Authors: Dan Fante
‘My brother-in-law, another cabezón like you, wants me out. My rent’s three weeks back. I’m broke. Unemployed. I can’t get no dancing jobs. No man, everything’s
‘What about McGee? What happened with him?’
‘He got fired! Mister Kammegian fired him. You knew tha.’
‘I mean about
and him? What happened with that?’
‘Bruno. Jesus! I’m a lap-dancer, man. I suck dick for money. What do you think happened?’
‘It was my fault. I pushed myself on you. You couldn’t escape.’
‘I need money, man. I’m all fucked up. You got money?’
It was in her voice. I could hear it. I had to ask. ‘Are you back on rock, Jimmi?’
‘…I gotta go.’
‘How much do you need?’
‘You got twenty bucks?’
‘Can we get together and talk?’
‘I just said why. To talk.’
A thud and silence. She’d dropped the phone or set it down. In the background, I began to hear other objects colliding and falling. A drawer slid open—slammed closed. Finally, she was back. ‘Okay…Bruno?’
‘…You know where I live, right? My sister, Sema’s house? You dropped me off before.’
‘I remember. I know the address.’
‘Listen…park your car in the spot behind my bug. Knock on the side door. Knock twice. Bring me twenty bucks.’
‘No problem. The twenty is no problem.’
‘I’m leaving now.’
The ride to Los Feliz from my motel was fast at night with no traffic. Thirty-five minutes. Santa Monica Freeway. Hollywood Freeway. Then the 5. The booze was working again, so I drove carefully, observing the speed limit.
Jimmi’s sister Sema’s house was on Rowena. 3373. A beat up twenties vintage craftsman with heavy concrete pillars supporting the porch’s roof. Once an upper-middle class neighborhood, the dark street with its crowded, sweating sycamores, concealed eighty years of L.A.’s decomposition. Turning the corner to her block, the smell and taste of sludge was in the air. By morning, over the palm trees slums in Boil Heights, the fireball summer sun would re-ignite the smog. A city of thirteen million being choked to death one day at a time.
As I pulled in behind Jimmi’s rag-top bug, I misjudged the curb and the distance, bumping a sports car in her neighbor’s driveway. It wasn’t a bad dent—not much of anything—but I didn’t want any trouble, so I backed out and reparked on the street.
After climbing the front steps, I walked around to Jimmi’s side door entrance. I was about to knock, when my dead brother Rick’s voice began yelling inside my skull: ‘
Yo, fucko! Are you crazy? This bitch is a crack addict—a goddamn train wreck…Go home! You just smacked a fucking car. Get outa here, man! Run. Go back to your motel room—lock yourself in!’
I knocked, then pushed at the door. It popped open.
Inside, the room’s illumination came from a flickering TV screen. Jimmi was on her bed, sitting up, wearing a stretch top and shorts, her straight black hair piled and tied on her head.
Seeing her was always a shock. Her beauty. The dark, smooth skin, the deep blue blazing eyes. She was barefoot, smiling up at me, but not smiling. Long brown legs full-length against the bed’s light-colored quilt. ‘Hi, baby,’ she cooed above the sound of a cable TV movie.
‘Hi,’ I said.
She was whispering, as if we weren’t alone. ‘Close the door, baby.’
Stepping back, I swung it closed. The air inside was worse than the Los Feliz smog: stale, like a box of damp sweaters in the attic.
I sat down on the bed beside her, competing for space with a dozen Barbies.
‘Bob, have you got a pen handy,’
she giggled, clutching one of the beat-up dolls. ‘You missed me, right?’
An impulse made me reach out for her arm. As I did, she stiffened. Close up, in the weird TV light, her face was strained, ashy. She found the remote, flicked the sound off, then met my glance: ‘You want to fuck me, right?’
It made me feel like a bill collector. ‘I missed you,’ I said.
She passed me a stupid Barbie, smiling, still whispering. ‘I’m, like, your addiction, right?’
I tossed it back on the bed. My mouth sped past my brain.
addiction hasn’t turned me into a half-dead, twenty-dollar trick.’
‘“Admit that you are powerless over Jimmi. That your life has become unmanageable.”’
I got off the bed. ‘I can be in Van Nuys in fifteen minutes. I’ll get my cock sucked by a sixteen-year-old crack whore for ten bucks. For twenty-five bucks and two chunks of rock, I can fuck one up the ass. A pretty one.’
‘Hey baby, be nice.’
I tried to kiss her, but she pushed me back. ‘You’re drunk, aren’t you? I never seen you drunk.’
‘I’m not McGee. I’m not a trick.’
‘Okay. Shhhh. I want you to meet somebody.’
She covered my mouth with her hand. ‘Quiet…’…‘Honey,’ she whisper-called into the darkness, ‘vente, mi corazón. I hear you. I know you’re awake.’
Seconds later, a child appeared in pajamas, padding barefoot, noiselessly across the slatted wood floor. A boy. Small. Four or five years old, wiping the sleep from his face. He was easily as beautiful as his mother.
‘Timothy, this is Bruno. Say hi.’
The kid smiled, hesitant. He was lighter complected, lighter haired, but with the same blue eyes as his mother. When I held out my hand, he shook it firmly. ‘Hi, Bruno,’ he said in full voice. Then, looking me up and down; ‘What section of Los Angeles are you from?’
‘Right now,’ I said, searching for words, ‘Culver City. A motel on Sepulveda Boulevard.’
‘I know where Culver City is,’ he said, thinking it over. ‘I’ve been there. Do you know the history of Sepulveda Boulevard? The Mexican derivation? I bet I do.’
The boy had me off balance. ‘I think I know,’ I said.
Timothy didn’t wait for me to go on. ‘“Sepulveda” was the name of the Mexican family that settled there.’
‘Oh, that’s good to know,’ I said.
‘Do you know what Los Feliz means? Me and mom live in Los Feliz.’
I had the answer. ‘Feliz means “happy”.’
‘That’s remarkably interesting, Bruno. But incorrect. To be exact it means “the happy”.’
‘Timothy, Bruno and I want to talk. It’s late, mijo. Please don’t ask a billion goddamn questions and give Mommy a headache.’
‘What kind of a name is Bruno, Bruno? My father is Irish. “Timothy” is an Irish name. Are you familiar with the war in Bosnia? Mrs Bennyoff is Jewish. You’re not Mexican, are you?’
I was dizzy now. ‘Bruno is an Italian name,’ I said.
‘Fascinating. Extremely fascinating. Do you own a PC with DVD? We’re on the Internet. Aunt Sema is. Aunt Sema is a teacher too, like Mrs Bennyoff. I’ve been reading since I was two years old. Aunt Sema taught me. I have two cousins that live with us. Both female, unfortunately. What’s your preference in children, boys or girls?’
‘Boys. I think boys are more fun.’
‘Do you know where Guatemala is? I’m bilingual. How many languages do you speak?’
‘Okay, that’s it!’ his mom snapped. ‘I want you to take your blanket and go to sleep on the couch in the living room. And do not read your books or play with your Game Boy ‘n shit. And no turning on the TV. Understand?’
‘Okay, Mom…How tall are you, Bruno? My Uncle Caesar is five-foot-seven.’
‘You’re pissing Mommy off, mijo. Get going.’
He disappeared across the room. The angel-faced chatterbox with the nonstop brain. Even in the darkness, twenty feet away, I could feel him thinking, ticking, forming new, more frightening questions.
At the door he turned back, toys and books and blanket in hand, overcome by the urgency to communicate and gather more data. ‘Excuse me, Mom, can I ask another question?’
‘Dios Jesús! What?’
‘Bruno, Uncle Caesar has a Jeep pickup. A V8. Four-wheel drive. Uncle Caesar is a painting contractor. What type of vehicle do you own? What do you do for a job?’
‘I’m currently unemployed.’
‘That’s two questions, Timothy.’
‘I have a Chrysler,’ I said. ‘A two-wheel drive. A Chrysler is a car, not a truck.’
‘That’s fascinating, of course. But I know the difference between a truck and a car. You have a white “NY” on the top of your baseball hat. What does “NY” mean?’
‘It means New York,’ I said. ‘For the New York Yankees.’
‘Last year in school we took a trip to the La Brea Tar Pits. I have a hat from then. Want do you think my hat says?’
‘J. H. Hull School. It’s in the closet. Should I get it?’
‘That’s it, Timothy,’ his mother barked. ‘I warned you.’
‘Not right now,’ I said. ‘Okay?’
‘You’re a New York Yankees baseball fan. Right, Bruno?’
‘To the death.’
Jimmi threw a leg over the side of the bed in a threat to jump up.
‘Good night, Mommy. I hope you sleep good tonight. I love you. Good night, Bruno.’
The door clicked closed, and the kid was gone.
In two easy moves, her shorts and top were off and she lay naked, amazing. Looking up at me. ‘I lied to you, baby,’ she whispered. ‘I don’t need twenty bucks. I need a hundred.’
Reaching for my crotch with one hand, she put her other hand between her legs and began rubbing…‘Pinch my tits, Bruno. I like it when it hurts.’
I got up off the bed.
‘I’m gonna make you feel good, baby. C’mon, take your pants down. I know what you like. ‘Mimber, before, when I sucked your dick? You loved it, din’chu? Promise me you’ll come in my mouth, okay baby?’
Digging in my pocket, I came up with a hundred dollar bill. Flattening it out with my hands, I dropped it on the bed. Then I walked out.
NUMB, MY MIND nearly sober from seeing Jimmi, the sneering voice of my dead brother ranting behind my eyes, I needed escape. Relief. My Chrysler was heading back toward the Prince Carlos when I chose to change directions. To just go.
Years before in New York, as a cabbie, I had discovered driving as an escape. Late at night I’d learned to rescue myself from my depressions by rolling through the empty streets of Manhattan, alone, listening to the humming of the tires, hour after hour. Drifting. Safe. Solutions had come easily. Ideas. Poems.
I needed that again.
Taking the 5 Freeway into the 10, I headed east instead of toward the ocean, San Bernardino—stopping only for two quarts of Stoli at a two a.m. liquor store. Fifty miles later, at the base of the mountains, I caught the off ramp to the 15, up the hill toward Hesperia and Baker and Barstow, in the direction of Death Valley and Las Vegas, the openness of the wide Mojave Desert.
Hours later, deep into the murky hills, my brain felt comfortable. In front of me, a dotted line of headlights extended fifty miles onto the flat desert. A pure black night, stars popping above me like a billion sparks bursting at the same time.
When the rim of the sky began turning pink, I decided to pull off on a dirt road and watch the sun come up, then head back toward L.A.
A few hundred yards into the sand, with the main highway behind me, far enough out of sight, I rolled to a stop then put the car’s windows down to let in the chilled desert air. There was half a bottle of vodka left on the seat. After taking a dozen long hits, I clicked the headlight switch off and killed the engine. I lit a cigarette and smoked it. No ghosts. Only stillness.
Not the roof of a house nor the eyes of a face.
Nothing. Immense, undisturbed, raw space. Perfect quiet.
I found paper and a pen in my glove compartment. An old order book from my vacuum job. I began a new letter on the back of one of the carbon pages.
‘I stole from you tonight. A pair of your panties. I found them on the floor by your bed and stuffed them into my pocket when you weren’t looking. I will never give them back. I will lick them and smell them and keep them in my pocket and never return them. When I die, they will be cremated in my coffin with me. I stole a lipstick from your desk at Orbit too. I’m keeping it. I love you, Jimmi. I can’t help it or stop it. I have not ever felt this way about any woman before. When you breathe, I breathe. When you drink water or wash your hands, I am there with you. I came to you tonight knowing you do not understand or care at all for me. That is why I left you. You are beautiful and you are mine and what has happened between us has left a magic that has changed my life forever. I will love you, Jimmi. Your boy too. Your wonderful son. I love him too. We will be together. Bruno.’
It was dawn. I was okay. I folded the letter up and stuffed it in my pocket with her underpants. Then I closed my eyes.
When I woke up, I was sheathed in sweat, convulsing and twitching. My first impulse was panic. Clearing my vision, I looked around. Great squiggly waves of incinerating heat were out every window, like huge, dancing, transparent snakes hovering above the weird landscape. My head was pounding, and a sour taste began swelling and choking my throat. I reached for my Stoli and took a hit. It didn’t help. Something was wrong. It was a sickness. A terrible demon had taken possession of my guts and flesh.
Reaching for the key to start the Chrysler, pulling my body upright in the seat, I badly scorched my hands on the car’s flame-temperature steering wheel. Wave after wave of the shakes hit. Convulsing, I could only wait for it to pass. Finally, when I could, I twisted the ignition key to the right. The car started.
Now I was shivering. Dizzy. I got the windows up, then clicked on the A/C. Air began coming out—a tepid, weak stream—like blowing at a volcano. But it was something.
When I flipped the car’s chrome shifter down into ‘D’, the wheels lurched forward, then stopped. I was light-headed, beginning to pass out. In retaliation, I punched the gas pedal. It accomplished nothing. The tires spun, and I felt the car sink deeper in the sand.
A new wave of the shudders hit. Out of control, I felt myself shit my pants. My mind, disconnected—off somewhere watching—gave me one last oracular message: I was going to die. Right here. A sick, decomposing hog. This was hell.
When I came to, the car was cooler, my breathing easier. Five minutes might have passed or half an hour. Somewhere I heard thudding. Pounding. A person—a body—was at my driver’s window. A cop or my final death vision. The thing
was yelling through the inferno of heat, but there was no sound reaching me. A cowboy hat. Sunglasses. A tan uniform and a gold badge. I tried to talk back, but my mouth was too dry.
‘Zurg,’ the cop voice yelled. Now I could heard it. ‘Zurg! Egofo, Zurg!’ the noise insisted. ‘Egofo ug wagga donnn…Groll jurr winnnerr down…Zurg!’ I found the crank handle, then lowered the glass.
The cop removed his hat and shades so he could lean in. A huge head, drenched in sweat. Big, distorted eyes. Horse eyes. A crushed red pepper for a nose. ‘Dug fallow dar muter stoff, zurg.’
I understood. My brain decoded the words. I reached the ignition to shut the car off. But the action was crazy. With the engine off there would be no more cool air. Why would I want that? I yelled back: ‘No. No fucking way!’
‘Zurg,’ the cop demanded, ‘Nift you doll chadd zur aggin stoff ug fallow gule der motor.’
‘No’ I yowled, now believing myself to truly be hallucinating, clumsily attempting to roll the glass up.
But the cop was past arguing. A brown, sweaty sleeve reached across me and turned my motor off. ‘Sir, I’m the Highway Patrol. It’s a hundred and twenty-two degrees out here. Do what I tell you.’
The tow truck driver, a strange desert inmate-looking fuck in rock-star mirror sunglasses and a turned-around Dodgers’ cap, arrived and charged me ninety-one dollars and sixty-seven cents to spray something on my motor to cool it down then haul and pull my Chrysler by cable back to the main road. The guy talked to himself the whole time while he was hooking my car up. Me standing in the sun, watching, terrified—needing a drink—experiencing near-death.
After the crazy man took my money, he counted it three times slowly, stacking the bills on the scalding hood of his truck.
The CHP cop, Officer Essmann, was an okay guy. He gave me a quart of hot drinking water in plastic from the trunk of his black and white, then let me sit in the air conditioned passenger seat of his cop car until my body temperature lowered and I could stop trembling. As a taxpayer courtesy, he ignored the smell of the drying shit in my pants and let me know by not bringing the subject up, that he was choosing to avoid writing me a ticket for the empty vodka bottle on my front seat.
Essmann stayed in my rear view mirror for several miles down Route 15 until I pulled off into a rest area to clean up. I watched his cop car disappear into the wavy Mojave furnace.
After washing myself and soaking my head under the faucet in the bathroom, I lit a cigarette and checked my pants’ pockets. Seventeen dollars. My Chrysler had only a quarter tank of gas to get me the two hundred miles back to L.A. Not nearly enough. But not having gas money was trivial. I needed a drink. My stomach was beginning to spasm and cramp from alcohol deficiency. Back at the sink I sucked in as much cold tap water as I could stand, filling my stomach. It helped. Then I got back in the Chrysler, hit the A/C button, and headed west. The first green highway sign I came to read San Bernardino—189 Miles.
Approaching Barstow, my fuel gauge showed just above ‘E’. I was beginning to get the fly-aways and more severe, jabbing, stomach cramps. My body began trembling and convulsing. I had to pull off.
At the bottom of the exit ramp, like a snake carcass in the dust, was an L-shaped shopping center, a pizza
place, a gas station, and a Thrifty Drug Store. Beyond Thrifty’s was a tractor dealer with a giant yellow and green two-story sign: Duke’s Killer Tillers. On top of Duke’s sign, a clock/thermometer reported the only meaningful news in the desert mall: 1:37 p.m., 119 degrees.
While I waited for a shaking spasm to subside, my brain assembled a frantic scheme. To make it work all I needed was a drinking cup.
Pulling up to a parking space in front of the pizza restaurant, I cut the engine and the air conditioning. Through the windows I could see two or three customers eating lunch on the enclosed patio. Opening the car door, I sucked in my breath, and stepped into the volcanic heat.
Just inside, at the first empty table, I found what I needed: a used, tall, waxed soft-drink cup with ‘Mendoza’s Pizzeria’ stamped on the side. A red straw was sticking up through the plastic lid. Grabbing the cup, I walked out.
Across the parking lot, staying in the shade of the mall roof as I walked, I made it to Thrifty’s. My gut spasming and cramping was now constant.
The big drug/department store was cool inside. Wonderful. Only one cashier and a handful of customers. I pushed my damp hair back and tucked in my shirt.
Empty pizza-drink cup in hand, impersonating a nonchalant shopper, I made my way to the liquor department. Next to a vodka display, after making sure no one was watching, I unscrewed the cap on a half-gallon jug of Smirnoff from the back row. Then, holding the fat bottle beneath eye level of the liquor rack, I tipped it down until my cup was filled. Sixteen ounces of clear joy juice. I spun the cap back on and returned the decanter to its empty slot. As I walked away, even before I had the straw to my mouth, even before my first hit,
I felt a wave of peace soothe my body, like a kiss from God.
For a long while I was content to roam the store’s aisles, sucking back deep wallops through my straw as I went. Making the rounds of the different departments.
Always a fan of clever display advertising, I paused to admire a nifty five-foot-high fold-out of an actress’s parted red lips in the makeup/perfume area. My brain envisioned the size of a cut-out erect cock for a compatible exhibit.
Greeting cards were next. Cleaning products. Microwave ovens and counter-top appliances.
A realization came. An intimate anthropological understanding. Everything important in life could be found at Thrifty’s. Everything. If one never left—a person could spend the rest of their life going from store to store in the vast California chain operation. All Thrifty outlets had a paperback best-seller section and were uniformly climate controlled.
Arriving at Soft Drinks, I realized that I was more than half way down on my cup. Working up a very good buzz.
It was time to make a health decision. Opening the glass stand-up cooler, I popped the top on a can in a six-pack of Schweppes Tonic Water, then splashed in a few ounces with my vodka. Sweet bubbles to help soothe my troubled digestive tract. I slid the can back in its place with the others and let the glass door hiss closed.
From behind me I heard someone clearing his throat.
Turning, I saw a person, a man. He was planted several feet away near a lightbulb display, observing me. A rat-faced little fuck in khaki work clothes, a carton of Benson & Hedges Menthol Lights tucked under his arm. The logo on his shirt pocket read: Duke’s Killer Tillers.
He stepped closer. ‘You going to buy that six-pack of soda, buster?’ he inquired angrily.
‘What?’ I said, self-assured, my hand empty except for the Mendoza’s Pizza drink cup. ‘Are you speaking to me?’
‘Don’t lie. You just poured from that can of soda. Then you put it back. I seen you.’
‘I believe you’re mistaken.’
This further pissed him off. He scanned me up and down, then marched up to a foot from my chest. I was now able to make out the name sewn in smaller script above the
Duke’s Killer Tillers
logo on his shirt. This was Duke himself. ‘My ass!’ he sneered. ‘I been observing you. The manager of this store, Ray, is a friend of mine. A good man. A straight shooter. Around here, we look out for each other’
‘How swell for you,’ says I, a little goofy from my vodka. ‘I’d wager that you and Ray have
your share of serial killers and Shiite terrorist suspects prowling around the Arco Station or that pizza joint across the parking lot.’
Duke let his carton of cigarettes drop to the floor. He was ready for action. ‘There’s two ways we can do this, buster…The first way is the easy way. I’ll ask you for the last time: are you going to purchase that six-pack of Schweppes?’
I took a long, slow hit from my straw. I was bigger than Duke, but I wasn’t ready to have an episode of tactical stupidity come between me and a return visit to the liquor department. ‘Okay Duke, you win,’ I confessed. ‘I made a mistake. I’ll buy the goddamn soda…when I’m done shopping, okay?’
Duke pushed past me to open the cooler. He yanked the rest of the torn-open six-pack off the shelf. ‘You’re
asshole. We’re going to the checkout counter
In for a penny, in for a pound.
Making our way up the aisle to the register, Duke stayed behind me emitting audible whiffs and rodent-type snorts. I deduced that the smell of the dried shit in my pants had come to his attention.
At the cashier, he dropped my stuff on the rotating counter, then made an announcement loud enough to be heard in Paper Products. ‘This
here would like to purchase a six-pack of Schweppes Tonic Soda.’
‘Tonic water, Duke,’ I corrected.
He grabbed me under the arm. ‘Time to show the color of your cash, smart guy.’
The register girl wasn’t sure what was up but scanned my item anyway. Two ninety-seven.
Toting my plastic Thrifty’s bag in his hand, Duke followed me through the automatic doors out into the blazing desert. ‘Where you parked, buster?’
The sudden combination of heat with the vodka had me reeling. The best I could do was gesture across the asphalt. Duke handed me my bag of tonic water. ‘Don’t come back around here. Next time I’ll call in the law. Do we understand each other?’