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Authors: Dan Fante

Tags: #Fiction

Mooch (9 page)

Although leaning against a pillar, I was able to salute Duke. Like one I’d seen in a Demi Moore movie about Navy skin divers. ‘Say it loud,’ I yelled, clicking my heels, ‘I’m black. I’m proud.’

I could feel his eyes on me as I shuffled across to my Chrysler.

Starting the car, I backed out then rolled down to the Arco
Station at the end of the mall. While I was pumping the gas in my car—my last fourteen bucks—I glanced across a couple of times at the showroom window of Duke’s Killer Tillers. There, through the glass, stood the midget proprietor, the rat-snouted protector of Barstow, glaring, observing me.

I decided to stall. First, I took my time wiping my windows with an available paper towel, then I went from car door to car door shaking out the filthy floor mats. That done, I emptied the ash tray. I even tried to check the engine oil for the first time since my mother had given me the car. It took a full minute to isolate the whereabouts of the dip stick. There, with the hood still up, I stole another peek at the tractor showroom window. Duke was involved with two customers wearing work clothes.

I didn’t hesitate. Slamming the hood closed, I fired up the Chrysler, then whipped around out of sight behind the Arco to a parking space by the coin-op bathrooms.

Mendoza’s Pizzeria drinking cup in hand, staying at an angle to Duke’s window, walking in the shade, I hurried back to the entrance to Thrifty’s.

Inside, I was re-embraced by the cool sanctity of the store. When the girl cashier spotted me, she appeared surprised. I waved. A public relations gesture. ‘Forgot something,’ I called out, grinning happily. She smiled back, and I headed for the liquor department.

It took only a few seconds to pour my vodka refill, then push the half-gallon jug back into its place on the shelf. On my way out, sucking at my straw, I yelled, ‘Stay cool, y’all,’ to the cashieress. She responded, a perky institutional reply; ‘Thank you, sir. You have a good day, now.’

On my way back to L.A, Route 15 West was nearly empty. Safely numb again, an old Jimmy Reed tune came on FM, ‘You Got Me Runnin”.

I hit the gas pedal. Fuck it. I hadn’t been over 120 miles an hour in years. This was fun.

Chapter Fifteen

STANDING AT MY P.O. box, I read the return address on the envelope. Orbit Computer Products. A window envelope. I tore it open immediately and found a check inside. The shock of seeing the numbers was like the sudden sweetness of blended whiskey; $311.00. Four of my printer ribbon orders had been paid after deferred shipments. I was rich.

I dug in my pocket for coins. I wanted to call someone. Celebrate. Then I remembered. In my wallet I found Cynthia’s number. Thinking of her fat tits, I dialed. With Cin I could drink and get drunk and pretend to forget about Jimmi and act like a writer. I’d bring a bottle and we’d talk about books and politics. And fuck. I had used her before, and now I would do it again.

I began dialing, but as I did her smell came back to me. The sadness. How it coated the walls and clung to her bookshelves like Egyptian dust. A needy, forlorn deaf creature living in a house on stilts. We were alike: two cripples with books in common. She’d be glad I called. We deserved each other. It didn’t matter that she was old. I’d use anyone. People in line at the 7—11. Anyone.

The phone rang six times, then a machine answered. Cin was gone, the message said, back to Australia. A vacation. Her antiseptic voice reported her absence and brought back the melancholy in her face. Two months in Byron Bay. A friend named Kim, her message said, would be house-sitting in Laurel Canyon.

I tore the paper up that held the number, then flung the pieces into the air.

On my way back to the motel, after cashing my check and stopping at the market, I went by the pawn shop on Washington Boulevard. Jonathan Dante’s typewriter had brought eleven bucks in hock. The guy remembered me. I paid him and got my typewriter back.

I was half-drunk again, so we engaged in affable consumer-type conversation. Trying to think of something to keep him going, I confided that my ship had come in. I was on a shopping spree. I yakked on like a fool, willing to say any type of nonsense to keep myself from returning to an empty motel room. To prove I was newly rich, I started spending. A thick harmonica gleamed in its velvet case. A collector’s item, he said. A real investment. He was lying but I didn’t care. I proclaimed my love of blues music and said it was time I learned to play an instrument. Forty-nine ninety-five. I shelled out more cash from my roll of bills.

We talked as I went from shelf to shelf examining his merchandise. I tried on rings and a gold bracelet and a withered leather bomber jacket. On the shelf with his stereo stuff was a CD/tape player with a box of CDs. A package deal. Another forty-five dollars for everything. Dinah Washington and Ray Charles. Early Sinatra. I took it all. An hour later he helped me haul the stuff out to my car.

Now there was banging.

Squinting, looking around, objects began appearing in strange color streams. One color was shit beige—the shade of my room’s walls, the floor—but the other colors were new. Brown. Black. Crazy red too. Disney red. Everywhere. I closed my eyes.

More banging.

I was woozy from the wine I’d been drinking. Mad Dog 20—20. Weak too. Tired and terribly weak.

I looked again. The light beneath the blinds told me it was day again.

More loud knocking. Again and again and again. Finally, fully conscious, I yelled, ‘Okay! Jesus! Fuck! Okay!…Whoizzit?’

‘Diega…The day man-eye-yer.’

I swung the door open and went blind from the daylight. ‘Okay—What’s up?’

‘Jou hab a kall…a womeng. Chee says emergencee. Chee says to tell you…’ Then—a look of horror in her eyes—
‘My gow!! wha hoppeng?…’

Diega was holding her mouth, stepping back in shock.

My eyes followed her eyes down to my arm. Blood. Soaking my pants, my shirt.

Looking around, the floor was red too. The bed too. Red and dark brown. Everywhere. Red was dripping from my arm while I stood at the door. My blood.

51/50 is what the L.A. police call it. ‘Attempted Suicide—Danger to Yourself and Others’, is the charge. Diega, hysterical, began knocking on doors up and down the hall, dashing about—sure that I was about to die—which I was not. Finally, her fat ponytail Cochise-looking boyfriend, Miguel, back in the office muted the TV, got off his ass, and dialed 911.

There was half of an empty gallon of Mad Dog on the floor by my bed. My enemy; sweet wine. Knowing the police were arriving, I chugged what was left in the bottle, hoping that the stuff would stay down.

Blue men began coming into my room. Sirens. I swapped my bloody shirt for another one and held a bathroom towel
against my arm. Several of my motel neighbors peeked in from the hallway. People I didn’t know. Then the paramedics.

Diega was worse off than me. Crying. Yelling shit at fat Miguel in Spanish. One of the medics advised her to go home and eat a tranquilizer.

Twenty minutes later I sat on my bed watching cops shuffling around, picking stuff up, moving stuff, looking through my shit in the hope, I assumed, of finding dope and contraband. There is an immutable law that wherever cops congregate, more cops must join in. Thoroughness is a watchword in law enforcement.

A paramedic gauzed my arm and taped it, then gave me an injection. Then, just before they took me out, under
The Demon,
my Hubert Selby novel on the nightstand, I found a note. I had written it sometime in the night, in the blackout. The note was to Jimmi.

First I went to the County USC Emergency Room and was put on a gurney. The two policemen who followed the ambulance told me the charges again: 51/50. Danger to Myself and Others. I was made to sign a report.

My cuts were deep, not across, but up and down my wrist. But the bleeding had mostly clotted and stopped.

A guy near me, sitting on a chair in the ER waiting area, was named Marvell. A thug. A Crip gang member. When the nurse left the room and we were alone, we talked. He asked about my cuts. Marvell was on some kind of meds they had given him, but he was communicating okay, just slowly. He had arrived in the middle of the night. A drug OD. They had pumped his stomach, and now he was waiting for transfer. Crack and Dalmane. Marvell’s next stop was to be the Forensic Unit at the Twin Towers County Jail—the whack ward where they collect all 51/50s. According to Marvell, who knew of such
things, attempted suicides in L.A., like him and me, are sent to lock-down for a mandatory eleven-day hold and evaluation. A legal requirement.

I have been confined to jail nut wards before. Mostly in New York. These are terrible places: airless and small, one-room cells. At first you are tied to a bed. The bed is bolted to the floor. There is only one window, and it is in the door. Glass with a chickenwire center. A slot beneath the window is for food and meds. The stench of shit and puke and disinfectant is everywhere. The crazies in whack wards scream constantly, twenty-four, seven. Everyone is medicated to keep them acquiescent, but still the screaming goes on non-stop. I wanted no part of the whack ward at Twin Towers Jail.

I asked Marvell if he knew of any way to beat the mandatory eleven-day confinement deal. It took his face half a minute to take in the question, then answer. ‘Got priors in L.A.?’ he said. ‘You got a jacket?’

‘Nothing in California.’

‘Okay…just one arm…might-could-be…an accident. What papers…you sign?’

‘Nothing. Just the cop’s police report.’

‘Okay, don’t say…admit…nothin’. By law…they got to let you out. Stitch you…let you out…the law…izza law, my man. Hole you till you sobers up—‘n cut chu loose.’

My doctor came in. Doctor Cortez. He examined my arm. Then a Filipino nurse with a mustache wheeled me to a stitch room, out the door past where the cops were waiting, to where I was examined and X-rayed and stitched. The pictures showed I was okay, no ligaments cut or tendon damage. They sewed me up and taped my arm. Three cuts—eighteen sutures.

When I returned to the ER waiting area, Marvell was gone.
Doctor Cortez had already filled out the 51/50 confinement form, and the police were waiting for me to sign it so they could leave. ‘Attempted Suicide’ was checked.

I refused the clipboard.

Marvell had been right; they couldn’t hold me. Attempted suicide is two arms. One arm is an accident. Cortez made a face, then tapped on the window for the two cops to come and get me.

I surprised myself by the phone message I left for Eddy Kammegian. It was this:
‘Mister Kammegian: Bruno Dante calling you from The Twin Towers jail. Downtown. On twenty-four hour hold. I don’t know any reason why you would want to help me. But I can tell you I’ve had enough. I’m making a commitment to never drink again. I want my job back, Mister Kammegian. I’m asking for your help here. Please.’

There were nineteen men in my jail pod. Many more came and went in the short time I was there. The Twin Towers jail has one centrally-located mirrored glass sheriff’s position watching each floor of inmates. Sometimes hundreds of men. The place is huge. I found out that L.A. has the largest jail in the world.

My body was withdrawing from alcohol. Shaking violently, I spent most of the next ten hours puking into a seatless, stainless steel shitter. In the middle of the night, one of the ‘brothers’ got involved in a game of
‘toss-my-salad’
with a bald, ex-school teacher from El Segundo, while two of his bunkmates kept watch.
‘Salad-tossing’
is a jailhouse amusement where the ‘volunteer’ is made to lick food—popcorn or peanuts—out of another man’s asshole, then suck his cock. The cum is the salad dressing.

The bald teacher from El Segundo was punched in the head many times until he had licked all the blood and salad dressing off the jail’s concrete floor.

The next morning at dawn—five fifteen a.m.—the owner of Orbit Computer Products himself appeared. Not Doc Franklin or Frankie Freebase or one of the company’s admin flunkies. I nearly crashed into Kammegian as I was walking, head down, coming through the one-way hissing double-door exit. The big man stood in the middle of the hallway like a cement post, his thick neck stuffed inside a two thousand dollar attorney-looking pinstriped suit.

At my jail release I signed for my clothes and was also given a bill for hospital services: stitches, blood tests and X-rays, and the examination. One thousand four hundred and seventy-one dollars.

On the freeway ride back to Kammegian’s house in Santa Monica Canyon, my withdrawals were still extreme. Constant tremors and stomach cramps. Eddy K kept silent the whole way.

Upstairs in back of his house, above the garage, was a converted weightroom/studio apartment. Unlocking the door, Kammegian pushed it open with his foot. A big, open room, musty and chilled in the early-morning light. But anything was better than where I had been. There was an exercise machine, a futon bed, a bathroom and shower, a microwave oven, stained carpet, and a black dial phone with a metal lock to prevent his guests from making outgoing calls.

Kammegian tugged open a casement window, then sucked in a mouthful of clean air. ‘Shake it out, Dante,’ he ordered. ‘Get some sleep.’

I nodded.

‘Feeling any better?’

‘Like death. Awful.’

‘I’ll bring you fresh sheets and towels and orange juice and honey and some canned food from downstairs. You’ll be okay. Half a dozen men have sobered up right here on that couch.’

There was something different for me this time. Beyond the puke stink and my filthy clothes and the humiliation. I felt crushed. Old. I was sure I was done. I tried to tell Kammegian. To say the words. ‘I’m okay,’ I said, my body rattling badly, making my way to the couch, easing myself down. ‘I’m ready. I mean it. I want you to understand—I really mean it.’

For the first time, as people, we connected. Big-necked Kammegian folded his arms across his chest. ‘I believe you. When a man says he’s
ready,
I’ll do whatever I can.’

‘Can I have my job back?’

‘You tell me something. Tell me what you think the difference is between us—you and me?’

Out of answers, I shook my head. ‘No idea.’

‘Faith is the difference. Willingness and belief. Other than that, we’re exactly alike.’

‘Look, I’m ready. That’s all I know.’

‘An alcoholic has to be desperate in order to recover. Pain is the key. Your pain is the beginning of change. Faith follows the pain and desperation. If you really want to, one day at a time, you never have to take another drink. That’s how it works.’

‘I’m desperate. I know that.’

‘Will you trust me? Will you do exactly as I say?’

‘Sure,’ I said. There was nothing left to lose. ‘Okay.’

‘Good. Sleep now. I’ll send someone from the office to your motel to pick up your clothes. In a couple of days when you’re better, you’ll start riding to work with me. Call Liquor Store Dave. Tell Dave I’m your boss again—and your new AA sponsor. Questions?’

I didn’t have any. ‘Thank you,’ I said.

From a desk drawer, Kammegian pulled a yellow legal pad, a pen, and The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. ‘Direction number one: read this, the first one hundred sixty-four pages. Then write about Step One, what you think being
powerless
over alcohol is, what an
unmanageable life
is.’

I hated the fucking AA Big Book. I’d read it three different times cover to cover, studied it in endless group sessions in half a dozen different recovery programs. The story of Bill Wilson’s Jesus conversion from bourbon whiskey after sobering up in a nut ward seventy years ago. Trite. Arcane, hackneyed bunk. The manifesto of an unemployed, busted-out, egomaniac stockbroker. But shivering now, looking up at Eddy Kammegian, there were no
‘no’s’
left in my mouth. ‘You’ll have it tomorrow,’ I said.

On the floor at the end of the bed was an ugly green plastic waste basket. The big man yanked the liner bag out, then kicked it toward me. ‘Puke in that,’ he said. ‘And clean yourself up. You stink, Bruno. You stink like hell.’

For the next eighteen hours I wrapped myself in a ball, shook and slept. When I could, I read Eddy Kammegian’s used copy of Alcoholics Anonymous and guzzled orange juice, ate slices of bread with mayonnaise, and took hot showers. Somewhere in all the madness my head became quiet. The voice of dead Rick Dante was gone. Silent.

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