’ve got a surprise for you, big shot. Want me to cho you my surprise?’
She struck a match. ‘Watch!’
It was only then that I saw the can of lighter fluid behind her tipped over next to the pillow.
The bed was an explosion of flame. Jimmi was on her feet, jumping up and down, squirting the flammable shit everywhere. Laughing and screaming simultaneously. ‘Fuck you, Bruno! Fuck you! Watch! Here it is, jou cunt! Here’s what jou get, motherfucker! Fuck you to death!’
It took me a couple of minutes to smother the fire with the pillows and the bedspread and to hold her arms so she couldn’t hit me and strike more matches.
THAT MONDAY MORNING at ten minutes to nine I sat, parked in my Chrysler, in the smog and heat, in front of the Women’s Planned Parenthood Clinic on Sunset Boulevard, a hundred feet down the block from the dilapidated Hollywood Cinerama Dome, my air conditioner blasting on high. I was waiting for Jimmi, a book of Saroyan short stories pinned against the steering wheel, getting out every fifteen minutes to shove quarters into the blinking parking meter.
In rush hour, old Hollywood looked more unhappy than ever. A transient bus station of a town. Aging office buildings, fast-food plastic store fronts, the odor of gasoline smoke everywhere. Two doors away on a boarded-up store front, the caption on the bottom of a nudie poster beckoned: ‘Photo Models Wanted—No Experience Necessary—We Pay Cash.’ On the Sunset Boulevard of the new millennium, a two-hour abortion held the same importance as tossing away a used Burger King coffee cup.
Jimmi was inside getting the results of her final blood test. Her new Barbie was resting on the seat next to me. Already one arm was missing.
My passenger door popped open and she slid in, flipping the radio to a rap station. ‘Okay Bruno,’ she said, stabbing out her cigarette, her voice shaking, ‘fuck it. It’s time. They’re ready. The front desk nurse wants the money.’
Pulling my bills from my pocket, I passed her three hundreds. She stuffed them into her purse. ‘I hate this shit, mijo,’ she whispered. ‘I’m scared. I hate this a lot.’
‘Do you want me to wait here or come in with you?’
‘Come back about eleven. If there’s no extra bleeding, I’ll be out in two hours.’
‘Here,’ I said, counting out more hundreds, all the way to twenty, then fanning the rest of the bills across the dashboard in front of her, ‘take these too.’
Her eyes were black blow darts. ‘What’s up?’
‘It’s yours,’ I said. ‘A present. Keep it. Buy Timothy something. Do whatever you want.’
I was facing her. ‘I want us to make a deal,’ I said. ‘I want the baby. I’ll pay for everything. You bring Timothy and move into my apartment with me and we have the child. Forget the abortion.’
Her expression darkened. She fumbled in her purse until she located an envelope, then pulled it out. I recognized the colored paper. It was the card I had given her, the one with the photograph of the elephants on the front. She tossed it on the dashboard on top of the money.
I could feel the blood in my face.
‘Open it,’ she demanded.
‘I wrote it. I know what it says.’
She tore the tucked-in flap open and handed me the card. ‘Read it.’
‘It says “I love you!” You gave me a card that says “I love you.”’
‘But I don’t love you. You’re not my husband. You pay
for me and help me out. We’re friends. I’m never going to love you.’
‘Move in with me. Have the baby.’
A second later she was out of the car, slamming the door, on her way into the clinic.
An hour passed. I walked to Starbuck’s, bought coffee, and got more quarters for the meter. When I returned, Jimmi was on the sidewalk standing beside my Chrysler.
After I unlocked the doors, she dropped in next to me. ‘Yo, lez go,’ she barked, lighting a cigarette.
‘Man, I hate them fat-clinic-dyke-bitches.’
‘One rule, man. Here it iz; I go anytime I wan. If I decide, I go. No questions. I pack my shit up and thaz it. Okay?’
‘Stay sober with me. That’s
Her hand was extended. Smiling. Two business people coming to an agreement. I shook.
‘Drive the car, vato,’ she giggled.
‘No. Back toward the beach. Anywhere outa fuckin’ Hollywood. I tell jou when I wanna stop…Hey Bruno…’
‘Even after wha happened, the fire an’ all tha shit, you’re still crazy in love with me, right?’
‘What are we doing?’
‘I’m goin’ chopping, babee. I’m spendin’ all jour fuckin’ monee.’